How the Other Half Lived

The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe—
Volume One, 1500-1800

by Olwen Hufton
Knopf, 638 pp., $35.00

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…

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