How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

The oldest of us can still remember coal fires, and people who used cut-throat razors or wore corsets and tried to get a bath once a week.

Or if we are female we may have been taught sewing at primary school; as Ruth Goodman says of our ancestors: “To be unable to sew was unthinkable – comparable to being unable to use a phone in the 21st century.”

Yet most of us in the developed world cannot imagine what life was like for the Victorians.

We are probably descended from only the toughest of them because so many were permanently hungry and died young.

Ruth Goodman knows the Victorian way of life inside out. In How To Be A Victorian, she tells us she has worn a corset, boiled kettles over a fire and manufactured elderflower water as a cosmetic.

Her book takes us through a typical Victorian day, bearing in mind that life, though not easy for anyone, was a lot easier for the rich than for the poor in those days.

They usually drank beer for breakfast, because fresh water was unsafe. They ate horrible things like tripe, oxtail and pigs’ trotters.

The Mediterranean diet we like would not have suited them, because, like the complicated clothes they buttoned themselves into, these things equipped them for the day’s hard labour.

This book contains all sorts of fascinating details, from how they cleaned their teeth (with soot) to the growth of bath houses, working men’s pubs and town parks.

Her book doesn’t discuss politics or the role of religion but does make it clear that each person was expected to know their place.

Democracy, trade unions and technology have finally freed us from Victorian values, and I, for one, am thankful.

Ruth Goodman is also an expert on domestic life during medieval times in Britain, and will star in a new ‘living history’ series this autumn exploring life on a Tudor farm for BBC Two series.

n The author will be talking about her book at Henley Literary Festival on Wednesday, October 2.

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