Articles, Historical Romance References, Inside the Victorian Home, Joan Perkin, Judith Flanders, Victorian Women

Great References for the Victorian Era

Throughout my writing career, I have amassed quite a few books both as historical reference and to improve my writing skills.  Each story that I pen, I do a lot of research online reading articles. When I come across a book that looks like it contains the answers to my questions, I add it to my library.  Most of what I write is in the Victorian Era, so my research centers upon the long span of Queen Victoria’s reign.

If you would like to do some additional research on your own, here are some picks:

Written by Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, is a book filled with illustrations and 416 pages of great information.
If you ever wondered what it was like to live in a Victorian Home, some of what you read will appall and shock you regarding the dangers that surrounded their everyday lives. The book focuses on every room of a middle-class Victorian home.  You will enter the kitchen, dining room, parlor, and bedrooms.
In addition to the life behind these homes, which decor may appeal to you, are the wide variety of misconceptions that Victorians held.  As much as we romanticize in historical fiction (and I am as guilty as any other author), after reading this book it’s obvious that living in the 19th century was not exactly a pleasant task.
A few of the stark realities that we do not consider are their uneducated ways of medical care, short lifespans, and strange and crude methods of medical treatment. Of course, the fashions were quite lovely, but  a Victorian gown could weigh as much as 40 pounds! In addition, if the color was green, you might even get arsenic poisoning.
If you’re interested in the day-to-day routines of Victorians, this is the book for you.
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Previously, I’ve reviewed this reference before, but it bears the merit of being mentioned once again.  Victorian Women is an eye-opening journey into the lives of everyday women, not part of the aristocracy. It is filled with actual statements from women found in letters and memoirs of their life during that time.  It covers everything from sex to widowhood and their struggles to merely survive.
As authors, I think we sometimes do a disservice to the women of this era, by penning the majority of our stories about the cushy aristocratic life. We focus upon the beauty and riches of the upper class, while turning a blind eye to the struggles of the lower class.
I tend to be a realist. When I wrote The Price of Innocence, which is the reality of a poor woman in Paris in 1870, I received harsh reviews for painting a depressing picture of life and then death. However, if we are really looking for strong heroines in our books, I dare say that we would probably find strong women in the lower and middle classes who struggled day to day to keep themselves out of the workhouses.
If you’re not afraid to open your eyes and look at reality of the era, I high recommend Victorian Women.
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Just recently, I stumbled across this gem written in 1859 – The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook for Ladies and Gentlemen.  I had been searching diligently online for some information on the process of debutantes being presented at court. Inside is a fantastic chapter with a step-by-step description of the ceremony, which I will definitely use.
While skimming through the contents, here are few great chapters I’ll be excited to read about and take notes.
– Individual personal habits from bathing to dressing.
– Accomplishments
– Manners – Public and Private
– Dinners and Dinner-Parties
– Behavior at Balls
– Courting, Proposals, and Marriage
– Presentation at Court

The introduction in the book states, “Thoughts, hints, and anecdotes concerning social observances; nice points of taste and good manners; and the art of making one’s self agreeable.”  

Would you agree that the art of making one’s self agreeable is a skill that even 21st century individuals would do well to learn?

In any event, if you’re looking for reality in the Victorian era, these are great books.

Book Review, Joan Perkin, Victorian Era, Victorian Women

"Victorian Women" by Joan Perkin – Review

 

  • “Victorian Women”

Joan Perkin 1993 John Murray Publishers Ltd. UK 

5

While writing my new novella, Whitefield Hall, I started to Google a few terms—one of which was gambling in the 19th century. Victorian Women by Joan Perkin came up in the search results, so I clicked on the link. Though it had very little regarding the subject, I started to look at the book and realized that it was a treasure chest of information about the Victorian era and the challenges Victorian women faced.

Studying the contents has been an eye-opening experience. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in moving beyond the romance of the era and into reality. What is unique about the book, is that it contains text from women who lived during that time period, expressing what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world. Joan Perkins includes the lives of all women, in the upper class, middle class, and working-class, to give the reader a complete picture. To be a woman in the Victorian era was frankly unromantic. Here are a few of the many items that I found very interesting:

  • The importance of class and gender in the Victorian era played a large role in a woman’s life. A quotation from Alexander Walker, a physiologist, in the mid-1800s had this to say about women. “It is evident that the man, possessing reasoning faculties, muscular power, and courage to employ it, is qualified for being a protector: the woman, being little capable of reasoning, feeble, and timid, requires protection. Under such circumstances, the man naturally governs; the woman as naturally obeys.” The general male opinion regarding the female sex was void of respect. Women, however, as general, didn’t buy into the fact that they were inferior to the male species. Wives who only gave birth to girls were considered failures in their marriages. A male child was considered far better not only to produce an heir for the upper class, but to produce workers for the family of the working-class.
  • No formal schooling existed for children until the 1880’s. Upper class women were taught at home by governesses and tutors. The middle upper class taught their children at home, or paid for private schooling or boarding school. The lower class women were self-taught or remained illiterate. I am astonished from my own ancestry research on my family in the Manchester, UK area from the 1800s to 1890s how many of my ancestors put an “X” as their mark on documents such as marriage certificates.
  • On one spectrum, the Victorian era was one of prudish ideals. Sex, menstruation, and masturbation were never discussed in the upper and middle classes. Most women entered marriage completely ignorant regarding sexual relations or the female reproduction system. Sex was a considered a marital duty in order to produce children and should never be a pleasurable experience for a woman. Ignorance was a means used to keep daughters pure until marriage.
  • Up until the age of 21, men and women needed parental consent to marry. Marriage for the upper classes, of course, were arranged for wealth and power. Charlotte Bronte thought that romantic awakening was romantic folly. Women shouldn’t fall in love till the offer of marriage had been given, the wedding ceremony over, and the first half year of marriage had passed. Middle-class women married men that received their parents’ approval. Finding a husband could be difficult. In 1851, there were 500,000 more women than men in England, and by 1911, the number rose to a 1.5 million.
  • The lower-class women lived entirely different lives. In the 19th century over a third of women were pregnant when they got married. The farming community, “indulged freely in fornication and adultery.”
  • A double standard existed in all three classes. Men were not criticized for fornication or illicit sex before or during marriage, but women were held to different rules.
  • The mortality rates were astounding in childbirth. One in 200 women died giving birth. Most women had an average of nine children. There were crude and ineffective means of birth control, and abortion was a crime. Many poor women, however, attempted to abort babies and died in the process.
  • Once married, a woman’s property belonged to a man. Any wages a woman earned during the marriage belonged to her husband. It wasn’t until 1882 that an Act of Parliament finally gave a married woman the right to her property at the time of marriage or earned during the marriage.
  • Underpants were not worn before 1840s. Now you know.
  • There are interesting chapters regarding what women did during the Victorian era regarding entertainment and domestic life for all classes.
  • We romanticize the Victorian era far too much. A wife was the property of the husband. Once again, the double standard held where he could be unfaithful, but the wife could not. Divorce came by Private Acts of Parliament before 1857 and were very costly and difficult to obtain. Men could divorce their wife for adultery; women could not divorce only on the grounds of adultery, but it had to be accompanied by either physical cruelty, bigamy or incest. Custody of children went to the fathers, and the rights to see the children after a divorce could be curtailed or forbidden for the mother.
  • The husband had the right to “to give moderate correction” if she did not obey. (Early version of 50 Shades of Grey spanking, I guess, and wives living with dom husbands.) Wife abuse occurred in all classes of society. Women had very little recourse against husbands who beat them and leaving was often not an option. Not until 1878 were women able to separate from abusive husbands and receive some type of maintenance from their spouses.Because divorce was difficult to obtain, married partners would often separate and go their way. Alternatives would be living with another lover out of wedlock or committing bigamy.
  • Most women outlived their husbands by many years, and widowhood for women in all classes could be a devastating and difficult time. One in four individuals over 65 were consider paupers and ended up their lives in workhouses or asylums. Unless they had family members who could afford to care for them, widows needed to turn to other means in order to support themselves. If they were savvy enough, they may take in boarders, clean houses, or find other menial jobs in order to survive.
  • There were a growing number of women who preferred spinsterhood rather than marriage because they were free to handle their money, make their decisions, and keep their illegitimate children. Middle-class women had more opportunities to pursue skilled jobs, but they were paid a pittance in comparison to their male counterparts. Lower-class women often worked long hours in factories and other jobs, and sometimes resorted to prostitution.
The book is filled with many true details from women of the past that will shock you regarding the hardships and inequality they faced. However, there are truly inspirational stories, too, about those women who worked to bring about equality and change for women.

You can order the book in paperback only at Amazon. I purchased a used copy for $6.00. When it arrived, it was an old library copy, and a bit worn. However, I didn’t mind because it’s received my pink highlighter throughout the text.

As an author, I realize that I am guilty of writing about an era and purposely ignoring the hardships that Victorian women endured. Perhaps as modern ladies we are merely enamored by men in ascots who look dashing, rich, and handsome. We love our dukes and titled men, the fancy houses, and the lavish lifestyles and fashions. These are the fantasy men we have chosen to fall in love with between the pages, and the lovers we have given our heroines. For some reason, they appeal to us more than a modern-day gentleman in sneakers and shorts.

However, the aristocracy of England during the Victorian era only accounted for 2% of the population. Another small percentage included the upper middle-class, which consisted of 15% of the population. These were families such as businessmen and tradesmen, who could adequately support their families.

To write about the other 83% of the population would be depressing to most readers. Frankly, I do not think that women care to read about suffering women in romance books. I know when I wrote about the hardships of one poor French woman in 1870 in my first book, The Price of Innocence, I was severely criticized in reviews for writing a “miserable story.” However, let’s be honest with ourselves. Lives for women during that time period were for the most part miserable.

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Victorian Women