Modernity Dawns

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life

By Ruth Goodman

If you don’t live in England, you might not recognize the name Ruth Goodman. In addition to being a historian who specializes in the early modern period, she has also lived and worked on historical farms and presented television shows about her experiences. Among these shows are Tudor Monastery Farm, Wartime Farm, Edwardian Farm, and, to our purpose here, Victorian Farm and Victorian Pharmacy.

Dry as the dust of a crumbling history book, you might say. But you would be wrong. For who hasn’t caught him- or herself fed up with modern life and romanticizing earlier times. And we fantasize of few past times as much as we do about the Victorian era, roughly from the 1840s to the turn of the 20th century. Of course, we usually picture that world and ourselves in it as if in a Bontë sisters novel or as members of the upper crust in Downton Abby, or the upstairs in Upstairs, Downstairs (both more Edwardian, but you get my point). From dutifully reading our Dickens and Hardy, we know life then was rougher and cruder, and much harder for the majority.

If you would like to know what life really was like in Victorian times, then you can’t do for a better guide than Ruth Goodman and her new book, How to Be a Victorian. Goodman introduces you to nearly every aspect of daily life in Victorian times. It’s a dawn to dusk living that you will find similar to your own and also very, very different. For daily life was anything but simple amid the ranks. While we might fume about the slow commute, the slow internet, the out of stock bauble, the occasionally murky skyline, our low pay, the inconvenience of an illness, and any number of other modern annoyances, a Victorian would happily trade you in a heartbeat. And it would be a trade you would vociferously and wisely decline.

Goodman guides you through a typical day, and how the various elements of the day changed over the course of the Victorian era. These include the cold awakening from sleep; the various machinations required to get oneself dressed; the thrill of visiting the outdoor privy; the many steps taken to groom the man, woman, and child; how you would take your morning exercise, if you were in the (growing) middle class; the effort involved in preparing a meager breakfast; getting on with your work, whether it be in the country, the mines, the town, or at home; the midday meal, if you were fortunate enough to have one weekdays and Saturdays; school, reserved for the young and haphazard at best until the advent of compulsory education and testing; what you might do if you were lucky enough to enjoy a bit of leisure, though as the 19th century progressed and the workweek shortened, more people found themselves with more time for themselves; preparation for bedtime; and what many will be tempted to turn to first, life in the bedroom, providing a nice education about the Victorian views on manliness and the virtuous woman, and each’s place in society, with excursions into prostitution, birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.

It’s one thing, a perfectly noble thing, at that, to research and report on Victorian social history. It’s quite another, quite expansively enlightening, to have an author explain how to do and make many of the things Victorians made for themselves, as Ruth Goodman does. Some things work surprisingly well and some we continue to use today.

If you enjoy 19th century English literature, you’ll certainly want a copy of How to Be a Victorian, as it will greatly enhance your reading experience. If you are in the arts charged with recreating life in the period, this would be a good addition to your collection of references. And if you are an instructor who would like to give students a real feel for life in another era, especially one we tend to drape in a glamorous cloak, you’ll do no better than putting this volume in their hands.

While you’re at it, you might also enjoy Sheila Hardy’s A 1950s Housewife: Marriage and Homemaking in the 1950s. Though not nearly as thorough as Goodman’s book, still it presents a woman’s life without the varnish.

Finally, the next time you find yourself bemoaning something, like, for instance, doing your own laundry, remember the massive orchestration and labor required to do a family’s laundry in the Victorian era, without servants. Then you’ll understand why Goodman does not exaggerate when she writes: “My own historical laundry experiences have led me to see the powered washing machine as one of the great 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.” In other words, her book will at the very least leave you with a greater appreciation for what may seem at first to be the trivial conveniences of modern life. w/c


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