How to Be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman

How to Be a Victorian

On the first work day of every month, I run a report to find all the new books, videos, and CDs that were added to my library’s collection during the previous month. My perk for doing this is that I get first crack (usually) at the books I find interesting. Sometimes I just tweet about the standouts and sometimes I run all over the library, bugging my coworkers, to get my hands on a new book I must read immediately. This latter scenario is exactly what happened when I saw How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman pop up on the list. Thanks to the efforts of one of our paraprofessionals, I got to leave for my weeklong reading vacation (three days remaining) with How to Be a Victorian tucked into my messenger bag. Even having my mother visit me for a two days didn’t stop me from reading it—though I was thrilled to have someone to share disturbing Victorian trivia with.

How to Be a Victorian‘s subtitle describes this as a dawn-to-dusk guide to Victorian life. Goodman begins with the morning ablutions, getting dressed, and breakfast before going to work and snatching a few hours of recreation and ends with a trip “behind the bedroom door” in the last chapter. Goodman explains her project in the very first paragraph of the preface:

I want to explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history, a history from the inside out: one that celebrates the ordinary and charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world. I want to look into the minds of our ancestors and witness their hopes, fears and assumptions, no matter how apparently minor. In short, I am in search of a history of those things that make up the day-to-day reality life. What was it really like to be alive in a difference time and place? (1*)

Goodman is a historical reenactor who spent a year working on a Victorian farm, wearing Victorian clothes, using Victorian products, and following (as closely as possible) the Victorian way of life. Those experiences make brief appearances in How to Be a Victorian. Most of the book is composed of more traditional academic histories about clothing, food, worklife, recreation, sex, medicine, and other topics. By the end of 440 pages, I think Goodman answered her question.

As I read How to Be a Victorian, I kept seeing connections and having small epiphanies about things I had seen in Victorian literature. Gaskell, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Wilkins, and Hardy make so much more sense to me now. For example, Goodman’s discussion of Victorian foodways brought an added poignance to the most famous scene in Oliver Twist, the scene in which Oliver asks for more food at the workhouse. Goodman writes, “Twenty-first-century analysis of workhouse diets estimates that they offered 20 per cent less than the minimum calorific requirement today, and records that they were seriously deficient in a range of minerals and vitamins” (174). I wasn’t surprised to learn that the average Victorian Londoner was shorter than modern Londoner, but I was shocked to learn that they “were also shorter than those recorded in the skeletons of earlier Londoners: excavations have shown that medieval Londoners were two inches taller than their Victorian counterparts” (170). The sections about food and work were probably the most depressing ones. While science and technology made gigantic strides in nearly every arena, the lot of nearly everyone except the rich was Hobbesian drudgery.

My favorite parts of How to Be a Victorian—aside from the medical history** and hair-raising work stories—were the ones were Goodman would report that Victorian washing and laundry practices work very well for greasy hair and strange fabrics. These moments bring history out of the realm of academia and help answer the question Goodman posed in her preface. Early in the book, Goodman writes about how clothing influenced behavior:

I have cut a field of corn with a sickle in dress of the 1620s, edged a field…wearing the clothes of the 1870s and cut down an overgrown allotment with a sickle in the 2010s. In the earliest of these sets of clothes I found that the best way to do the job was to stand with one foot in front of the other with the front knee well bent. I then leant my left elbow upon that knee, supporting my weight and saving my back…The 1870s clothes pinched and dug in when I tried to repeat the same motion wearing them, but I found that if I kept my weight more central and settled into the corset I could bend forwards and work more squarely on, with my back muscles relaxed, as the springy steels of the corset were supplying the support. The 2010s clothes required another adjustment; in the end I gave up trying to stand at all and shuffled along on my knees.” (92-93)

Goodman also practiced Victorian calisthenics with her daughter (the same daughter who begged for a corset as a child because she saw her mother wear one), get into near fatal accidents with a coal cart, and makes Victorian recipes and remedies. My only criticism of this book is that there weren’t more of these moments included in the book.

How to Be a Victorian is the kind of book I’m sure my family and friends dread me getting my hands on. They know that I’m likely to share things I find interesting every time I talk to them until I finish the book. I’m sure this wouldn’t be so bad for them if I didn’t find all the dirt, disgusting, and dangerous things interesting. I had a great time reading this book. (My mother assures me she also enjoyed me reading bits aloud to her while she was my houseguest. No, really!) When I checked it out, two of my colleagues were already politely sparring for the top spot on the hold list.

This is unrelated to the rest of this post, but I wanted to share a funny thing that happened. I went out for lunch yesterday. I was about 2/3rds of the way through the book at that point. The cook at the kebab shop asked if I was British while I was chatting and deciding between shawarma and a gyro. Books really do change how I speak!

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* Quotes are from the 2013 hardcover edition by Liveright Publishing Corporation.
** For example, Goodman shares this gem:

In addition to the benefits of support, it was thought that a corset provided the warmth a woman’s vulnerable insides required, and that allowing the kidneys and other organs to become chilled as foolish and dangerous and could lead to a range of illnesses and disorders. (65)

My mother and I joked about avoiding kidney chills for two days. Corsets, ladies!

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