How to be a Victorian

Author: Ruth GoodmanPublisher: Viking Press

Writing about any period in history is not without its challenges. To try and describe the sights and sounds that make an era, while staying aware of the historical distance between then and now is a balancing act. We should take care not to let our modern notions cloud our vision. How to be a Victorian therefore sets an almost impossible goal. Fortunately, it appears that with Ruth Goodman, this delicate task is in good hands.

She guides us through the daily lives of Victorians of every social class, while remembering to question her own historical distance. Her story is a fascinating and pleasantly crafted mixture of hands-on history and traditional research. Especially her personal experiences set this book apart from other work on the Victorian era. In this way, the book fills a gap, providing a valuable addition to existing literature.

Goodman gives the reader lots of inside information on the tiniest details of daily life, covering areas from hygiene to clothing and food. Her personal exploration gives us the opportunity to learn about seemingly trivial issues, and so brings us closer to common nineteenth century experiences. For example, we discover that body odours and greasy hair were thought of very differently than we would today. Now-a-days it is unimaginable to clean ourselves properly without using water, but Goodman bravely does so for four months – which nobody appeared to notice, so she says. She also discovers that Victorian women’s dress consisted of so many layers, that one would not notice setting oneself on fire; luckily, she herself lived to tell the tale.

In addition to discussing the importance of knowing how to sew by hand, she treats us to more unexpected facts; the nutritional value of having beer for breakfast, the do’s and don’ts in chamber-pot etiquette, and how hunger was an ever-present condition for most members of society. Every step of the way, Goodman succeeds in giving us a real feel for how Victorian life felt and smelled. She informs us in detail about homemade toothpaste, make-up, clothing (wearing a corset is actually not that bad) and sanitary towels. This book certainly conveys a feeling of life, which almost never comes to light in other books solely based on text research.

This book strikes a balance between practical experiments and good old-fashioned research. It’s written in a comfortable style, and offers an interesting and entertaining read, often with a royal spoon-full of wit.

Overall, the chapters with first hand experiences are more appealing and innovative than those which rely solely on text research, although it would have been quite a challenge to actually experience the grind of factory life, the bustle of contemporary public transport, or the actual thrill of old-timey sports. Furthermore, although she does try to give as many different perspectives as possible, the majority of the information inevitably provides a female perspective.

This book will appeal to a broad range of readers, catering to casual readers and history buffs alike, as well as having many surprises in store for historians too.

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