History, Non-Fiction

How to Be a Victorian

Cover image for How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodmanby Ruth Goodman

ISBN 978-1-63149-113-9

“My own historical laundry experiences have led me to see the powered washing machine as one of the greatest bulwarks of women’s liberation, an invention that can sit alongside contraception and the vote in the direct impact it has had on changing women’s lives.”

Formatted as a dawn-to-dusk guide, How to Be a Victorian thus begins with the experience of getting up, washing, and dressing, before progressing through the day, addressing everything from food, to clothing, to employment and education. I was pleased to discover that it covers not just the upper classes, but the broad swathe of society, with much more focus on the average person. You can find out what kind of underwear Queen Victoria wore, but also what would have been handed out in the clothing allotment of a poorhouse. Ruth Goodman is also attentive to the length of the Victorian period, and thus how every answer must be qualified by mentioning that changes that occurred between 1837 and 1901, as well as how much depends on the gender of the person under discussion.

How to Be a Victorian is concerned with the minute details of everyday life, and thus makes a great read for those who are interested in the more mundane and quotidian aspects of history. However, it would also be a great resource as a jumping off point for someone intending to write historical fiction set in the period. To be sure there are more detailed and narrowly targeted accounts available of everything Goodman covers here, but what she succeeds at is using mundane details to provide a broad picture of Victorian life that is more accurate than the one given to us by popular culture. There is no hint of romanticism or idealization of the period; Goodman clearly sees the suffering and growing pains that existed alongside the Industrial Revolution and all the modern conveniences that it brought.

Each reader will undoubtedly find some sections more interesting than others. For myself, I got a bit bogged down in the long section dedicated to clothes, which were multilayered, changed according to age and gender, and evolved throughout the period. Indeed, the great quantity of clothing worn by Victorian people is even more astounding when you consider that it all had to be washed by hand. While there are sections on education and even the rise of leisure, it is notable that a very great deal of the book deals with food, clothes, and shelter; the daily business of life was, for most people, keeping cold and hunger at bay. Equally important was staving off illness, and Goodman dedicates ample time to Victorian beliefs about how disease was spread—the older miasma theory was still contending with the newer germ theory—and the many (and often terrifying) remedies used to try to beat it back. Notably however, the dawn-to-dusk day we are following is not a Sunday, and religious practice receives relatively short shrift.

Goodman draws on diaries and other primary documents in which people speak directly about their daily work and routines. She also provides the necessary historical context to understand what they have written, and how it would have been particular to their class or locale. In addition to historical research, Ruth Goodman can draw on her own experiences with simulated Victorian living, gained from working on British reality television programs, and consulting for historical productions. She is quick to acknowledge where this must differ from the actual historical experience, but can also give some idea of what it actually feels like to scythe a field while wearing or corset, or how effectual (or dangerous) traditional cleaning agents or medicines can be. Crucially, however, re-enactment is not her only method of historical inquiry.

The minute and mundane nature of the subject matter ensures that this title will appeal to a particular and perhaps limited audience. Nevertheless, Goodman’s work is well-structured and readable. I am eagerly looking forward to her upcoming treatment of the Tudor period, which will be tackled in a similar dawn-to-dusk fashion.

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6 thoughts on “How to Be a Victorian”

  1. Wow, this sounds like exactly my kind of book! I love when an author, fiction or nonfiction, takes the time to explore the details of daily life in a historical time period. Since it sounds like you generally enjoyed this book, I’d also recommend The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, which I think is probably a very similar kind of book 🙂

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