A Mile in Her Corset
Review by Judith Newman (published in The New York Times, 28 December 2014)
of How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman
What’s the sexiest era? The Roaring Twenties? Hardly. The late-20th-century free-love movement? Not even close. The Victorian era is, unquestionably, the sexiest. What’s hotter than anxiety and repression? Or more titillating than the chasm between public and private behavior, between the pedestal-placing of the wife/mother and the enormous rise in prostitution? It’s no coincidence that one of the most erotic characters in literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, appeared in 1897, toward the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. (Remember: He had to leave Transylvania and come to England to feast upon pure blood, and open all those untouched . . . necks.) Even the thought of the armorlike clothing of the times coupled with the frilly nothings underneath makes me swoon. There’s a reason the most ubiquitous lingerie shop in America is called Victoria’s Secret and not, say, Richard Nixon’s Secret.
Living as we do in a culture so vulgar and permissive that a reality series entitled “Dating Naked” engenders a collective yawn, it’s perhaps not surprising we glamorize the Victorians as the epitome of both passion and restraint. (Ooh, restraint.) Yet this romantic perception is almost nowhere to be found in Ruth Goodman’s informative and quite startling “How to Be a Victorian.”
Goodman calls herself a “domestic historian,” and has participated in the kinds of British re-enactment-of-history series that have made her a celebrity. On shows with names like “Victorian Pharmacy” and “Tudor Monastery Farm,” she has spent months working, dressing, eating, bathing — and more important, not bathing — like her 19th-century ancestors. She is, she says, interested not in the kings and princes and politicians, “who honestly bore me a little,” but in the ordinary Victorian — “you and me.” This book is over 400 pages of you and me. If you want to understand how Victorians thought, you read Walter E. Houghton’s classic “The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870.” But if you want to know how they looked, sounded, felt and smelled, there is no better guide than this one. Goodman likes to get down in the muck — and there’s plenty of it in 19th-century Britain.
What’s most striking is the amount of effort it took just to stay warm, clean and fed. If Charles Dickens’s hearth scenes were indescribably delicious, that may be because he and his fellow Victorians spent so much time being so damn cold — the poor out of economy, the wealthy out of the belief that without a constant stream of cold fresh air the body is essentially poisoned. (It’s a cultural notion that’s still a little hard to shake. My 80-year-old husband is from Northumberland, and as a consequence I might as well live in a meat locker.)
Here are the things you don’t think about when you’re watching something like “The Forsyte Saga.” The choking air pollution from all the coal fires. The atrophy of a woman’s stomach and chest muscles from years of relying on a corset for shape and posture. The fact that a country that saw its population almost triple within a few decades had no real sewage system, which meant that by 1858, the Thames was overflowing with human waste. And then, of course, the potato blight meant that huge numbers of English citizens were also starving. Goodman notes that the poor were markedly shorter than the wealthy, and several inches shorter than the average Londoner today. “It takes a lot of hunger to do that to people,” she adds. But even when money wasn’t an issue, self-abnegation was. In many homes children were sent to bed without dinner not as a punishment, but because “the self-control and self-denial induced by hunger were thought to teach enduring habits of self-sacrifice and to aid in fashioning a more moral individual,” Goodman writes. (Our era is clearly not the first to connect slimness and moral superiority.)
There is enough detail here on the social significance of everything from bread to laundering to hair fixatives to satisfy the most ardent history-obsessive. As a hypochondriac, I was particularly drawn to the sections on Victorian medicine. Before antibiotics, and with the new crowding and population explosion brought on by the Industrial Revolution, cholera, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis and typhoid were looming threats. And with no regulation of the advertising industry, manufacturers could claim pretty much anything. Which is how the ingredients in Tuberculozyne, which purported to cure tuberculosis, could be potassium bromide, glycerin, almond flavoring, water and caramel coloring.
But drugs that did nothing might have been preferable to the “tonics” that did work, which often contained laudanum or mercury. It was speculated that as much as a third of the infant mortality rate in Manchester had to do not with disease but with drugging children. Popular tonics like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and Street’s Infant Quietness did indeed stop children from being pesky, as they were filled with opiates. Unfortunately they also stopped children from wanting to eat, and many an infant “slipped quietly away.”
Oddly, the details of Victorian life we’re most familiar with, or think we’re familiar with — the attitudes about sex and women as chattel to their husbands — are treated almost as afterthoughts. Maybe that’s because Goodman felt these subjects were well-covered territory already. Nevertheless, I did learn that women were supposed to enjoy sex — in the context of marriage, of course — and masturbation was considered a far more dangerous activity for men than women. Of course, that may be because so very, very few women indulged, as we all know. . . .
Goodman’s unique selling proposition as a historian is that she walks the walk of her time period, even when that walk involves hard labor in a corset and a hoop skirt. The book is peppered with her wonderful, and often wonderfully dotty, social experiments. For months on end she brushed her teeth with soot, wore the era’s recyclable sanitary towels (“an unusual idea to adjust to,” she says, in a moment of supreme understatement), set fire to herself cooking on a Victorian range and cleaned herself only with a linen towel, thus replicating the Victorian aversion to water, which was thought to possibly open the pores to infection. (PS, Goodman insists the dry-rubbing method works just fine.)
But even Goodman has her limits. She tried to make condoms in the Victorian style, “but the handwork required is remarkably precise and complex. The sheep’s gut has to be thoroughly cleaned, soaked in an alkali solution and stripped of all its adjoining tissue to leave only the gut wall.” One of the great pleasures of “How to Be a Victorian”? There’s a shudder on almost every page.