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Good background reading for Victorian novels
on 21 March 2005
This is a wonderful work of popular social history about the lives of Victorians. But, rather than the upper classes or the ruling elite, or the working classes, we are taken into the homes of the middle classes. Yes, this is costume drama territory. Flanders introduces us to the archetypal middle class house -- perhaps a prosperous five-storey villa in the city, or a humble terrace -- and she takes the reader on a guided tour of all the rooms in turn. We are told how the room was used by the household: what occurred there and when, how and why. How it was furnished, how often it was used etc. Then, far more interestingly Flanders digresses into wider related social aspects in each chapter. For example the chapter on the 'sickroom' -- usually a bedroom emptied of all furnishings to nurse a sick family member back to health -- becomes a discussion about Victorian healthcare, medicine, funerals, and mourning etiquette. (The Victorians had an unhealthy preoccupation with illness and a tendency towards hypochondria.)
Flanders makes wonderful use of primary sources such as memoirs, diaries, letters and journals to illustrate the points she is making and to give specific examples to bring situations and ideas to life (very evocative, quaint language). She also regularly cites contemporary novelists such as Dickens and Bronte (to name but two) that allows us an insight into the mind of a Victorian reader through their characters, whose situations, circumstances and opinions reveal an awful lot about prevailing thought of the period. Various 'pamphleteers' and authors of household management books (especially Mrs Beeton) also feature heavily, though usually to be derided by the author and the reader for their hopeless pomposity and self-righteous bluster.
Having read this, it's very difficult to admire or to respect Victorians very much as far as their private lives were concerned, and Flanders seems to concur with this and makes no attempt to disguise her contempt: generally (there are exceptions) they were pompous, self-righteous, patronising, snobbish and arrogant beyond belief, not to mention cruel to their servants. It is difficult or impossible to sympathise with any of the Victorians whose writings feature in this book. However this does allow for Flanders' pithy and acerbic notes at the bottom on the pages to add a little humour too. This is somewhat unusual for a history book and the author's style certainly ain't Adam Hart-Davis' gushing What The Victorians Did For Us. I'm just aching to read a Dickens now, or to watch a period drama. This really is a fascinating and entertaining read and written in an accessible prose and with some nice illustrations.
Just a few quibbles now. One thing I would add is that it seems to concentrate more on the lives of women and rather brushes over men a little. But this is to be expected in an exploration of the household. And Flanders does seem to repeat herself too often for my liking; there's repeating things for emphasis and then there's just repeating things. Lastly, it's also rather 'Londoncentric'. Now I don't mind this, thinking as I do that London is magnificent, but I'm aware that certain people object to this. But these are just trifling criticisms that don't detract from a real achievement. A splendid book.