Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Book discussion: more Black Ribbon research

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 (

First of all: I pretty much live on 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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Tags: black ribbon, book discussion, books, history, research, victoriana
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