“Exploring 39 distinct topics . . . a tour de force”

A detailed review of the first two volumes of Mary Hardy and her World also contains observations on the others and on the Diary volumes. It appears in the Agricultural History Review for 2021, Part 2: volume 69.2, pages 299–302. It can be read online for those with access to academic journals. After three years (in 2024) it will be open access.

The journal is published twice a year by the British Agricultural History Society, which specialises in the history of agriculture, rural society and the rural economy in Britain, Ireland, Europe and North America.

The essential message of the books

Dr Susanna Wade Martins, whose long career has been built around farming and rural history, captures the essence of what Mary Hardy and her World is about.

She concludes in her opening remarks that Volumes 1 and 2 “quickly dispel any notions that Georgian country life was remote, static and changeless”.

She goes on to refer to “Margaret Bird’s exhaustive and detailed work” on a manuscript which is of great value:

There are many reasons why the diaries are so valuable. They are a detailed daily record covering 36 years. They are written, not by one of the gentry or aristocracy, but are a factual account written by a busy woman and active member of a working family, covering the domestic, agricultural, manufacturing, shipping, political and religious concerns with which she was fully involved.

Use of “up-to-date secondary literature”

Like other reviewers Dr Wade Martins is struck by the range and impact of the secondary sources used by the author. In these companion volumes:

The evidence from the diary is painstakingly put in the context of both the place and the time in meticulous detail, making extensive use of the most up-to-date secondary literature, occasionally challenging long-held views.

Family life: children and maidservants

In Volume 1 the reviewer is struck by the fresh insights brought to bear on “an under-researched topic” over the rearing of children: “the subject of childbirth, the role of the ‘gossip’ or a supportive friend during labour, and the choice and hiring of wet nurses”.

Margaret Bird has also analysed the little-researched topic of the schools chosen by the middling sort.

Susanna Wade Martins finds the coverage of maidservants of particular interest. Only two were hired at any one time, despite the huge demands placed on them in the busy household.

This heavy workload, coupled with Mary Hardy’s exacting standards and her husband’s short temper, may help explain the high turnover of servants, with over a third leaving before their yearly contract ended. It is clear from the diary that Mary often worked alongside her maids.

“An entirely different picture of the female role”

After a long discussion of the value of the material and insights in Volume 2 Dr Wade Martins reflects on what the two volumes tell us:

These two volumes, amounting to nearly 2000 pages, are the first half of a mighty four-volume work and demonstrate how the diaries reveal an entirely different picture of the female role in business and society to that portrayed in the more usual journals of leisured ladies studied by Amanda Vickery and others . . .

One of the many values of the diaries which Margaret Bird brings to our attention is the contrast between the working wife and genteel society.

Mary and her husband worked as a team and she was not averse to hard and sometimes menial work, supporting the family enterprise, even when it meant taking over the running in an emergency of one of the family’s tied public houses, if necessary, taking her small children with her.

“A formidable, detailed, well-researched tour de force”

Susanna Wade Martins ends her careful book review:

Be in no doubt that Margaret Bird has produced a formidable, detailed, well-researched tour de force showing clearly what can be learnt about a little-studied branch of rural society . . .

Any problems with the density of the text in these beautifully produced volumes are greatly alleviated by the wealth of page-by-page illustrations and the marginal notes and references, which are easy to follow.

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Pre-publication article

Rowan Mantell highlights some intriguing features of Mary Hardy’s record:  250-year-old diary