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Taking a Hint

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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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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, and she is sitting in her parlour wearing a fine gingham dress and an unpretentious lace cap, surrounded by the contents of a brown paper package. It’s a sweet domestic scene, but she looks alternately flushed with excitement and as terrified as a Wilkie Collins heroine. Amelia’s package has come from the bookseller, and it contains a small cross-section of my own reading matter, including The Dinner Question or How to Dine Well and Economically by a pseudonymous Tabitha Tickletooth (1860). The maximum number for a dinner party is eight or nine, Tabitha says, which will encourage general sociability rather than ‘coteries’. She advises on the mix of guests: ‘Avoid “bores” of every kind, the parliamentary, the literary, and scientific varieties above all; and do not, as many eccentric persons often do, congregate oddities together.’ Enquire within upon Everything of 1865 leaves not a domestic moment to spare with its information about the exact time in the season to pick walnuts, how to make a plain pea soup, to remove freckles, protect dahlias from earwigs, dance the gallopade quadrille or polish enamelled leather. Also in Amelia’s package is the hugely influential Hints on Household Taste by Charles Eastlake, subtitled Etiquette, social ethics and dinner-table observances. Including the drawing-room, the toilette, domestic duties, etc., first published in 1868 and reprinted numerous times throughout the rest of the century. Eastlake was passionate about good, unelaborate design, his strict views sharpened by what he considered the overblown decorative tat on display on British manufacturing stands at the 1851 Great Exhibition. Amelia’s lip trembles as she learns that her pretty floral parlour wallpaper may not be in the best of taste: ‘There is a growing impatience of paper-hangings which would beguile the unwary into a shadowy suspicion that the drawing-room walls are fitted up with trellis-work for training Brobdingnag convolvuli,’ snorts Eastlake. This really doesn’t seem fair, because Amelia has already read Etiquette, Social Ethics and Dinner-Table Observances (1860), essays ‘designed to show how much domestic happiness depends on a due regard to the little politenesses of life – how much real misery is occasioned by their neglect’. The instruction she had followed there was that ‘A sensible woman will always seek to ornament her home . . . No wife acts wisely who permits her sitting-room to look dull in the eyes of him whom she ought especially to please . . .’ She had, admittedly, been a little disturbed by its patronizing tone – for example, its nudge at her dinner-party bravado: ‘If there is an épergne, it may be placed in the centre of the table, to hold salad; but we do not admire flowers being placed in the épergne, because we do not eat flowers.’ How can she keep up? Amelia so dearly wants to be included in that ‘we’, to gain a firmer foothold in the middle class through apparently effortless displays of good taste and good manners. But the de-haut-en-bas tone of many of the manuals, written by professionals or simply by those more socially experienced, is at once educational and threatening. Even the ‘hint’ of so many of the titles has an aggressive undertone. At least Isabella Beeton has kinder, more straightforward advice in her 1861 Household Management, listing and explaining the duties and responsibilities of the mistress of the house without condescension and providing reliable recipes and sensible domestic priorities. But even here there’s room for confusion about flowers, since her recommendation is that the dinner-party table should never be without them. This wealth of advice about everything from the design of the cutlery to the correct size of a table napkin, from the margin of floor around a Turkey carpet to the decoration of a cold dish of vegetables in aspic makes me feel I am there with Amelia in her new home as we prepare for the strict social demands of an evening’s entertainment. These manuals reveal the determination of energetic young Victorians to learn and to improve themselves. Amelia and her friends become eager consumers; they follow the rules set around new social relationships; and they revel in the possibilities offered by the home technologies of an expanding industrialized world. The contrasts of this pivotal time in the lives of Victorians, who now look forward to a scientific future but with one eye still on a rural past, are perfectly reflected in the combination of modernism and nostalgia found in these compelling publications. They offer an unparalleled insight into the preoccupations and anxieties of the age, a fly-on-the-wall view of the busy and pressured domestic lives of women in particular. For me they make irresistible reading – startling but nevertheless impressive, amusing but endearing for their energy and aspiration. In these millions of worthy words, every detail of ordinary Victorian lives is revealed. I can see the colours of the paintwork in a hallway, eavesdrop on dinner-party conversation, smell a roast shoulder of mutton with onion sauce, and feel the crispness of a starched damask tablecloth under my white-gloved hands.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 35 © Judy Spours 2012


About the contributor

Judy Spours has worked variously as a book and magazine editor, as a journalist and author, and in higher education. Her eating and drinking book, Cakes and Ale: The Golden Age of British Feasting, is published by the National Archives.

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