Review – How to be a Victorian – Ruth Goodman
The point of all this – this blog, this reading, this marathon Poirot watching – is that I intend to write a new series of Victorian mysteries. At times, this goal seems a lot further away than I would like.
I don’t like it when I’m not writing. I’ve had the germ of this idea in my head since before I started writing The Review, the first book in The Liberty Troupe Trilogy, almost two years ago. Then I was writing almost constantly, working on each of the books in the trilogy in a sort of fervour. Before that, it had been over two years since I’d finished An Unnatural Daughter. These were two years spent fluctuating in and out of depression, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it, that I was still capable of writing books.
Having finished The Advocate, and therefore the trilogy, late last year, I decided to approach this new series differently. I wanted to be efficient, I wanted to know exactly what I was doing, I wanted it to be meticulous and filled with deep, historical detail. As all my other books were based in the Regency era, I wanted to learn more about the death-obsessed Victorians before I committed words to screen. I wanted to do justice to an idea I have been longing to work on for so long.
It’s now been about six months since I’ve written anything, and while I know a lot more about mourning and embalming and all sorts, I’ve still felt distant from my characters. I’d given myself the deadline of May for starting writing, and I feel nowhere near ready. There’s still so much to learn, but that’s always going to be the case, I suppose. I’ll never know enough, and once I start writing that will uncover even more that I need to learn.
Then I found How to be a Victorian, and the biggest step so far has been taken. How can you know a character when you don’t know what they ate for breakfast, how they brushed their teeth, what sort of rugs covered their floors, if any, and why? These little things we do or know as a matter of course compliment our daily lives, and missing or changing them in some way can alter how our day pans out. I get grumpy, for example, if I haven’t had hummus in a couple of days. Just imagine how grumpy the Victorians must have been!
I jest, of course, but the admirable Ruth Goodman has lived as a Victorian did, tried the petticoats and skirts and corsets, and not just lived like a grand lady, but like a poor worker. In this inestimably useful volume she provides a trove of information regarding the minutiae of everyday life, from deodorant to sports and everything in between. She tells you how it felt to do these things the average Victorian did, but which we nowadays know nothing about.
“I have handled many pieces of Victorian clothing for men. They don’t feel at all like the clothes or fabric we are all so used to wearing now.When we look at images of people in Victorian dress, what we tend to notice mostly is the changes that have occurred in fashion. The fabrics the garments are made of go largely unnoticed.”
I’m not usually much of a non-fiction reader, but this research has been changing my mind. As a result of reading this book, I now know what sort of underwear my characters wore – from those who would be considered old fashioned to the avant garde. I know how they styled their hair and how they cleaned their clothes. I know the staples of their diets and I know what time they went to bed and why. And I am so, so much further along than I was only a week before I picked this book up.
A must read for anyone with an interest in social history, and a book which has not only made me feel closer to my characters, but closer to my ancestors, too.