‘How to Be a Victorian’ by Ruth Goodman

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How to Be a Victorian
5 stars copy

If you’ve ever wondered what life was like during the reign of Queen Victoria, you should either build a time machine, or get your hands on this book. Historian Ruth Goodman charts the Victorian experience from getting up to going to bed, and everything in-between.

Goodman is a historian and TV presenter who has more enthusiasm for her subject than a bunch of kids in a chocolate factory. She specializes in the minutiae of everyday domestic life, finding out exactly how things were done – from the methods and potions used to clean teeth or carry out the weekly wash, to the contents of a labourer’s packed lunch and the difficulties involved in having a bath or avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

Those who’ve seen her TV work, will know how passionate she can be – her distinctive style comes across well in this volume, and her down-to-earth approach mixes humour with a harsh political awareness in a way that engages her readers from page one. What I love about this woman is the way her research is, wherever possible, rooted in her own experience – she’s cleaned her teeth with soot, made her own sanitary wear, spent twelve hours toiling in a field dressed in authentic clothing, and has even resorted to using the ‘dry-brushing’ method of washing herself for weeks on end, just to see if it’s possible to keep odours at bay when hot water is in short supply. (Apparently it is).

From the horrors of child labour and unsafe working conditions, to the introduction of compulsory education and the beginnings of the Women’s Movement, Ruth Goodman conveys just how tough it must have been for all but the wealthiest of Victorian families. Having read her book, I’m still fascinated by the Victorian world, but now I’m not so sure I’d want to live there.

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