Alice Barnham the City Wife

Forthcoming review

Lena Cowen Orlin, Locating Privacy in Tudor London (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Lena Cowen Orlin’s new book is a multifaceted treat. At its heart is the excavation of a forgotten Tudor woman, Alice Barnham.  Between four chapters on the archival traces of Barnham and her family are four further chapters, that use Barnham’s life to interrogate some key foci of early modern architectural history.  And taken as a whole, the book aims to provide a challenge to some slightly lazy données that we’ve come to accept about privacy in early modern England.

The catalyst for Orlin’s investigation is the ‘search for Lady Ingram’, the female figure apparently at the centre of one of England’s earliest group portraits, dated 1557, now in the Berger collection at the Denver Art Museum.   Faced with this iconic image, Orlin’s approach is typical.  Nothing is accepted at face value:  every critical assumption is challenged, and every possible line of enquiry pursued doggedly, and in exhaustive detail. By the end of the chapter, ‘Lady Ingram’ is obliterated, exposed as a seventeenth-century misidentification by someone at Boughton Monchelsea Place of a half-remembered family forebear.   In her place,  though, we have Alice Barnham, née Bradbridge, daughter of a Chichester mercer and mayor, wife of draper Francis Barnham, who rose to become Alderman and Sheriff of London, and mother of four Barnham sons.   She was also an early Protestant, a notable city wife with her own role to play in civic life, and in later years something of a philanthropist.  Orlin makes no attempt to deny that she prefers Barnham to  Ingram: ‘As an urban wife of the mid-sixteenth century, the historical Alice Barnham is immediately more remarkable than a mythical “Lady Ingram” could ever have been’ (p. 23). This is perhaps not such a surprising statement from a scholar whose work has memorably examined the middling classes caught up in the Arden of Faversham murder case (Private Matters and Public Culture in Post-Reformation England, Cornell University Press, 1994), and the physicality of the urban in the edited collection Material London, ca. 1600 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).   But by the time Orlin has finished her new portrait of Barnham’s life and milieu, one is bound to agree that the dense archival tapestry provided by London’s myriad archives is indeed ‘remarkable’.  Yet the remarkable quality comes not from anything extraordinary in her subject, but rather the opposite: ‘If Alice Barnham’s life cannot be said to have been ordinary, it may yet be termed in many ways representative’ (p. 12).

This understanding of Barnham as ‘in many ways representative’ allows Orlin to move beyond the biographical and to think more broadly about urban life as families like Barnham’s experienced it.  Her alternating chapters rethink ‘rebuildings’, ‘boundaries’, ‘galleries’ and ‘closets’ in early modern England, key concepts in recent architectural history (and beyond).   In each case, Orlin’s signature move is to question dominant tropes about her subject, and challenge them with an avalanche of material evidence: the closet may have been represented in one way, but the existence of these n closets argues to the contrary.  For Orlin, archival research is clearly a labour of love: she gives as a possible alternative title, ‘The Pleasures of Finding Things Out’.   The exploration necessarily goes beyond the papers of the National Archives, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Corporation of London Records Office, and the Drapers’ Company of London.   For Orlin’s abiding interest is in the material life lived by Barnham and her peers—the ways in which the physical shape of the domestic shaped and organized their lives.   The opening footnote of chapter 2 (a reconsideration  of the so-called ‘Great Building’) gives some idea of the thoroughness of the research: following a dutiful name-check of the eighteen academic studies which have served as ‘important sources for this chapter’ (p. 66), Orlin lists the country ‘houses I have visited’ to gather evidence—over two hundred of them.  These are the really important sources; they provide Orlin with the ammunition required to take on some of the sacred cows of sub-disciplines that are not strictly her field, and her readers with the necessary confidence in her ability to do so.

Some may find it odd that a noted literary scholar—Orlin teaches in the Department of English  at Georgetown University, and is the executive director of the Shakespeare Association of America—has undertaken what is, to all intents and purposes, ‘a records-based study’, as she admits (p. 15).   While her previous monograph had the play Arden of Faversham as a literary referent, Locating Privacy has no comparable ‘pay-off’ reading of  Alice Barnham The City Wife to justify its literary credentials.  In her introduction, Orlin is remarkably honest about the limitations of her training, a theoretically-informed close reading: ‘while theory has informed my approach, showing me how to read closely and also, often, against the grains of my documents, I find that they lead me to quarrel with some of theory’s most familiar paradigms, especially about gender and power’ (p. 15).  This quarrel is usually to the book’s advantage.  Perhaps the least successful section is what Orlin dubs ‘the argument’ (p. 9), in which she takes on some major scholars’ influential notions of what constitutes privacy in the early modern period (notably Philippe Ariès, but also, from architectural history, W.G. Hoskins, and Mark Girouard).  While received wisdom suggests that ‘personal privacy is something desirable and something progressive’ (p.10), Orlin counters that instead ‘privacy inspired an uneasy mixture of desire and distrust’ (p. 11).   Her evidence suggests she is right to assert this.  But when the book occasionally reaches, as here, towards the abstract or theoretical, much of its force is dissipated.    It is at its best when detailing with the muddled reality of Tudor life, in which privacy has, as Orlin puts it, ‘a history of competing priorities, of overriding suspicions, of social prohibitions, and of compulsory betrayals’ (p. 324).

Locating Privacy in Tudor London is a dense, deeply informed, and wonderfully entertaining study.  Oxford University Press have done a wonderful job with its presentation, providing over forty photographic illustrations, including several portraits.  Orlin’s book is indeed ‘a records-based study’ in every sense, whose power derives from the depth of its archival research, but one where the records have been studied by a gifted, and wonderfully clear-eyed reader.

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