I already had something of a habit of collecting old home-making manuals – 1950s ‘Pins and Needles’ books with instructions for making a rag rug or knocking up a stylish telephone table for instance, or Constance Spry’s Flowers in House and Garden; and I’m very attached to a 1930s DIY book on how to lay lino, not least for its demonstration photographs of a man in a home-knitted V-necked sweater who looks very like my father. Nevertheless, I’d managed to restrict my collection to just a few bookshelves until I was commissioned to write a book about Victorian and Edwardian eating and drinking.
In periodical and book form I found millions of words of advice for Victorians. Most of it was directed at women, particularly the thousands of young married newcomers to the burgeoning middle class. Their rise up the class ladder always carried with it the fear of a slip back down, so they were keen to equip themselves with the appropriate know-how to secure their position. Nothing was left to chance; everything from modest wifely behaviour to the proper ventilation of bedrooms was carefully described.
Dinner parties to which the Joneses and the husband’s business associates were invited were of particular importance. Setting the right tone and the right taste with the right accoutrements was crucial. As I read through an exhausting number of handy and notso- handy hints on how to cook, entertain and furnish the home (a good part of it delivered by ‘members of the aristocracy’ presumed to be in a position to know the correct manner in which to eat a guinea fowl or take a plum stone out of one’s mouth), a fictitious young woman took up residence in my mind.
Recently married, she is setting up home, in 1870, in a new suburban house to the east of the City of London, where her husband works as a legal clerk. His is the world of business, and it has been made abundantly clear that hers is home and hearth. I think she’s called Amelia,
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