The Victorian House by Judith Flanders
The title is shorthand for “The domestic life of Victorian middle-class women.” The main thrust of this book, I think, is to emphasise that our image of the standard middle-class Victorian domestic set-up is often erroneously high-faluting. Advertising campaigns and housekeeping advice books conspired to suggest that the women buying and using soap and cookery books had the type of establishments where there were servants to do everything – while the fact that there was a market for this combination of product and ploy indicated that the mistress of the house was obliged to get involved. And a governess, for instance, was not de rigeur; many women would simply have been taught by their mothers. The biggest reason why all this sort of thing doesn’t really register in our idea of these people’s lives is because there was an obligation for women to be silent on much of what their womanly domestic duties actually consisted of. For all that men were so very keen on women wanting to carry them out, and finding that willingness sexually attractive, Flanders portrays men as being actually quite viscerally repelled by exposure to housekeeping inaction, finding the petty necessity of its details sordid and unseemly. There’s also the fact that knowledge of what goes into maintaining a house and family elicits acknowledgment that it is work, extra specially so in this period, and that women were therefore active and skilful.
There’s a lot of emphasis on the Augean Stables nature of Victorian housekeeping, with chimneys and smuts and lavatories with cess pits and gas lamps that ruined their surroundings and varying amounts of running water and the terrible business of laundry, and sewing sheets side to middle. So much of the baggage of housekeeping in days gone by has been forgotten. Also there’s the hopeless business of trying to keep people alive and some very strange ideas about the kind of nourishment babies could live on. And the terrible nuisance of crinolines in omnibuses and a wealth of other random details. Flanders is quite keen on emphasising the unattractiveness of the Victorians; they are more likeable in novels in which it becomes clear that people didn’t always, or even usually, behave just as they ought than in their nonfiction confident prescriptions and demands. They seem very rigid here, full of very precise rules for every social interaction, which were different depending on your exact social circle. This book isn’t particularly well-organised, and the question of what makes it into the book and what doesn’t seems very random sometimes, but if you’d like to know more about the nitty-gritty of how these people actually lived you should find something to interest you.