(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Inside the Victorian Home is an encyclopedic survey of the details of middle-class home life in London and its suburbs during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Drawing on a wide range of contemporary writings, Judith Flanders has assembled a room-by-room discussion of appliances, furniture, and interior decoration, and typical daily activities and social expectations among the Victorian middle class. Flanders concentrates on the wives, daughters, and sisters who spent most of their time indoors and were expected to manage their households according to religious and social ideals.

Flanders refers frequently to documents, both public and private; for the ideals to which the Victorian middle class aspired, she examines popular novels, including those of Charles Dickens, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, and William Makepeace Thackeray. Flanders notes that works of fiction often carried a moral tone regarding household management and suggested that proper housekeeping was the key to a family's success. Flanders also draws upon advertisements, magazine articles, and handbooks for housewives, particularly the works of Jane Ellen Panton and Mary Haweis, who each published several books on home furnishings and household management, and Isabella Beeton, author of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management(1859-1861).

Flanders compares the perfectly run and beautifully appointed homes described in advice books and popular fiction with accounts from contemporary diaries, letters, and memoirs, pointing out that reality frequently failed to live up to the ideal. Notable are the letters and diaries of Gwen Raverat (Charles Darwin's granddaughter), maid-of-all-work Hannah Cullwick, and Jane Carlyle (wife of philosopher Thomas Carlyle).

Flanders's “Introduction: House and Home” sets out her themes: housekeeping as a reflection of a family's moral character and the key to its social success, women's responsibility for maintaining household ideals and how that responsibility was taught from an early age, and popular notions of womanly character and virtue. Flanders discusses the Victorian goal of separation in the home. Just as the home separated the family from the workplace, those who could afford it would maintain separate rooms in the home for public and private activities, for family and servants, men's and women's entertaining, parents and children, and boy and girl children. The author also provides an overview of the architecture, size, and internal arrangement of typical middle-class Victorian homes and neighborhoods.

Flanders suggests three primary reasons for the growth of the Victorian middle class. First, work and home were separated as people increasingly worked in factories rather than in their homes. Second, advances in technology and better knowledge of hygiene reduced mortality rates, and a decline in apprenticeship led to greater interest in child rearing in the home. Finally, the growth of evangelical Christianity fed the ideal of a correctly managed Christian home as a reflection of the family's (and the larger society's) moral character and relationship with God.

Having established her context, Flanders moves on to a more detailed examination of the Victorian home, frequently contrasting Victorian ideals with what was probably the reality based on a typical household's financial resources. She offers a wealth of material covering everything from furnishings and appliances, clothing and décor to details of how housewives did their weekly laundry and dealt with infestations of bugs.

Flanders's survey begins in “The Bedroom.” It was preferable for children to have separate bedrooms from their parents and for servants to have bedrooms of their own. In reality, children often slept in a room with their parents, while servants slept on mats on the floor of the kitchen or scullery. Because the bedroom was a private space for the family's use, there was no need to make an impression with the room's furnishings; it could be fitted out with carpets and furniture that had already been well used in other parts of the house. A typical bedroom contained many tables and chairs and perhaps a writing desk in addition to the bed.

A pregnant woman was expected to conceal her condition for as long as possible. Women typically had little medical information; it may, in fact, have been difficult to recognize one's own symptoms in the early months of pregnancy. Newborns were popularly considered a nuisance because their need for attention was exhausting and constrained their mothers’ social lives. Fashionable mothers claimed ignorance of child care; those who could afford it hired nursemaids to care for their young children. However, as Flanders points out in “The Nursery,” Victorians were slowly becoming more focused on child rearing....

(The entire section is 1957 words.)