Desert Isle Keeper
Inside the Victorian Home
If there’s anything I love, it’s books about how people lived in the past. Since I work at a university library, I see a lot of them, but too many are written in dense jargon. I don’t want to read books that refer to homes, clothing and furniture as “texts”, I simply want to know how people lived in the past. How did they cook? How did they wash clothes? How much did things cost? Give me details and save the jargon for the PhD thesis.
Judith Flanders’ Inside the Victorian Home is exactly what I’ve been looking for. It is crammed full of fascinating details, and gives the reader a tour, not only through the home, but through the lifespan of a citizen of London in the mid to late 19th century. The book provides historical background and context as well as facts, but it is accessible and jargon free. I discovered the book at the library, happily devoured it, then ran out and bought my own copy to read and re-read.
You will not find much in the book about the nobility or wealthy rural land owners (like Mr. Darcy). In addition, the urban working poor are only mentioned in passing. Instead this book concentrates on the upper middle class urban family – a class which really came into prominence during this time period.
During Queen Victoria’s reign England changed from a predominantly rural society to one that was overwhelmingly urban. Housing was comparatively cheap and it was customary to lease a house. Servant’s wages were not high and most families had one or more servants. The lady of the house usually did at least some of the housework and she needed to as constance labor was required to keep a house clean and free of vermin. The book gives some descriptions that had me cringing – floors and beds literally crawled with bugs.
When TV shows are set in London during the Victorian period, everything looks clean, clear, and pretty, but this was actually a very polluted time. The air was thick with dust and soot, which got into people’s hair to such a degree that it turned the hairbrushes black. The mud in the streets was a noisome mixture of manure, soot, and dead animals, and it was tracked in by anyone who came into the house. If there was a dry spell, the mud turned to dust and seeped into every crack, necessitating constant work. Doing laundry was a major task that took several days. Eating could be almost dangerous, since most foods were adulterated with everything from sawdust to lead. And if you got sick….well, just pray you didn’t since remedies were often painful and dangerous. I’ve sometimes encountered the term “blistering” in Victorian novels, and Flanders tells how that “treatment” was administered. Ouch!!!
Inside the Victorian Home is illustrated with paintings, cartoons, and commercial ads of the times. There are extracts from diarys and novels of the period, as well as some fascinating bits from housekeeping books by Mrs. Beeton and Mrs. Panton, who were the Julia Child and Martha Stewart of the time. These extracts were the most interesting part of the book and gave some down to earth details. I’ll admit my jaw dropped when I read a passage from Beatrix Potter’s diary as she describes sitting up all night at an inn because the bedbugs were so bad, and I will never complain about housework again after reading a passage from Hannah Cullwick’s diary describing a typical day for her as a maid of all work.
I’ll admit to a tendency on my part to romanticize the Victorian period a bit too much. I still want to visit there as soon as some genuis invents a fool proof time travel device, but I won’t stay there. No, I like my comfortable clothes (the total weight of clothing for women was about 38 pounds), washing machine (it took over 50 gallons of water and more than two days to do laundry by hand in scalding water), and central heating. The past may be romantic, but the present is vastly more convenient.