Review: The Victorian House

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The Victorian House
The Victorian House by Judith Flanders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was excellent.

This is not a book for people who are already knowledgeable on the topic of domestic daily life during the Victorian age in England. Flanders does, however, manage to combine an informative overview with a considerable degree of entertainment value – especially if you read the footnotes, were most of the humour is.

I read this as research for my novel (which will be finished within the next year or so). My novel is set in a Victorianesque world, and this book was excellent for background. Flanders does not get bogged down in detail, but she does manage to get the ‘feel’ of the period very well indeed. One thing that particularly struck me is the sheer filthiness of the cities (particularly London, as the largest city) – Flanders does not just say “it was filthy” but demonstrates by discussing little adjustments people had to make, like not putting out a white tablecloth until a short time before the meal, or it would go grey. This level of atmospheric pollution is something that we just don’t have to deal with in the UK any more, so it’s hard to imagine without the examples Flanders gives.

Another interesting area is the illustration of how limited many middle-class women’s lives were – again, something that we find it difficult to appreciate from our twenty-first century standpoint. We might intellectually know that the Victorian period was probably the one in English history where women’s rights and status in society reached their lowest ebb, but Flanders provides illustrative facts, including that since women were supposed to spend their lives catering to their families (particularly the men), pretty much the only way for a woman to get some time to herself was to be ill – which provided a cast-iron excuse for retiring to one’s bedroom and closing the door. It provides an interesting alternative viewpoint on the fragile Victorian lady – women’s health was generally poorer than men’s because of their poorer diet and lack of fresh air and exercise, but being a professional invalid definitely had its attractions for any woman who wanted to escape the endless round of service to others. This was something I hadn’t even considered before, and it’s the sort of thing that shines a light from a different angle and makes everything suddenly look different. One example Flanders gives is Florence Nightingale, who spent many years as an invalid – but managed to drive huge changes in public health by writing from her bedroom. Would she have been able to do that work if she had – as society expected of a woman – either got married and spent her life looking after the husband and kids, or moved in with a relative to act as an unpaid housekeeper?

This kind of little detail often gets missed from the big histories, and it’s vital for anyone who wants to reproduce the world (or something like it) because it is important for how people lived in their day-to-day lives. Writing big plot events pushes the story along, but writing the background detail makes it feel real.

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