Ruth Goodman, How to be a Victorian

Self-help manual for people interested in steam punk or social history of the Victorian age. I reckon this book could be either.

What grabbed me was the illustration on the dust-jacket about wearing a corset, including the sage advice that breathing might be difficult especially once liberated from the corset. Ruth Goodman is an academic but, in a similar way to Dr Lucy Worsley, seems to enjoy trying things out for herself. For some, it might be grating and frustrating to almost lose the history in the ‘faff’. However, I have always been interested in social history more than military or political history. I’m interested in why people acted the way they did, how they lived and how those lives influenced history, culture and, most especially, literature.

The life of the upper middle class and aristocratic woman has always interested me in particular because the life of the working class woman has been well researched and documented, as have the lives of the gentlemen. Yet I find that the upper class lady has been forgotten – probably because their lives appear vapid and subsumed in fashion and parties. But precisely these things fascinate me. In these ladies’ lives we find a return to medieval sumptuary laws, if only implicitly. Women found different outlets for their energy which they were not, by society, allowed to exert elsewhere. The rules and regulations of upper class society are fascinating and complex, I find, and (naturally) differ from country to country.

Ruth Goodman’s book is not a history of women, nor a history of the upper class. It is a broad social history of the Victorian age with additional tidbits such as the best Victorian toothpastes which actually work and are all organic – and which make-up is best to avoid because of its toxic contents.

The writing is very engaging and I really liked the structure of the book, because it starts in the morning and ends in the evening. It’s a very good way of avoiding confusing excursions from a chapter. However, I did miss, in the leisure section, an in-depth discussion of the theatre. This is where my interest in the upper class comes back in again because the theatre is a social circle in its own right with its own rules and its behaviour. I appears I have found my next book – but maybe I need to finish the book on the Grand Tour first.

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