This is an engaging and informative survey of daily and home life for the middle classes in Victorian England. It is organized by rooms of the house, but the author uses each room as a segue to discuss various aspects of Victorian life: the nursery leads us to childrearing and the education of girls; the scullery, to the lives and expectations of servants; the morning room, to the etiquette of paying calls. The author pulls from diaries, letters, memoirs, official records and even novels to paint a detailed portrait of life at the time: from the physical details of lighting and plumbing and the many, many household items, to family and social life and expectations.
It is a fascinating portrait, and left me glad not to live in Victorian England, for all kinds of reasons. Industrialization made London so dirty that merely walking outside could leave soot in your clothes and hair, while arsenic was included in dyes used in clothing and wallpaper. Constant housework was required of anyone without several servants: not only because of the dirt, not only because of the many household implements and fabrics that all required special and often time-consuming care, not only because a growing understanding of germ theory linked cleanliness strongly to morality and social worth, but because society piled even more expectations onto that in order to keep women busy. Doorsteps were supposed to be whitened every morning, for instance, though this did nothing for cleanliness. Meanwhile women wore close to 40 pounds of often voluminous clothing (today’s clothing weighs 2 pounds or less); between that and the housework and expectations of always serving others, some appear to have become invalids less because they were really sick and more to get a rest and have time to themselves. (With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Florence Nightengale, among the most productive women of the period, was an invalid.) The power structure, in which husbands ruled their wives and wives ruled their servants through the husband’s borrowed authority, was considered divinely ordained, and wives were expected to keep from their husbands all details of running the household, even so far as the news that their baby was sick.
But there’s a lot more than gloom to provide food for thought. The Victorians ate an enormous variety of meats, many of which have disappeared from modern menus. Waste was virtually unknown; household items were repurposed or sold to, for instance, visiting rag-and-bones men, until all that remained to be simply carted away was ashes from the fires. Mail was extraordinarily quick: when a husband in a Victorian novel sends his wife a note from the office telling her when to expect him for dinner, it’s actually going through the post. And while many aspects of Victorian life seemed to revolve around showing off one’s means in carefully prescribed ways – “living up to one’s income” was considered a moral virtue, rather than, say, being generous with it – some aspects were much less extravagant than today. Weddings were simple affairs, and more importance seems to have been attached to sending pieces of wedding cake to connections and paying them calls in one’s wedding attire than to the ceremony itself. Meanwhile, for all the talk about the drabness of mourning clothes, I wonder if this socially prescribed ritual of grief wasn’t healthier than today’s discomfort with the subject of death.
There is a lot in this book, and as the author admits, it’s an overview. It barely touches on the upper or lower classes, it primarily focuses on London, and the focus on home life means it discusses women’s lives much more than men’s. Some topics, like Victorian medicine, are breezed through very quickly, while others, such as sex, aren’t touched at all (though marriage and childbearing are). The organization into rooms is sometimes stretching it: the drawing room and parlor are apparently synonyms, but get separate chapters to discuss different aspects of social life. For that reason, it may make a frustrating reference book. But as an engaging historical work and a window into another time, I found it to be excellent.