I bring you one of Pen & Sword’s non-fiction titles and a pretty special one. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.
Unmarried Women of the Country Estate: Four Stories from 17th-20th Century: Genteel Women Who Did Not Marry by Charlotte Furness
As the fight for women’s rights continues, and whilst men and women alike push for gender equality around the globe, this book aims to introduce readers to four women who, in their own way, challenged and defied the societal expectations of the time in which they lived. Some chose to be writers, some were successful business women, some chose to nurture and protect, some travelled the globe, some were philanthropists. Each one made the conscious decision not to marry a man. Elizabeth Isham of Lamport Hall, Ann Robinson of Saltram, Anne Lister of Shibden Hall and Rosalie Chichester of Arlington Court. These are elite women, all connected to country houses or from noble families throughout the UK, and this book explores to what extent privilege gave them the opportunity to choose the life they wanted, thus guiding the reader to challenge their own beliefs about elite women throughout history. This book is unique in that it brings the stories of real historical women to light – some of which have never been written about before, whilst also offering an introduction to the history of marriage and societal expectations of women. Starting in 1609 and travelling chronologically up to 1949, with a chapter for each woman, this book tells their remarkable stories, revealing how strong, resilient and powerful women have always been.
About the author:
Charlotte Furness was born and raised in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. After completing a Bachelor Degree in English, and a Masters Degree in Country House Studies at the University of Leicester, she started a career in heritage, working for English Heritage and the trust-managed Lamport Hall. She has also worked at Harewood House, Temple Newsam House and Renishaw Hall.
Whilst working in this field, she has come across many stories which, unless told, would have been lost in the annals of time. She now works as a full-time writer and sees it as her mission to bring these forgotten stories to the attention of as many people as possible, to preserve them so that they can be enjoyed by generations to come.
I thank Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a hardcover ARC copy of this non-fiction book that I freely chose to review.
At a time when we are trying to recover the history and memories of women of the past, this book is a step in the right direction. It is particularly difficult to find information about working-class women, as they rarely had access to education and/or time to write their own stories. Well-off married women might have a bit more leisure and better access to education, although they are often constrained by the social roles they had to play as wives and mothers, but what about single women of means who didn’t get married? That is the question that Charlotte Furness tries to answer, not exhaustively but rather by choosing four “genteel” women who never got married, from the XVII to the XX century. As she explains, some have been subject to more research and are better known than others (although this is changing), but they also share the fact that they were attached to country states (either because they owned them or because they lived there their entire lives) and also that, luckily for us, they left plenty of written materials for us to peruse, be it letters, diaries, or even, as is the case for Rosalie Chichester, fiction and stories.
The author includes a section of acknowledgements, a note explaining her methodology, a list of plates (there are a number of black and white illustrations and photographs in the book, including portraits and photographs of the women, when available, and also of their relatives and the properties), an introduction where Furness talks about what marriage and married life was like in the periods covered, four chapters, one dedicated to each one of the women, a conclusion, a set of detailed notes (where extra information is provided), a select bibliography (for those who need to find out more), and an index.
The four women chosen are quite different, and the differences go beyond the historical period. Elizabeth Isham was deeply religious, battled with mental health difficulties (as did her mother and sister), and she clearly chose dedicating her life to her religious devotion rather than to a standard family life (there was even discussion about her marrying John Dryden at some point, so it definitely wasn’t due to a lack of prospects); Anne Robinson, stepped up and took on the duties of family life when her sister died, becoming the hostess of Saltram House for her brother-in-law and bringing up her niece and nephew; Anne Lister is a fascinating character, who always challenged the constraints of a woman’s role, took over the property and the business-side of things, and would have married her long-term companion, Ann Walker, if that had been possible at the time; while Rosalie Chichester fits more into the spinster image usually portrayed in fiction and movies: staying at home, living with her mother, involved in many local projects, looking after her animals, and leaving her property to the National Trust. But, she was also an eager traveller, kept detailed diaries, wrote fiction, and was passionate about protecting Arlington Court.
This is not a long book, but it manages to bring to life these four very different women, and, more importantly, tries to make sure we get to hear their own voices, rather than just read the interpretations others might have imposed on them. There are many things we don’t know about them, and, there is plenty more research to be done, but this is a great introduction for readers looking to learn about social history and the history of women from a different perspective.
I enjoyed learning about these four women, their lives, and their historical period, and I’d love to learn more about them. I recommend this book to people interested in women’s history, social history, also those interested in UK country properties, and, in general, readers of history looking for a different approach.
Thanks to the author and to Rosie Croft for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to stay safe, and to keep reading, liking, clicking, sharing, and smiling!