Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mistress of the Manor-what did she do all day?


By Maria Grace


Period dramas have left many of us with the notion that ladies of the landed gentry in the Regency era had little to do but dress in lovely gowns, embroider and gossip.  Reality could not be farther from this image. In general, both masters and mistresses of the house did a great deal of work around the estate, often working alongside the servants in the efforts to get everything done.
Labors tended to be divided along gender lines. So much so that single men sought female relatives to manage their households. Bachelors looked to sister or nieces while widowers often called upon daughters or the dead wife’s kin.  So, even if a woman did not marry, there was a very strong possibility she might take on the responsibilities of a household sometime in her lifetime.  Gentlemen tended to respect the household mistress’ authority; her contributions to the home had worth equal to his.

Responsibilities of the Mistress

The role of an estate’s mistress was the equivalent of, depending on the size of the estate, managing a small hotel to being the CEO of a major corporation. She oversaw the finances, food service, hiring and training of the staff, procurement, charitable contributions of the ‘company’ as well as the interior design of the ‘corporate headquarters.’ Depending on her intelligence, she might also assist her husband with overall estate business. While accomplishing all this, she was also expected to raise her children and cared for sick family members Talk about a working mother.

Children

The mistress’ responsibilities to her children are perhaps the most obvious.  First, she was expected to provide them in the first place.  Once they were born, it was on her shoulders to hire the nursery maids and governess, if the estate could afford them. If not, she would care for them herself. She was responsible for their education, whether she conducted it herself or hired others to teach them.

As her daughters grew older, it was her role to insure they acquired the necessary accomplishments that would be expected of them, including, interestingly enough, sufficient understanding of mathematics to manage household ledgers. She would also tutor them in the skills necessary to manage a household of their own.

Finances

Managing the household budget and accounts made up a large part of the mistress’ efforts.  Numerous domestic manuals, including Mrs. Rundell’s, "A New System of Domestic Cookery", were available to assist women in the process.  Mrs. Rundell warned 'the welfare and good management of the house' depended on their careful surveillance. Accounts should be regularly kept and 'not the smallest article' omitted. That included weighing meat, sugar and similar commodities when they came from the retailer and comparing them with the charge. So, the mistress also served as the CFO of her domestic organization.
She might earn some additional money from managing the dairy and poultry, which was almost exclusively a female domain. Selling eggs, milk and surplus fowl could bring a tidy sum into the household, if carefully managed. Of course, doing so also meant more that required her attention.

Supplying the Manor

All manner of supplies for the home were handled by the mistress.  What could not be made in house was purchased.  What could be made was. Planning for and managing the creation of necessary products could be a huge year-round endeavor.

All manner of foodstuffs and herbs were raised and preserved using recipes and instructions passed down from their mothers and grandmothers. To neglect this process was to risk the family going without during the winter when it was often difficult to purchase supplies.

Beyond this, the mistress of an estate oversaw the making, mending and cleaning of the family's clothes. Clothing for the servants might also be included in her purview. Soap for laundry and household use required animal fat and wood ashes to be saved and stored until needed. Water from boiling rice and potatoes was saved for starching clothes. Animal and even human urine (yikes!) was also saved for wash day.

Servants

Although men were legally responsible for hiring and firing servants, the mistress oversaw the engaging, instructing and supervising of domestic servants.  Close control and supervision could be necessary. Many records of the era note inefficient and dishonest servants were common place.  Not only did the mistress manage the servants, she was also in a position to care for their needs. She typically kept herself informed about their families, illnesses and needs and provided for their care.

Community

The responsibilities of a landowner’s wife extend beyond the home into the community at large, both to those who were her social equals and to those below her in social rank.
To those on her level, she would be expected to host dinners and social gatherings. Regular calls would be normal among her social circle.
To her social inferiors, she owed another kind of duty. In rural areas where no doctor was available, she might be called upon for her advice in treating the sick and injured. The village children needed to be educated—she was the one to organize the dame school to teach them to read and write. At Christmas time, she would provide gifts of baby clothes, blankets, shawls, coats, stockings and flannel petticoats to the villagers.
The mistress of the estate also was expected to care for the poor. She might meet with the local clergy man to find out their needs and determine how to meet them.  It was her role to visit them, deliver food, give advice, and listen to their complaints. Since the indigent had no other support system the gracious provision of the estates mistress provided a needed safety net.

So much for covering screens and eating biscuits. The Regency estate’s mistress was no lady of leisure, she was a full time working mother, business partner to her husband, and ideally, a leader in her community.

References

Davidoff, Leonore & Hall, Catherine.  Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850. Routledge (2002)
Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and Scullions, Life Below Stairs in Georgian England . Sutton Publishing (2004)
Le Faye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)
Sullivan, Margaret C.  The Jane Austen Handbook .Quirk Books (2007)
Vickery, Amanda.  The Gentleman's Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)


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Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.



16 comments:

  1. I had no idea...Thank you for sharing!

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  2. All very true and a good reminder of how important big country estates were - and town houses too. They employed lots of people, and needed good efficient management. I think your comparison to modern hotel managers or even company CEOs in a very good one.

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    1. I recently read something about this being one of the things that made France and England very different and probably avoided something like the French Revolution happening there. The landed gentry were much more involved in the lives and welfare of the lower classes and in that sense the divide was not as great between them.

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  3. Thank you for that Maria. It's very different from the image we have. I'd like to ask whether this interaction between the upperand lower orders persisted into the Victorian era, and if so for how long? The perception I have is that the Regency period was socially relatively liberal compared to the Victorian society that followed.

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    1. That is a good question. I am not a Victorian scholar, but a few things I have read suggest that the lines between the classes were more strictly defined in the Victorian era.

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  4. I was so glad to read this article, Maria Grace! Too often, gentlewomen are portrayed in novels and movies as fairly useless creatures-it's nice to see the reality discussed.

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    1. I can't think of a single movie where I've seen gentlewomen portrayed as busy with useful tasks.

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  5. Very interesting. I had an idea, but never thought of the jobs in total.

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    1. I think we would be surprised if we sat down and thought about all the things we managed during the day, too. It really is amazing just how much has to be done day to day.

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  6. Running a household was quite an undertaking.

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  7. A very interesting and illuminating post, thank you. I particularly like the way you drew a parrall with the modern hotelier and CEO.

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  8. I knew it was an undertaking....especially the first time I toured an estate home...The Vanderbilt Estate in North Carolina. I know this is the wrong time era but after the tour, I got a better idea of what it would be like to manage such an estate.

    Enjoyed the article...

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  9. Thank you very much for such interesting information. I just has been wondering recently about ladies' work.
    And some article made me think of my home duties.

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