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Elite women's household management: Yorkshire, 1680-1810

University of Leeds
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  • Literature


This thesis examines the managerial role of elite women from a range of Yorkshire country houses in the eighteenth century. This group provides a very rich number of cases for this analysis. It first sets contemporary views of elite women in light of the traditional constructions of gendered roles which established a woman's position as a moral and virtuous domestic being. As one of the elite women being studied, particular attention is given to Isabella Dowager Countess of Carlisle's authorship of a work of conduct literature intended for a female readership. Hence, the permanence of household management as a theme in this literary tradition is explored as well as its gendered dimensions and categorised responsibilities as perceived by other conduct authors of similar or contrasting social status to that of Carlisle. Following the conventional precepts of eighteenth-century conduct literature, the categories of responsibility within household management form the basis of each chapter. Throughout, the elite woman's managerial presence and performance is discussed using surviving documentation such as personal correspondence, bills and receipts, account books and more general housekeeping minutiae such as lists and inventories, and books of memoranda. From these arises a complex picture of authority and deftness with which the elite woman was expected to run the household within the wider departments of the country estate through a businesslike partnership with her husband. The purpose of the thesis is to challenge eighteenth-century contemporary criticisms of elite women's involvement in her marital home by proving it to have been one of difficult decision-making, influenced at all times by degrees of moral judgement over large numbers of people. It also demonstrates the expression of power elite women could exercise within a sphere traditionally thought of as a female space. The domestic space of the country house had long been associated with feminine accomplishment in the 'delicate' art of needlework or the knowledge of pickling and preserving. In her role as household manager, this space was more heavily imbued with command, authority and organisational skill.

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