Judith Flanders, The Victorian House, Harper Perennial, 2003.
This book explores domestic life among urban middle-class families in England during the reign of Queen Victoria.
At first I expected it to focus on the material culture, discussing the social implications of the physical things people had in their homes. But the research here is based largely on various written reports of domestic life - the idealized version presented by those giving advice on how families should live, the realistic accounts in people's diaries and letters, and the fictional descriptions in novels.
The work is divided into chapters based on the various rooms of the house, focusing on the sort of activity that took place there. In some cases the connection is obvious, while in other cases the subject matter seems to have been inserted into the room that seemed most relevant.
One theme that emerges is the Victorian emphasis on keeping different aspects of life separate, as reflected in the functions of different rooms, the distinct activities of the various classes, and of course the clear gender roles.
It is always interesting to compare different cultures. People are all the same, to the extent that we should all be capable of understanding and empathy for each other. At the same time, the differences between people, both as individuals and as members of a specific culture, are what makes life fascinating. This book managed to explain not only the details of everyday life in a particular society, but also the values and social norms these details reflected.
Studying life in the past can make you wonder what your life would have been like had you lived in a different period. I am increasingly grateful for living in the present, and part of being grateful is knowing not to take anything for granted. I suppose a future observer might find our current age equally fascinating, and I can only speculate about the values and norms our domestic arrangements represent.
This would be a useful starting point for writers interested in setting stories in Victorian England, though I believe writers who are serious about their research should also examine source material directly.