How a House Became a Home in Georgian London

What is it that turns a house into a home? And if you don’t have a house, do you still have a home? And where is that? In her book, these questions were answered time subjectively by historian Amanda Vickery and illustrated together with some persistent medieval ideas that hamper our life still today.

In Georgian London, a spinster usually didn't have the money to run her own house and instead had to go to live with relatives. There, she usually was treated little better than a servant. Being dependent on the master of the house not only for the roof over her head and food to eat, but also for clothing and just about anything needing money to buy it, didn't make such a place a home at all.

Such was the fate of Gertrude Savile, living first with her brother and later with her mother and aunt. Her home was her reticule and her diary, until one day she made an unexpected inheritance of huge proportions enabling her to set up her own household. Tellingly enough, her diary breaks off at that point, but her housekeeping accounts were kept along with her diary for Amanda Vickery to piece together what kind of life she was leading afterward her stroke of luck.

A bachelor had no home either; with no woman to keep the place running he was lost. As setting up house was a costly affair, younger sons often ended up as bachelors whose life would be dominated either by a military career with the barracks as home, or as secretaries to important persons, again reduced to servant status.

Amanda Vickery freely pilfere what diaries she could find in archives to recreate the feel of a Georgian home. While this proved quite easy with a lot of material to be found for the upper classes, finding her clues for the less fortunate was more difficult. But household books had survived there as well, and she managed to translate dry accounts into meaningful descriptions. Getting through dozens of boxes of scraps and pieces from clerks' rented lodgings to references and single letters that survived in some attic, she painted the grander picture of what home meant in Georgian times.

She was able to show how the house and home had become a stage set to receive guests not only for aristocrats but for the merchant cit as well. The accounts told her what the latest fad in design was, like the yellow wallpaper bought by Gertrude Savile (and this unhappy penchant to decorate houses in unflattering colours persists in England to this day). At one point, she marveled at the aptitude of an alcoholic to write a coherent diary in which he mentioned the amount of booze he got through every day.

Sacrificing scientific precision for a flowing narrative style many a modern novelist would be well advised to copy, Amanda Vickery managed to produce an immensely readable book full of fascinating information about Georgian daily life. Behind Closed Doors: At Home In Georgian England was published by the Yale University Press.

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