In her newest book and first venture as a solo author, Ruth Goodman has attempted to present ‘a radical new approach to history’ by showing the ‘overlapping worlds of health, sex, fashion, food, school, work and play’. She states in her introduction that she wanted to ‘explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history… one that celebrates the ordinary and charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world’. Goodman herself is an expert in this field, and has experienced life on a Victorian farm whilst taking part in an incredibly interesting BBC documentary.
Goodman has used the timeframe of a day in which to set out her information, beginning with the waking up routine of your average Victorian, and following them until they retire to bed at nighttime. In this way, she has given How to be a Victorian an almost circular feel, which is a refreshing technique in terms of history books. Throughout, she has made use of primary and secondary sources, which have been taken from a vast amalgam of documents and records – diaries, letters, autobiographies, magazines and other printed matter, all of which ‘sought to inform and shape public opinion’.
Throughout, Goodman writes intelligently about a wealth of little known details about life in Victorian Britain. Rather than merely including the commonplace information which the vast majority of us know, the author has dug deeper, unearthing unusual routines which were all the rage during Victorian times. These include the profession of a ‘knocker-upper’, who was employed as a human alarm clock by his clients. He would take a long cane and lantern out with him in the early hours, which he would rap on the appropriate windows, and would then charge a penny a month for the privilege. Goodman explores elements of life such as the rug making techniques of the day, clothing and corsetry, recommended haircare, the dangers of factory work, and how often to bathe a baby – far more often than the average adult would partake, that’s for sure. A section in the middle of the book is devoted to a glossy spread of photographs and illustrations, and many black and white images have also been included within the main body of text. These are rather useful additions, particularly with regard to the advertisements which Goodman writes about.
How to be a Victorian is best read in small sections, as it is filled with a lot of information, much which is likely to be lost by the reader if the entirety of the text is taken in at once. Each chapter has been split into relatively short sections, which allows it to be picked up and put down at will. Goodman is clearly incredibly enthusiastic of her subject, and the fact that she has first-hand experience at using many of the techniques and routines which she describes sets her apart from a lot of historians. Here, she has presented a far-reaching account of Victorian life throughout the entirety of the monarch’s reign, and in consequence, she has created a marvellous guide for anyone at all interested in the period.