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The Victorian House by Judith Flanders: Research Books

The Victorian House

I have just finished The Victorian House by Judith Flanders. After writing five books set in the Victorian period, I felt my research needed topping up. Well, I couldn’t have started with a better book.

This is a fascinating account of life for the Victorian middle-classes. It is structured room by room, and not only talks about the kinds of furniture and decoration as well as the types of activities which went on in each, but also tells us what this all meant in terms of social status and the Victorian mindset. The detail is exceptional, with accounts taken not only from advice booklets from the time but also from diary entries. Flanders compares the lives of middle-class women with those of their servants too, such as Hannah Cullwick, a maid-of-all-work.

The conclusion, for me, was rather bleak. The middle-classes could be detestable. As we all know, the class divide was great in those times, but to ‘hear’ it directly is chilling. It truly amazes me how domestic servants didn’t drop down dead on the spot from exhaustion. And although they could be snobs, middle-class women do deserve sympathy. The sexism of the time must have been stifling for many women. The pressures of running a perfect household, of always putting oneself last, of having to be intelligent enough to listen to one’s husband but not so much as to say anything meaningful, must have been draining.

If you are in any way interested in the Victorians, I would absolutely recommend this book. It discusses ordinary people; the types of people we don’t always hear about. The home and what it meant encapsulates so much of the Victorian psyche, and to understand Victorians, we must venture inside their walls.

In the meantime, I’ve selected some golden nuggets of information which surprised, delighted, humoured, or sickened me. (I have had to narrow it down to the following, but most of this book is now covered in my yellow highlighter!)

On childbirth:

  • Both women and doctors agreed in regarding childbirth as an illness.
  • Puerperal fever was the most common cause of death in childbirth and, with there being no cure, doctors merely prescribed opium, champagne, and brandy-and-soda.
  • Doctors insisted that ‘mental emotion’ and overexcitement were what caused death – women suffered in childbirth because they led ‘unnatural lives’.

On childrearing:

  • Instead of beatings, which children earlier in the century might have routinely expected, children were told of the disappointment they caused, to their parents and to God. However, Louise Creighton still confessed that ‘Cuthbert… used to play with fire and cut things with knives, so when he played with fire I held his finger on the bar of the grate for a minute that he might feel how fire burnt, and when he cut woodwork with his knife I gave his fingers a little cut’.
  • Advice books said that a model housewife always made her children understand that when their father came home from work he was to be considered first in all things.
  • For teething, the answer was to give purgatives and a teething ring, put the child in a hot bath, and if necessary lance the gums.

On servants:

  • Many of the middle-classes with one servant, in four-to-six-room houses, had only the kitchen for her to sleep in. And kitchens could be a playground for vermin: black beetles, fleas, even crickets. ‘Beetles would collect in corners of the kitchen ceiling, and hanging to one another by their claws, would form huge bunches or swarms like bees towards evening and as night closed in, swarthy individuals would drop singly on to the floor, or head, or food.’
  • For those at the bottom of the hiring market, workhouse children were available [as servants] for a few pounds a year.
  • A housemaid worked from 6 every morning to 10 at night, rarely had Sundays off (if they did have a half-day they were expected to get through the regular day’s work by 5pm), and on Mondays (wash day) they often had to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning.
  • Acquaintances of Jane Carlyle were without a servant after they’d had to suddenly dismiss one because “she lied”, and “was curious”, and “read novels.” Curiosity was a sacking offence.
  • Servants cannot “be left to the own guidance, but must be ruled”. Soap, candles, matches should all be handed out only as needed, otherwise servants would run riot with them.

On Being a Good Woman:

  • The greatest good was knowing one’s place and living up to it precisely.
  • The man of the house should physically as well as mentally be shut away from domestic nuisances: a room was to be set aside for him, which ‘will provide a sanctuary from the numerous petty domestic troubles and annoyances that, as few men can comprehend or tolerate, it is much better that they should not see’.
  • Mrs Beeton’s description of daily life for a married woman mostly involved paying calls, receiving and entertaining visitors, and supervising her children and a staff, ‘leaving the latter portion of the morning for reading, or for some amusing recreation’.
  • Widows were expected to be in a state of mourning for their late husbands for almost 3 years, going through the phases of mourning known as first mourning, second mourning, ordinary mourning, and half mourning. Widowers, on the other hand, were expected to wear a hatband and a black suit for a mere 3 months.


Check out this book and Flanders' other fascinating works here.

About the author

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers. 

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