How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman (Penguin Books, 2014)
If you were a nineteenth-century man or woman who decided to bant, what would you be doing?*
Many of you will be familiar with historian Ruth Goodman’s appearances in educational television documentaries such as Victorian Farm, Secrets of the Castle, Full Steam Ahead and several others. A specialist in British social history and an advisor to the Victoria & Albert Museum, Goodman, along with co-presenters, demonstrates what it was like to live and work in a period household, investigating everything from recipes, clothing and hygiene to customs, etiquette, labour and economics. I’ve enjoyed every one of these presentations, so it was with great pleasure that I dove into Goodman’s comprehensive book about life during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).
How to be a Victorian isn’t strictly a companion book to the TV series, although it does draw on Goodman’s considerable living history experience. It offers much more information than a few television episodes ever could, and I was fascinated – and exceedingly impressed – by the amount of detail on every page.
For example, did you know that mascara was originally a man’s product – a coloured wax for grooming moustaches? Or that some mill workers, partially deaf from the noisy environment, developed a silent language with exaggerated mouth movements, similar to lip-reading, to communicate? And that women’s corsets (some men wore them, too) weren’t breathlessly tight and deforming: they were worn comfortably snug to achieve good posture and a trim figure, and to provide much-needed back support when working. In fact, a Victorian lady without her corset would have felt disconcertingly bare and unsupported.
The book, which is illustrated by period photographs, drawings and advertisements, is laid out chronologically, discussing every aspect of a Victorian person’s day – no matter what class– from stepping out of bed onto an ice-cold floor to retiring after long hours of toil, business or leisure. Hygiene, dress, diet and exercise, work and education, health and medicine, recreation, sport and even sex are covered in fascinating detail. The lives of children aren’t forgotten here, nor are the attitudes, mores, social institutions, inventions and laws of the time. Goodman examines how perceptibly many of these changed over the six decades of Victoria’s reign.
Perhaps the most memorable and moving statement comes in the epilogue: “The Victorian era was a catastrophic time to be poor.” A few pennies a week could make all the difference between perpetual cold or comfort, nourishment or starvation, from the very poorest to those well up the social ladder. Unless you were the wealthiest upper class, you’d likely go to bed each night at least a little hungry, perhaps seriously malnourished. The preference for white bread was just one of several culprits causing nation-wide, generations-long hunger. By far the most common – and sometimes only – staple on which people lived (potatoes were the other), white bread was nutrient-poor and almost always adulterated by alum or chalk. It’s a testament to their toughness that, given these conditions, any Victorian managed to carry on and endure.
With such an intimate look into their lives, I felt as if I were right there in a sooty kitchen crowded with fourteen children, navigating murky, fog-filled streets by gaslight, playing a jolly game of croquet, or returning from the factory at noon for a dinner of suet pudding. I thought my decades-long addiction to public television and historical novels had given me a solid understanding of the Victorian era, but thanks to the author’s painstaking research and engaging style, I now know that I was wrong. The book is well-written and absorbing, and I couldn’t put it down.
*To bant, by the way, is to go on a diet. (Much like us, Victorians were supremely health-conscious, always on the lookout for the next “best thing” – and yes, some of them did need to trim the fat.) The term was coined in 1862 after one William Banting published his strict – and successful – slimming regime.
Ruth Goodman is also the author of How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life (2016) and How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts (2018).
Curiosity Quotient: ♦♦♦♦♦