(p. C9) If the past is foreign country because they do things differently there, we’re lucky to have such a knowledgeable cicerone as Ruth Goodman.
. . .
“I like to put time and effort into studying the objects and tools that people made and used, and I like to try methods and approaches out for myself,” she writes in “How to Be a Victorian.” This sounds straightforward enough but hardly hints at the leaps of imaginative empathy the author is so good at: When she visits a museum to examine a Victorian farm worker’s wool coat, for example, she sees both the husband “who sweated and left stains on his clothes, who physically felt the cold” and the wife who “spent hours carefully and neatly sewing up the tear.”
Ms. Goodman observes that the wife’s technique for repair matches one taught in working-class textbooks, a fact that raises questions in her mind. “How widespread was such needlework education, and was it likely to have been women who carried out such repairs?” she wonders. “If it takes me over an hour to do the work, would my Victorian forebears have been quicker? When would they have fitted such a chore into their day?” That little rip in the man’s coat, it turns out, is like a tiny window into “the great sweeps of political and economic life” that in turn “bring us back to the personal.” Trade disruptions in textiles during the American Civil War, for instance, “pushed up the price of the labourer’s coat, making that repair more necessary.”
. . .
Many, many things about daily life are far better now: “My own historical laundry experiences have led me to see the powered washing machine as one of the great bulwarks of women’s liberation, an invention that can sit alongside contraception and the vote.”
For the full review, see:
ALEXANDRA KIMBALL. “Living Like a Queen; You might get used to using soot to brush your teeth. But steel corsets? Never.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 4, 2014): C9.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 3, 2014, and has the title “Book Review: ‘How to Be a Victorian” by Ruth Goodman; You might get used to using soot to brush your teeth. But steel corsets? Never.”)
The book under review is:
Goodman, Ruth. How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014.