The Circus

The Circus


18th C

On becoming mistress of 17 The Circus Margaret Gainsborough was nearing forty, a plump, attractive brunette with two rather troublesome teenage daughters to control and a husband who was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest portrait painters in England; a man who was highly popular, a spendthrift who rebelled against the restrictions of domesticity imposed upon him by his wife. Margaret's life was now cast in stone. She had no option but to follow the path which was determined on the day she married Thomas twenty years earlier.

In Georgian times marriage was first and foremost a social contract, a state considered necessary for both male and female if each were to achieve a satisfactory lifestyle. For the majority of young blades and for ALL young women, making a good match was by far and away the most important goal in their lives. Marrying for love, a romantic idyll, rarely became an issue. Marriage was the only avenue open to a young, well-born gentleman who wanted to satisfy his sexual appetite and achieve the social requirements of his Christian upbringing. Amanda Vickery's examination of private diairies of 18th C bachelors reveal an inner struggle faced by many young men who were using prostitutes while at the same time searching for a suitable wife, a virgin, usually to be discovered within the social circle of family and friends. After the wedding ceremony, of course, with home and family creating a stable domestic and social background, a man was free to act as he pleased, taking his pleasures as liberally as he liked, without social restraint.

Thomas Gainsborough, although not born a gentleman, was an example of a man of his time who made a good marriage financially speaking, gaining a pretty wife and sexual freedom to indulge his roving eye. Margaret had no recourse but to accept her husband's behaviour once the ring was on her finger.

Young women were brought up knowing that their future happiness and position in society were totally dependent on their marrying well. Margaret had a private income but, as an illegitimate female child of an aristocrat, without a husband, she would have had no position in society in spite of her ancestral line .

The lot of the ageing Georgian spinster was dire, becoming increasingly miserable as she aged. Most women in this situation had no money of their own and were alarmingly dependent on the generosity of their relatives, many of whom were unbelievably miserly in their treatment of the spinster sister or sister-in-law forced by circumstance to share their lives.

The only area in which the Georgian wife might hope to express herself was in the management of the home. This she expected to be free to manage personally, coping with all affairs relating to the family and the residence, including the hiring of household servants. Above all, she wanted to have her own position as prime female made clear to her mother-in-law who was often a major source of irritation if, as sometimes happened, the older woman lived under the same roof and was relucant to move elsewhere.

Margaret might have experienced difficulties of this nature when she and Thomas first returned from London to live with the senior Gainsboroughs in Sudbury although there is no evidence of any problems between the two women. Trouble frequently occurred, however, when a young woman married the beloved only son of a widow. Mother and son might have lived happily together in the family home for some years before the son eventually chose a wife. The older woman often fought like a tiger to retain dominance on the domestic front before admitting defeat, causing major disruption in the relationships of all three concerned, according to Amanada Vickery.

Mothers warned their daughters to beware of a fiance who assumed control over the choice of wallpaper or the domestic timetable. Here was a tyrant in the making! Common Law favoured the husband in all matters. A wife's only real area of authority was confined to the decoration and management of the marital home, but only provided the husband permitted it. Woe betide the woman who was refused that freedom, warned a concerned mother, wary of the dominating attitude of her daughter's suitor.

The keeping of household accounts was usually left to the wife, but many husbands kept a close eye on expenditure, querying the very last detail should it appear suspicious. As we have seen, laundry bills were unbelievably high: Amanda Vickery describes one family, minor gentry who were wealthy enough to keep a coach and horses, who claimed their washing bill covering the needs of three children, a toddler and two infants, cost thirty-three pounds in 1745, euivalent to the yearly wage of TEN maids.

In addition to coping with endless laundry chores Margaret's duties included finding material and organizing the making up of Thomas's extensive wardrobe of shirts, a major task. One young fellow relied heavily on the support of first his mother and then his sister in this matter. Amanda Vickery reveals that on a regular basis this peacock sent his soiled linen home three hundred miles away to be laundered, mended or renewed, and returned.

The most arduous problem faced by housewives in the 18th C was, undoubtedly, the employment and management of servants, especially those who lived in and were forever present, seen or unseen.