Karen Harvey. The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 256 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-953384-8.
Reviewed by Mark Rothery (University of Northampton)
Published on H-Histsex (August, 2013)
Commissioned by Timothy W. Jones
Connecting Public and Private: Men and the Home in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Since the idea first emerged among feminist histories in the 1960s, “Separate Spheres” has been explored through a giddying array of different approaches and sources. This ideology, which littered the pages of didactic advice literature for the middling sorts, served both to glorify femininity as the fount of domestic virtue and to remove women from an increasingly male-dominated public sphere, another phase in the historic oppression of women. Most would now agree that such interpretations oversimplified women’s past lives and subsequent research based on manuscript evidence showed us that the apparently stark polarities of home-work and private-public reveal little about the more nuanced realities of everyday life. The debate has, in effect, rightly been put to rest, until recently. Now historians of masculinity have rejuvenated this debate with fresh insights and new interpretations. This began some years ago with John Tosh’s now classic study of middle-class men and domesticity, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (1999), but has more recently gained momentum in an expanding field of research. Just as women were not limited to the private sphere, then men were no interlopers in the private world of home and family. Quite the reverse in fact, their social and gender identities were partly defined by the authority they constructed and practiced as fathers and husbands and by their role in running and maintaining the household.
Karen Harvey’s new book, The Little Republic, is among the most useful and important studies to emerge from this new field of enquiry. Harvey builds on Tosh’s findings for the nineteenth century by taking us back into an earlier period and showing us that the homes of the middling sort in this period were also “men’s places.” She refutes the idea that domestic spaces and authority were less important for manly status after the Restoration and that the household held less imagined significance for the broader social and political order. Rather, home and hearth continued to signify in theory and practice “economic and political functions ... in which men and masculinity were central” (p. 13). Household life was gendered but this did not mean that men played no role at all. Thus Harvey accepts a patriarchal model of household and society, but one that is sensitive to the realities of everyday life.
Following a useful summary of the existing literature on the middling sort, domesticity, and masculinities, and a cogent presentation of her very convincing argument in the introduction, Harvey explores the subject through five masterfully written and meticulously researched chapters. The first, and most fundamental for the remainder of the narrative, focuses on published theories of “oeconomy.” This was a system of management of the economic and moral resources of the household for the maintenance of good order that set out the expected roles of men and women. Rather than polarizing these roles though, Harvey finds that oeconomic theory was a discourse within which the differences and interconnections of gendered roles could be articulated in “household unity” (p. 27). Management roles were not simply gendered in terms of task. Difference was really expressed in terms of “levels of engagement” with these tasks. While women engaged in “day to day” domestic tasks at the “local” level, men were responsible for overall management of the household at the “global” level. But the theory of oeconomy went much further than this and provided a means by which middling sorts of men could claim status and citizenship in the wider world since a well-ordered household was a “training ground for skills that were at the heart of public manly behaviour” (p. 37). Thus the man “who could manage his household could command kingdoms” (p. 40). Such arguments illustrate how skillfully Harvey weaves the private and public into a more coherent whole than we have formerly been used to. This is underlined by the following chapters that reveal, through manuscript sources, how such theories were “put into practice” in terms of men’s roles in “keeping house” and the way that house and home contributed to men’s social and gender identities. Here we gain some fascinating insights into the private world of middling men, their wives, and their families, how they thought, felt, and acted.
There are several clever innovations in this book that mark it out from other lesser contributions to the field and reflect the intelligent consideration (and hard work) that lies behind it. Harvey makes use of both manuscript and published source material to great effect. Too many studies of masculinities have been based on material of one kind or the other and the majority of those concerned with eighteenth-century men have privileged published over manuscript sources. Harvey is equally at home with advice books, published autobiographies, parish records or the more personal and esoteric manuscript accounts, commonplace books, and other family writings. More than this though, she explores the important connections between these private and public sources, thoughts that should be considered by anyone intending to make their own contribution to this area. Public discourse, she suggests, both drew on and influenced private thoughts. Published advice formed a “flexible discourse” helping to shape material practice. This, as Harvey rightly asserts, is a “cultural history of social practice” (p. 14), and one that serves to question those who have claimed a privileged access to the history of masculinity from either approach. This is a history of everyday and mundane activities rather than of the “drama” of family life but is also a study of the broader political importance of men’s household management as expressed through the theory and practice of oeconomy. Perhaps most important, this study, like many recent contributions to the field, is as much about women and the family as it is about men, a welcome innovation and one of substantial political as well as academic import.
The Little Republic is a fine example of how social and cultural history should be written. Harvey not only breaks down the imagined walls between “home” and “the world” but also illustrates new approaches for historians who have, until very recently, been mining history with different tools and with different aims in mind. This book furnishes us with a wealth of historical insights into gender, the family, consumption, and the wider history of the middling sorts. Certainly in terms of masculinities, this is another in a series of recent studies that have emphasized continuities rather than change between the early modern and modern periods. No doubt it will stimulate new avenues of research as well as significant debates. Perhaps the most pressing from this reviewer’s perspective is the level at which other social groups shared in this manly culture of domesticity. How did management of the country house, for instance, shape different ideals and practices of masculinity among landed elites and to what extent were the masculine values found by Harvey shared across the social spectrum?
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Mark Rothery. Review of Harvey, Karen, The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain.
H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews.
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