Jessica Mann

Upstairs, Downstairs

The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed


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‘I DON’T WANT to know who was who’s mistress and why so-and-so devastated such a province … What I want to know is, in the Middle Ages, Did They Do Anything for Housemaid’s Knee? What did they put in their hot baths after jousting.. . ?’ This apparently comical plea from H G Wells’s Tono-Bungay is quoted to support Judith Flanders’s belief that ‘some of the most telling things about any age, any people are the details that show how we live allat home, where we live, what we do all day when we’re not doing whatever it is that history is recording.’ In this book she describes these details whilst providing an enchanting panorama of middle-class life in a Victorian town house.

A guided tour from room to room starts in the bedroom. Flanders endearingly notes, ‘it has been suggested that I am more interested in S-bend than I am in sex. For the purposes of social history this is so’. So instead of Victorian attitudes to sex, she describes the mercfilly obsolete rituals of childbed and deathbed, or the bedroom’s frequent transformation into a sickroom – many women spent their lives either nursing an invalid or (perhaps in sell-defence) becoming one. Up more stairs to the nursery; down to the kitchen and scullery; into the ‘public rooms’ (parlour, morning room and drawing room), with their prescribed rituals for family meals and formal entertaining; and a fkcinating excursion into bathrooms, lavatories and plumbing.

The drudgery described is appalling. Although many of us sd live within the very same walls and under the very same roofs, absolutely nobody now does even a tiny hction of the hard labour that was required to keep a Victorian household fed, washed, lit, heated and fiee of bedbugs and fleas. Even the televised Edwardian and 1940s houses, which look so inconvenient and labour-intensive, were a doddle to run compared with nineteenth-century homes, most of them without mains services or any modern conveniences. The life of a single-handed maid-of-allat work seems almost incredible, slaving away for twelve hours a day – two hours more than a factory worker – and longer still every Monday, laundry day, when she would rise at three or four to make up the fire and put water on to heat. Women had to be strong. They heaved coal and hot water up fights of stairs, ashes and emptied bathwater down awn, turned heavy mattresses and mangled wet laundry. Babies and toddlers were and hard labour carried everywhere too, until prams were invented in 1850 – and all this with one hand holding up a long skirt.

No wonder middle-class ladies needed servants, and measured a man’s status and earnings by his wife’s ostentatious idleness. However, many employers were actually frightened of their servants, and, indeed, of the working classes in general. Contemporary letters show that ladies deeply distrusted ‘those quiet, well-behaved watchers from the kitchen’, who, even if not actively dishonest, might be listening at the door, spying while they waited at table, ‘seeing, understanhng and probably repeating every act and utterance’. At the same time the servants were taking care to keep their own below-stairs amusements ‘safe’ and secret from their employers.

How claustrophobic and confined these women, maids and mistresses ahke, must have felt, shut up alone together in mutual suspicion and in fact virtually housebound until the outside world gradually opened up as enticing new department stores or indoor markets were established. But real liberation only came when teashops – the ABC and Lyons Corner Houses – opened and provided the first lavatories for female customers. Until then, ‘women could go out only for as long as they didn’t have to “go”.’ They also stayed indoors when it rained because wallung became almost impossible when layers of clothing (dry weight nearly forty pounds) got wet. Umbrellas could not shield wide skirts, and rubberised fabric, developed in 1844, was unbearably sweaty and smelly. The obligatory corset, exerting a force ranging Gom 21 to 88 pounds on the organs, was another serious restraint, both ensuring that women controlled their physical appetites and reminding them to restrain immoral ones.

All visible clothing had to be carellly chosen to fulfil its recogntsed function of indcating status and identity. There were meticulous gradations, particularly of mourning, which over two years went Gom the full bombazine and crepe to a mere black armband or half-mourning in mauve. Minuscule errors of taste or judgement could lead to social disaster, if a hostess failed to serve a dnner party’s sixteen different dshes in the proper order, or chose the wrong interior decoration. In the most public room of the house, the dining room, the furnishings could be an immediate giveaway. A mirror over the mantelpiece which was higher than it was wide was ‘refined’. But a mirror wider than it was high was ‘common’ because it meant a low-ceilinged room. Women of this conformist, critical and hypocritical society must have spent hours endeavouring to follow the instructions given in the advice manuals – the precursors, perhaps, of our own lifestyle magazines. This scintillating book explodes any residual notion that geography’s about maps and history’s about chaps. Judith Flanders’s artful arrangement of fascinating facts brings new life to people (mostly female) and places (all domestic) that tradtional history ignored.

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