Those of us whose interest lies in the history of women in eighteenth-century Ireland begin most of our sentences with a lament at the paucity of the surviving sources. There are many reasons why this should be the case; delayed (very delayed) access to literacy has been effective in keeping women out of the historical record; family archiving practices tended to privilege financial and property-related records at the expense of women’s writings which were more likely to be destroyed. Records which reflect significant political events were also more likely to be selected for long-term preservation, either by family members or by archives institutions; women tended to be less involved in such activities due to their legal disadvantages.
One of the effects the poor survival rate of early-modern women’s records has had on historians has been to make them highly inventive in the manner in which they interrogate those documents which do survive to see if they reveal something previously overlooked. Diaries and letters which were once read for content only are re-read for rhetoric; personal account books are scoured for evidence of relationships between employers and servants; children’s scribbles are interpreted as evidence of the role their mothers played in their education.
An excellent example of how something which might appear mundane may be unique is to be found in a sadly tattered school exercise book with a name plate on the front proclaiming it to be ‘the Property of Miss Pearson 1773’. Immediately upon seeing this one asks oneself (does one not?) why the book’s owner needed to be identified in this manner if, as was usual at the time, Miss Pearson was to be educated at home. Continuing this line of thought, those of us who were brought up on Austen novels will call to mind that eighteenth-century social etiquette applied the courtesy title ‘Miss’ to the eldest unmarried daughter. The family biographical notes which have been added to this book in later years suggests that the Miss Pearson who owned it was Grace Pearson; Grace was not the eldest daughter of her father, that honour lay with her sister Sarah, but Sarah was still unmarried in 1773. The reasonable deduction from these two circumstances therefore is that Grace Pearson spent some time in an educational institution in 1773 and this is a book she used while there.
Admittedly this does not tell us anything previously unknown about women’s education – it is well known that the eighteenth century saw the beginning of the huge change in women’s history that came about as they increasingly were provided with formal, structured school-based education. Nevertheless this artefact may well be unique as a symbol of the start of this momentuous change, which was a real revolution worth commemorating.
This book’s role as a symbol doesn’t stop there. Although women in the eighteenth century were increasingly protesting against the restrictions under which they lived, most women, however well educated, lived contented lives as a wives and housekeepers and as mothers.
This life experience is to be seen playing out in the pages of Grace Pearson’s book; it was reused in later years as a farm account book, a domestic account book, a grandchild’s ‘headline copybook’ and sketchpad. All of Grace Pearson’s life is here. Not bad for a battered old maths book.