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How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

It’s always a researcher’s delight when a book about a particular period in history is written in such an informative but entertaining style you forget you’re reading non-fiction. How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman is one of these books. Packed full of fascinating facts about the everyday lives of the people who lived during the long reign of Queen Victoria, readers learn about everything from rising in the morning, hygiene, toileting, education, sport, mealtimes, work and so much more.

Ruth inflects her prose with not only a clear passion for the era she’s writing about, but great empathy for the people as well. So much so, she actually spent months living as a Victorian did – clothing herself, mending and laundering the items, preparing food, eating, washing and eeking out a living just as they would have between the 1830s and 1901. Naturally, her insights and experience add a real frisson to her research (and some dashes of humour as well). For example, when she describes how she kept herself clean in the Victorian manner (not showering or bathing daily but enjoying a stand-up wash, not washing her hair for weeks (yes, weeks) but brushing it, removing dirt from clothes with brushes as opposed to laundering them, using dentrifrice to clean her teeth) and how important cleanliness was and how germ theory was all the rage, she breaks down many of the shibboleths contemporary society holds about Victorian people.

Attitudes to women, children, education, how the different classes were treated, as well as people from different countries and cultures, all come under scrutiny. Work, sport, recreation, science, the new inventions and views on everything from contraception to homosexuality are put under the microscope, sometimes with very surprising outcomes. I was alternately bemused, aghast, unsurprised, and shocked. Reading how men and women used to change into “swimsuits” to paddle in the sea (they entered portable cabins, changed, and were rolled down to the water’s edge, where they safely alighted and were cared for by “dipping women”) was fascinating. Even the section on sport enthralled me 🙂 So did some of the more broad-minded attitudes to a range of things that one doesn’t associate with these times.

If you’re interested in this period of history and way of life, I highly recommend this wonderful, informative and above all, entertaining book. I will never look at Victorians in quite the same way again!

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