How to Be a Victorian

HowtobeVictorianDo you remember all the chatter a couple of months ago about the couple that decided to live like Victorians? The whole thing seemed silly to me (both the article and the backlash), but somewhere in the conversation someone mentioned Ruth Goodman, a historian who studies day-to-day life and sometimes immerses herself in the period with living history experiences of wearing the clothes and doing the work. Her book, How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life, sounded interesting—and it is!

In the book, Goodman walks readers through a day in the Victorian life, beginning with getting out of bed in a cold room where a bedside rug, no matter how small, is a necessity. And she moves through meals, the workday, leisure, and finally bedtime, noting at each stage how Victorians of different social classes, regions, and time periods within the era would have experienced those activities. It’s not an exhaustive history—Goodman notes up front that she follows her own interests—but she does avoid the idea that there was just one way of being Victorian.

The book is full of the types of facts that don’t get explained in books from the period (or even fiction set in the period). For instance, it never occurred to me that when valets brush men’s suits in movies that they’re actually practicing an form of dry cleaning. I assumed it was just lint brushing or smoothing out the fabric. But Goodman says that with the right brushes, she’s been able to clean fabric just as well as she might have if she’d sent them away to a dry cleaner. Regular Victorian laundry, on the other hand, sounds dreadful. Goodman goes into some detail about how complicated it was to do the family laundry and how much strength it took to carry the water and wet clothes.

Clothes are another important topic. Goodman discusses clothes for men and women, boys and girls. She writes a bit about her own experiences wearing Victorian garments and how they affected her posture and movement. She found some of the looser corsets reasonably comfortable and could understand why women would wear them. That’s one of the things I liked about this book. Goodman is respectful of Victorian choices without romanticizing the period or condemning them for their ignorance. For most the book, she simply describes how it was, sometimes including quotes from diaries of the period, and she shares some of her own experiences trying out bits and pieces of the Victorian life.

Goodman’s own experiences do not make up a huge portion of the book. This is not a stunt memoir about living like a Victorian for a year or anything like that. She refers to her experiences when they seem important in aiding readers’ understanding of what this aspect of Victorian life was like. This happens most often in the areas of clothing and chores. As someone previously unfamiliar with Goodman’s work, I would have appreciated a little more context about her experiences. I couldn’t get a sense of how often she did Victorian laundry or gardening or wore Victorian garments. It seemed like more than an afternoon, but was it a week or two? Did she try taking on all aspects of Victorian life or just try to understand one element at a time? Offering too much information of this type could have made the book about her and her experiences, however, and I’m glad she didn’t do that.

The book is well organized and readable, and although there are tons of facts and more information than I’ll ever remember, it’s not overwhelming. The structure keeps everything under control. This is a history of ordinary life, so there’s limited mention of famous personages and big events. They tend to come up when they touched ordinary life or when the notable people happened to offer good examples of the topic at hand. (For example, she opens the book with a description of what a morning in the home of Thomas and Jane Carlyle might have been like.) If this kind of history interests you, I certainly recommend this book. I learned a lot from it. Perhaps you will, too.

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32 Responses to How to Be a Victorian

  1. Annie says:

    I had a blast reading this book. The only downside is that I got on friends’ and family member’s nerves because I couldn’t stop reading bits of it to them. :)

    Last week, I learned that Goodman has another book coming out next February: How to Be a Tudor. Now I just need to talk the history librarian into ordering it for our library so that a) I can read it and b) make other people read it so I have someone to talk to about it.

    • Karen K. says:

      Thanks for letting us know! I’ve already added it to my to-read list on Goodreads!

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! If anyone had been around for me to share facts with, I’d probably have done the same. I’m looking forward to the Tudor book as well! I hope my library gets it. They got this one, and it has a hold list, so I suspect they’ll get the Tudor one, too.

  2. Karen K. says:

    I got this book as a Christmas present and I still haven’t gotten around to reading it — wish I’d had time during Nonfiction November. But it’s EXACTLY the sort of thing that I love!

  3. I enjoyed this book also; I read it about the same time that I read two of Judith Flanders’s books: Inside the Victorian Home, and The Victorian City. The Victorian Home goes through each room in the house and describes what it looked like and what people did in it. Fascinating. Then she goes outside in The Victorian City and does the same thing. As a Dickensian, of course, I relished these books, because they were so relevant. And I just finished reading What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew, another wonderful novel (although it has a LOT of what Anthony Trollope thought about as well). I’m become much more fascinated with the social history of daily life as I read around Dickens both in Britain and America; getting into Nathaniel Philbrick as well. Well, that’s enough of a digression–if I recall, Ms. Goodman discusses making her own deodorant, and not being too happy with using chimney ashes, but I can’t remember which preparation she preferred…

    • Teresa says:

      I think you recommended the Flanders books to me a while back, and I wondered if you’d read this as well. I’m glad to hear that you did enjoy it, and I’ll continue to keep the Flanders books in mind, the next time I’m looking for something similar. I read What JA Ate and CD Knew years ago and liked it a lot, too.

      I don’t remember her using ash for deodorant, but it was her favorite substance for brushing her teeth, which blew my mind!

  4. Ocean Bream says:

    I am fascinated with victorian life, and this books sounds wonderfully refreshing. I especially liked how you said that it isn’t a ‘stunt memoir about living the Victorian life for a year or something’. Nice and simple and informative, without the personal insights that might hinder any factual truths. I enjoyed your review!

    • Teresa says:

      It really is a nice blend of personal and history, because the little personal bits are all focused on the history.

      • Ocean Bream says:

        I am really keen to read it after your review. I have been looking all over the internet to buy it but it’s a bit pricey! So waiting to see if there are any deals or if I could find it in a charity shop :)

  5. She spent a year being a Victorian on a wonderful British Show called The Victorian Farm. It’s a form of experimental archaeology, in which she and a couple of archaeologists immerse themselves in the project of living in the past. But it’s not a stunt, and I think they only live the life part time. However, when they are living it, they LIVE it. Everything from washing floors to making cheese to plowing and planting. We have it–and all the other great shows she was also on–The Tudor Manor Farm, The Edwardian Farm, Tales from the Green Valley (a year on a farm in the time of James I) and even The Wartime Farm, in World War II days, in which she served as a clandestine radio operator for the British Government, unbeknownst to her archaeologist collaborators, which is how it would have been. They served in a hush-hush kind of guerrillas-in-training group. We have an all regions DVD player, because we order a lot of things from Amazon.UK, but you might be able to find a US region version of the show. Or buy ad all-regions player–they only cost about $100. Or see if it’s on YouTube. Anyway, she earned her right to talk about being a Victorian!

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you for that background! I knew she’d done some TV shows but didn’t know much about them or how intensive the experience was. I’ll look for them on YouTube sometime. They sound like fun.

  6. I checked. You can only get the region 2 version from Amazon here, and you need the all regions player for that. But it’s available on You Tube. Just Google YouTube The Victorian Farm.

  7. Sue says:

    What an interesting post and, for me at least, very timely. I recently went to see The Mikado performed by our local players who stage a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan; the songs have been running through my head non-stop. Then I borrowed Bleak House (audio) from the library and the rhythms of Victorian speech really made a powerful impact on me.

    I am definitely going to seek out Ruth Goodman’s book and I’m now off to look at Christopher Lord’s blog.

    Thank you

  8. I found this book totally fascinating. I loved that it was backed up by experience even though Goodman didn’t make that the focus of the book. Much more convincing than scholarly investigation through reading alone.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I agree. Her being able to talk about her experiences, while not focusing on them, was a nice element. I never would have thought tooth brushing with soot or brushing a suit to clean it would be satisfactory, so it was nice to see her say it worked.

  9. This sounds fascinating – I keep thinking about how bad things would smell if one went back in time.

    • Teresa says:

      I always figured people got used to the small, and maybe they did to some degree. Goodman talks about how Victorian fabrics are better at controlling odors than some of today’s fabrics and what substances people used for deodorant. (Vinegar and ammonia are two examples.)

  10. Bill from PA says:

    This sounds somewhat reminiscent of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, which was very good. It examines not just private life, but also society and government. Mortimer’s more recent book is The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England (which I haven’t read): it sounds like he has collided with Goodman as she moves backward and he forward in time.

  11. I loved all the things Goodman said about her own experiences with some of these ways of living. It made her descriptions of the various ways of living more interesting to me, knowing that she’d tried these things out. Like I remember her talking about the way you have to walk in old time types of skirts as opposed to skirts of today.

  12. Lisa says:

    I need to put this back on my library list. I started it but felt overwhelmed by the information. Sometimes I find myself reading like there will be a test later & I have to remember everything, particularly with non-fiction.

    • Teresa says:

      I get overwhelmed by books like this, too. I decided early on with this one that I wasn’t going to remember a lot of it so there was no point in trying.

  13. JaneGS says:

    Okay, this book is definitely going on my wish list.

    > she does avoid the idea that there was just one way of being Victorian.
    Yes! I’m always skeptical of generalizations, and yet we have no problem lumping all Victorians, or Elizabethans, or Edwardians together.

    I like that her bouts of living like a Victorian aren’t prolonged but episodic. On a very minor scale, one day I thought I would try to see what it was like to live without electric lights. I couldn’t make it to mid-morning (it was a gray winter day).

    Interesting review of an interesting book.

    • Teresa says:

      I really appreciated that she covered more than just the wealthy or the poor. She doesn’t give an exhaustive picture, but enough to show that people were different.

      I have a decent amount of natural light in my home, but I don’t think I’d do without electric lights very long unless I had to. I like things bright.

  14. Jenny says:

    How fun! I liked reading Longbourn because it gave a lot of these sorts of details, but a nonfiction book would be even better. I do actually assume corsets would be all misery, but that’s because my clothing principle is that if it doesn’t feel like pyjamas, I don’t buy it.

    • Teresa says:

      I think what she liked about certain corsets was how they helped her posture and made it easier for her to do certain tasks. That makes sense to me. It’s probably like the back braces people wear for heavy lifting.

  15. The TV series are excellent. They get stuck into everything and make it interesting without feeling like a lecture. There was a very good series where they helped out on a castle in France (I wish I could remember what it was called) but basically it’s been a 20 year project to construct a medieval castle using medieval methods.

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