Public Lives: Women, Family and Society in Victorian BritainEleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003
ISBN: 0300102208; pp. 294
Kathryn GleadleUniversity College, Oxford
We are gratified that Kathryn Gleadle finds little to disagree with in our interpretation of the lives of Victorian middle-class women. We are also appreciative of her comments about the 'impressive' and 'compelling' nature of our research, and her observation that Public Lives 'is a book which will do much to inform and entertain'. We make no claims to be pioneers or to be groundbreaking in our analysis, contrary to Dr Gleadle's implications; our aims were more modest, and we explicitly state (p. 236) that it is our intention to contribute to the growing body of work which has developed over the last fifteen years or so which has questioned and criticised the 'separate spheres' model. Indeed, we acknowledge the work of those historians who have contributed to this debate, including Dr Gleadle's own work. It does come as some surprise to learn that these revisions now hold universal sway and have apparently supplanted separate spheres as the prevailing orthodoxy. This seems to contradict Kathryn Gleadle's own observations that much of the work is 'recent and emerging', or is contained in unpublished PhD theses.
We are a little taken aback to be told that we set up a straw woman by using a simplistic and unnuanced conception of separate spheres. We are at pains to point out that the concept of separate spheres had multiple meanings and diverse interpretations. Indeed we do not wish to consign the concept of separate spheres to the historical dustbin, and acknowledge that 'its organisation of sexual difference had an important role to play in structuring social institutions, social relations and material reality' (p. 3). Our key argument is that it was one of an array of discourses which shaped experience and identity, and that subjectivities are not constituted through one dominant discourse. However, rather than drawing a 'blunt distinction between the discursive and the material', we clearly state that 'identities are mutable and multiply formed through an array and interplay of practices, habits and experiences as well as discourses' (p. 2.). Indeed a central argument of the book is the mutually constitutive nature of the discursive and the material. We regret if this argument was not clear to Dr Gleadle. We accept that the construction of identity is a complex process and, while we question the view that explains the construction of meaning only in terms of binary oppositions, we acknowledge that conceptually this is an area which we only tentatively explore. However, we have tried in the body of the text to illustrate the different contexts and influences which led women to interpret discourses in particular ways.
Of course in any review there is the danger that selective quoting out of context may misrepresent the arguments, unintentionally or not. There are several examples in this review: we are informed somewhat testily that 'as historians we all know, surely, that Victorian middle-class women were not "debilitated and virtually housebound"' and yet by quoting only half of the sentence cited, Gleadle completely distorts its meaning.
We hope that the review and any debate which it generates will encourage others to read the full text of Public Lives and to make their own judgements.