Want to read more about my PhD research? Find it below…
Project title: Women’s Curiosity and Collecting in Britain 1680-1820: The English Country House as a Space of Female Enlightenment
My research focusses on the collecting practices and educational activities of elite women within the eighteenth century British country house, and how they can be read as a reflection of and a stimulant to the Enlightenment.
I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.
So said Jane Austen in her 1817 novel Persuasion, a view emphasised in all her novels that women could be writers of their own fate and indulge their desires for education through activities like reading. Her heroines could often be found in the British country house, where women had access to whole treasure troves of art, furniture and other objects. These objects are frequently detailed as being possessions of elite gentlemen, the Fitzwilliam Darcys, George Knightleys and Edmund Bertrams of real country house histories. Behind this, however, collecting could often be directed by women as a means to follow their own interests, desires for education and personal fulfilment. Account books, receipts and ledgers don’t tend to detail this female involvement, but the use of family papers can reveal this kind of input and detail the way women interacted with Enlightenment ideas in the country house.
The origins of my project lie in the public-facing aspects of the country house as a heritage site, which often do little to reveal female involvement and how women engaged with the space around them. I aim to move beyond the idea of the eighteenth century country house and their collections as the preserve of cultured, learned and important men and their adventures across continental Europe during the Grand Tour. Since the turn of the twenty-first century in particular, work focussing on the female impact within the country house has been gathering pace, as has women, Enlightenment and material culture. I hope to build upon this work in current historical thought through demonstrating that, despite often having to work within a different framework to men, that the country house could offer the perfect place for women to develop their thoughts, interests and understandings of the world within the age of Enlightenment.
My research questions focus on the purpose of elite women’s collections, their collecting methodologies, how they presented and displayed their collections, and finally, how they kept their records and wrote about their collections. By looking at object biographies and engaging with museum collections, it will highlight how curatorship of these collections and movement of objects can obscure and reveal particular stories and provenances. Country houses are visited by thousands each year and I hope that the case studies I use will allow for the relevant institutions and historic houses to further engage with women’s history and the cross-cultural and intellectual exchange these women fostered through collecting in the curating of their exhibitions and displays.
Supervision: Dr Amanda Capern (University of Hull), Prof Jessica Malay (University of Huddersfield), Dr Briony McDonagh (University of Hull)