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The best books on Life in the Victorian Age

recommended by Judith Flanders

History books often focus on big political or economic events, wars and leaders. But there's much to learn from studying the way people lived, and what made the Victorian age both like and unlike our own, as Judith Flanders explains.

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You have written extensively about life in the Victorian age. What attracted you to this period?

Well, it happened, like so many things, by accident. I was reading a biography of Kipling, and I discovered that his uncle was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, and his first cousin was the prime minister Stanley Baldwin. I thought, “What an amazing story. I should do something about that.” And then did nothing for a decade. But one day I thought, “OK, I am going to do something about that”, and I began to work on what turned out to be my first book, a biography of the four sisters who married or gave birth to these men. While I was doing the research, I realised that what I was really interested in was not the Great Men (or Women) school of biography, but the texture of daily life. So the answer is somewhat pragmatic: I started to work on the Victorian period simply because that was when some people I was interested in lived. It was only afterwards I realised how rich and exciting the times were.

Are there certain aspects of life in the Victorian age that you think have been neglected by historians?

I think, in general, over the last couple of centuries, daily life has been very seriously neglected. We’ve been catching up in the last 20 years or so, but there’s still a tendency to think that books about pots and pans, or chamber pots, lawn mowers, tennis racquets or whatever, are less important than books about Churchill, economics or war. But at the end of the day, we all live these daily lives, and we know how much they matter. It is impossible to imagine they didn’t matter to the people of the 19th (or 18th or 17th) centuries just as much.

You are just finishing a book on Dickens’s London. Can you tell us more?

Well, this grew out of my “daily life” interest, too. In my book The Victorian House, I wanted to find out how people actually lived – again, not the big story, but the little one: How did they wash their clothes, or their floors, how did they take baths, or set their tables? It seemed logical to then move outside the house and into the street. We’ve all seen TV programmes where a man is galloping somewhere in a hansom cab. I wanted to find out, where did he pick up the cab? Did it wait at a cabstand, like now? You can’t park a horse like a car, so how did people commute to their offices? That kind of thing. Dickens’s novels give an incredibly vivid picture of street life – his journalism even more so. So I thought of combining the two – trying to depict London street life using Dickens’s own life and writings as a sort of spine through the book.

This leads us neatly on to the first of your five books. A huge number of books have been written about Dickens – why did you choose this one?

Envy, mostly. I would love to have been able to write this book. It focuses on the first half decade of Dickens’s writing life, from his beginnings to Oliver Twist. Yet at the same time it ranges widely. The author suggests that, because we know Dickens was a great novelist, we don’t imagine that in 1833 that was not the case – he might just as easily have become something else. And the book is an exploration of the circumstances, both external and internal, that created the writer we know. So the past and the future is not ignored – it is really, “What made Dickens, what was he made of, and what did he make of it?” How did he use his experiences – the childhood trauma of the blacking factory and his father’s imprisonment for debt, his scanty schooling, his young life as an impoverished clerk, his career as a journalist? These experiences, which could have taken him on lots of routes, led him to be the writer we know. Douglas-Fairhurst examines both how and why.

He is an amazingly close reader of the novels and a terrific stylist. He’s also dryly funny. So it’s the perfect book. It told me new things about a subject I thought I knew well, it made even the things I knew about already consistently interesting, because of a really original point of view, and it made me laugh.

Douglas-Fairhurst has said that few people lead as many lives as Dickens – novelist, playwright, actor, social campaigner, journalist, editor, philanthropist, amateur conjurer, celebrity – and that trying to pin him down is like putting your thumb on a blob of mercury. Do you agree?

Absolutely. There are many Victorians who are absolutely exhausting to read about – it’s perfectly clear they must have found days with more than 24 hours in them to do what they did – but Dickens is perhaps the most exhausting. He just never stopped, and each thing was different, and each done with amazing energy. I have focused on Dickens as an observer of London, as a city walker – 15-mile walks were routine for him, several times a week. But it would have been just as possible to do a different half-dozen Dickenses.

Next year will be Dickens’ bicentenary year. Perfect timing for your book.

Indeed. I just hope everyone isn’t sick to death of him by then.

Why is The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period important in helping us understand the Victorian age?

This was really a groundbreaking book. An awful lot of history gets written working from assumptions: We “know” this, that or the other, and then from that “knowledge” we build theories. But as St Clair shows in The Reading Nation, a lot of the time what we “know” is actually just what we think, or believe. We “know” how important so-and-so was because he is important now, so somehow we just assume it was fated, and that his contemporaries would have known of their fame just as we do. But that is, of course, not the case. And so it is hugely important to get back to the detail, to do the sums, tally up the numbers, before we make sweeping statements.

St Clair used publishers’ archives to look at the numbers of books that were printed in order to assess the possibilities of influence. He looks not just at what was written, but how it was published and marketed and sold, who had access to it, how much it cost, who read it, and so on. Even little things are clues for him. For example, he notes that philosophy, travel, sermons and poetry were published with expensive bindings, but that novels rarely were, which tells us about attitudes to the different genres. It sounds really nerdy, but the best part is the appendixes, particularly where he looks at the actual numbers. So [Jane Austen’s] Emma, he figures from the records, sold fewer than 8,000 copies between its publication in 1815 and 1854, while Maria Edgeworth’s Patronage, published the same year as Mansfield Park, sold 11,000 copies in its first year. A useful reminder that what we think about writers now is not necessarily how their reputations stood at the time.

St Clair rates a writer’s influence in this period on their book sales. For example, he argues that to describe the 19th century as the “age of Wordsworth” was exaggerated if not illusory, given that his sales were tiny compared to, say, Walter Scott. But don’t you think St Clair uses a rather limited measure of success? Wordsworth’s sales may not have been that high, but his work was tremendously influential among the literary classes.

Well, I think he’s not talking so much about “success” as access. Like Douglas-Fairhurst on Dickens, it’s easy to say now that Wordsworth’s poetry permeated everything, but if you look at the numbers, it was probably not true. He notes that Lyrical Ballads had a print run of about 2,000 copies. So how many people actually had access to it? Similarly, the contemporary influence of Thomas Paine has, he suggests, been hugely overstated. The supposed many hundreds of thousands of copies of Common Sense that were rapidly sold in every village on the globe defy credibility. Clearly the influence of both Wordsworth and Paine were great, but in a more nuanced fashion. It is, in some ways, more interesting that Wordsworth’s influence was so great while his sales were so small.

Your next book is by the German-born author Wolfgang Schivelbusch. Before we talk about the title you have chosen, perhaps you can tell us more about this author and his body of work?

I wish I could. In fact, although I’ve done a bit of searching, because I am such an admirer of his, I know almost nothing about him. He appears not to be an academic, but works on his own – and I think he lives in New York. But I know nothing more about him personally. If anyone does, do let me know! I’ve read everything he’s written that’s appeared in English – from a book on the psychology of defeat in war to a social history of spices. I know with this author that even if I think I’m not interested before I begin, I will be 20 pages in.

For example, his The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning and Recovery looks at the American South after the Civil War, France after the Franco-Prussian War and Germany after World War I, and examines how nations dealt with the trauma of defeat, how societies rebuild themselves by creating myths about the defeat (such as the “plantation legend” of the Old South), or by reconfiguring their identities to reject, or incorporate, aspects of their conquerors’ societies (taking on educational practices from the victors). What is really fascinating are the parallels he finds across centuries and societies – both inspiring and rather frightening.

The title you have chosen is about the introduction of artificial lighting – something we take for granted today but which had a huge impact on everyday life in this period. Can you tell us more about this book and why you chose it?

Again, it’s back to Douglas-Fairhurst and how retroactively we take so much for granted. I love the idea that sociability, even family life, changed dramatically as technology changed. For example, when people used candles, activities were individual – the light they gave was only enough for whatever it was you were doing, and to do something in a group, you had to be able to spend a serious amount of money for enough light. Once oil lamps and then gas, then electricity, arrived, social events became less expensive. So, for example, you see an explosion of books being published on card games soon after gas lighting became relatively inexpensive. Or the changes could be much more core to each society. In the 18th century, Schivelbusch suggests that Paris, with its good, state-mandated street lighting, had not much need for good locks on houses, while England, with poor lighting, saw great developments in the technology of locks. What I love about Schivelbusch, here and in all his other books, is how he combines developments in science and technology with social history and psychology – not just what happened, but why, and why it mattered.

There’s a lovely section in the book that talks about people smashing lanterns when public lighting was first introduced because they thought it was created by magic.

There’s a wonderful cartoon drawn by Rowlandson in the first decade of the 19th century, when gas lighting was first demonstrated in one street in London. Everyone stands and stares – the wondering citizens, a comic foreigner overcome by the marvels of modernity in London, a preacher who warns of ignoring religion’s “inward light” in favour of this outward show, and a prostitute worrying that, with no dark corners left, “We may as well shut up shop.” Her customer worries too!

Your next book is by the American academic Richard Altick, who died three years ago after a long and very distinguished career. He is most famous for his pioneering contribution to the field of Victorian studies. How influential a scholar do you think he was?

In terms of Victorian studies, perhaps no one was more influential. He was one of the earliest to explore those elements of life that previous generations had thought didn’t count as “history” – travelling shows, or what the common people read. One of my favourite books of his is The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (yes, another book about books and reading – we are definitely seeing a pattern here). This is a look at how current events were transformed into literature – what were people reading about their own times, and how did it change their views? He was a giant.

Why have you chosen his book on murder cases in the 19th century?

This was one of the two starting points for my last book, The Invention of Murder, which looked at how murder was transformed into popular entertainment in the 19th century. My previous book, Consuming Passions, had explored various forms of popular leisure – in theatres, I was fascinated to discover, current and historical murder cases were turned into plays. I then found Altick’s book, Victorian Studies in Scarlet: Murders and Manners in the Age of Victoria, and realised it was an even richer subject that I’d thought, and he led the way for the rest of my research.

What’s wonderful is the way he makes us see that our responses to murder now are no different to then. When I tell people that the Victorians had a taste for giving their racehorses the names of current murderers, or that they liked puppet shows about murders, they always think it is seriously peculiar. But as Altick shows, it is only a difference in method. The Victorians loved to watch murders on stage, we like to watch docudramas on TV or in cinemas – there is really no difference. Racehorses seem weird to us, T-shirts with slogans about Charles Manson would have seemed weird to them. But they all come from the same impulse, and Altick captures that wonderfully.

Would you like to tell us something about your final choice, John Gloag’s Victorian Comfort: A Social History of Design from 1830-1900?

Like Altick, this was one of the breakthrough books for a whole generation of historians. He also took a subject – furniture – and said it was not enough to look at it in terms of aesthetics, but that objects had meanings. Upholstery, for example, a fairly recent historical invention, was not just a new technology, but marked a societal shift, from seeing a chair as an object that confers status (the dining chair with arms is only given to the head of the household) to one where how it feels when you sit on it matters. Similarly, we expect our clothes to be comfortable, but for millennia that wasn’t their purpose. Clothes were (apart from simply covering bodies, obviously) designed to convey status. The idea of “comfort” is a change in our ideas about the purpose of life.

There was the decorative Regency period and then the inventiveness and creativity of the Arts and Crafts movement. Has the period in between been ignored as an age of inventive and distinctive design?

I think it probably has. That happens a lot historically – periods get labelled “dusty” or “boring”, and it takes a new generation to look at them. One of the things that is endlessly fascinating about 19th century design, which Gloag is so good at, is how the age of classification – which brought us not just the Oxford English Dictionary, or the first thesaurus, or popularised Linnaeus – produced a whole new range of household items. So now you didn’t just have a spoon, you had a dessert spoon and a soup spoon – not just a knife, but a fish knife and a dinner knife and a butter knife. This tells us so much, not only about mass production and the rising standards of living that made these things affordable to many, but also about class and income differentiation, which made objects represent values about consumption, about people’s expectations of how life should be lived. It’s such a rich subject and Gloag really led the way.

December 12, 2011

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Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders is an author and journalist who specialises in the Victorian period. Her biography of four Victorian sisters, A Circle of Sisters, was nominated for The Guardian First Book Award in 2001. Her book Dickens’ London: Everyday Life in a Victorian City was published in 2012

Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders is an author and journalist who specialises in the Victorian period. Her biography of four Victorian sisters, A Circle of Sisters, was nominated for The Guardian First Book Award in 2001. Her book Dickens’ London: Everyday Life in a Victorian City was published in 2012