Ruth Goodman’s intimacy with the tiny detail of domestic life brings the Victorian household alive. Reading How to Be a Victorian is like having a tour guide who has personally experimented with brushing her teeth with charcoal and has dispensed with washing in water for months on end. Indeed, readers may remember Goodman from the successful BBC television series Victorian Farm, and it is this deep re-enactment experience from which she draws, combined with histories of the period, memoirs, advice manuals and adverts.
The historical narrative is woven very neatly, for the most part, around the rhythm of the day. I found the middle section on schools, laundry and leisure not quite as lively as the early chapters – covering getting up, getting dressed and personal grooming – probably because these middle chapters offer a fairly standard historical telling. They are, nonetheless, full of meaty detail. Interesting historical characters are also used well throughout, such as domestic servant Hannah Culwick’s negotiation of the lunch-dinner divide and William Arnold’s memories of hunger and isolation when, at the age of six, he was tasked with scaring the crows from dawn to dusk to protect his family’s planted field. Indeed, more of these voices would have been welcome.
The chapter entitled ‘Back at the House’, meanwhile, is an excellent example of how well Goodman binds together exhaustive domestic history – on, say, the complexities of baby dressing – to important wider economic trends, such as the rise of the ready-made clothing market and the growth of advertising. Goodman has also worked hard to avoid a homogenous picture of a ‘Victorian’, highlighting differences not only between classes but between town and country. This is most successful in discussions of dressing and fashion.
How to Be a Victorian manages to be both highly entertaining and extremely useful for readers requiring a broad overview of Victorian life. It does not include a bibliography or endnotes, although it is well indexed. Goodman describes her book as “a personal exploration”, aiming to “peer into the everyday corners”, which is something that she achieves extremely well.
Alison Kay is the author of The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship: Enterprise, Home and Household in London, 1800–1870 (Routledge, 2009)