How to Live Like a Victorian
Historian Ruth Goodman wants us to learn about history from the men and women who lived it, not just the kings and queens we fetishize.
Arranging the details of this interview and realizing that we’re unable to meet in the flesh, I suggest we conduct it over Skype. This, however, isn’t an option for the interviewee in question. Ruth Goodman is a renowned historian famous for her hands-on approach. From Tudor England to Britain during the Blitz, Goodman doesn’t just study the period in question; she lives it. However, one of the pitfalls of being such an expert in historical living, her publicist explains (half in jest, of course, but wholly serious in terms of what this means for us chatting), is Goodman’s not familiar enough with Skype. Instead I resort to calling her on her landline—which in itself for many people today probably seems as outdated as any Victorian means of communication!
This is the period that is the subject of Goodman’s new book, How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. It’s the kind of book that does exactly what it claims on the cover—beginning with rising from bed in the morning, and ending with slipping back between the same sheets at the end of the day, Goodman takes her readers through a Victorian day, during which no minutiae is too mundane for her consideration, from personal grooming, all aspects of the working day, the intricacies of domestic labor, and what to do with those precious few minutes of snatched leisure time. This is a different version of history, and one which, until fairly recently, Goodman explains, not much was known about.
“The basics of ordinary life just get pushed to one side in general,” she says, “and that annoys me because that’s what history is, isn’t it? It’s most of us. I’m just not that impressed by the history of kings and queens and battles. I think they’re just the froth on top. I think the real drivers, the things that make it happen, are how we organize our lives, what we grow, what we buy, what we make, what we do with it, how we get rid of it. Those sorts of things are what changed the world.”
Her approach is a rallying cry for what she calls “the democratization of history.” She goes on to liken our interest in the major players of the past to the obsession with celebrity culture that haunts society today, admitting that it genuinely puzzles her: “I’ve always thought that I was personally really rather ordinary, and I look around me and assume that everyone else is rather ordinary, too, and it’s the things we have in common—like what we had for breakfast—that are interesting.”
Her approach is not just refreshing, it’s intriguing too, as in many ways it’s Goodman’s own ordinariness that both sets her apart from other historians and has made her the popular figure she is today. She’s well known in the U.K. due to the starring roles she’s had in the TV shows Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm, and Victorian Pharmacy, in which she and her co-presenters turn back the clock and live exactly as their predecessors did, for months at a time. Yet interestingly, she doesn’t come from an academic background, and nor is she a trained historian—not that this really means anything, since no one can fault the depth and breadth of her knowledge.
She credits her husband with first igniting her passion for the subject. He was a keen historical re-enactor, and had been since he played a drummer boy at a Battle of Waterloo as a 12-year-old. So once they were married, he enticed her along with him, and “although the activity was odd—I feel slightly queasy about the idea of re-enacting battles. It seems to me like a glorification of war—the people were really nice,” she admits, and she was quickly hooked. “Everything else—how do you cope; how did people do the business of living in the past—that fascinated me from the start.”
The popularity of her TV shows here in the U.K. would seem to suggest that she’s not the only one captivated by the everyday. Social history, she agrees, has become much more popular in recent years, embraced by academics and the general public alike, and with it her self-styled “empirical approach” has also gained in acceptability.
“Doing is a really good way of making one remember that you’re talking about people,” she explains. “I think it’s so easy if you’re just reading to think of the ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but when you’re doing, we all become ‘us.’”
But it’s not just perspective that her practical methodology provides, it’s also the fundamental basis of her investigations, too—a research tool in its own right. “If you have to really do a process, from start to finish, if there’s anything you don’t understand in the middle, you’re going to find out that you don’t understand it,” she says laughing. “It really pulls things up in your face.”
She provides plenty of examples in the book, my favorite of which has to be when she recounts having tried her hand at making a classic of the Victorian era: condoms out of sheep’s guts.
When she first caught the history bug, one of the earliest problems that she came up against was the glaring absence of available material on the topics she wanted to find out more about. “I just kept looking for books that didn’t exist. Nobody had written a history of washing up,” she says with a chuckle. This isn’t to say that literature hasn’t been a useful part of her research, but the most valuable material hails from an unlikely source—eBay—and comes in unlikely forms—the 19th-century versions of today’s junk mail and free papers.
“Libraries and museums tend to have collections that are based around something that is worthy, special, or noteworthy. They’ve collected with a purpose; it’s never random. Ebay is random. The only thing you can say about it is that the more of it that was published, the more of it is going to turn up there, so what you’re really getting is the cheapest, most popular literature that people actually had; the things that came free with six purchases of Pears’ soap or whatever. So that was a really fabulous way of amassing a huge collection of ordinary, everyday stuff that people were reading and thinking about. I found it a really useful research tool to set against more formal things, just because it focuses on the ordinary. I look at the way I use literature in the modern world, or other people in my life use literature in the modern world, and it is the cheap and cheerful that surrounds us most of the time.”
By far the most interesting thing about Goodman’s book is the way it opens our eyes to aspects of Victorian living I’d never even thought about. Jobs I’d never even envisaged, like punching the eye through a sewing needle and the precision needed for such a task; the night-soil men who emptied household cesspits, having to actually tramp through people’s kitchens with a huge bucket of freshly collected feces slung on a pole between their shoulders if there was no other access to the outdoor privy; 5-year-olds in full-time employment because “the extra few pence in the family budget [made] the difference between survival and starvation”; mothers encouraged to drug their infants with opiates; the Victorians’ obsession with laxatives; laundry that had to be soaked for two days before it was ready to be washed; and nursing mothers feeding sick relatives their breast milk since they couldn’t afford anything more nourishing. The list could go on.
Obviously, though, Goodman doesn’t indulge in the more dangerous elements of Victorian life (there’s no substitute for modern medicine she’s quick to point out) when she dons her corsets—and yes, during the filming of Victorian Farm, swiftly followed by Edwardian Farm thereafter, she wore full-on Victorian corsetry for 18 hours a day for what was in the end nigh on an 18-month period. This was “so intense,” as she describes it to me, that she even stopped diaphragm breathing, something which surprised her: “I didn’t expect that. And even though it was some years ago now, to this day I still have to remind myself to diaphragm breathe.”
Some things her body adapted to very quickly, especially sleep patterns, she notes: “As soon as you remove artificial light, just a couple of days and you’re back into dawn-to-dusk patterns.” This makes sense, but I’m surprised to discover that her taste buds changed, too. More modern, Mediterranean food just tasted “thin, like there was no substance to it,” and instead she craved the lard and gristle heavy food of the era in which she was living.
What was the biggest hardship of living in the past I ask? Running water, she replies without hesitation, followed closely by tea and coffee, though luckily the Victorians were keen tea drinkers, so she didn’t have to go without.
That said, she has let some of what she’s learned living as a Victorian seep into her 21st-century life. She makes all her own household cleaning products, for example, leaning heavily on vinegar and soap, and she doesn’t use washing powder in her washing machine, though that’s “more of a Tudor thing,” she admits. “I learned that it’s the beating and the water that does the cleaning, not the chemicals.” She also makes her own hairspray, something that Victorian women made for themselves, and she enjoys the control these homemade products give her, whether it’s choosing what to clean her home with or what to put in her hair. “I find it empowering, I make the decisions. I’m not reliant on somebody else somewhere in an advertising suite to tell me what I should use. I was always a bit like that. In fact, it might have been the reason I wanted to find out about it all in the first place.”