Thursday, July 20, 2017

Living as a Victorian

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman is not a short coffee table book with tidbits about Victorian social etiquette and the language of the fan and things of that sort. Rather, this is a dense four hundred pages that cover as many aspects of daily Victorian life for the three social classes as is possible.

It's organized according to the day: the first chapter is "Getting Up," the second is "Getting Dressed," the ninth is "The Midday Meal," etc. And as each chapter moves into a specific part of a person's day, the focus moves to a particular subject. Clothing, medicine, sanitation, work, leisure activities and games, and on. If, like I have, you've read your share of Victorian novels, then some of the language of it, if you will, will be familiar. For instance, I was just talking about Louisa May Alcott--and Goodman's explanation of how tennis became popular reminded me of the scene in Jo's Boys when Bess and Josie go to play tennis. Or when learning that many women were willing to justify wearing foundation because they thought of it as more of a skincare product than makeup, I thought of a question in An Old-Fashioned Girl that's lingered in my mind--"'Does Trix paint?'" ("Painting" of course in this context meaning "wear makeup.)

So in many ways, reading this book is reliving old stories--or putting new life into fiction. It is also, as I mentioned, as detailed as anyone might want. (Yes, there is always more information to find, but this is as thorough a collection of information as you can probably find put together into a single book.) You don't just learn the what's; you also learn the why's. For instance, in learning what people were most likely to eat for breakfast, you learn the differences in what types of food were available in the northern or southern parts of England. (Here I will point out the one drawback of this book for me personally. Though plenty of the information is applicable to the time period in general, the focus is on British history. I was referencing Alcott, but really I should be thinking of Bronte and Dickens instead. Still all very wonderful to learn--I just wish I had a volume like this for American history, as well, though I wonder if that one might not be even more varied given the huge territory that is the U.S.)

What is perhaps the best thing about this book is that it covers the specific area of history that most interests me. I don't just mean the nineteenth century: I mean the concept of the daily lives of regular people. There was a time when I thought I wanted to major in history in college. Then I took A.P. U.S. History, and decided that I didn't overly love learning about all the wars and politics; what I liked was the historical, not history. That is, the culture that is covered by literature. (I've since realized the flaw in my reasoning. It is necessary to learn the basics of history first and then narrow in on your preferred focus. Even Goodman references politics and a bit of war in her book on daily life--because it's applicable and each element affects the others.) Anyway, this book reminded me of that interest in history that I once had. (It's all because of my early focus on Little House on the Prairie, which truly was a narrative describing daily life.) With this book, she reminded me that history isn't just studying the battle tactics of this or that war. I mean, there is some dark material in here, as well, but mainly I much more enjoy learning about how people spent their regular lives than how nations fell to the ground as they fought.

For anyone interested in the nineteenth century, Goodman's book is a must, a thorough guide that is both entertaining and informative. She draws from studies by other historians, firsthand (written, of course) accounts, and her own experiences in historical reenactment. She doesn't present the Victorians as an oddity or a peculiar species, and she doesn't talk about their methods as bizarre or inferior. Instead, she gives the reasons why things were done as they were and explains attitudes toward such methods. It's all straightforward and real. Whether you're also into reenactment or museum work, of you study either history or literature, or you're simply interested, I would definitely recommend getting this book.

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