Forgotten Women in Country Houses: Retelling Relatable Stories

Charlotte Furness

I first thought about the concept of forgotten women in history about eleven years ago.

I was undertaking an internship at Lamport Hall and as an intern I had access to the rooms of the Hall at any time of day without having to negotiate ropes, and other visitors. I had the opportunity to really study the space in a level of detail that general visitors do not have. I noticed that each room was presented in a particular way – dining rooms, libraries and bedrooms were all furnished in the way you’d expect. However all of these rooms had something in common - paintings of unknown people on their walls. A portrait is not a photograph and so we do know that some portraits were studies of the human form by artists and their students, meaning they were imagined men or women. However in a county house setting, portraits usually represented former owners. It was common practice for aristocratic families to commission portraits of themselves - indeed the finished portraits were signs of wealth, influence and lineage. So, who were the people in the unnamed portraits? What had happened to create a disconnect in the story from the time of painting to the time that I was viewing it? I have tried a number of times to research unnamed portraits, in particular at Lamport Hall, but the archives rarely yield results, especially as I was focusing more on the portraits of women. Most commonly, it is the portraits of women which go nameless as they tend to be sold or given away a number of times. Paintings of men however were more likely to be retained by a family, due to the prestige associated with hanging a portrait of an ‘historically significant’ figure, in this case a previous owner. Through my books, I aim to uncover women’s stories like those in unnamed portraits and share them with readers and history enthusiasts. I do this for two reasons: to ensure they don’t get forgotten, or to rediscover them and share them again.
Forgotten Women in Country Houses: Retelling Relatable Stories
Charlottes' book cover

The Historians Magazine

One of the fastest growing Independent history magazines in the UK, championing emerging historians.

It’s easy to assume that women of the country house lived lives of luxury

It’s easy to assume that women of the country house lived lives of luxury, having governesses to look after the children, housekeepers to look after the house, and cooks to make the meals. There is a misconception that many women of the country house spent their time attending parties, gambling, and ignoring the poor. To some extent that was true - wealth did protect them from issues such as poverty and disease, but it did not mean they lived a life without struggle and tragedy. In my first book Lady of the House I tell the story of Mary Isham from Lamport Hall, one of the women whose portrait I’d looked at many times during my internship. Born in 1788, Mary was an Irish heiress who came to live in Northamptonshire with her husband. A force to be reckoned with, her husband was nicknamed ‘the silent baronet’ because it was Mary who managed most aspects of the estate, including vast rebuilding schemes throughout the 19th century. However, she lost her daughter age 14 to smallpox, her husband died in 1845, and a year later her eldest son died by suicide, after being thrust into the role of baronet and head of the family much earlier than expected. Lady Elizabeth Manners, 5th Duchess of Belvoir Castle gave birth to ten children, only 7 of whom survived into adulthood, and a fire at Belvoir in 1816 not only risked the lives of 5 of her children, but also destroyed almost twenty years of building and development work which she had been undertaking. Repairs cost around £120,000, which translates to over £11.7 million today. Elizabeth Isham of Lamport Hall, featured in my second book Unmarried Women of the Country Estate, lived throughout the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. She was a devoutly religious woman who chose not to marry and instead dedicated her life to the service of God. Despite living almost four hundred years ago, she suffered with many of the same issues that women today face. She often battled against low mental health, had thoughts of suicide following the death of her sister, and fought against the judgement of others when she chose not to marry. She wrote an autobiography of her life - one of the most remarkable 17th century texts written by a woman today - and yet only a handful of women know her name. Through my writing I want to share the stories of women throughout history, so that they don’t become nameless portraits on a wall. The women of the country house lived just as complex, complicated and emotionally challenging lives as we do today and I look forward to spending more time exploring more stories to share with readers in the future.
Ancestry UK
Forgotten Women in Country Houses: Retelling Relatable Stories

Charlotte Furness

Charlotte wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History.
great expo
170 Years on: The Great Exhibition of 1851
Korea: The Hot Proxy War
A Tomato Salad: Authenticity, Legitimacy and Creating the Memory of Women in the Country Music Industry