Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England

ISBN: 0393327639
ISBN 13: 9780393327632
By: Judith Flanders

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About this book

Nineteenth-century Britain was then the world's most prosperous nation, yet Victorians would bury meat in earth and wring sheets out in boiling water with their bare hands. Such drudgery was routine for the parents of people still living, but the knowledge of it has passed as if it had never been. Following the daily life of a middle-class Victorian house from room to room; from childbirth in the master bedroom through the kitchen, scullery, dining room, and parlor, all the way to the sickroom; Judith Flanders draws on diaries, advice books, and other sources to resurrect an age so close in time yet so alien to our own. 100 illustrations, 32 pages of color.

Reader's Thoughts


This book is at once fascinating and dry. Not as worldly as say Bill Brysons' work on the home, but of similar character, the book takes a look at the victorian age through the home. Each chapter covers a particular room(the Kitchen, the Lavatory, The Sick-room, The Street) or space, and covers both the particulars of that space and how it relates to the middle-class victorian way of life.Unlike many such works it also recognizes the way in which the age changed, as it is forced to by it's subject matter. As the victorian believed that each room should serve a single function(even when it didn't) much of the book is taken to this tension, and to the particulars of what 'ough' versus what was. The Book is a great book for those wanting a look into victorian life and tidbits. From the Baked Potato man who would ply his wares in the winter, to the social niceties of travel, to the proper period of mourning when your first-cousins husband dies, the book is scattered with great little 'bits' that really put you into the world of the Victorians. As a cultural history it was a very good read, though as I mentioned, not, I think, for the purely casual reader.


Taken from letters and literature of the time, this book breaks down the daily vagaries of existence in Victorian England primarily for the upwardly mobile middle class and their support networks. Flanders uses a sort of unusual approach in de-constructing this life in a tidy sort of fashion, going through the average Victorian home room by room and discussing the expectations of the time and and the implications of what your personal style, level of cleanliness, and attitude towards your servants and family in each place might say to your neighbors and friends.A somewhat dry, but for all that still fascinating look into the rigid social structures that defined the men and women of this time. I would highly recommend this to anyone looking to do any sort of historical (or even semi historical) recreation or role play based in the era.


Very interesting, though I thought it bogged down somewhere around the drawing room chapter, and the narrative device of structuring each chapter around one room of the house only sometimes worked--the parlor chapter didn't ever talk about the functions or furniture of a parlor (or explain how it was different from a drawing room, which I was most curious to learn), for instance.I don't think I've read many books written or set during the Victorian Era, but I've read quite a few with characters that had grown up then--Ballet Shoes, for instance--and this gives me a lot more insight into why those characters thought and acted as they did.

Shawn Thrasher

This one far exceeded my hopes, wonderfully - I could barely put it down. I never realized Victorian times were so filthy, grimy, dark, and generally unpleasant. Victorian era movies and television shows tend to leave out the carpets of cockroaches that invaded homes each night, the constant battle against soot and smell, the adulterated food, the absolutely unending battle with laundry. So well written and obviously well researched; I loved the inclusion fiction from the time as source material.


This is a delightful and readable history of domestic life in Victorian England. I especially recommend it to readers of Victorian fiction - thanks to this book, I'll never read a fictional meal scene, or a sick-room scene, the same way again. Actually, one of the most delightful things about this book is the way the author relies on descriptions in Victorian fiction to help her flesh out this portrait of the Victorian home, which makes this almost as fun to read as the fiction she quotes from.I also recommend it to people who occupy Victorian homes. I learned so much about the scullery that was once attached to the back of my house!This picture of middle-class Victorian life is not the least bit nostalgic, which in general, I loved. This is not a book that glorifies "old-time" methods of housecleaning. At all. Oh no. But if anything, I think Ms. Flanders verges on being too critical of women's occupations. For example, she calls Victorian needlework and embroidery "useless" occupations in scathing tones. Well! I happen to enjoy useless occupations, myself! More to the point, I would have loved to see a discussion of the ways that women's decorative works provided an outlet of expression in an otherwise very constrained life.In the end, it's rare to come across a historical account of private life that qualifies as a "page turner," and this is one. Lots of fun.

Tero Kuittinen

This is going to sound very unlikely - but this is one of those history books that gives you the frisson of really good science fiction. Victorians were bizarre creatures, but not necessarily for the reasons you would assume. The life just 140 years ago was truly strange, both for the wealthy and the poor. This period is kind of like the gateway to modernity. The lives of Victorians were in some ways very similar to ours; in others, they were brutally barbaric.A fast, exciting read. Too bad most people never give history books a shot and thus never realize how riveting they can be.

Gail Carriger

I wanted to love this book. I wanted it to be useful and a wonderful reference for writing about the Victorian era. Don't get me wrong, it is certainly full of extremely useful information but that information is impossible to access it is so badly organized. Most of the time I just find it unbelievably frustrating.For one thing, there is no glossary so the reader is left to intuit the difference, for example, between a parlor and a drawing room. The index, while present, is not at all extensive. You might read, for example, that something called a "copper" exists in the scullery but should you wish for a sentence somewhere in the book explaining what a copper is the index will not help you (despite the fact that there happens to be a sketch of said copper later on in the book). This means that if you wish to know something, or find something, you must skim through the entire book in the hopes that it pops out at you.In addition, the author jumps around temporally so the reader is never certain what part of the Victorian era the information address as the author only occasionally includes dates. In the end I am left assuming several things. This is not meant as a reference book. It is more the adaptation of a PhD thesis on the house as a reflection of Victorian domestic life. Why else, for example, does the "Parlor" chapter address childbirth, and the "Drawing Room" chapter address marriage? As opposed to, oh I don't know, a description of the contents, arrangements, and objects in a typical drawing room or parlor of 1860. Or the difference between the two? It's all very well and interesting to learn about weddings and childbirth, but perhaps the chapters should have been titled accordingly. It would make for a very different sort of book.

Sharon Baber

If you've read anything by Victorians (Charles Dickens, George Eliot), about Victorians (Charles Darwin, the Queen herself) or by modern authors who set their novels in the Victorian period (Anne Perry) this book will answer many questions. What was "bombazine" and "crepe" and why were "widow's weeds" made of them? How long did a widow have to stay in mourning, anyway? Did the Victorians have flush toilets? What did an omnibus or a hansom cab look like? Why were so many Victorian women weak semi-invalids? Who was the "rag and bone man" and what did he do? How does one make calves-foot jelly? This is social history at its best, and Flanders is an excellent, interesting writer who obviously knows her stuff and has a sense of humor to boot. An example: While writing of the Great Exhibition of 1851 where flush "lavatories" were first made available to the general public, she quotes from a contemporary source, "The Urinals for gentlemen were not charged for; 54 of the latter were provided. It would have been convenient if more accommodation had been provided in the Ladies Waiting-rooms.." Flanders adds a footnote, "Some things never change."


Ever wonder how the Victorians actually lived? This book uses the house plan as a method to show how life was lived in each room. Fascinating so far, and I've only gotten about 25 pages in!***************************************I cannot overemphasize what an enjoyable book this was to read. The author has taken books that were written by the great writers of the Victorian era (Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Charles Darwin, John Ruskin), diaries and letters that they wrote, advertisements from local newspapers, and even "self-help books" of the time to give the reader a more accurate view of life in the days of Victorian England. The book is organized around each room in the house of an average middle-class Victorian family.The dining room -- Did you know why an entre is called an "entre"? Because the dish was already on the table when you entered (entre) the dining room to eat. Did you know why side dishes are called "side dishes"? Because they were placed on dishes at the sides or corners of the table when the table was laid out.The morning room -- Did you know that the average weight of the clothes worn by a Victorian woman was 37 lbs? They did not go out in the rain if they could avoid it, because when their clothes got wet, they weighed even more! Remember, an umbrella would not really protect your skirt, and waterproof clothing had not been developed. A list of clothing worn by a woman included:1. thick, long legged, long sleeved woolen combinations2. over them, white cotton combinations, with plenty of buttons and frills3. very serious, bony, grey stays, with suspenders4. black woollen stockings5. white cotton drawers, with buttons and frills6. white cotton "petticoat-bodice" with embroidery, buttons, and frills7. rather short, white flannel, petticoat8. long alpaca petticoat, with a flounce around the bottom9. pink flannel blouse10. high, starched, white collar, fastened on with studs11. navy blue tie12. blue skirt, touching the ground, and fastened tightly to the blouse with a safety-pin behind13. leather belt, very tight14. high button bootsThe kitchen and the scullery -- oh my. The smells, the unsanitary conditions, the BUGS! It fairly made my skin crawl to read this portion. Beatrix Potter wrote in her diary that when she visited her grandmother, her two servants slept in the kitchen, as was normal at the time. Both servants spent the night on the kitchen table because of the waves upon waves of roaches on the floor! The description of one all around maid working in the scullery washing the dishes from previous meals will stick in my mind forever. One one side, a haunch of beef hanging ready to be cut and used for cooking another meal. On the other side, an open urinal (chamberpot) waiting to be emptied.The bedroom -- again, oh my. The bugs, vermin, and back breaking work necessary to keep this room clean. Mattresses were of course made of totally organic material and bugs / vermin / bed bugs feasted upon the stuffing within those mattresses. Beatrix Potter wrote about a trip where she stayed in a local hotel. There were bedbugs in the mattress on the bed, so she slept on top of the bed completely clothed and only after she had dusted the entire bed with an anti-bed bug powder remedy. She mentioned how difficult it was to sleep with this anti-bug powder all in her hair. The sheer amount of back-breaking work that was carried out every day merely to clean, wash, cook, and dress is staggering. I have never been one to moon over the good old days, and I certainly won't now either! Thank the Lord for indoor plumbing, kleenex, washing machines, and our weekly trash pickup by the city!!!


This is a good comprehensive look at domestic affairs in Victorian England, organized by topic. The writing is lively and engaging, and the organization makes it easy for cross-referencing or a quick look at a piece of information. It does a good job at keeping a class-wide gaze, moving from what the poorest to the richest could expect from life. One of the things I like best about it is the overview of the domestic staff and how common they were; an invaluable resource for anyone interested in domestic Victoriana, or anyone planning to write a novel in that era.

Kyle Pratt

A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, That is the subtitle of this entertaining history of the middle-class Victorian family. There is a chapter on the bedroom, nursery, kitchen, scullery, drawing room, parlor, dining room, morning room, bathroom and lavatory, sickroom and the street in front of the home. The book takes you through each of these areas and details how they were used, decorated and any innovations during the era. In the chapter on the kitchen, attention is given to stoves, hot water heaters and food preparation. In the chapter on the bathroom, details on flush toilet innovations are covered.As a history teacher who studies the Victorian period, I enjoyed this book and learned many new details. It is filled with quotes from period literature, articles, journals and diaries. The author does look at the family through modern eyes, an all too common error, and there are parts of the book that could be interrupted as feminist. But, these are minor. If you want to understand the middle-class Victorian home I know of no better book to read.


The title is shorthand for “The domestic life of Victorian middle-class women.” The main thrust of this book, I think, is to emphasise that our image of the standard middle-class Victorian domestic set-up is often erroneously high-faluting. Advertising campaigns and housekeeping advice books conspired to suggest that the women buying and using soap and cookery books had the type of establishments where there were servants to do everything – while the fact that there was a market for this combination of product and ploy indicated that the mistress of the house was obliged to get involved. And a governess, for instance, was not de rigeur; many women would simply have been taught by their mothers. The biggest reason why all this sort of thing doesn’t really register in our idea of these people’s lives is because there was an obligation for women to be silent on much of what their womanly domestic duties actually consisted of. For all that men were so very keen on women wanting to carry them out, and finding that willingness sexually attractive, Flanders portrays men as being actually quite viscerally repelled by exposure to housekeeping inaction, finding the petty necessity of its details sordid and unseemly. There’s also the fact that knowledge of what goes into maintaining a house and family elicits acknowledgment that it is work, extra specially so in this period, and that women were therefore active and skilful.There’s a lot of emphasis on the Augean Stables nature of Victorian housekeeping, with chimneys and smuts and lavatories with cess pits and gas lamps that ruined their surroundings and varying amounts of running water and the terrible business of laundry, and sewing sheets side to middle. So much of the baggage of housekeeping in days gone by has been forgotten. Also there’s the hopeless business of trying to keep people alive and some very strange ideas about the kind of nourishment babies could live on. And the terrible nuisance of crinolines in omnibuses and a wealth of other random details. Flanders is quite keen on emphasising the unattractiveness of the Victorians; they are more likeable in novels in which it becomes clear that people didn’t always, or even usually, behave just as they ought than in their nonfiction confident prescriptions and demands. They seem very rigid here, full of very precise rules for every social interaction, which were different depending on your exact social circle. This book isn’t particularly well-organised, and the question of what makes it into the book and what doesn’t seems very random sometimes, but if you’d like to know more about the nitty-gritty of how these people actually lived you should find something to interest you.


This book taught me that Oh My GOD, I was SO born in the right century. I picked this book up in the gift shop of the Fricke Museum in NYC last summer and couldn't put it down. It is fascinating how women back in the day coped with all that house-cleaning. No wonder so many of them claimed to be "delicate." I would, too, if washing a load of laundry took two back-breaking days! Heck, I AM too delicate for that kind of work. But more than just informing the reader of the daily chores, this book goes into detail about furnishings, and how they reflected one's social status; illness and how it was dealt with; how children were raised; death and dying, etc. really well-researched and wonderful. You can read the book from beginning to end, or randomly pick a chapter and go from there. Fascinating.


This book contains interesting facts about Victorian middle class domestic life that will enrich any reading of Victorian literature. The author sprinkles extracts from memoirs and novels throughout the book-beware, there are some minor spoilers! The book is written from the female perspective and each chapter ostensibly focuses on a different room in the house-the parlour, the bedroom, the dining room etc. However these only act as a starting point to some quite in depth explanations about Victorian customs, such as the complex rituals around mourning. The author does not traverse the male domain, such as the study or billiard room. The book had quite an impact on me, enlivening me to the day to day difficulties faced by people before modern conveniences and medicine improved conditions immeasurably. A few examples-women's clothes, when fully dressed, weighed 37 pounds!!! Now the average outfit weighs 2 pounds. Men in industrial areas had a life expectancy of 25 years. As for a day in the life of a housemaid-unspeakably difficult conditions.Ms Flanders's select bibliography will be of interest to anyone interested in reading more about Victorian domestic life. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

johnny dangerously

I can't recommend this book highly enough! It serves as a truly excellent introduction into Victorian life, all while relying on the milieu of Victorian literature, and the Victorian domestic sphere. What the book should really be called is 'Domesticity in the Victorian Age', but I suspect that wouldn't've sold as well. From following the unstintingly fascinating life of Arthur Munby, to delving into the secrets of Dickens, the book always feels honest yet polished, and extremely informative. The book doesn't get caught in meaningless prose and scene-setting; it tells the reader everything it can as quickly as it can while still being intelligent, well-paced, and incredibly, deliciously witty. Honestly, Flanders' dry wit is a standout feature of every chapter, and the book wouldn't be the same without it.Ultimately I recommend this book to anyone looking to dip their toe into the waters of Victorian history. This is the book for them, so long as they're more interested in the lives of women and the poor, rather than the decadent petticoats and crystal goblets of period dramas.

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