Someone – a literary agent, in fact – suggested The Victorian House by Judith Flanders might be a useful source book for the novel I’m currently writing. My book’s about a derelict house, and various episodes are going to take place in Victorian times; a book which details everything that went on inside a Victorian house is bound to be helpful.
But what I found, within about three pages, was that rather than just being helpful, The Victorian House was utterly fascinating. Which meant that I read it in the most annoying way imaginable:
I would settle down on the sofa with the book. Soon I’d have an audibly sharp intake of breath. The fiancé, sitting at his computer, clicking at architectural models, would look over. I would pretend not to notice and continue to read. The fiancé’s attention would return to the computer screen. And then, ‘Wow,’ I’d say. The fiancé would continue to click, while asking ‘What?’ unimpressed. ‘What?’ I’d ask, innocent. ‘What is it?’ That’s him again. ‘Oh, nothing. Just something I’m reading.’ He’d return to his screen, I’d return to the book. Two minutes later: ‘No…’ I gasp. ‘What the hell is it?’ says he.
But then, when I’d tell him whatever Victorian fact from which I’d gleaned such geeky enjoyment, he’d usually say ‘wow’ too. So it was all ok.
The book isn’t really about Victorian architecture. Rather it takes each room of the house and uses it as a filter to describe a particular aspect of a Victorian middle-class woman’s life. So the nursery offers a window into education; the dining room, food; the scullery, servants. There’s even a finale about street life. One of my favourite facts is in this last section:
Until the 1880s there was a cow in St James’s Park, to supply milk on demand for nurses and children out for their daily walks.
‘Wow,’ I hear you say.
Perhaps I should just list a few other brilliant Victoriana facts, discovered from this book:
- ‘[Laundry] costs were so substantial in comparison to the rest of the household budget that when people stayed with friends they expected to be presented with their washing bill on departure.’
- ‘“Pteridomania”, or rather more simply, fern-collecting, had become by the mid 1850s one of the most popular drawing-room crazes.’
- Mrs Beeton recommended the following cooking times: ‘1 ½ to 1 ¾ hours to boil the macaroni’; up to 2 ¼ hours to boil the carrots; 2 hours to stew ‘very gently’ a cutlet.
- The most common ‘ketchups’ were anchovy, mushroom or walnut. The only rare one was tomato.
- Women were known to change their outfits seven times a day
- Lavatory bowls were heavily decorated – patterns of birds, fruit or flowers were common. There were also Italianate garden scenes and even reproductions of Windsor Castle!
Now there’s a Royal Wedding souvenir opportunity missed.
Reviews of the book are less kind than I’d imagined. Reviewers enjoy Flanders’ brisk, no-nonsense tone, but they tend to pick holes in her research, saying that there aren’t enough primary sources and that it seems to have been done in a bit of a rush, with dates being occasionally muddled up. As I’m not a historian, these little slips passed me by.
But what I did find particularly enjoyable – and what I think the reviews seem to have unfairly passed over – is Flanders’s habit of using Victorian novels as sources. It’s such a joy to read a passage from Dickens in a new, contextual light.
For instance, Flanders quotes the passage from Bleak House in which Mr Guppy asks Esther Summerson to marry him. Perhaps this leapt out at me as I saw the really excellent Bleak House television series quite recently, and I remembered this embarrassing scene particularly well. Here is the extract from Dickens:
‘My present salary, Miss Summerson, at Kenge and Carboy’s, is two pound a-week. When I first had the happiness of looking upon you, it was one-fifteen, and had stood at that figure for a lengthened period. A rise of five has since taken place, and a further rise of five is guaranteed at the expiration of a term not exceeding twelve months from the present date. My mother has a little property, which takes the form of a small life annuity; upon which she lives in an independent though unassuming manner in the Old Street Road. She is eminently calculated for a mother-in-law. She never interferes, is all for peace, and her disposition easy. She has her failings — as who has not? — but I never knew her do it when company was present; at which time you may freely trust her with wines, spirits, or malt liquors. My own abode is lodgings at Penton Place, Pentonville. It is lowly, but airy, open at the back, and considered one of the ’ealthiest outlets. Miss Summerson! In the mildest language, I adore you. Would you be so kind as to allow me (as I may say) to file a declaration — to make an offer!’
Even when I read it at university, this passage struck me as quite ridiculous. What a strange, absurdly practical way to propose to someone! What a case of too much irrelevant information! Poor ridiculous Guppy …
Flanders explains that the humour really lies in ‘the confusion of boundaries’. This speech should have been given to the father, but as Esther has no father, it is – completely inappropriately – given to her. As well as detailing the ins and outs of correct Victorian marriage proposals, Flanders also explains how Guppy’s salary makes him an inappropriate match for Esther. She might not have her own income, but she is being looked after in an upper-middle-class household. Flanders says:
She had her own maid, as well as a house full of servants, indicating that her guardian’s income was probably heading towards £1000 a year, if not more; the potential Mrs Guppy on £100-odd could expect to be the employer of, at best, a young maid-of-all-work in her first job.
This context about etiquette, income, servants, classes makes for a much more nuanced understanding of Dickens’s humour.
I found it to be a fascinating book, useful both as an aide for understanding Victorian life and also – quite unexpectedly – for sharpening my focus on some rather blurry details of Victorian literature.