How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman was one of the gifts I received at my babyshower. The idea was to help me through those last few weeks of pregnancy without getting bored. However, since I had just moved house and had lots of stuff to organise before Pim’s arrival (we literally fixed the central heating 2 days before labour — which was a good thing because I had an unexpected home delivery), I never got around to any of these gifts. With just a few weeks of maternity leave left (and as I am writing this, only 3 more days *sniff*), I decided to finally read Goodman’s book.
In How To Be a Victorian Ruth Goodman describes the lives of people living during the Victorian era, for both rich and poor, man and woman, for those born in 1837 as well as 1901. She does so by progressing through what a day would have looked like, beginning with the moment people got out of bed and touched the cold bedroom floor with their feet, until the end of the day where she provides a glimpse of what happened “behind the bedroom door” — as the last chapter is called.
Goodman’s book was the perfect read to hail the end of my maternity leave with. From the very outset, she reminded me what it is that I love about studying history, and what it is I wish I could accomplish:
I want to explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history, a history from the inside out: one that celebrates the ordinary an 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 of life. What was it really like to be alive in a different time and place? [*]
She does so by paying particular, but not exclusive, attention to material history, discussing the objects and clothes people used in detail. Because Goodman has made, worn, and used many of these objects she can reflect on things that would not have crossed my mind in first instance. For example, I never realised to what extent the heaviness of clothing, the different skirts or corsets, etcetera, affected every movement.
I enjoyed How To Be a Victorian for two reasons. First, because it provides such a readable and accessible history of the Victorian period. I liked the approach of looking at the Victorian era by going through the motions of a typical day for various groups of people living during Victoria’s reign. Goodman does a good job of providing in-depth detail while still engaging the reader’s interest. Of course there were subjects that I personally found more interesting than others, but I was never bored. And like Tea by the Nursery Fire, I wanted to remain in Goodman’s world to learn more about the things she explored in her volume.
Second, I enjoyed it from a more professional standpoint, as Goodman made me contemplate the various angles historians can take, and particularly what approaches I might want to use (if I had the time) in my own research.
There are, however, two points of criticism I also want to raise here. There is the minor fact that I would have liked to see footnotes from time to time, as I like to explore “further reading” through things that pique my interest in a current book. Or, if not footnotes, I would have liked a “further reading” section at the end of the book. Recommendations by authors you enjoy in non-fiction is something I always appreciate.
As for topics covered in the book, I found How To Be a Victorian lacked an in-depth reflection on Empire. As I am beginning to understand more and more from my reading on missions and Empire, colonial rule was not invisible in daily life, particularly in the Victorian era. I think Goodman mentions it once, but the topic remains on the sidelines. You could say her focus is definitely on the United Kingdom and not its colonies, and we cannot blame her for that, however, I would have appreciated a little more acknowledgement of the extensive entanglement of some of the things she discusses. And there were at least a few opportunities for her to do so. At the same time I admit this experienced gap might be due to my own particular interest in this subject. Goodman does manage to combine “macro history” with the “micro history” of every day life for a number of subjects extremely well, but it does remain contained to what happened in the British isles.
Despite these drawbacks, I definitely recommend How To Be a Victorian, and I am extremely pleased that I received it as a gift and that I managed to read it before work-related craziness takes over again.
After reading How To Be a Victorian, I am going to raise the same question as I did upon finishing Tea By the Nursery Fire: What books about this subject (being the Victorian era and/or daily life in historical settings) would you recommend?
[*] of course Goodman is aware of the fact that we can only ever try to approach “what is was really like” and that sources are selective.