Gender, craft and canon: elite women's engagements with material culture in Britain, 1750-1830
Gowrley, Freya Louise
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This thesis investigates elite and genteel women’s production and consumption of material objects in Britain during the period 1750-1830. Each of its four chapters identifies a central process that characterised these engagements with material culture, focusing on ‘Migration,’ ‘Description,’ ‘Translation,’ and ‘Exchange’ in turn. The Introduction examines each of these with regard to the historiography of eighteenth-century material culture and its relationship with gender, social relations, domesticity, and materiality. It argues that by viewing material culture through the lenses of microhistory and the case study, we might gain a sense not only of how individual women acquired, used, and conceived of objects, but also how this related to the broader processes by which material culture functioned during this period. Chapter 1 identifies the importance of needlework in the construction of prescribed feminine identities, and focuses on representations of needlework in portraiture, genre prints, and conduct literature. The chapter argues that such objects created a ‘grammar’ of respectable domestic femininity that migrated through visual, literary, and material genres, reflecting the permeability of cultural forms during this period. Chapter 2 examines the role of description in the journals and correspondence of the travel writer Caroline Lybbe Powys, concentrating on her 1756 tour of Norfolk. Following the work of the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the chapter argues that the ‘thick description’ that characterises Lybbe Powys’s accounts of domestic visiting and tourism locates both the homes of her hosts and her own epistolary practices within an interpretative framework of hospitality, sociability, and materiality in which description was central. Chapter 3 considers the interior decoration of A la Ronde, the home of the cousins Jane and Mary Parminter, located in Exmouth in Devon. The chapter argues that the processes of translation that characterised the Parminters’ acquisition and display of their collection of souvenirs transformed these objects both physically and semantically, allowing the cousins to co-opt them into personal narratives, redolent of travel, the home, and the family. Chapter 4 focuses on Plas Newydd, the home of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. It examines how the gift exchange enacted at the house facilitated the creation of ‘gift relationships,’ which both reflected and constituted the connections between Butler and Ponsonby, their numerous friends and visitors to their home, between Plas Newydd and the surrounding landscape, and between material culture, experience, and sentiment, more broadly. Together, the constituent chapters of the thesis demonstrate that there was no simple connection between gender and material culture. However, by interrogating the key cultural processes in which this relationship operated, the thesis hopes to demonstrate the complexity and fluidity of its manifestations.