Book review: How To Be A Victorian

THERE’S not much that Ruth Goodman hasn’t attempted in pursuit of authenticity. She has gone four months without washing; made her own hair conditioner from lard and beeswax; used powdered cuttlefish as toothpaste; worn a whalebone corset while working the fields. Made a condom out of sheep’s gut.

How To Be A Victorian

Ruth Goodman

Viking, £20

Goodman, who spent a year living the Victorian farm life for the cameras, has an unashamedly populist approach, but her dressing-up-and-living-it style makes things compelling for television, and the strategy works for the reader too. The “be a Victorian” invitation isn’t one to be taken seriously; it’s surely just a ruse to draw us in.

Goodman structures her study of Victorian domestic life around the routines of a single day, from getting up in the morning to retiring at night. It’s a simple formula but not a simplistic one. A chapter on breakfast, for instance, becomes a lesson in engineering (the internal workings of a coal-fired kitchen range), industrialisation (how the steam engine aided coal mining), and ethics: why the Irish potato famine was such a crime. There’s a bleak account of a five-year-old left out in a field all day without food, tasked with scaring away crows; and chilling statistics revealing how Victorian city workers were two inches shorter on average than their medieval forebears. The only cheering news for Scottish readers comes from the Lowlands, where a mixed agricultural economy early in Victoria’s reign meant access to provisions the urban poor could only dream of.

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Two chapters on working life – separated by one on the midday meal, and an account of women’s work in the home – reveal the interconnectedness of things, from technological advances (there’s a lively account of the coming of the railway) via public health to fashion. The late Victorian penchant for black suits, we learn, was not so much an expression of national gloom as a desire to hide the smoke smuts that came with city living, and was only possible thanks to a new chemical dye that didn’t fade in sunlight.

Goodman’s personal insights (“I have tried this myself”) could become a little tiresome were the experiences not so enlightening. She mines the magazines and periodicals of the time and draws on others’ experiences too: a cast of characters from all ranks of society provide clues to the daily realities of life.

Inevitably, there are gaps. With so much of working-class life a matter of grimly hanging on, for instance, I’d have liked a sense of how ordinary Victorians coped with the big question: What’s it all for? Did they have energy for such contemplation? Did they go to church or chapel willingly? A glimpse into the parallel universe of a Victorian Sunday would have been an education.

Goodman’s book didn’t make me want to travel back in time. But it had me looking afresh at things we take for granted today. n

Mary Crockett