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Knickerbockers and Tight-Lacing:Ruth Goodman’s ‘How To Be A Victorian’

2013 August 5

‘How To Be A Victorian’ (Penguin/Viking, 2013) by Ruth Goodman

review by Gabrielle Malcolm

How To Be A Victorian: an amiable study by Ruth Goodman

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, as the song goes. It was especially hard to be a Victorian woman. We think we know, and we certainly do – on many levels – understand the hardships that people underwent on a daily basis, from morning until night. But is this awareness not just one of academic, historic facts? Do we really appreciate or empathise with what our Victorian forbears endured?

Ruth Goodman does. Not only has she suffered from housemaid’s knee, worn a corset, and cooked almost everything from pottage to cottage loaves in a Victorian range, she has also not bathed or washed her hair for months, apart from the traditional stand-up cold water wash, or a scrub down with a rough flannel. Can you say that you have committed the same level of physical dedication to your research? I think not!

All the while, however, she remained fragrant and hygienic. The obsession with not being a member of the ‘great unwashed’ (thank you Thackeray for the term) is a recent one and Goodman examines this element with a degree of scrutiny that takes one’s breath away, and not in a bad way. I have had the great pleasure of meeting Ruth on more than one occasion and each time she was beautifully groomed and odour-free. I can personally vouch for that.

Goodman’s commitment to being the re-creationist type of historian for television (The Victorian Pharmacy, The Victorian & Edwardian Farm programmes for the BBC, amongst others) and in print means that she cuts away a lot of speculative history and helps to reinforce or explode certain notions  and pre-conceptions of the period. She reflects on the arguments concerning women’s corsets, and recommends the supportive, sensible, breathable undergarment as a solution in a world without central heating and a life that entailed hard physical labour for most women. The mania for tight-lacing recommended in some circles is dismissed as the extreme of fashion that it was – as inconvenient and impractical as the stacked heel or the acrylic stick-on nail is now, and certainly not a universal characteristic of Victorian life.

Goodman’s work is solid, well-researched, entertaining stuff and far more worthwhile than many of the making history fun/personal style of programme-making. She brings an amiable and authentic voice to everything. How to keep a hairstyle in place was a problem faced by many Victorian women (she is excellent on the fine line between fashion and respectability) and she explores the manufacture of hair fixatives. Much of the concocting of cosmetics, remedies, and other ointments and lotions happened within the domestic sphere for most of the period. Thanks to The Young Ladies’ Journal and other magazines, there were ample recipes and advice for this. Goodman has experimented with the recommendations, containing ‘gum tragacanth [a resin also used when icing cakes], one drachm and a half; water, half a pint; proof spirit …, three ounces; and otto of roses’. There was also a version using gum arabic. Goodman testifies: ‘I have used both types of gum and am hard pushed to say which one I prefer.’ (119)

Physical exercise, meals, clothing, contraception, schooling, fads and crazes, and the different lifestyles of the social classes are picked over in detail. Of particular interest is the range of examinations offered concerning the plight of the working classes. Goodman outlines the ordeals and safety issues faced by workers in match factories, seamstresses preparing garments for the London season (working 20 hour days), fishwives and their culture and distinctive dress, and the respite offered by music halls, football matches, and taverns.

Goodman has brushed her teeth with soot, treated her chapped hands with home-made ointments, used a mangle and a copper for washing clothes, and lived according to the word of Mrs Beeton. She offers a commentary on the ‘great table-manners race’ as fashions and the movements in dining out became more widespread. The whole structure of the book is framed around a day in the life of a Victorian, from rising in the morning through the events of the day until they retired in the evening. By the end we know about sweat, body hair removal, and the advent of personal deodorants, as well as that age-old question of how Victorian ladies managed to do a poop in spite of all those petticoats. With remarkable ease as it turns out.

The personal and material culture of the age has never been more popular. Goodman’s work has answered that enthusiasm with an instinct that is missing in the work of even some of the most popular historians. This has value for the general reader as well as the more serious academic. She makes neat connections and associations, with the lateral thought of the historian on show. For example, the commercial development of carbonated drinks meant that glass marbles were inserted as stoppers into the reusable bottles. However, she relates, little boys smashed the necks of the bottles to retrieve the marbles – as popular as consuming the drink – and the fad of playground games of marbles and collecting the coveted items was born.

Goodman is excellent on the tactile, material, and relatable features of the period. Her analysis is always on the personal level without a political or critical agenda. From the outset, in the first chapter, we are encouraged to appreciate how Jane Carlyle must have felt when she awoke ‘with a shiver’ in the 1850s. Goodman ‘moves through the rhythm of the day’ with ease, and covers every topic you can think of and many you didn’t even know you wanted to think about. As an effective and affecting account of the lives of ordinary Victorians this is an excellent read. This book encourages us to think about a cultural relationship and association with nineteenth century lives, and speaks to the early twenty-first century popularity for such explorations with enthusiasm and energy.

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