How to Be a Victorian – Matthieu Schiff

How to Be a Victorian

Goodman, Ruth. How to Be a Victorian (London: Penguin Books, 2014). 458 p.

To think of the Victorian era often means to think in extremes. Historical accounts of a period when the British Empire was progressing tremendously, both territorially and technologically, are of course absolutely correct in their reporting of great disparities existing between the foot and the summit of the social ladder, between the grandeur to be found amongst the affluent classes and the appalling misery pervading the lives of the least fortunate. However, to stare for too long at the ornate frame, or at the frayed, rustic doily beneath it, is to take the risk of missing the proverbial big picture which contains myriad details that are as many reminders of the truly composite nature of nineteenth century England.

In How to Be a Victorian, Ruth Goodman introduces the reader to a world in which classification into castes is only second to the little things that, despite being commonly deemed trivial, are shared by all men and women throughout the day, and can tell as much about their existences and their epoch as the big political events and economic upheavals that took place around them. The author wants, as she puts it in the opening sentence of this down-to-earth yet enriching book, “to explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history”. There are several factors that make Goodman’s study of the daily life of the Victorian masses especially convincing.

At a structural level, while there is no actual story to be found among the pages of this hefty work, her investigation of the habits of the age is organised chronologically over the duration of a day. The early chapters take place as the sun rises and the book takes its reader through every successive phase. You wake up in living quarters that are frosty for the better part of the year, regardless of your income: the miasma—or vapour—theory, coupled with a popular belief in the importance of cutaneous respiration that would last for most of the century, make for very well aerated dwellings. This includes bedrooms where stand-up washing, while potentially efficient and thorough, reminds us that showers and bathrooms are relatively recent luxuries, and kitchens where the fire range (open at first, then progressively replaced by the Kitchener Range—not related to the war hero—that keeps both flames and sootiness in check) is not roaring yet. You will then turn to your breakfast table where nutritious beer has yet to be entirely replaced by the more respectable cup of tea as the de facto companion to bread or porridge; then off to work in public transportation that witnesses, for instance, the transition from horse-drawn omnibuses (surprisingly hazardous due to equine unpredictability) to steam powered railway carriages (fixed timetables or clear indication of where the trains are going being works in progress) or the birth of underground transportation in the 1860s (also steam powered for the following three decades). Each page thus teems with surprising details and the hours go by in a glimpse as the focus jumps from one life to another, paying equal attention to matters of health, nutrition, fashion, working conditions, inventions and even educational ventures. By the time your journey reaches sunset, it is hard to think of a single subject that has not been discussed!

Another element that lends credibility to Ruth Goodman’s literary display of nineteenth century customs is the fact that she has experienced many of them herself in a way that is not at all bookish. An historian with a knack for personal experimentation, she has starred in two BBC2 series, namely Victorian Farm[1] and Victorian Pharmacy[2], in which every aspect of her life was shaped by direct recreation of Victorian conditions.

Free from embellishment or exaggeration, her description of everyday Victorian tasks has a ring of truth that results from many hours spent undertaking them with her own hands. When she defines nineteenth century laundry day as “perhaps the job most loathed by Victorian womanhood”, one that “involved hard physical toil and enormous disruption to the usual routine”, it is only after having manipulated the washing dolly herself, a task that quite a few modern men who think themselves strong would be reluctant to do. When she mentions how much harder keeping the house tidy was, it is only after having scoured pans with brick dust herself. When she indicates that getting dressed and ready for the day is much less of a chore in the twenty-first century, she knows so because she has spent weeks wearing corsets and countless layers of Victorian clothing. The efficiency of early calisthenics? Determined through conscientious stretching of her own. When she states that the use of pharmaceutical products was left to the discretion of the woman of the house in almost all cases, and that “morphine, opium, cocaine, laudanum, heroin, chloroform, ether, aspirin and cannabis were all purchasable, without any form of medical supervision, and for a very few pence, at any pharmacist’s shop”, it is after—well, no, not the Mary-Ann Cotton[3] experience! Admittedly, there may have been a thing or two that she was not at liberty to try for herself. Still, whenever it was both legal and possible, habits were truthfully replicated in order to add physical experience to reported knowledge, and this gives How to Be a Victorian an authentic quality that is, understandably, seldom found in works discussing centuries past.

Through the observation of minute details the book also manages to provide a comprehensive rendering of a constantly evolving age, and to show the different ways in which its transformation could occur. Change seemed at times arbitrary, as could for instance be seen in the advent of different trends on an almost yearly basis: garments diversified (and since it was common for servants to receive hand-me-downs, those who could afford new outfits had to keep up with innovations in order not to look like domestics themselves), and hairstyles and beard trims fluctuated between extravagance and moderation. Innovation was, of course, also driven by monetary aims, an example of this being perfumes originally made from a couple of rare plants that were transmogrified into elaborate chemical experiments creating fragrances from dozens of more readily available sources. At other times, change was more objectively a step in the right direction. During the latter part of the century, after decades of experiments such as dames’ schools or child monitors, education of the very young became compulsory, and eventually free. Food products, also, became regulated, starting with the Food and Drugs Act of 1860 before which it was not uncommon for chalk to be added to bread or milk as a whitener. And so forth.

Page after page, small objects somehow manage to turn swiftly into immense knowledge in this publication that can only be heartily recommended to anyone wishing to discover Victorian England at a truly human level.

[1] Eliott, Stuart, director, and David Upshal, producer. Victorian Farm. Lion Television and All3media. BBC Two, 2009.

[2] Braben, Cassie and David Upshal, producers. Victorian Pharmacy. Lion Television. BBC Two, 2010.

[3] British actress Joanne Froggatt recently played this famous Victorian poisoner in a two-part mini-series directed by Brian Percival (ITV/Centurion Productions, 2016).

Matthieu Schiff

Master 2 Anglais


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