Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England – Judith Flanders (2003)

As you may have noticed by now, I am *somewhat* interested in Victorian times, especially the lives and times of ordinary people during those years. I grew up in England in a Victorian house, attended a private girls’ school that was started during the reign of Victoria, and like to read literature and anything else related to that time period. I just find it to be a fascinating era to look at.

So – this volume was very close to perfect. (Actually, I would say it was perfect as I can’t really think of anything that I would change or make different.) Flanders takes a typical Victorian home and by visiting it room by room and linking each room with a particular stage in life, the reader is transported through the domestic life of a fairly typical middle class married woman. Life was not easy for the average woman (especially when compared to all the conveniences we have of today), so it was interesting for me to read and try to think how I would have coped in a similar situation.

The book starts off in the bedroom (as many Victorian babies were actually born in these rooms), and by using the bedroom function as its starting point, Flanders takes the focus wider and wider to include childbirth, early childhood life, the life and times of Victorian parents, gender roles and more. By concentrating on the middle class (and including both upper-middle and lower-middle, but mostly middle-middle), you get a clear idea of how a family might live from day to day.

So, we start in the bedroom and then continue through the various rooms such as the kitchen, the bathroom, the scullery and more. It’s really a good way to structure a book and works effectively to allow for numerous (and interesting) digressions along the way.

Various points that I found to be note-worthy included the following:

  • The introduction of gas lighting meant that a lot of people thought that the light was way too bright; however, Flanders says to compare it to the light of a single candle! (Try reading those closely printed Vic books in that light….) Also, when the gas light was introduced, it (obviously) showed more light which meant that the dirt in the rooms was more clearly seen (especially when combined with the mess from a fire in the fire place). So, this modern convenience actually created more work for the Victorian housewife (but at least it could continue when the daylight went outside now that they had lighting).

  • Victorian marriage was the Be-All and End-All for the typical person:
    • Victorians thought that women who were independent were somehow incomplete and “less than”. Only marriage could really complete a woman. However, note that this did not apply to the servants:

“Female servants do not constitute any part of the problem we are endeavoring to solve [the problem is the number of unmarried women]…they [the servants] fulfill both essentials of a woman’s being: they are supported by, and they minister to, men. We could not possibly do without them.” William Rathbone, mill owner. 1862.

  • Remaining single was not a choice for either men or woman: it was what happened when choice was taken away…
  • And get this: new brides were required to wear their wedding dress for all their dinner parties in the first year!
  • Victorian clothing:
    • By the end of the 19th century, fashionable women wore about 38 lbs of clothing in a typical day and typical outfit. (Contrast with about two lbs for today’s outfit.)
    • Oooh yuck this bit: And the condition of a woman’s underwear was not as important as the clothes on the outside and did not get as much care. Beware the woman who wears elegant and/or colored undies: this was viewed as slightly immoral in some circles.
  • Corsets, on average, would exert a force of 21 lbs on a woman’s organs; some corsets were pulled as tight as 88 lbs in some cases. Good grief. No wonder women fainted back then. I expect it was really hard to breathe, let alone relax.

General points of interest:

  • It is usually generally thought that in Victorian times, men ruled the “outside” sphere (i.e. the public office, outside the house etc.) whilst women ruled the “inside” sphere of the home etc. However, when the evidence is actually looked at, it’s clear that men actually ruled everywhere as the majority of the advice books were written by men, most of the child-rearing books were written by men, and medical care was ruled by doctors who were, of course, men.
  • In the mid 1850’s, it was common to see a cow in the middle of St. James’ Park so that the children who were taken to play there could get fresh milk. (It was believed common that street vendors and others would dilute the milk to get more money. Milk coming directly from the cow prevented that problem and also cost a premium price.) Sheep were also grazing right by Westminster Abbey, so the countryside was very much a part of Victorian London.
    • The origin of “skirting boards”: When omnibuses were just starting, men were required to sit upstairs on the top and on the outside of the bus to provide more room for the female passengers on the inside. The outside passengers sat on a long wooden bench which went down the middle of the top floor. This had a wooden back to allow for more passengers, so men would sit with their backs to the wooden divider and their feet towards the edge of the bus. As years went by and it became more socially acceptable for women to go upstairs, crinolines were still in fashion and when women sat down, the crinoline hoops under their skirts would flip up meaning that pedestrians below could look up the women’s knickers. Thus, a board was added to the top of the bus to prevent any unwanted views and this was called a skirting board. (Now you know.)
    • A guy called Charles Babbage invented a machine called “The Difference Engine” which some believe was the very first computer.

As you can probably surmise from this rather enthusiastic review, I adored every moment of reading this book. It’s a more scholarly and much more detailed version of “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew” by Daniel Pool and if you liked that, then you’ll love this. it’s also, I think, the book that Bill Bryson was trying to write when he wrote his book about the house. (Plus Flanders’ book has a never-ending bibliography with which you can tease yourself. She is incredibly well read in this area.)  I did think that Flanders was an academic, but in checking her website, it seems not. She is a very good researcher all the same. After this fun experience, I am definitely moving her other work up the TBR pile, Consuming Passions, which describes how leisure became an industry for the Victorians.

Ooh, and hold on to your seats: she has another book on “The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dicken’s London” which is slated for release this autumn. <Rubs hands with gleeful anticipation>

That’s right. I admit it.  I am a Victorian nerd, and I embrace my nerdiness.

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One thought on “Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England – Judith Flanders (2003)

  1. Am currently listening to Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder, and finding it fairly interesting. Being a lover of the Victorian era too, I am looking forward to reading (or listening) to this book as well as her other one ‘Consuming Passions : Leisure & Pleasure in Victorian Britain’. Thanks for sharing some of the highlights of what’s it like living inside a Victorian Home. 🙂

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