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I have developed a real interest in social history lately but know little of the Victorian era. When The Victorian House came up in my Amazon recommendation list it was a book that looked good as it claimed to tell us about how the typical family lived during this period.
The book is split into eleven chapters which each cover a room in the house. These chapters are the bedroom, the nursery, the kitchen, the scullery, the drawing room, the parlour, the dining room, the morning room, the bathroom, the sickroom and the street. The book is extensively researched using books from the day such as Mrs Beaton's cookbook, childcare manuals, home furnishing catalogues, literature of the era and personal letters. Although I appreciate the wealth of research that has went into the book I was left wondering how accurate it all was for example Mrs Beaton was quoted widely as an example of how that Victorian kitchens were run but I wonder if this truly represented how real women did things any more than looking at Delia's "How To Cook" would tell you about a modern kitchen.
As you will probably be able to tell from the list of rooms this was not in fact a book chronicling the lives of the average man and woman in the street but rather the upper middle classes who had enough money for all of that space and the servants to maintain it. The book often quotes the correspondence of Victorian women who were very much in the upper reaches of society and I found it disappointing that the only mention of the working classes was in their role as servants.
One aspect of the book covers how homes were decorated and used in the Victorian era with costs given for furnishing a home based on income and what you would be expected to buy with this money. The Victorian era was very harsh compared to ours but was also a time of great technological change when indoor plumbing and lighting started to appear and this progress made a huge difference to peoples lives.
Home was where the women spent most of their time and this book does a really good job of exploring the role that women played in society. The Victorian era was a mans world with men holding all the power and married women not allowed to own property or divorce. Women lived by strict rules which covered everything from their way of dressing, socialising, eating and bringing up their children. Women were seen as fragile and I could better understand references in fictional books which idolised frail and sickly women after reading this book as that is what was expected of them.
The part of the book I found the most interesting was the section about the nursery which talked about how children were treated during the Victorian ages and this in fact gave me some really good material for my open university course on child development which was a nice bonus. It takes us through childhood right from the birth of a new baby, how childcare experts said it should be brought up and educated and how boys and girls were treated differently. The other interesting chapter in the book was the sickroom where the illness and medicines of the time were discussed but it also went into detail about funerals and the different mourning clothes that women were expected to wear according to which relative had died.
I did feel like the book concentrated on the negatives of Victorian life far too much and never any of the positives. The Victorians were portrayed as a fairly dour bunch of people living in grimy cities and following ridiculous social rules but there must have been some joy in their lives too. The differences between Victorian and modern society are huge and it is amazing to see how much progress we have made in a relatively short period of time.
The Victorian House is a really interesting book which although extensively researched and references it is still very accessible to the interested layperson. It does look at domestic life in the Victorian era but I would have liked to hear more about working class and the lower middle classes as I find their stories far more interesting than the wealthy.