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Book discussion: more Black Ribbon research
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ETA: Having a bit of a posting glitch problem, please bear with us.

I have a huge, partially-drafted backlog of books and/or texts I've read and meant to discuss, so let's have a couple now:

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

I really, really love this book. This was the third time I'd read it--this time to actually take notes. Basically, each chapter is a different room of the house, but also a related topic.* "The Sickroom" also has a discussion of medical standards (the mid-century treatment Emily Gosse received for breast cancer is not for the faint of heart) and an exhaustive catalogue of mourning accoutrements; "The Dining Room" discusses both dinner menus and food adulteration (enjoy all that alum in your bread!). It's a really great balance of period sources, quotes, and anecdotes to provide color and specificity--an amazing amount of detail and minutia that anyone writing historical fiction would love--with a broader understanding of the psychology of the Victorian home. And Flanders is, on top of this, having to juggle the evolution of Victorian culture from the '40s to the '90s as well as the differences from class to class. And somehow, she manages it, and in a way that isn't confusing.

The psychology of the Victorian home is one of the most interesting things Flanders deals with; what I like is that she also acknowledges that it's an idealized, aspirational psychology, often ambiguous or self-contradictory. A proper housekeeper should do this or that, but how many actually did? Or, for that matter, could afford to? Victorians believed--or were certainly told--that the public should be kept separate from the private, the male separate from the female, and that each room or object or outfit should have a specific, separate function... and then that wasn't possible with the space and money that people actually had. The whole book is full of the wonderful contradiction between the ideal and the actual. A good housekeeper aspiring to society, women were told by this or that household guide, should leave all the serving and most of the cooking to the servants--and then is given reams of recipes that are clearly written with the assumption that she'll be the one making them. Or, in a nutshell, the way etiquette maven Mrs. Beeton (or was it Mrs. Panton?) sniffs that gilt china is so tacky, and also, the gilt washes off so easily--in other words, if you don't use it, how do you know that's a problem? "The food was terrible," as the old joke goes, "and in such small portions!" Or when--and I think this really was Mrs. Panton--says that crimson and green are absolutely over as fashionable dining room colors, and then details an ideal dining room where every single item is stained or upholstered in green. She views herself as an arbiter of upper-class taste, but she also knows that her primary audience is the aspiring middle class. There's a lot of self-contradiction, and Flanders is more than happy to acknowledge it, rather than taking the mistaken tack of assuming that because fashion and society said so, it actually happened that way. I mean, imagine if scholars of 2111 are trying to figure out how we lived from issues of Cosmo, Vogue, and Martha Stewart, and you start to see the problem.

But really, the wealth of detail is what makes it such a treasure. If you're like me, and I know I am, you find the most useful research to be the kind that gives you anecdotal specifics--you can always alter or fictionalize them, but they're what really help you most as a writer. And this book is particularly great for envisioning a room in your head, even if you don't bludgeon the reader with every tiny detail of it. You, at least, know what colors the walls are and what kind of furniture is in it. And knowing is half the battle!

*My one problem with this was "The Parlor," which is mostly a (very thorough) chapter on courtship and marriage. But it has very little about the actual room. And given that this comes after a chapter on the "The Drawing Room," and that we are told forty pages earlier that "the front room, or drawing room, or parlor, was kept for best," I would really like to know what the distinction is. I'm imagining it had to do with class, income, and status; a lower/middle-class family might only have a "parlor," whereas a "drawing room" has a distinctly upwards ring. But would you ever have a drawing room and a parlor? If the parlor is a lesser reception room where you might receive more familiar guests--does that overlap with "The Morning Room" at all, which is where we are told a housewife (with a house large enough to have a morning room) would receive close friends? We're shown an illustration of the parlor as a family-oriented room where children might do their lessons--how does this overlap with the dining room, which we are told is the most family-oriented room in the house, much the way we might have a "living room" today? I don't know--I just really, really wanted to know this, and the rest of the book is so willing to acknowledge overlap and ambiguity that this seemed like a really odd lapse to me.

Dinners and Diners: Where and How to Dine in London, Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 (victorianlondon.org)

First of all: I pretty much live on victorianlondon.org. It is a tab (or five) that I never close. Just go browse the main topic menu and you'll see why. But, in addition to excerpts grouped by subject, you can read dozens of period texts that Lee Jackson, to whom I should probably dedicate both my novel and my imaginary first child, has painstakingly scanned in and put online. In fact, a number of Flanders' sources are available as e-texts on the site.

This one... useful, but mostly self-indulgent on my part, because there aren't a whole lot of scenes in my thing, if any, that take place in the restaurants of London. (But how do I know that unless I read it! I might get ideas! And thus goes all my time.) It's actually a pretty entertaining read; Newnham-Davis seems to have been a food critic with a weekly column, and a snarky one at that. Generally, his mission is to find a restaurant ("Dinners") that suits the particular acquaintance he's taking out, be it a fashionable young debutante, an elderly country gentleman, a literal princess, a military man, or a maiden aunt ("and Diners"). The really interesting thing is that the columns/chapters have a certain pattern that tell you a lot about both the specific restaurant (a thorough description of the decor, the menu, the clientele, even house-specialty recipes) and about the period itself. Just some of the phrasing he uses--"I ordered a dinner for the two of us"; "There was a gentleman at the next table giving a dinner for eight people"--indicates a completely different perspective on going out to eat. Particularly since Newnham-Davis, as the "host" of each outing, seems to have to go to the restaurant in advance and decide the entire meal for both people. I don't know if this is because he's a food critic and that's not how it works for anyone else, but--I didn't get that impression (female companions in particular tell him to choose what he thinks they should eat). It's very different from going out to dinner today and everyone at the table ordering whatever they individually want on the spur of the moment, is what I'm saying. So there's a lot to learn just from the details that the writer himself takes for granted.

The other thing I found really interesting, however, is a lot more subtle. First of all, his female guests seem to have an obsession with seeing "actresses"--are there any actresses here, do you know who they are, why aren't there any tonight? Granted, this is at the verrrry turn of the century, so acting was as respectable in the 19th century at this point as it ever got, but there's still a frisson of subtext--not an interest in celebrity per se, but scandal, no matter how watered-down. (Although they are also interested in male "celebrities"--writers, artists, lords and politicians.) Second, but related to this, is that Newnham-Davis always has a paragraph about who he saw at the restaurant. He never mentions names--not even specific enough details to serve as a sort of blind item. "Sporting types" or "fashionable gentlemen," "a father entertaining his daughters," "a trio of women lunching alone," "three Members of Parliament," "an actress with a gaggle of admirers." And then he specifically said one time that "it is the sort of place where a lady may dine unaccompanied," and I realized why he's giving his readers this description: he's very subtly telling you who is welcome at this restaurant--and, by extension, if you would be. Which took me a while to figure out, I guess, because the modern view is that if you are dressed appropriately--if you have the outward veneer of belonging--your money is welcome anywhere. But back in 1899, Newnham-Davis had to telegraph whether a restaurant was appropriate for women (accompanied or not), families, and/or respectable people--or if it was only appropriate for people much wealthier and more powerful than you. You do not take a lady to the Victorian equivalent of the sports bar, but "Mrs. Daffodil—if I may so call her, from her favourite flower—insisted on having a dinner out on Saturday, and another on Sunday, and another on Monday, because, though her twenty-first birthday really fell on Saturday, she was going to keep it on Monday, when a great party of her husband’s people were to meet at the Savoy, and on Sunday her people were organising a feast at the Berkley." Meanwhile, decades before, when the tavern and coffeehouse first evolved into the restaurant, respectable women weren't welcome at all. But here you are in 1899, and a respectable young housewife is making a veritable tour of them. Don't mind me; I just personally find this fascinating.

Hm. So that's a couple of books--I have three that might go well together for the other end of the spectrum, the lower class, and it would probably be interesting to put a couple of novels together. Also, the cracked-out revenge melodrama and Little Lord Fauntleroy. I mean, not together, but I read them. Well... maybe together. Hm.

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Have you ever read What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew? Also good for Victorian-era research.

I think that was my very first Victorian research book, back when I was a wee teenage Cleo. My only problem with that book is that it's covering the whole century in a very short space, and I don't know that it manages to be as clear or thorough at times. It's great for fans of Victorian literature just trying to understand a particular issue, particularly the way it gives examples from those books, though.

"enjoy all that alum in your bread!"

Somewhat OT: This reminded me of a fascinating book called "Beethoven's Hair," which posited that Beethoven died of lead poisoning that he got, IIRC, from his dishes. Not Victorian, of course, but still fascinating.

Which also reminds me of the Maybrick poisoning case, in which the guy's poor wife was convicted of poisoning him with, I believe, a patent medicine made up of arsenic and/or strychnine. Patent medicine that he got for himself, and she had no idea what was in it.

Of course, this was the same guy they spun the "Maybrick Ripper diary" hoax around, so the whole thing is layers upon layers of interesting.

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I seriously want her Consuming Passions and The Invention of Murder now. Thanks, "You Might Also Be Interested In"!

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I'll admit my knowledge of the Victorian home is pretty sketchy, but when people talk about the front parlor (for guests) and the back parlor (for family)--is that maybe similar to the drawing room and parlor difference?

(...My family lives in a very modern Mies Van Der Rohe knockoff, where the main room of the apartment bleeds into the dining room, and that's about it for public entertaining space OR family living room. Victorian houses--and lifestyle--seem so alien yet intriguing.)

Also, this post was really fascinating and educational. Both books are on my to-read list now. Thank you!

I will say, the second is basically a compilation of restaurant criticism, rather than a researched book like Flanders'. If that sounds like the kind of thing you like reading anyway, go for it (why not, it's free). I found it fascinating, but even I got a little tired towards the end.

Can I just say I love when you do these kinds of posts? I know that you have a specific purpose in mind for all your reading but it really also seems like you genuinely love learning new things. "Research" shouldn't be such a foreboding word - it's fun to expand your mind. (/nerd)

Hee, yeah. It's absolutely true--I'm trying to be strict with myself and not just read things that I swear are related just because I want to. This is why I'm horribly behind on current fiction, because I'd rather wallow in biographies and social history all day. And then you get into all the other periods of history that I like, and I'm doomed.

I own nicely worn copy of Inside The Victorian Home, and used it as primary research for my part on a panel entitled "Don't Lick The Wallpaper - Color and The Victorians", where I held forth on all the exciting ways that your home, clothing and food could kill you!

What I was never able to figure out was why, in the chapter on Laundry, it was recommended to add one handful of fresh ivy leaves when rinsing something (either prints or cretonnes). Current working theory was that it changed the Ph of the rinse water, but no one I've ever discussed it with knows WHY.

You know, I really, really wanted to know what the ivy leaves were about, too.

Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, sounds a lot like At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson including the horrific breast cancer treatment.

Bryson actually based AT HOME on the Flanders book...he even borrowed her layout. He gave her bunches of credit, of course, and she was cool with it. (When she reviewed AT HOME, Flanders said the main thing she didn't like about it was that it was funnier than her thing.)

Not sure if this would be 100% related to your research, but a British programme entitled The Supersizers Eat... did an episode devoted to Victorian food culture, examining the eating habits of new rich Victorian families and how it tied to other elements of their society.

First part

Supersizers yesssssss. That's what I thought of when we hit the bread-full-of-plaster.

Thank you so much! I am a social history nerd too, but because I know of no other like us in real life I find it hard to find book recs like these. I just put Inside The Victorian Home on my request list at the library. Whoo Hoo!

Oh, man, have you come to the right place.


Just ordered the Victorian home book. I eat this stuff up! I started collecting favorite time period research stuff over a decade ago (starting with "Writer's Guide to..." and went from there.

I can't wait for my Amazon box to arrive!

My feeling is that the drawing room was slightly more feminine/private- it's originally short for "withdrawing room", where the women would withdraw to after dinner while the men got drunk. If you had a big enough house to have a drawing room and a parlour, the drawing room would be the comfortable room where the women would sit in the afternoon (because a house that big would probably have a morning room as well!), and their friends would call on them there. It would be nicely decorated, but you could do your sewing in there.
The parlour would be more formal, for Sundays or male guests. (I quite like Victorian interiors, but the parlour might well be as hideous, overcrowded and uncomfortable as the stereotype of Victorian houses has it, because it was trying to impress.)

I think you do make a very good point about drawing room vs. parlor, which is that middle-class houses usually didn't have the space for a drawing room. And houses in town may not have had that space, either, even those of the wealthy.

my understanding;

the Parlor was, essentially, the room that one entertained pre-dinner guests - tea with the Vicor, or or the people of one's class, or slightly above/below - BEFORE supper [what we call dinner. ]
breakfast could be a "public" affair w/ female friends and relatives in the "morning room"
tea and all other late-morning to pre-supper entertainment was in the parlor

the "drawing room" is shortened from "withdrawing room" and is the FEMALE equivielent to the Smoking room, when one went AFTER supper. women went to the drawing room, men went to the smoking room.

if, of course, one could afford both. if not, it was MUCH more likely that the drawing room would be kept, and men would go to the "office" of whoever the "man of the house" was.

but - unlike the parlor, the drawing room started off as a gender-segregated room. i don't remember when or why this changed, especially because the "smoking room" continued to a solely male domain after the drawing room became a "mixed" room - and, once it became such a mixed room, after dinner pursuits for both sexes would take place there - genteel card games, recitations, etc.

[i just took 2 zanaflex and a klonopin, so my pelling and such maybe really really screwy, for which i appologize... hell, i may have screwed something else up and please remind me to come bck and check this when not durgged, if you can? thanx]

gah! i was fine with everything until i explained that i was drugged. that's sort of amusing...

Hmm, that first book might be relative to my interests. I'm trying to set a story in a Victorian house in modern times (as in, the characters live in a Victorian era house) and I'm having a bitch of a time finding a good reference to what rooms might be there and how they might be laid out. Modern plans for Victorian style homes are clearly not interested in what's in the inside and searching for actual homes to rent or buy doesn't give any sort of layout or pictures.

Ooh, that victorianlondon.org link is actually being very useful. Thanks for sharing!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who is in love with historical research. I'm currently researching ancient Greece for a novel-in-progress and have read books, taken notes and collected maps like crazy.

The stuff you learn about people in the past is just fascinating.

For example: I read one source that said the Oracle at Delphi was actually positioned over a crack in the earth where various types of gasses seeped out. So, basically when the Oracle gave a prediction, she was high on fumes instead of actually predicting anything...