Books June 2004

New & Noteworthy

What to read this month

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.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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