The Victorian House: Domestic life from childbirth to deathbed by Judith Flanders

Victorian domestic life, scrubbed bare
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The Independent Culture

The Victorians are rather like Germany or Greece - a foreign country where habits differ, but not so much that we cannot relate to them. After all, many of us inhabit their houses.

How did those with the sensibility of, say, Elizabeth Gaskell or George Eliot live their everyday lives? How did they, would we manage without showers, central heating, fridge-freezers? Did they really wear so many garments, and eat so many courses? Such inquiry informs Judith Flanders'The Victorian House, which is not architectural but familial: domestic life in its material details, from the basement coalhole to the attic maid's room. There is, too, a lot about relationships, between employers and servants or husbands and wives. Indeed, most of the chapter on the Drawing Room is devoted to accounts of Victorian courtship.

In a sequence of footnotes Flanders is engagingly candid about her desires to digress, at one point firmly declaring that she is far more interested in S-bends than sex. Although childbirth is well covered, rather in the Victorian manner of not speaking on certain subjects, copulation is ignored. So too is menstruation, which must have been quite a business in households filled with wives, daughters, housemaids and cooks. Lavatories, on the other hand, feature largely, following their success at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where 800,000 visitors used a watercloset or urinal for the first time.

The main message concerns Victorian dirt, from the omnipresent soots and smuts, indoors and out, to the inescapable coal-dust and horse-dung that made boots, clothes, carpets and curtains filthy. Easy now to mock the moral emphasis on cleanliness, but the daily experience was always a battle and one main reason for the ever-spreading suburbs, where one's hair and laundry were freer from grime.

Victorian dinner parties are also decoded, showing that the multiple courses served two functions. The first was to allow guests to choose from a selection - originally set out like a buffet, later served in sequence as from a menu - and the second, it seems, to provide cold meat and cooked dishes for women, children and servants for the rest of the week.

Drawing on recollections, advice manuals (the original How To books) and fiction, this book is a remarkable redaction of information. As Hilary Mantel's comment on the jacket indicates, The Victorian House is for browsing and dipping, for the touch is light, if sometimes overwhelmed by mind-numbing lists of utensils, menus or mourning requirements. The range of sources includes the familiar - Dickens' characters, Jane Carlyle, the Linley Sambournes, Gwen Raverat - and the lesser-known (a 12-page appendix offers an annotated bibliography). However, it is not the human informants who drive Flanders' narrative, but the inanimate objects. One quibble: the "easy chair" identified in Alice Squires' watercolour is surely a hip-bath?

By Jan Marsh

The reviewer's life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson