Household Management in a Lady’s life

The Chapter “Prudent Economy” in The Gentleman’s Daughter by Amanda Vickery has been somewhat of an eye opener for a lot of readers. Unless one was rich and lucky enough to employ a housekeeper, domestic duties played a large part in any lady’s life, and took up an inordinate amount of time.

Let us consider someone we “know”, Emma Woodhouse. She is, in effect, the housekeeper at Hartfield, despite being described as rich.Although she would not cook, she is acutely aware of domestic duties. She knows exactly how much pork to send to Miss Bates as a gift, and knows which joints will be salted and kept for eating throughout the winter, and also which joints will be eaten immediately. She has had a practical education in the running of a household.

Running a household efficiently: supervising servants, employing them in the first instance, supervising provision, preservation of home grown food (for there were few shops as we know them today), the planning of menus based on one’s own store cupboard, the purchase of consumables, the purchase and preservation of linen, the care of the furniture…the list goes on.

The Housekeeping Book of Susannah Whatman, 1776-1800 was written by a very fine lady to judge from her portrait by George Romney. In it she gives minute instructions to her household, and only first hand practical knowledge could enable her to write these instructions down.For example;

To the Laundry Maid.

To look over linen in the Storeroom Monday morning, put stitches or buttons in all her masters shirts…..To be very careful in mangling that the mangle is wiped free from soil,that the linen is rolled quite smooth,and that the mangling cloths are even.The cloths should be hardly ever washed,becasue they are long in acquiring that shining polish whihc make the linen look so well.They should be of pale brwon Holland manufactured on purpose, to be had at the mangle makers.”

Charlotte Lucas made a fine and accomplished wife for Mr Collins because she had received adequate and detailed instructions on how to do it before her marriage. She did not come to Hunsford Parsonage unprepared.

Add to this the not inconsiderable duties of a mother, especially with regard to rearing children and their education. Even if a nurse were employed, or indeed a governess, a mother, during Jane Austen’s time was very much “hands on.”

And so to formal “accomplishments”. A knowledge of French was considered important, drawing and watercolor was acceptable, playing an instrument (provided it was an acceptable choice- the viola da gamba or cello was not). All these took time to learn and practice. Mind you- Mrs Elton notably gave up music upon marriage.

From Emma Chapter 32:

“I should hope not; but really when I look round among my acquaintance, I tremble. Selina has entirely given up music — never touches the instrument — though she played sweetly. And the same may be said of Mrs. Jeffereys — Clara Partridge, that was — and of the two Milmans, now Mrs. Bird and Mrs. James Cooper; and of more than I can enumerate. Upon my word it is enough to put one in a fright. I used to be quite angry with Selina; but really I begin to comprehend that a married woman has many things to call her attention. I believe I was half an hour this morning shut up with my housekeeper.”

“But every thing of that kind,” said Emma, “will soon be in so regular a train “

“Well,” said Mrs. Elton, laughing, “we shall see.”

Emma, finding her so determined upon neglecting her music, had nothing more to say…

Then the social duties mounted up.Making call and receiving them gracefully was an art. Poor shy Fanny Knight( JA’s niece) found it very difficult to play her part in these, as she was naturally shy. Letter writing was the only method of keeping in touch with far flung friends and relations. A neat and elegant style of handwriting was considered an accomplishment. And this all took time- it all had to be done by hand.