Review of Terence Dooley, Maeve O’Riordan and Christopher Ridgway, Women and the Country House in Ireland and Britain

Terence Dooley, Maeve O’Riordan and Christopher Ridgway (eds),Women and the Country House in Ireland and Britain.Dublin: Four Courts, 2018. ISBN 978-1-84682-647-4. Paperback €29.95.

Reviewed by Felicity Maxwell

As its title indicates, this collection of essays focuses on the intersection of two complementary research specialisms, women’s history and country-house studies, in the Irish and British geographical and cultural contexts. Arising from the Fourteenth Annual Historic Houses of Ireland Conference at Maynooth University in 2016, the fifteen case studies gathered here shed light on the biographies and activities of female inhabitants of country houses that ranged in scale from comparatively modest gentry homes through to aristocratic seats of power located in several counties of Ireland and England and one in Wales. Some consideration is also given to London houses and movements between multiple residences. Scotland is not represented although some of the women considered in Irish and English contexts had Scottish surnames or titles. Chronologically the volume covers the period from the Restoration to the 1950s but concentrates on the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth century and on the late nineteenth century to the Irish Civil War.

This collection successfully avoids a common pitfall of the genre, as it is admirably coherent despite its scope. The essays are held together not only by their focus on country-house women but also by the application of classic social historical methods: archival research, biography, and statistical analysis of demographic data. The latter method is employed by Jonathan Cherry and Arlene Crampsie, whose joint essay assesses the nature and effectiveness of landed women’s political agency compared with that of men and urban-dwelling women within an Ulster-wide home rule campaign in 1912. The remaining majority of the essays, by contrast, focus on individuals and families, exploring diverse aspects of the life experiences of thirty spotlighted country-house women, with another dozen or so functioning as supporting cast or invoked for brief comparison. Topical coverage is remarkably broad, in keeping with the diversity of these women’s roles and pursuits. This variety and the emergence of patterns across the essays maintain interest throughout the volume. Essays are ordered so as to allow the detection of common threads (rather than chronologically or by region).

While social history, broadly defined, is the volume’s prevailing disciplinary lens, respective studies are informed by and contribute to the fields of architecture and art history, history of the family, political history, local history, history of travel and tourism, the Famine and charitable relief, culinary history, literary history and manuscript studies. Welcome consideration is given in several essays to women’s activities as creators of archival sources and works of art, including letters, diaries, recipes, novels, translations, drawings and watercolours. Their considerable contributions to the design as well as hands-on management of houses, gardens, and woodlands are also highlighted. Indeed, particular strengths of the collection are its explorations of country-house women’s outdoors as well as indoors, creative as well as managerial pursuits, and the essays’ grounding in original archival research.

These studies demonstrate that manuscript sources can bring to light not only individual women but also categories of women and of familial relationships that are often overlooked: members of minor gentry or arriviste families, single women, sisters, and in-laws. Of these, sisters receive particular attention, featuring in the essays by Kerry Bristol on fraught relations between sisters and sisters-in-law in the Winn family of Nostell Priory, by Ruth Larsen on the sisterly guidance and support shared across two generations of Cavendish/Howard sisters, and by Brendan Twomey on Louisa Conolly’s letters to her sister Sarah Bunbury. Between them, these essays highlight the importance of sisterly relations in family politics and the distribution of resources, as sources of emotional support and assistance with births and childrearing, and in upholding the family interest within wider society. Sisters could also be instrumental in seeking to secure physical safety via governmental intervention during times of violent political unrest, as revealed in Lowri Ann Rees’s essay on the response of single landowning sisters Jane and Frances Walters to attacks on their house during the Rebecca Riots in 1840s Wales. (The burning of Irish country houses during the Civil War is another recurring theme in the collection.) A striking example of mother- and daughter-in-law collaboration appears in Regina Sexton’s essay on Dorothy Parsons’s manuscript Booke of Choyce Receipts(begun in 1666). Sexton elucidates not only its transitional place between old and new styles of cookery and between England and Ireland, but also that its compilation was an intergenerational effort, featuring recipes handed down by Parsons’s mother-in-law and a female friend, but with further recipes being added by anonymous compilers for another hundred years.

A major focus of Women and the Country House in Ireland and Britainis on women’s leading roles as chatelaines and matriarchs who combined familial, hospitable, and household and estate management roles. Amy Boyington, Philip Bull, Caroline Dakers, Judith Hill, Edmund Joyce, Anna Pilz, Ciarán Reilly, Christopher Ridgway, and Fiona White’s respective essays reveal that being a landowner’s wife (and often widow) enabled many elite women in eighteenth- through to twentieth-century Ireland and England to act as patrons and practitioners of architecture and the arts, collectors and dispersers of collections, landscape designers, estate managers, financial managers, and political activists. Each of these activities was a way for landed women to exercise responsibility and influence. However, these essays also remind us that as wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts, country-house women were ultimately subject to patriarchal social and legal structures that rendered them producers, custodians and/or dependents of heirs and inheritances. Most vulnerable, of course, were the non-elite women who cohabited with, worked for, and supported the lifestyle of the landed women discussed extensively in this volume; unfortunately, this lower class of country-house women is referred to only fleetingly.

Overall, this volume presents a much needed but somewhat conservative approach to its subject, using tried and true historical methods to present case studies that typically have a strong narrative drive and much human interest but little theorisation. The issue of intersectionality is not explicitly addressed although it is clearly relevant in a social context in which both gender and class come into play. Perhaps the editors and contributors, with the exception of Cherry and Crampsie, have shied away from this theoretical and methodological framework in the interests of accessibility, since the volume is aimed at general readers as well as specialists.

There is much here for both audiences (and, unlike most academic books, it is affordable for both). Most contributions are indeed written in an accessible combination of biographical narrative and interpretation, which will appeal to anyone with an interest in the roles of women and of country houses within the social, political and cultural histories of Ireland and Britain in the last 350 years. Each essay is meticulously researched and makes an original contribution to knowledge. The case-study format will make individual essays especially appealing to those interested in the particular families, houses, or localities represented. As the first collection of essays to be published on the topic of its title, Women and the Country House in Ireland and Britainmakes a substantial addition to a field that is relatively new, especially in the Irish context. This is an exploratory volume that does not claim to be comprehensive but offers to academic historians a valuable gathering of initial findings and a source of inspiration. I hope that this collection will stimulate further research that will bring pre-1660 material, history from below, theoretical anchors and comparative perspectives to this very promising area of Irish and British women’s history.

Dr Felicity Maxwell

National University of Ireland, Galway