Tuesday 16 July 2013

How to be a Victorian?

Today, I shall start looking at Ruth Goodman's How to be a Victorian, which has just been published.

I must hold my hands up and say that I met Ms. Goodman at a publisher's publicity event (she was delightful) but failed to snag a free copy of the book because I told her publicist, in jest, that I would steal all the best bits for my forthcoming book on Victorian dirt.

In retrospect, this may not have been the best tactic to obtain a review copy. 

Nonetheless, with my Kindle copy in hand, freshly purchased, I am now going to read this book.

It's about Victorian daily life, written by someone who has worn the clothes, tried out the toothpaste recipes, exfoliated with a 'flesh brush'  (Ruth Goodman has done this stuff on telly, on the Victorian Farm programme. She is far braver than I). Anyway, it's a book I am genuinely intrigued to read - it's my sort of subject.

So, I am going to blog the odd chapter as I read it; at least, the ones that touch on my own interests.

I can't comment on its weight, cover or smell, because I am using the cheaper Kindle version (mmm, plasticky). But I note that there are no footnotes.1

This worries me in a book about fine detail of daily life; but, on the other hand, it's very much for the general reader. Let's see what I make of it. This is not going to be a polished review, just some notes, mind you. You may wish to look away now.

1.  I quite like footnotes.

Chapter One - 'Getting Up'

The book is arranged chronologically throughout the day ... from getting up to going to bed. A neat idea.

Goodman starts by noting that the typical Victorian bedroom began the day rather cold. Fires were only lit in bedrooms by the extravagant, or during illness. A maid would light the kitchen fire, then the room where the family would have their breakfast.

Sources mentioned: Jane Carlyle, Hannah Cullwick, Mrs. Beeton. The usual suspects; but none the worse for that.

Cut to a section on knockers-up. Personally, I love knockers-up; human alarm-clocks with a long stick.

Some paragraphs on carpets. I know nothing about carpets. I am learning.

We move onto ventilation, keeping windows open, the fear of excess 'carbonic acid' (CO2) in the air. Basically, the Victorians believed in keeping windows open, with a bit of science to back them up. Cold in the winter.

"Did people really leave their windows open all year round? Practice seems to have varied."

This is one of the those worrying phrases; an author very much hedging their bets. We've all done it.

More confusingly, it's followed by "According to some reports [on the poor] ... clutches of children would huddle at night on bare mattresses beneath permanently open windows, with only their day clothes and each other to keep them warm. Their parents were trying to do the right thing. .... Other reports, equally horrified, talk of large numbers of people sleeping packed together in rooms with the windows firmly sealed shut."

This is a peculiar detour; painting a picture of slum-dwellers torn between open and closed windows at night, choosing between warmth or the pseudo-scientific threat of suffocation. I don't think it represents reality. Yes, contemporary middle-class slum reporters (Chadwick et al.) worried about lack of ventilation. There was little disagreement on best practice; commentators felt more air was required. But did poor mothers let their children go cold, because of  this sanitary advice? Did they give much thought to such things at all, even when they received useful pamphlets on the subject from a variety of do-gooders? I am somewhat skeptical. (We'll also skip over the fact that old sashes in slum properties were often stuck; and that the air outside stank). My scepticism - and it is nothing more -  might be assuaged by footnotes. Did I mention footnotes?

Away from the slums.

There follows a great section on washing, using a wash-stand.

Ah, bathing and nudity. 'Few women were willing to be naked in the kitchen and even men preferred to bathe wearing a thin pair of cotton drawers'.

Matthew Sweet picked up on this in the Guardian review:

"few women were willing to be naked in the kitchen." (If she has discovered evidence for a historical shift in levels of British kitchen nudity, I'd like to see it.) 

This does feel a bit of a stretch. Not least because - for example - men and boys, lacking other facilities, used to bathe naked in the Serpentine

Part of the problem, again, is lack of sources; lack of date. Certainly, women were expected to be more 'modest' in public; but, at home, did they universally bathe in their drawers? Throughout the nineteenth century? With no variation between classes? I doubt it; although I suspect we don't have many sources on this. Sources.

What is interesting, perhaps, is not that Victorians had notions of modesty - because we still have our own ideas about appropriate nudity - but that they thought it acceptable/effective at all to 'bathe' with clothes on. This now seems cumbersome and perhaps unhygienic - we reserve clothes for 'swimming'. The question becomes - if Goodman is right - when/why did we start bathing with no clothes on?

Onwards, mentioning pre-Victorian hostility to water on the skin - fears about allowing dangerous substances to permeate the pores, the importance of keeping the skin 'covered and sealed'. I'd like dates for this, too. Buchan's mid-18C best-seller 'Domestic medicine', which I happen to have read recently, extols 'frequent washing' to prevent build-up of dirt. So when do such fears date from?

Goodman herself has practised 'dry rubbing' to keep clean and assures us it works - I can believe it - but was this really the preference, where water was available? Again, more detailed required.

QI moment. "William Thackeray in his 1850 novel Pendennis coined the phrase, 'The Great Unwashed'." No. You'll find this said occasionally. Actually, quick google, you'll find it's used in the introduction to Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford. It seems to have become popular in the 1830s - quick newspaper search will reveal that - and I've recently found an early instance in an obscure 1829 publication. Sources.

Also, I am tempted to ask, facetiously, why not 'The Great Unrubbed'?

A section on clothing, wool, washing. This seems better stuff. I hope we come to public washhouses later in the book.

The concept of 'disinfection' replacing washing, as bacterial transmission of disease became known. Suspect this is largely Edwardian; but I would need to look it up. I may well be wrong.

Stuff on soap and deodorant. Firmer ground.

Sanitary towels. Excellent. This is more like it - I have not read anything before on sanitary towels. Or recycling them. Seriously. I enjoyed this bit.


Basically, the chapter comes to life on the bits where Goodman has the first-hand experience - the washing, the soap, the sanitary towels, all interesting; BUT rather vague and general on the attendant background, lacking a firm stamp of authoritative research. Casual readers will probably enjoy; more hardcore historians and Victorian social history obsessives (I can't think who I'm talking about) will wish it contained citations of sources, and fewer sweeping and hard-to-confirm

UPDATE 5 August 2013

I read the rest of this book on holiday and found it better than my slightly grouchy first reading, above, gives credit. Worth giving it a try.


  1. Not a Victorian source but the 1920s novel I Capture The Castle depicts its heroine (who basically lives in a pre-modern way due to her family's poverty/eccentricity) bathing in a tin bath in the kitchen but with various towels, sheets and so on hung around the bath as screens for privacy. Someone comes in and assumes there's no one in there, etc. I could imagine that this type of arrangement would allow people to bathe in shared rooms and could have existed in Victorian times.

    I really like Ruth Goodman's shows. Look forward to reading this.

    1. One problem with the book is that it doesn't really answer questions like "did the poor have notions of modesty/privacy?" It just asserts, flat-out that women bathed in their drawers. My guess is that there is very little evidence; and I would like to know sources, to check that evidence. But, certainly, Ruth Goodman's own interactions with 'the Victorian world' are engaging.

  2. A man has a bath in the kitchen in exactly this way in the film It Always Rains on a Sunday (made just post-war).

  3. Instinctively I feel that they MUST have had notions of modesty - perhaps religiously linked - eg my 1890s-born grandmother would put on her nightgown and undress beneath it, whether anyone was there or not. But yeah, that's not conclusive evidence either.

  4. My complete guess would be that the working class of the late Victorian period - state educated, subjected to unprecedented amounts of sanitary moralising - were a different breed, in terms of sanitary beliefs and 'modesty' from the working class of the 1830s and 1840s. But I can't really back that up myself.

  5. Footnotes, along with other conceits such as excessive use of brackets or other punctuation, are the sort of thing indulgent writers love, but by which readers, invariably, are infuriated.

    As a rule, if it's worth saying, then say it properly. If it isn't, then leave it out completely.

    1. I know what you mean. BUT although footnotes can be a conceit, they can also help show you've researched something; and that can be important, if you're saying something that's contentious, very general/vague or no-one's every said before. Sometimes, you do need to show your working out.