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Posts Tagged ‘women artists’

By Brenda S. Cox

“I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school” — Elizabeth Watson in The Watsons

No doubt you’ve heard how restrictive Austen’s world was for women. When a woman got married, all her wealth became the property of her husband (unless she had a good lawyer who arranged things differently). A lady without money or a husband might end up a governess (Jane Fairfax compares that to slavery) or a teacher at a girl’s school (Elizabeth Watson would “rather do anything than be a teacher at a school”). A man could divorce his wife by accusing her of adultery (even if there wasn’t what we would consider clear proof), but a woman was almost never able to divorce her husband.

Despite all that, there were outstanding women of the Georgian era who broke through those barriers. Some were widows, some were single, some were married.

Two fascinating books tell us about some of these boundary-breaking women. Mike Rendell’s Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era (Pen & Sword 2018) brings us seventeen women from the eighteenth-century who made outstanding contributions in Arts & Literature; The Scientific World; Business & Commerce; and Reform and Education. Rendell explains the legal position of women in Austen’s world, and after each short biography gives a wider picture. For example, at the end of the chapter on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who promoted smallpox inoculation in England, we learn more about smallpox, “the most dreadful scourge of the human species” (according to Edward Jenner, who developed vaccinations). At the end of Trailblazing Women, Rendell continues the saga of women’s achievements in England, into the present.

Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, by Mike Rendell, tells the story of 17 boundary-breaking women.

In a complementary book, What Regency Women Did For Us (Pen & Sword 2017), Rachel Knowles shares the lives of twelve Regency women who made an impact on their communities and on our world today. Knowles does not give such wide coverage as Rendell, but tells the fascinating story of each woman in more depth. She is more focused on the Regency period, while Rendell adds earlier women from the 18th century.

What Regency Women Did For Us, by Rachel Knowles, tells the stories of a dozen Regency women who impacted our world today.

Rendell and Knowles chose some of the same women and some different ones. Both introduce actress Sarah Siddons, scientific book writer Jane Marcet, engineer/inventor Sarah Guppy, artificial stone manufacturer Eleanor Coade, and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Rendell adds businesswomen, writers, an anti-slavery campaigner (Lady Middleton), and others, while Knowles adds mountaineer Mary Parminter, fossilist Mary Anning, astronomer Caroline Herschel, our own Jane Austen, and more.

Let’s look at a few of my favorites, out of all these fascinating women.

Jane Marcet: Author of Science Books for Women

Rendell identifies Jane Marcet as a “scientific book writer,” while Knowles calls her “Faraday’s teacher.” I love that Marcet wrote science books for girls and women in an age when many thought that reading and arithmetic, embroidery and music, were all that women needed to know. I can imagine Fanny Price reading Marcet’s books and developing her love for the natural world.

Like Jane Marcet, I love chemistry, and I love to write about complex issues, making them clear and understandable. So Marcet seems like a kindred spirit to me. Her husband was a doctor who enjoyed chemistry. They attended lectures together at the Royal Institution in London to hear Humphry Davy explain the latest chemical discoveries. Jane Marcet had been given a basic grounding in science at home and even learned some Latin, which Regency girls rarely studied.  However, she still needed her husband’s help in understanding the scientific vocabulary that Davy and other lecturers used.

A page from Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry, which taught science to young women and many young men, using discussions, pictures, and everyday examples.

Marcet wrote a book, Conversations on Chemistry, to help other women understand those lectures. In dialogues between a woman teacher and two female students, Marcet explains basic chemical concepts in clear language with everyday illustrations. Practical experiments, questions and answers, and Jane Marcet’s own illustrations make the book even easier to understand. She published it anonymously in 1805 (as Jane Austen published her books anonymously), but her name was later added to it. The book was very popular in both England and America.

Conversations on Chemistry became a standard school textbook for teaching science to girls, as well as for teaching at home. But Marcet’s book didn’t just benefit girls. Boys without access to much schooling also learned from it. Marcet’s book introduced Michael Faraday, who had little formal education, to chemistry. Faraday went on to make major discoveries in chemistry and electricity and also lectured to the public at the Royal Institution.

Jane Marcet went on to write popular books teaching economics, natural philosophy (science), and botany, as well as Conversations on the Evidences of Christianity. She helped revolutionize education, particularly for women, making these subjects accessible to all.

Hester Bateman: Silversmith and Business Owner

When I visited colonial Williamsburg during the 2019 JASNA AGM, I was surprised to learn that most eighteenth-century trades included women. In England, Hester Bateman was a well-known silversmith, with her own company. Like many Georgian women who made names for themselves, her career began when her husband died. He was a silver worker who taught his wife to assist him. She was illiterate herself, but he bequeathed his tools to her, rather than to their sons, and she immediately took over the business, calling it “Hester Bateman and Company.” She registered her own mark, “HB,” which still identifies her work today.

Hester Bateman developed beautiful, simple, classical designs for the dining rooms and tea tables of the upwardly-mobile middle classes. Her family business expanded into  a workshop across the backs of three houses. She and her company produced many thousands of silver objects. Her sons, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren eventually took over the prosperous business. But Hester herself ran the company until she died at age 82.

This mustard-pot is lined with blue glass so the mustard does not react with the silver. It was made in 1774 by Hester Bateman, a lady silversmith with her own mark. Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, gift of Thomas M. and Harriet S. Gibbons, used by permission.

In Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, Rendell tells us about other Georgian businesswomen who made lace, sold stocks, manufactured artificial stone (used for anything from tiny ornaments to giant statues), owned a print shop, wrote and sold cookbooks, and manufactured chocolates. He even includes a “bigamist, litigant and courtesan,” Teresia ‘Con’ Phillips, as a businesswoman, to show the limited avenues available for women. He wonders why there were not more Georgian businesswomen. However, I’m impressed that, despite the restrictions on women owning property and having their own money, there were so many Georgian businesswomen that we still know about today.

Madame Tussaud: Artist and Businesswoman

Rachel Knowles calls Marie Tussaud “Entrepreneur Extraordinaire.” Madame Tussaud was a talented artist and craftswoman as well as a smart and creative businesswoman.The wax museums she developed are still popular today.

Waxwork of Marie Tussaud, at Madame Tussaud’s in London

Marie’s mother was housekeeper to a Swiss doctor, Philippe Curtius, who adopted Marie as his daughter. Curtius made wax models to show the anatomy of the human body. His models were so successful that he left medicine and set up a waxworks in Paris. He taught Marie how to make wax models and how to run a business. During the French Revolution, Marie and Curtius made wax models of the royal family, of people who had been guillotined, and of prisoners and revolutionaries. Marie took impressions of people’s heads shortly after they were cut off—quite a gruesome job.

When Curtius died, he left his waxworks and other property to Marie. She married François Tussaud, but her marriage settlement ensured that she kept control of her own property—that was unusual in France, as in England. It was a good move, since her husband turned out to be irresponsible with money. In 1802 she moved her exhibition to England. Her husband stayed in France, and she eventually gave him her French property, but she kept the waxworks and her income from it.

After some difficult years and an unprofitable partnership with an English businessman, Madame Tussaud developed her exhibition into a popular traveling show. In 1833 she set up a permanent exhibit in London. Her sons took it over—she transferred it into their names to keep her husband from getting it.  The waxworks survived the centuries and Madame Tussaud’s is still one of the most popular attractions in London, with related wax museums around the world.

In What Regency Women Did for Us, Knowles includes other women with unusual stories, such as Harriet Mellon, the penniless Irish peasant who became a wealthy banker and left a fortune to a Victorian woman philanthropist. Mary Parminter, another unusual Regency woman, took the Grand Tour of Europe (usually a men’s activity) with her cousins while they were unmarried, and climbed mountains. Mary stayed single, keeping control of her extensive fortune and using it to build a lovely chapel and provide homes for independent single women.

If you have been thinking that teaching and writing were the only occupations open to Georgian and Regency women, these two books will open your eyes. Many women pushed outside the boundaries of societal expectations and left lasting legacies. In both Mike Rendell’s Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era and Rachel Knowles’ What Regency Women Did For Us you will meet many such women and enjoy their exciting stories.

You can find Mike Rendell at Georgian Gentleman. Rendell has written books on other aspects of Georgian society, including Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.

You can find Rachel Knowles at Regency History. For an additional review of What Regency Women Did For Us, see “Women of Science, Women of Faith.” Rachel has also written a fun Regency novel, A Perfect Matchand is about to release a second book in the series, A Reason for Romance.

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