Genteel women

Empire and domestic material culture, 1840–1910

Author: Dianne Lawrence

Missing familiar faces, practices and places is a commonplace amongst all who relocate, an inevitable response as old as human migration itself. During the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, colonial expansion prompted increasing numbers of genteel women to establish their family homes in far-flung corners of the world. This book explores ways in which the women's values, expressed through their personal and household possessions, dress, living rooms, gardens and food, were instrumental in constructing various forms of genteel society in alien settings. The book examines the transfer and adaptation of British female gentility across the British Empire, including Africa, New Zealand and India. In so doing, it offers a revised reading of the behaviour, motivations and practices of female elites, thereby calling into doubt the oft-stated notion that such women were a constraining element in new societies. The central focus is upon the physical and the social (and also racial) environments of settlers and their colonial territories. The creation of the living room was a critical space on the basis of which a woman would be judged as to whether she had succeeded in creating a respectable, refined and genteel household. The book also highlights that food and the repetitive nature of its sourcing, preparation and presentation generated a multitude of ways for signalling genteel distinction. Scrutinising the practices of female gentility also highlights how the culture's innate sensibility to social conditions made it such a controlling device in colonial society.

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