Title: How to Be a Victorian
Author: Ruth Goodman
Publisher: Penguin Books
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We know what life was like for Victoria and Albert, but what was it like for a commoner? How did it feel to cook with coal and wash with tea leaves? Drink beer for breakfast and clean your teeth with cuttlefish? Dress in whalebone and feed opium to the baby? Catch the omnibus to work and wash laundry while wearing a corset?
How To Be A Victorian is a new approach to history, a journey back in time more intimate, personal, and physical than anything before. It is one told from the inside out–how our forebears interacted with the practicalities of their world — and it’s a history of those things that make up the day-to-day reality of life, matters so small and seemingly mundane that people scarcely mention them in their diaries or letters. Moving through the rhythm of the day, from waking up to the sound of a knocker-upper man poking a stick at your window, to retiring for nocturnal activities, when the door finally closes on twenty-four hours of life, this astonishing guide illuminates the overlapping worlds of health, sex, fashion, food, school, work, and play.
(Taken from Goodreads)
I haven’t published a Flash Review in some time, so I decided to write about the book that has been occupying my downtime lately. I’ve been planning a story based in Victorian London for about a year or so now, and How to Be a Victorian is one of the books I picked up for research. One of my biggest conundrums was conjuring a realistic sense of the city for the reader. I didn’t want to resort to academic texts, as I knew I would drown the prose in unnecessary detail. I wanted something more approachable, to make it convincing without making it a university dissertation. Ruth Goodman held the solution, packaging all the information I needed in an accessible and enjoyable format!
How to Be a Victorian is probably one of the most entertaining texts I have found on the subject of Victorian London. The information is laid out intuitively, following a commoner’s usual day. Each chapter aims to capture a moment of the day (waking up, going to work, etc.) for a fairly wide sample of people. Habits, culture, laws and fashion seamlessly come together to give a complete picture of what it meant to be British and Victorian.
Goodman has a natural ability for reporting in a concise and fun manner a large amount of information that would have been frankly boring otherwise. Her language never slips into the pretentious or the academic; she seems almost mischievously complicit in sharing the scandals of the time, as well as a handful of inappropriate anecdotes in later chapters. Furthermore, she does not always pause to contemplate the misery and strife of the era, as is common practice; rather, she reserves space for a spot of sunlight now and then, adding to the notion that each time and place has its pros and cons.
Every sentence is chock-full with information. The appeal probably comes from her varied list of sources. She does not just refer to dusty history tomes, but draws directly from original Victorian documentation, artefacts and literature. As a huge fan and reader of Victorian literature, I was happy to see it contextualised and packaged in this format.
What I liked the most about the book, however, is its account of a side of history that is still comparatively neglected: women. Drawing from her own experience in a Victorian farm as well as historical accounts, Goodman manages to create a fuller picture of the challenges women faced. From dressing up to personal hygiene and sexuality, Goodman shines a precious spotlight full of empathy and accuracy on the everyday Victorian woman. This (at times unabridged) feminist slant makes the book feel much more complete and balanced to me. A part of me believes this would not have been achieved in the same capacity by a male author.
The coloured-page insert in the middle of the book is helpful in visualising many of those things described in writing, such as a typical Victorian household or the rapidly changing taste in fashion. Its position is perhaps a little jarring, interrupting the book half-way through.
Would I recommend this book? Yes! It’s a lot of educational fun.
Other books like this: I personally enjoyed Liza Picard’s Victorian London. The focus is once again on everyday life and realities, but she takes a somewhat more focused approach than Goodman.
(Link redirects to Goodreads)