Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (2003)

I wonder why I was so curious about Victorian daily life, so much so as to buy a book about it instead of just perusing a history book at the library. A few years ago I started a writing project, I should say the unfinished draft of a historical novel, set in Britain in the 1850s. Why this period? Oh, certainly because I love the Brontes’ books, and Mrs. Gaskell’s, and Wilkie Collins’, and so many others. My draft never got me anywhere because I spent most of my time researching instead of writing the plot (I should print this recommendation and stick it everywhere). At that time I checked on this book a lot but didn’t read it from cover to cover, but that’s a shame because I missed the book’s internal logic. It may be off-putting because it’s thick and full of notes, but it really is an easy read. I learnt a lot in this book, it was fun and often referred to those Victorian novels I love for details.

I got familiar with Judith Flanders with her previous Victorian biography, A Circle of Sisters, on Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne Jones, Agnes Poynter, and Louisa Baldwin, all late Victorian sisters well connected with the artistic world. Flanders is not an historian who nicely remains in the background of her subject, using a detached and impersonal voice as if everything was fact and there was no room for interpretation and opinion. On the contrary, she has a strong voice and never hesitate to talk directly to the reader or even wink at them in footnotes. That may disturb some people, but I rather liked it. For example, she bluntly writes in a footnote: “It has been suggested that I am more interested in S-bends than in sex. For the purposes of social history this is so, and I do not plan to discuss sex at all . . . For S-bends, however, see p.293”!

The book is a huge mass of information on Victorian daily life, each chapter describing a single room, starting from the nursery and finishing in the sickroom, from birth to death. It’s sometimes amusing trivia, sometimes broad analysis of Victorian values and attitudes: for example, she talks on the value of being “pattern”, completely standard (any singularity being frowned upon) or on the obsession of putting everything in order and categories (even pointless), the moral value of cleanliness. Victorian people assigned each object / room / clothes a single use (in the scullery, no less than 8 types of brushes were mandatory, or a woman should change dresses at least 4 times a day depending on the hour and activity), while we in 21C are very much into multi-purpose stuff.

It’s confusing because in some aspects we’re familiar with the Victorian reasoning (either because we read about it in novels or that their thoughts are close to ours), but people’s daily lives are very different from ours, so much so that we underestimate the hassle, the discomfort, the pollution they experienced (parts on fog, soot and sewage are very convincing).

Just a little guessing game to finish. Imagine yourself 150 years ago:

How long did you cook pasta (Victorian called it macaroni)?
A- 8 minutes
B- 20 minutes
C- 1 hours 30
How heavy were a woman’s clothes (worn all at once)?
A- 1 pound
B- 13 pounds
C- 37 pounds
How often should you wash the mantelpiece in the drawing room?
A- Once a week
B- Once a day
C- Twice a day
How often did the postman deliver letters?
A- Once a day
B- 3 to 5 times a day
C- 6 to 12 times a day

Answer: C each time! Don’t you like your 21C comfort even better?


6 thoughts on “Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (2003)

  1. Very interesting. Not sure how I missed you on Dorothy or Verbivore’s blogroll all these months, but I like everything about this, the book, the other recent reads, the look of it… happy (recent) anniversary. Will do some deep digging soon into old posts soon, and have to take a look at this book. Had my own historical novel set in Victorian times ideas at one point…

  2. Those questions are INCREDIBLE! No wonder everyone loves email when there used to be 12 postal deliveries a day. The thought of cooking macaroni for an hour and a half is extraordinary – would there be anything left, do you think??

  3. Pingback: Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008) « Smithereens

  4. Pingback: Mary Hooper, Fallen Grace (2010) « Smithereens

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