By Judith FlandersNorton
The creation of an ordered and happy household, the balance between work and home life, the effort to protect the domestic sphere from a harsh and amoral world, the division of child care between fathers and mothers, the question of whether a woman neglects her responsibilities to her children if she leaves part of their rearing to another (especially to someone from a different culture or class)—these issues were largely delineated by the middle class of the nineteenth century, especially in Britain, the cradle of modern bourgeois life, and at that time the home of by far the largest suburban and urban middle class. Since the 1970s historians have been intensely debating and minutely examining every conceivable aspect of middle-class Victorian domestic life, from child care to shopping to mealtimes. The results have often been tendentious and (reflecting the jargon-infected world of trendy contemporary scholarship in the humanities in general) just plain silly. But they have also been spectacularly rich: in many ways we have a more detailed and sophisticated understanding of the mental and spiritual world and daily habits of upper-middle-class women in London in the 1880s than we do of upper-middle-class women in, say, Palo Alto today. Judith Flanders, who writes smoothly and cleverly, has surveyed this scholarship—along with novels, advice books, and some published letters and diaries of the period—to render a detailed and engaging portrait of middle- and upper-middle-class domesticity in London from 1850 to 1890. The book, which was successful commercially and even more so critically in Britain, where it was first published last year, takes an inventive and compellingly voyeuristic approach by exploring a Victorian house room by room: Flanders shows us how each room was furnished, what purposes it served, how it was laid out, how it smelled, who occupied it at different points in the day, and how it was cleaned. In so doing she illuminates the trials and terrors of childbirth; the Sisyphean struggle against dirt (owing to London soot, mantelpieces had to be cleaned twice daily); the duties of servants, who were fixtures of middle-class life (in 1851 one of every three women in London aged fifteen to twenty-four was in service); what people ate and how food was stored, prepared, and discarded; the intricacies of social rounds and entertaining; how children played; how people died and were mourned.
The greatest, though I suspect unintended, benefit of this technique is to reveal both the familiarity and the foreignness of the world Flanders has conjured. The terraced houses she describes are still ubiquitous in Britain (one third of British houses today were built before the First World War, and most of these are Victorian). But though their type and layout are recognizable, the lives conducted in them are not—and this is largely because Victorian lives were so terribly insecure. Women of childbearing years and, especially, children were dying in numbers we'd find unendurable. And the houses themselves were deathtraps: the larders held food colored with poison, including lead, which was also in the primer on the walls, which were covered in paper that contained arsenic. The aspidistra became a symbol of the middle-class because it was one of the few houseplants that could withstand the noxious fumes in the gas-lit parlors. In her best chapter, "The Sickroom," Flanders details the consequences of a burgeoning consumer culture in a society riddled by and obsessed with death: the fabric, color, and trim of women's mourning clothes were determined by a complex equation that took into account the wearer's relation to the deceased and the time that had elapsed since death. (After the periods of First-, Second-, and Ordinary-Mourning, which could extend for two years, the woman bought her Half-Mourning clothes, which one of the stores that specialized in mourning wear sold in its Mitigated Affliction Department.)
Although vivid, Flanders's rendition is somewhat distorted, largely because of the sources she's used. She has relied heavily on the prescriptive literature of the time (such as Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, a volume scholars always cite when they want to demonstrate the extent to which rigid and status-conscious codes supposedly governed Victorian women's lives), but this would be akin to future historians' using the idealized world depicted in Real Simple to elucidate how people really live in Montclair, New Jersey. Yes, Flanders does often quote from those nineteenth-century letters and diaries, but she's too often quoting a scholar who's quoting the original source, which means she's using material that's previously been selected to bolster a particular interpretation. In her introduction she implicitly acknowledges that her interpretation follows what has been the prevailing scholarly view for decades: that a central, even defining aspect of middle-class life was its division into separate spheres—a public one, inhabited by men, of the marketplace and politics; and a private one, of home and family, which was a refuge from the harsh logic of capitalism and the sordid exigencies of commercial life. Women, so the thinking goes, were relegated to this inward-turning, sedate, often claustrophobic domestic life (and indeed, the layout and furnishing of the Victorian house reflected this new and inflexible separation of the public sphere from the domestic). Flanders has a huge library of modern historical literature to draw from; an unbelievable amount of ink has been spilled disputing and refining this view of the relationship among domesticity, women's roles, and the defining of a middle-class identity—an interpretation with obvious resonance today. Feminist scholars wrote nearly all the books, many of which, especially those written in the early 1970s, failed to go much beyond bewailing the subordination and victimization of nineteenth-century women.
But by far the most influential of these works, Family Fortunes, by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall (Routledge), first published in 1987 and recently reissued in a thoroughly expanded and revised second edition, is also among the most original works of social history of the past twenty years. Although inelegant, imprecise, and (worst) superfluous feminist and Marxist argot mars the lengthy new introduction, which places the book in the context of the historiographical debate it provoked, the body of the work is clearly written. It's dense but daring and fascinating, not least because it imaginatively synthesizes an astonishing array of sources. A history of religion, business, architecture and gardening, currents of thought, civic life, the family, and the changing conceptions of childhood, femininity, and masculinity, the book examines what the authors argue was the provincial middle class's rise and consolidation between the end of the eighteenth and the middle of the nineteenth century, when it imposed its domestic ideal—rooted in the Enlightenment, in romanticism, and, most crucially, in evangelicalism—on the national culture. This complex and often inconsistent process was, Davidoff and Hall acknowledge, "long and uneven," but among other results of far-reaching significance, it engendered the idea of the home's being separate from the workplace, and it produced the notion of "full-time motherhood as a central part of middle-class gentility"; both these developments led to women's becoming "increasingly engulfed by the private realm." (They also led to the kind of private home Flanders describes, and one of the many contradictions inherent in this process was, and to an extent still is, the fact that accompanying this new role for middle-class women and this new domestic life—separate from what Carlyle called the "cash nexus"—was the rise of an army of women who worked as servants in the supposedly private sphere of the home.)