Recently parts of the internet buzzed about an article about Victorian living, written by a woman who, with her husband, decided to live as Victorians, eschewing all the accouterments of modern life (or so she claimed). There were all kinds of problems with this article, starting with the irony of writing self-righteously about not using modern technology and then publishing the article on the internet, of all things, but if nothing else, it might spark people’s interest in what the Victorian era (roughly from 1837 through 1901) was REALLY like.
If you are one of those people who wonders why everybody was so annoyed at that article by the would-be Victorians, or who wonders whether the “good old days” were really that good, or who just wants to know more about how people actually lived in the 19th century, I cannot recommend the book How to be a Victorian: a Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life, by Ruth Goodman, highly enough. Not only is it exhaustive and researched to an awe-inspiring degree, built not only on official sources but also on actual artifacts and diaries of people who lived in the period, but it is enthrallingly well-written, funny and fascinating. Reading this book is like taking a real trip through the Victorian era in England (with occasional brief side trips to Scotland and Ireland), without the privilege and snootiness of the offensive article.
Even if you are already knowledgeable about British history (as I considered myself to be), there are revelations in this book that will startle you and intrigue you. She states that “Drug abuse was widespread among Victorian babies,” and then launches into a fascinating discussion of the use of opiates like laudanum (made with alcohol and morphine) and Godfrey’s Cordial (pure opium) to keep babies and very young children quiet so their mothers could work. The author describes the amount of heavy work involved in doing laundry for a Victorian family (not even a rich family with vast amounts of clothing, either, just an ordinary working class or middle class family) and by the time you’re finished reading that section, you agree with the author that the invention of powered washing machines were a major factor in women’s liberation. Not only do you come to realize that the worst thing you could do in the Victorian era was to get sick or injured (medicine was fairly primitive and painkillers were all but nonexistent), but you also learn how pervasive hunger was throughout the era, how terrible Victorian diets were in general (scurvy and rickets, both deprivation diseases, were rife), and how the lack of protein and vitamins affected people in all ranges of society. You will learn how children were schooled (and if your idea of Victorian education comes from Jane Eyre or movies of that sort, you will be surprised at the variety of educational experiences), how people got to work (riding on a horse-drawn omnibus, for instance, sounds like riding on a very unsafe and shaky carnival ride), what they did at work, what people did for recreation (the gradual shift from participation in sports to spectating at sporting events), and a thousand and one details about every aspect of Victorian life, all brought to vivid life with primary sources and numerous illustrations.
Travel through time to Victorian England and see what it was REALLY like. You’ll be entertained and enthralled.