Book Review: How to Be a Victorian

Cover of How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. Written by historian Ruth Goodman. Image from

I recently finished reading How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman. I really enjoyed it. Goodman devotes a chapter to each major aspect of Victorian life and organizes the book by the time of day, beginning with morning grooming and dressing rituals and ending with evening activities such as bathing and sex.

Goodman provides a ton of great detail, including the results of her own personal experiments with Victorian life (trying period clothing, recipes, chores, etc.). She is careful, too, to compare the widely varying experiences of the wealthy, middle, and poor social classes, as well as the differences between those living in urban London and those in the countryside of England, Ireland, etc.

If you had lived in Victorian London, the odds were that you would be most likely poor, and most likely:

Cold. Coal was expensive and used sparingly, mostly for cooking. Plus, the early Victorians believed that illness was carried via bad odors/air, so homes, workplaces, and schools were left drafty and windows left cracked for ventilation where possible, even in the winter. It was so cold inside buildings that ink would regularly freeze in ink wells. People wore intricate, thick, layered clothing to combat the cold.

In the dark. Again, fuel was expensive. Most people went to bed early for warmth and to avoid burning fuel for light.

Dirty and smelly (in some ways). Victorians were very clean when water was accessible, with regular laundry schedules, daily sponge baths, etc. There were no sewers, however, and the outdoor privies (deep holes dug into the ground and surrounded with sheds) filled up quickly in the overcrowded cities. The poor could not pay to have the privies emptied regularly (a manual process that took place at night by specialized workers), so the overflow would seep into yards, streets, basements, houses, and natural waterways.

Exhausted. The middle and poor classes worked extremely hard, and 12 to 14 hour-days were not uncommon, even for children in the early years of Victoria’s reign. Housekeeping was physically difficult, too, and required hauling water and fuel, washing heavy clothes and linens by hand, copious amounts of sewing, etc.

Sick. Horrific overcrowding, poor sanitation, and poor nutrition made people especially vulnerable to the many (and deadly) infectious diseases of the time period, such as cholera.

Addicted. The popular, heavily advertised health “tonics” and “cures” of the day were made with opium, cocaine, alcohol, and other addictive ingredients. It was easy to become inadvertently addicted. I was sad to learn that many working mothers would dose their children with these tonics to keep them quiet and docile and avoid having to feed them during the busy day. Many of the opiates and other ingredients were appetite-suppressants, though, so the hungry babies wouldn’t eat even when milk and food were finally offered to them.

Malnourished. Fresh fruits and vegetables were difficult to find in the city, plus prevailing thought held that starchy foods such as potatoes and bread were better to eat (especially for children).

Hungry. Many people suffered insufficient caloric intake. The poorest of the poor often found themselves in charity-run workhouses and jail. Records show that some of these residents/inmates received only 80% of the calories they needed each day, so they were slowly starving to death.

Endangered. The jobs of the Victorian period were horrifically dangerous. You could be easily injured, maimed, or killed while working in factories, mines, railroads, etc. In addition, food, medicine, and other goods were not inspected or regulated in any way, and unscrupulous vendors would sell goods adulterated with chalk or brick dust (or worse) to stretch profits.

Crowded. The poorest London Victorians crammed into rundown tenement houses. If I remember correctly, Goodman reported that some houses had only 1 privy for every 80 people.

Of course, those in the middle and upper classes were more comfortable and healthy than the poor, but even they still suffered from illness, addiction, and malnutrition.

Ugh. It all sounds miserable.

I was particularly surprised to read that Goodman tried wearing corsets in her experiments and really liked them. If the corset wasn’t laced too tightly, Goodman found that it actually provided welcome back and torso support for the hard physical work of Victorian womanhood.

I was also struck by Goodman’s details regarding household laundry routines. Laundry was incredibly hard physical work and quite time-consuming. Goodman concludes that:

My own historical laundry experiences have led me to see the powered washing machine as one of the great bulwarks of women’s liberation, an invention that can sit alongside contraception and the vote in the direct impact it has had on changing women’s lives.

Wow. That’s a big, bold statement, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the tremendous labor of the many women who could not afford to send out their family’s clothes and linens to the commercial laundries.

The only thing I feel this book lacked was a chapter on religion/spirituality that could have touched on the elaborate Victorian funeral and mourning customs, etc. There are many other books on the subject, of course, but I would have liked to hear Goodman’s thoughtful take on it.

It was especially timely to read How to Be a Victorian over Thanksgiving week, because it reminded me of the hard work and sacrifices made by our ancestors to give us the more comfortable, healthy lives that we live today. Thank goodness for their fights for worker rights, consumer rights, voting rights, etc. Our lives would be much, much different without them.

— Angela

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