Posted by Helen Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Another Bank Holiday and another exhibition. On New Year’s Day Tory Historian visited the excellent and, alas, soon to close “At Home in Renaissance Italy” at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In parenthesis it might be noted that the V & A is a superb museum or would be if the powers that be would finish developing it and get down to running it.

Anyway, the exhibition was not much liked by Brian Sewell, who felt that anything that was not precisely high art and …. gasp …. had a good deal of information about women (domestic life, you see) was really beneath contempt. Or wretched, as he would say.

Tory Historian does not share those prejudices, not least because, as the exhibition notes made it clear, the division between art and craft was not as clear-cut in fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy as it has been since the Romantic period. Mr Sewell, of course, knows that, but makes a point of being contemptuous of many things.

Indeed, the inevitable focus on women and their role was a particularly interesting aspect of the exhibition. The great households of the Italian nobility and the smaller households of the financiers and bankers together with the smaller or, at least, poorer households of the merchants and townsfolk and peasants were run by the women. To be honest, these households resembled small and medium sized businesses and running them well required various skills.

Growing out of that need was the appearance of some of the first books of etiquette, household instruction and cookery. This, of course, presupposes that a sizeable proportion of the women could read those books.

The V & A, on the whole, does not believe in dumbing down. The notes in the permanent and temporary exhibitions can be populist but are definitely on the educational side of the divide. Here they provided a good deal of information and were heavily spiced with useful quotations from contemporary works of literature and instruction.

There were one or two mis-steps. Incorrectly, it was pointed out that women’s lives revolved entirely around their biological cycles. The rest of the exhibition gave a lie to that comment. Of course, biological cycles were and are important. Equally, birth, marriage and death were and are crucial events in all lives and many rituals surrounded them in the Renaissance and do so now. But, as I said above, running those households required skills, training and ability. On top of which, they had to entertain guests, be knowledgeable at least to some extent about the various art and craft works around them (to be able to show them off in the right way), read books, say their prayers and teach their children and, according to the artist Sofonisba Anguissola, play chess.

Clearly, the cooking both of household meals and grand banquets were heavily supervised by the mistress of the house, who took part in some of the preparations, particularly of such things as pastry or some special cordial.

Tory Historian possesses a Penguin edition of a book of sixteenth century recipes, edited by Hilary Spurling, “Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book”. The Fettiplace family were undoubtedly aristocratic but it is clear from the collection and the “receipts” in general that the lady of the house ran the house, particularly as her husband was frequently away at court. Part of that entailed keeping a collection of recipes for cooking, medication, cordials and preserves.

The recipes may have been written out by a secretary but Lady Fettiplace had clearly added new ones and made notes on others. She also swapped recipes with others, like Sir Kenelm Digby and various relatives.

It would be interesting to work out exactly when that attitude changed and it became a badge of honour to the family for the ladies of the house to be idle. There is an interesting conversation in “Pride and Prejudice” that might indicate a change at that very time, though Jane Austen herself, together with her sister, had plenty of domestic duties.

Mrs Bennett has come to visit Jane and Elizabeth who are staying perforce at Netherfield, Mr Bingley’s house. On Elizabeth’s enquiry about her friend Charlotte Lucas, Mrs Bennett explains that she and other Lucases had called in but Charlotte could not stay long as she was wanted at home in connection with the mince pies. Sir William Lucas clearly ran an old-fashioned household in which the women had plenty to do and the boys, possibly, less so. Mrs Bennett explains rather proudly to Mr Bingley and the others that as far as she is concerned there were servants to deal with such matters as the mince pies.

That raises an interesting question: exactly what did the Bennett girls do with themselves day in and day out?


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. First, we need a recipe for the true and unassailably most English mince pie. I had mince pie for dessert on my one grand dinner in London at the Royal Auto Club. It was very nice as I recall.

    Second, I too wonder what the Bennett women were doing all day. No governess, after all. Reading and playing the piano and taking walks? Did they have domestic chores that Miss Austen just does not bother describing?

  3. Helen Says:
  4. Depends on which period we are talking about. The original mince pies did have meat (minced) in them and the filling was probably made with the odd veal bone thrown in. But, I agree, more research is needed.

    I very much fear that the point of Mrs Bennett's comment is that neither she nor her daughters had any domestic tasks to speak of. There was a housekeeper, after all, who appears briefly after Mr Bennett finds out that Lydia is going to marry Wickham and Mrs Bennett rejoices mightily. That is probably why they found the idea of endlessly walking to Meriton (spelling from memory) so fascinating.

  5. HM Stanley Says:
  6. Like all "bad" things, I would nominate the coming of the Hanoverians, with their large, girl heavy families as the beginning of the chore-less girls. More seriously, I would assume that the more sriously girls were educated..the more likely they would their brothers learning the martial arts. to be given a break from house chores. Would also be interesting to know wether there was a differnce between high and low church, catholic and protent/evangelic...given "idle hands...devil's bidding", etc....

Powered by Blogger.




Blog Archive