The Circus

The Circus


21st C

I have misled you. Today I discovered in an article by Andrew Swift published in THE BATH MAGAZINE this week (Feb 2012, pp 20-21) that the fashionable White Hart Inn always used by Dr Sibbald in the 18th C when visiting his daughter Susan in Bath was not the current gastropub of the same name existing today in Widcombe as I suggested, but a building then standing opposite the Pump Room.

As Andrew Swift points out the owner of the popular White Hart in the 1830's was a certain Moses Pickwick, a foundling discovered in a basket left in a stable at an inn in the village of Pickwick near Bath - hence the name that tickled the imagination of Charles Dickens, which he then made famous.

Andrew Swift says Dickens made no secret of his dislike of Bath. He described it as "a mouldy old roosting place built by a cemetery full of old people"; "a dreary city" peopled with "appalling old gentlemen with thin legs and nankeen trousers!"

18th C

Let's return now to the time when Mary and Margaret Gainsborough left boarding school in London and returned to live at home with their parents in this house in Bath. Historian Amanda Foreman claims that they did so in a period that was one of the most sexually integrated times in British history. Another writer, Amanda Vickery, agrees, believing that young Georgian women like the Gainsborough girls enjoyed considerably more freedom than their grandmothers were permitted.

The accepted "proper" role played by women was the subject of considerable debate, often the cause of serious family disagreements. Georgiana, the beautiful and spirited Duchess of Devonshire, was a prime example, attracting widespread criticism when she became heavily involved in politics in the mid 18th C, offering kisses in exchange for votes. Recent studies indicate that women of the aristocracy and those in society generally were much more active politically and socially than the literature of the day indicated. Their participation attracted angry criticism from contemporaries who demanded that women should return to their rightful place: the home.

As early as 1732 the press reported that women were seeking to supplant men by wearing breeches and riding astride. Some women were actually seen to be shaking hands! And some had the affrontery to order their men to get them coffee, instead of serving the males themselves. What was worse, claimed the Gentleman's Magazine in July 1732, misdirected females actively took the initiative in affairs of the heart.

And touching on romance, a surprising statistic was revealed recently by author Faramerz Dabhoiwala in his book THE ORIGINS OF SEX (Allen lane, 2012). He discovered that in the year 1800 no less than forty percent of women were pregnant on their wedding day. This to me amazing fact indicates that many chaperones of those young ladies were less than successful in their duties.

One of the consequences of increasing female poltical activity was the interest in the subject shown by newspapers. When the Gainsboroughs moved to live in London in 1774 there were nine daily newspapers in the capital and hundreds of weeklies in the provinces, all eager to reprint London's gossip columns highlighting activties of celebrities of the day.

The result of this widespread publicity was that for the first time national figure emerged and became widely known as celebrities whose lives were followed with as much attention in the 18th C as they are on Facebook and Twitter today. People attracting such interest were those whom readers could recognise and identify with, forming then, as today, some kind of personal connection.

Nevertheless, for all the modern attitudes of women like the Duchess of Devonshire, people on the level of Margaret Gainsborough had few legal rights. Upon marriage any monies belonging to a wife in the 18th C automatically became the property of her husband. In the case of the painter, Margaret's handsome annual income of £200 (equivalent in 2002 to £20,000) from her father's ducal estate was paid directly into Gainsborough's bank account and administered entirely by him.

Had he chosen to beat Margaret for any misdemeanor he was entitled to do so, provided there was a good cause and provided that he used a stick no thicker than his thumb. In law Gainsborough and his contemporaries could treat their wives as they pleased but for two conditions: they were not permitted to imprison or physically torture their spouses.

The preacher John Wesley reported that wife-beating was a frequent occurrence in Newcastle in 1743 and letters and diaries of the time reveal that wife-beating, especially when husbands were under the influence of liquor (a common state) was a frequent practice not by any means limited to the lower classes.

Illegitimate children were often taken care of by the family of either the mother or father of the child. Aristocrats like the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire set the example by taking into their home the Duke's illegitimate child by his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, who often lived with the Devonshires and became an intimate friend of Georgiana, the Duchess. After Georgiana's death Elizabeth married the Duke and stepped neatly into her shoes as the new Duchess. However, the Duke refused Georgiana the same courtesy when she gave birth to a daughter by another man. That infant was fostered out, far off in the country. Georgiana kept in touch, but only occasionally was she given her husband's permission to visit her child.

This broadminded attitude towards children born out of wedlock was widespread and not limited to the upper classes. Thomas Turner, a village shopkeeper, agreed to take the eight year old illegitimate son of his half-sister into his home in 1757.

This respectable girl either chose not to marry the father of her child or did not have the opportunity to do so. Initially her father, Turner senior, undertook to bring up the boy, and following his death, Turner the shopkeeper felt obliged to take him into his household in return for the sum of £5 per year, left for this purpose in Turner senior's will, to board and clothe the lad until he was fourteen. This was an example of the family publicly taking a responsible attitude towards the problem of the illegitimate child.

On the other hand James Boswell discreetly managed the affairs of his illegitimate infants Charles and Sally, born in his batchelor days, with the help of a medical friend so that they appear not to have impinged on his marriage. It appears that his wife might never have known of the existence of these children.

Woman like Mrs Boswell were often extremely hostile to the activities of adulterous female wives (men in a similar situation were not castigated in the same way) and they felt the same about pregnant servant girls.

Unmarried women and older women faced difficult choices and it appears lived mostly unhappy lives. The writer Fanny Burney observed through one of her male characters in a novel that there seemed to be no reason for a single woman to live after the age of thirty because she was only in other people's way, often further resented because she was a financial burden on some man: father, brother, uncle or son - or worse, her male in-laws.

Nevertheless, some single women fought back: they were well-known for their activities in the money market as rentiers, investors and money lenders, which might indicate that wealthy married women found trade distasteful and beneath them, leaving such matters to their husbands.