Olwen Hufton opens the first volume of her two-part history of Western European women with a supposedly revealing anecdote.

In the late 1950s Keith Thomas was rash enough to offer a series of lectures on seventeenth-century women to Oxford undergraduates. His colleagues found the subject bizarre and the students simply did not turn up to listen. There were doubtless many good reasons. Oxford was virtually a male bastion at the time and the odds on getting a question about women in the final examination papers were probably a million to one against. Above all, however, the subject was perceived as neither relevant nor interesting.

This does not read convincingly to me. Nineteen fifty-eight was the year I myself arrived at Oxford as an undergraduate reading, admittedly, not History but English Language and Literature. Statistically Oxford may have been a male bastion, with women outnumbered one to ten. But academically, in the days before the advent of political correctness, there was a sense of freedom, a tradition of wide and eclectic reading and a cavalier attitude toward examinations. In the whole of my time at Oxford I do not remember the likelihood of a subject appearing in the final papers ever being discussed. There simply were no pressures for pro-male or pro-female specialization. In my own discipline we read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women poets, essayists, novelists, and playwrights—Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Astell, Charlotte Lennox, Eliza Haywood, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith—as avidly as their male contemporaries. The university hall in which Lord David Cecil gave a memorable series of lectures on Jane Austen overflowed with both male and female students. They sat on window ledges and crowded down the aisles.

Ours was a star-conscious generation of students. We were not an eager audience for run-of-the-mill lectures. The level of attendance at Keith Thomas’s lectures would simply have reflected a certain apathy toward a performer who then lacked the pulling power of Edgar Wind, the voluble art historian who could fill the Oxford Playhouse, or W.H. Auden, who acquired a pop-star glitter after he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956. The rejected lecturer was not, at that stage, Sir Keith Thomas, the renowned historian of early modern England, President of Corpus Christi College, and President of the British Academy, but merely a young History Tutor at St. John’s. Hufton’s uncritical use of Thomas’s story is typical of the tendency that has developed in women’s writing from the middle Sixties onward: a too-ready acceptance of any evidence showing women being marginalized or victimized.

To be fair, this is not true of Hufton’s work in general. But her latest book, her most important work so far, raises the inevitable question of “why women?” Why not A History of Men and Women in Western Europe? Has intensive concentration upon women by women historians and other female writers of non-fiction over recent decades distorted more than it has clarified? Hufton’s enormous book, drawing as it does upon years of research by hundreds if not thousands of female academics, suggests to me that gender separatism may have reached a cul-de-sac.

Hufton is a reliable and knowledgeable writer whose great strength, as we see here, is in her command of a broad view. Her recurring image—an engaging one—is the “ladder of life,” a woodcut or engraving that was a staple item in the itinerant European peddler’s pack. These moralistic ladders, ascending and descending, were priced within reach of the humblest cottagers, who stuck them on the wall. Each rung represented a stage in the life cycle, from childhood to be-trothal, marriage, and motherhood. The mother’s role was illustrated by sedentary domestic occupations: she is captured embroidering beside the baby’s cradle. On life’s ladder the female expectations were demonstrably lesser than the men’s. The definition of the male role was more varied: he might be a soldier, a lawyer, or a sage. And the man could be seen to age more gradually. As Hufton puts it, “He is frequently quite spry to the end.” Her intention in this book is to measure the actual experience of women against the idealized image of their lives. She is, for instance, alert to the problems for widows in maintaining the stipulated levels of decorum once their libidos had been aroused.

Hufton ranges confidently through centuries, explaining her choice of this particular three-hundred-year span by her conviction that between 1500 and 1800 “a deep chasm opened up between the culture of the rich and comfortable (mannered society) and the rest, between the informed and the ignorant, between high and popular culture.” She analyzes closely the effects of this growth in “social distancing” on possibilities for independence in women’s daily lives. She brings out an interesting contrast between the new breed of acerbic, assertive European intellectuals, who by 1800 were on the verge of formulating their own critique of male-dominated society, and servant girls and agricultural laborers locked into agonizingly tentative systems of self-betterment, held back by physical exhaustion, financial resourcelessness, the almost total lack of privacy.


The canvas for Hufton’s study is, as she describes it, “deliberately very broad.” The range of reference includes most of Western Europe because of her conviction that in Europe—unlike in America and Canada—much of women’s experience in fact was widely shared. Hufton’s book puts special emphasis on Britain and France, largely because these two countries have been so far in advance in feminist research. But she also covers women in the Netherlands and Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, the last three now getting much attention from historians of gender.

Hufton travels nimbly from terrain to terrain, wholly in control of her statistics, noting in passing an unusual tendency for women to murder their husbands in Languedoc and explaining why witches seem more “homely” in England and the Netherlands than elsewhere: not only were they often poorer and older, but they were outside the domain of Roman law in which torture could be used to elicit a confession and highly dramatized accounts of supernatural activities could be elicited from women under inquisitional threat. Words were often put into their mouths. The witches of England and the Netherlands appear relatively humdrum because they were less likely to confess to an ability to fly or attendance at a coven or a witches’ sabbath. Their “familiars,” i.e., the supernatural spirits that were supposed to accompany them, were “usually straight out of the farmyard, cat or dog, rat or toad.” Hufton is in general extremely good on witches, whom she characterizes as exemplifying the “most tragic aspect of the female predicament.”

As well as being old and poor, in Britain two-thirds of the women accused were either widowed or spinsters. They might have children, but the majority were seeking to eke out a living on their own. They hence fell outside patriarchal protection or, perhaps equally pertinently, their situation of semi-dependence on the community exposed them to the imputation of witchcraft. Some were in receipt of poor relief; others were illegally pasturing a goat or other livestock, others arousing their neighbors’ ire through thefts of fruit or firewood.

Hufton keeps an admirably firm grasp on realities. The grand sweep of her enquiry, which encompasses, among women, the feckless and the godly, the helpless and the cosseted, courtesans and fishwives, wet nurses, women jailkeepers, princesses at Versailles, is saved from any danger of vapid generality by the precision with which she poses central questions. In each category she goes straight for the collective modus vivendi, confronts the basic practicalities. How did such women manage? How were things for them exactly? With unflagging sensitivity to social nuances, Hufton explores the limits of female possibility. Choices for the women of this whole long period were almost always desperately limited. Hufton’s commentary often echoes that of the mischievous narrator in Daniel Defoe’s Roxana. When the impoverished widow turns whore, Hufton, too, poses the question, “What else could she do?” But Hufton goes much further than most twentieth-century readers and adaptors of Defoe’s Roxana and Moll Flanders, who see these subtle novels simply as sexy adventure stories. (A version of Moll Flanders promoted as including “seventeen sex scenes” is being shown on British television as I write.) Hufton conveys these novels’ deep ambivalence. Though Defoe depicts Roxana’s resort to prostitution as the result of her inadequate resources, “there is more than a shade of criticism of one who takes the obvious way out.”

Hufton makes much of the centrality of marriage. In her chapter entitled “The Strategic Plan: Marriage as Goal,” she stresses the sheer labor expended on achieving it. Throughout the European middle classes mothers were eternally vigilant, repelling the marauder. Unprotected working girls, who could of course expect no dowries, would leave home as young as twelve to start gradually accumulating the small amount of capital they needed to get married. These girls were likely to have twelve or fourteen years of domestic service or agricultural laboring ahead of them. Even then, Hufton reminds us, there would certainly be compromise. On these lower social levels, “the man or woman who was not pock-marked and suffering from vitamin deficiency diseases, congenital defects or industrial malformations counted as handsome.” Hufton conveys a terrifying sense of the vulnerability of women.

She also has sharp and sudden insights. “In Ireland the spread of the potato to Munster made it easier for women to manage while their husbands were away.” Her accounts of the defensive networks of women—sailors’ widows in Honiton in Devon, female cooperatives at Carrick in Ireland, widows eking out a living around the Piazza Navona in Rome—are particularly fascinating. She points to a certain resilience in women, their ability to make do and mend, their natural talent to adapt. But Hufton’s is in most respects a tragic history, showing even the most fortunate women living lives of immense tension and the less well-equipped pushed to the absolute limits of survival. Stark images abound, the most poignant that of unwanted foundling babies born to women in the silk trade being transported out of Lyons strapped into panniers on the sides of donkeys. The dead were thrown out en route to the hills. The cries of infants still alive were stifled with wine or eau de vie applied to a wet rag. They were supposedly being sent out of the town to be looked after by wet nurses in the outlying villages; yet a local official estimated that of six thousand foundlings who left Lyons every year, no more than two thousand were likely to return.


The heroic scale of Olwen Hufton’s undertaking can be gauged from her generous source notes. (The note about menstruating women, cripples, and old people, on page 546, is almost an essay in itself.) She has trawled through the ocean of contemporary scholarship of women’s history and absorbed and assessed huge amounts of material in several languages and of varying intellectual depth. That Hufton has managed to shape so much documentation into a book which is logical and lucid, and with a strong central narrative, is a considerable feat of organization.

Some technical problems arise from this inclusiveness. In order to give form to so much disparate material Hufton has recourse to what is in effect a grid system. She imposes the same pattern on many of her chapters, dealing first with the upper classes, then the farmers’ wives and urban tradespeople, and finally with women who are poor or destitute. To start with, this works well, particularly in the chapter “Finding a Partner, or Questions of Choice.” Here we have the ready-made drama of descent from the strategic court marriages of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Western Europe, with their elaborate rituals of foreplay and exchange of lavish presents, to the rural courting couple whose tokens of affection might be knitting needles or packages of pins. But with repetition Hufton’s formula becomes somewhat inert. The occasional long free-flowing passages—in particular Hufton’s magnificent chapter on women in the French Revolution—suggest a more stylistically liberated book yearning to get out.

There is a sameness in the texture of her writing produced, I surmise, by her sense of having so much ground to cover. We can sometimes see her reaching for a cliché, as when in the markets of Augsburg and indeed most German cities the wives of limonadiers and pie women “rubbed shoulders” with the country women vending vegetables, fruit, eggs, cheese. After 1633, when women started to oppose the principle of enclosure, Hufton tells us that “the women who were to drive a coach and horses through the principle were French.” Her conscientious assessment of women’s true potential in a given situation, one of the book’s great underlying strengths, can result in some paragraphs of breathtaking monotony, such as, in her chapter on “Widowhood”:

The urban widow, then, could be in any one of a number of circumstances. She could be an artisan’s widow, one indigenous to the town, with supportive kin groups or a family of grown children to help her, or one who had nothing but young children who were a continual drain on her purse. She could be the widow of a casual laborer who had always had difficulty in making ends meet. She could be young and hopeful that she would have the chance to remarry in the town, or old and helpless looking for charity. Some distinctions need also to be made between the possibilities available in north-western Europe and those in the south.

Contrast this with her five-page account of The History of Myddle, a uniquely and cattily observant parish history of a prosperous small village in Shropshire, northwest England, written in the eighteenth century by a Richard Gough, a local yeoman. The book rouses her to real enthusiasm and sharpens up her writing, as when she concludes that “the saga of any marriage in Myddle was an open secret, and a man’s reputation could be rapidly destroyed by rumours disseminated by women.” We could do with many more spirited commentaries such as this one.

During the last ten years or so the artifacts of history have acquired new importance. The books of Simon Schama in particular have made the past accessible to general as well as academic readers through their evocation of the visual and tactile. Hufton cites Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age1 and indeed writes very well herself on how Dutch genre painting, in which sparkling, clean interiors contrast with ramshackle interiors, helped establish moral attitudes towards “the ruled and the unruled home.” Some of Hufton’s descriptive passages are lovely, especially her picture of Venetian women as they totter around the city in their “array of silks and pearls and high-heeled red shoes and cloaks to advertise their status as courtesans.” But she is not drawn to evoking scenes in the way that, say, Simon Schama is, and overall her book lacks color. She has not been assisted by what was presumably a publisher’s decision to reproduce all illustrations in black and white.

Nor does Hufton’s long survey, for all its careful detail, achieve the immediacy of some other recent histories and historical biographies of women of this period. Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats2 is an example of a writer working from a basis of personal histories and family dynamics to embrace the larger political and socioeconomic scene. The commercial success of Aristocrats in the UK should not distract us from the fact this is a work of inspired scholarship. Tillyard’s narrative history of the four well-born Lennox sisters, one of whom came very close to becoming Queen of England, illuminates the entire Hanoverian age. In writing history which is the opposite of Tillyard’s—in the way she puts age first and personalities as afterthought—Hufton creates inevitable frustrations in the reader with a mere half paragraph on, for instance, Bess of Hardwicke, presented as an example of the brilliantly manipulative widow. She can allot only just over two lines to the British actress Dora Jordan, consort of the future King William IV, whose comic-tragic career is the subject of Claire Tomalin’s absorbing 414-page biography Mrs. Jordan’s Profession.3

A panoramic approach to history does not necessarily exclude the personal. One of the great merits of Antonia Fraser’s book The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England4 is the way in which she uses women’s individual histories to enliven and enhance a long and complex narrative: Brilliana Lady Harley; Lady Bankes of Corfe Castle; the Lady Cholmey, wife of the Governor of Scarborough Castle. Especially successful are Fraser’s depictions of Royalist wives under siege in the English Civil Wars. These well-bred women, surrounded in their castles by the Roundheads, emerge as credible and sympathetic, discovering resources of stubborn bloody-mindedness even as they sound surprised to find that they possessed them.

Similarly, with Jo Ann Kay McNamara’s Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia5 we find a lengthy, learned book buoyed up by a vivid sense of individual struggle. McNamara presents memorable portraits of Saint Teresa of Avila; Angela Merici, founder of the Ursulines; Mary Ward, the English Catholic pioneer of education for women early in the seventeenth century; her French contemporary Jeanne de Chantal, a wealthy woman who gave away her riches and encouraged the return to the contemplative life, reminding the sisters of the religious house she founded in Lyons that they were satisfactorily escaping the harassments of married life. All these women also appear in Olwen Hufton’s chapter on women in religious history. But masterpiece of compression though this is, it is too much of a summary ever to come alive.

The voices of women are seriously absent. Nowhere is this more tantalizing than in Olwen Hufton’s chapter on “Corresponding Gentlewomen, Shameless Scribblers, Drudges of the Pen and the Emergence of the Critic.” This could have been one of her most impressive sections, placing women’s writing in the context of the general rise of literacy and education, showing the emergence of Renaissance women writers and the early feminist debate. She delves into the sociological background of women’s diaries, memoirs, and correspondence and writes spiritedly on the eighteenth-century salonnières and the stimulus given to women’s writing by the ideas of the Enlightenment. But we get no sense of the sheer intellectual strength of Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn’s outrageous humor, or the caustic wit of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who, from 1737, edited the pro-Whig London weekly The Nonsense of Common Sense. Words themselves were crucial as women gradually acquired the mastery of language to describe and protest against their own predicament. Words also gave some women freedom to escape from that predicament. But unaccountably Hufton hardly quotes from any of them.

An astonishing omission is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “Turkish Embassy” letters, which were originally written from Constantinople where her husband was British ambassador from 1716 to 1718. The correspondence was later polished up for publication. One of the most brilliantly professional of the letters recounts her expedition to the female Turkish bath and seems likely to have provide the authentic detail for Ingres’s painting Le Bain turc, now in the Louvre. Lady Mary arrived at the Bagnio at ten in the morning:

I was in my travelling Habit, which is a rideing dress, and certainly appear’d very extrordinary to them, yet there was not one of’em that shew’d the least surprize or unpertinent Curiosity, but receiv’d me with all the obliging civillity possible. I know no European Court where the Ladys would have behav’d them selves in so polite a manner to a stranger.

I beleive in the whole there were 200 Women and yet none of those disdainfull smiles or satyric whispers that never fail in our assemblys when any body appears that is not dress’d exactly in fashion. They repeated over and over to me, Uzelle, pek uzelle, which is nothing but, charming, very charming. The first sofas were cover’d with Cushions and rich Carpets, on which sat the Ladys, and on the 2nd their slaves behind ’em, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any Beauty or deffect conceal’d yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest Gesture amongst ’em. They Walk’d and mov’d with the same majestic Grace which Milton describes of our General Mother. There were many amongst them as exactly proportion’d as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shineingly white, only adorn’d by their Beautifull Hair divided into many tresses hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or riband, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces. I was here convinc’d of the Truth of a Refflexion that I had often made, that if twas the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observ’d.

Fluent, self-confident, alarmingly observant: this is the real voice of the emergent Western woman in the eighteenth century. That Hufton omits this and comparable writings should be cautionary for other historians.

These have been strange decades in which to be a woman writer. No one could deny Olwen Hufton’s assertion that up to the late 1960s, when the history of women emerged as a legitimate field of enquiry, the “conspicuous absence of women from the historical record, unless they belonged to a few small categories—queens, consorts, famous mistresses of yet more famous men, courtesans or saints—meant that history was unbalanced.” No one would argue that redressing this balance was not necessary, or that the energy engendered by necessity has not resulted in some remarkable works of scholarly analysis. I would myself cite Barbara Taylor’s Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism and the Nineteenth Century6 and Marina Warner’s Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form7 as studies that have altered my own viewpoint fundamentally. But it is also important to acknowledge that the unprecedented growth of women’s studies in the last twenty-five years has produced a great deal of very dull writing and—more dangerous—doubtful scholarship. Women’s history has been vulnerable to the slipshodness of judgment and stridency of language that almost inevitably develop when an academic subject declines into a cause.

Hufton’s forty-eight-page “Bibliographical Essay” lists nearly a thousand scholarly books and papers on the history of women. She introduces this with words of warning that “The bibliography in a work of this kind cannot lay claim to being exhaustive or even to give more than an approximation of the works consulted. The field is a growth area, and new monographs appear on the shelves every week or so in every major European language.” What will future gender historians make of this “growth area”? Will they ponder the expenditure of the energy of scholars (predominantly female) on the proliferation of women’s subjects? Will they wonder if, at the end of the twentieth century, European women exchanged one form of repression for another, denying themselves natural scholarly choices, creating for themselves a different shape of women’s ghetto? They may see Western women scholars as going through a phase that appears in retrospect to be an aberration.

What is of particular concern now is that the powerful emotions of female solidarity have in some cases eroded critical standards, leading to the assumption that virtually all books written by women about women have some intrinsic merit. This is demonstrably not true. Some women’s books, of course, are marvelous. The work which impressed me more than any other book I reviewed last year was Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf.8 Conversely, it was difficult not to be conscious of the emptiness of Ann Thwaite’s recent life of Emily Tennyson.9 This was not caused by any lapses in research, but reflected the sheer dullness of material, the intrinsic tedium of middle-class Victorian women’s lives—even (or, in some ways, particularly) that of the faithful life partner of the Poet Laureate. It seemed a waste that Thwaite had not directed her considerable powers as a biographer to the rather wilder imaginative life of Tennyson himself, while including an adequate account of Emily Tennyson.

Too few books, moreover, are being written about men by women, a deficit created by a false sense of gender loyalty. The reverse is also true. Men have been appearing to be warned off female subjects. We have, for instance, yet to see Richard Holmes writing a book on Mary Shelley or Claire Clairmont, or Michael Holroyd providing a full biography of Gwen John—though Holmes’s brief account of Mary Wollstonecraft, in his edition of A Short Residence in Sweden,10 and Holroyd’s introduction to the catalog of the 1996 retrospective exhibition of Gwen John’s paintings at the National Museum of Wales suggest that both Holmes’s and Holroyd’s preference for male subjects has resulted in missed biographical opportunities.

But it also seems clear that the separatist view of women’s history as promoted by Hufton in The Prospect Before Her is now implicitly being challenged. Some of the material drawn upon by Hufton for her first chapter, on “Constructing Women,” also appears in The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, 1650-1950 by Roy Porter and Lesley Hall.11 I prefer their approach because it frequently shows how men as well as women acquired sexual knowledge and misinformation. One must also compare Hufton’s work with that of Linda Colley, whose Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-183712 again covers some of the same ground as The Prospect Before Her. When one does so, one sees how Hufton’s book can be irritatingly lopsided, ignoring as it does what Colley often discusses: the daily existence of the men whose lives women shared.

At one point, Hufton mentions a poor wife and husband from Massat in the French Pyrenees “whose only assets after a decade of labor on the part of both parties was the rental of a small farm and a dancing bear which he could lead around the towns and villages in winter to rake together a few sous to send back home.” As I went on reading, I found myself needing to know more about the young man from Massat and his dancing bear—how he acquired it and performed with it—as well as the male servants, male transvestites, Versailles counts and Flemish mayors, male confessors in the convents, absent sailors from Seville, and the entire substratum of non-female activity that so far has been more or less ignored by women’s history. By imaginatively combining the histories and lives of both men and women, Linda Colley’s superb study suggests the direction in which historians should now be moving.

This Issue

February 6, 1997