As an avid reader of Victorian literature, I often yearned to time-travel there, where I would read new novels by Dickens and Brontë, ride in a horse-drawn carriage, take high tea with my erudite and charming friends, go to masked balls and wear some pretty darn cool clothes.
After reading “How to Be a Victorian,” I now know that anyone planning to become a Victorian will want to start by being hungry — very hungry. At the beginning of the Victorian period (Victoria took the throne in 1837), food was in short supply: Rural families in the south of England survived almost entirely on bread, with no meat, dairy or vegetables, though perhaps, for the better off, some beer might accompany breakfast, a healthy practice that added nutrients and reduced disease from contaminated water. Even relatively affluent children were often kept hungry for moral education: “The self-control and self-denial induced by hunger were thought to teach enduring habits of self-sacrifice and to aid in fashioning a more moral individual.” Hunger was especially useful in training girls to curb all their bodily appetites.
On the whole, it was not a good time to be a child. Babies were frequently dosed with a tonic based on straight opium or laudanum (a mixture of morphine and alcohol). In many cases, mothers needed their babies to sleep while they were at work, since wages were so small that everyone’s pay was needed for the family’s survival. But even middle- and upper-class infants were often drugged, either by nursemaids whose family tradition was to dose infants or by mothers who believed the advertising claims of the drug companies that tonics would build strong, healthy children. At least the opiates did curb hunger.
Drugged, half-starved and working: Even at the end of the century, children spent more time at work than in school. Children as young as 5 could be employed full-time, and “few Victorian children over the age of 12 had the luxury of not being a paid employee.”
On second thought, cancel my ticket back in time. I’ll stay here and reap the benefits of Ruth Goodman’s year spent standing in the shoes of her Victorian ancestors. Her research is impeccable, but it is the empathetic, experiential dimension of the book that makes it such an engaging read. Goodman brushed her teeth Victorian style, with cuttlefish and soot, wore several varieties of corset, mixed and used Victorian cosmetics and hair care potions, tried her hand at the threshing machine (and learned firsthand how easy it would be to be fatally injured). She also tried drinking beer for breakfast, the one re-enactment practice I’d be willing to try.
Although Goodman doesn’t shy away from the often brutal realities of the time, she approaches her subject with gusto and, often, admiration. She takes readers through a typical day, from being awakened by the “knocker upper man” through the daily rituals, meals, fashions, transportation, even sexual and toilet practices common to the times, reveling in the quirkiness and eccentricities without condescension. Although the book lends itself to being read in segments, I read it straight through like a novel, panting to know what would happen next.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.