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Reading women’s lives

One of the great errors made by those enthralled by technology is that, as even some true e-leaders have claimed, “everything will be on the web.” No one who’s rooted around in dusty old papers without celebrity value would make such a casual claim. But it was the Literary Review, a wonderful, polished London magazine that is not on the web in any way or shape, that made me want to test the great databases of digital content that publishers and governments have been amassed like the Pharaoh gathering grain before the seven years of famine.

A review of Wives and Daughters: Women and Children in the Georgian Country House, by Joanna Martin, clued me in on what is obviously a signficant area of research, and general history. I’ve heard from history teachers that they want more on women’s lives, and here it was laid out in gory detail. One of the subjects of this book left a “frank account of preparing metnally for a mastectomy which, like Fanny Burney’s, was conducted entirely without anaesthetic.”

I had no idea, about what surgery was really like in the 19th century or about the writers who specialize in women’s domestic and personal lives–Amanda Vickery is also mentioned by the reviewer as “analytical (and witty).” After all that I’ve heard about getting students to read primary sources, I wonder, first, whether this kind of fascinating material is readily available to them from the major databases and, second, whether they can really make head or tale of it. Don’t they–and we, most of us anyway–need the context, and guidance, provided by an author who really knows her stuff?

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