Victorian Britain

The Victorian era spans such a vast period and it is immensely frustrating to find some behaviour or mode of dress or food or style being touted as “the” Victorian way. A young woman in 1845 was very different to one in 1890. They had different childhoods, different educations and vastly different potential.

The question of etiquette always comes up. Victorian society developed into one based as much on one’s own worth and hard work as any family background. This was the time of the self-made man and the great industrialists. It is often hard for folks outside the UK to get their head around our class system which is far more nuanced than simply working-middle-upper. And these boundaries are, to some degree, flexible.

It ought to also be noted that society was not a homogeneous lump of people all behaving the same way. Furthermore, the sheer volume of books and magazines that advised people on how they SHOULD behave shows us that quite often, people were NOT behaving in that way – otherwise, they wouldn’t need to be told! Don’t get your information from contemporary household hint books :) Even the fiction of the time, depending on the author, is to be read and understood cautiously – are they portraying the reality of the time, or the ideal aspiration?

Question everything. Assume nothing.

Here are some books which I have found particularly illuminated, informative and challenging. Note! I have used affiliate links to Amazon. This means if you click on the link and buy something, I may make a few cents. It costs you nothing but feel free to bypass it.

General Victoriana:

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London – Judith Flanders

This is a huge and fascinating book looking at the life in the streets from morning to night. I don’t mean people who lived on the streets, but everyone who passed through, from rich to poor, and what the streets meant to them and how they were used. It’s a treasure trove of facts with plenty of references to help you on further research.

Victorian Household Hints – Elizabeth Drury

A compendium-type book divided up into the main servant classes, and their duties, with extracts from advice manuals pertinent to each role in the house. Good for snippets of information but these are ideals, not necessarily facts.

The Victorian House – Judith Flanders

Another huge and deeply interesting tome from Flanders, this one organised room by room. It concentrates on the middle classes, and how they lived, and also traces the changes over the long Victorian period. It covers far more than simply the idea of the house. Each room illuminates a different aspect of society. Hugely influential for my own books.

How To Be A Victorian – Ruth Goodman

I admire Goodman’s amazing approach to real-life, hands-on history. If she tells you about corsets, she is telling you from experience as she will happily strap herself in and get to work cleaning a house, just to see how it really feels. The book is organised over a day, examining each facet of life that a Victorian at various points in the long era would encounter. Huge and thrilling.


Crime and Victorian Britain:

The New Police in Nineteenth-Century England: Crime, Conflict and Control – David Taylor

This was pretty hard to get hold of (I did NOT pay the prices currently showing on Amazon!). I ended up with an ex-library copy from the US. It’s a rather dry and academic text so if you are looking at this sort of thing at a deeper level, I’d recommend it, but it’s not for the general reader.

The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present – Clive Emsley

Unlike the book above, this one is far more general and aimed at the everyday reader. It is still, however, incredibly well-researched with excellent references and further reading and a good index. Very readable.

A Very British Murder: The Curious Story of How Crime Was Turned into Art – Lucy Worsley

Dr Worsley can do no wrong, in my opinion. Her books are accessible and readable with an underpinning of solid academia. This is about how the idea of murder has been “fictionalised” in a way, used as entertainment – right up to the books I am writing myself. Lots of food for thought.

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime – Judith Flanders

A great companion book to the Worsley one suggested above. Like all of Flanders’ books, it is a weighty tome with plenty to get your teeth into. It explores many of the landmark cases of the time in great detail and examines their place in wider society.


Science and the Victorians:

Great Victorian Discoveries: Astounding Revelations and Misguided Assumptions – Caroline Rochfod

A lot of fun! It’s divided into topics and just gives you short snippets of information. Good as a starting point for finding out more.

A Victorian World of Science – Alan Sutton

Out of print but a delight if you can find a secondhand copy. It’s basically a huge collection of extracts from “The English Mechanic” which was a popular science and engineering magazine in the nineteenth century. It reveals the madness and energy of the Victorian mind. Many readers would write in with their own inventions. I wouldn’t necessarily believe in the patented automatic parrot teacher, for example, but it is a great book to dip into.

Victorian CSI – William A Guy, David Ferrier and William R Smith

This is a selected reprint of the later editions of the original 1844 manual “Principles of Forensic Medicine” so it’s a mix of random information and it’s never clear which date the sections are from. Some of the statistics refer to data from 1892, for example. So it’s little use as an authoritative research text but absolutely fascinating for the lay reader – it will make you feel like Sherlock Holmes as you discover how to tell at a glance if someone used to be a galley-slave, and how much your spleen probably weighs.


Beyond Science:

Medical Meddlers, Mediums and Magicians: The Victorian Age of Credulity – Keith Souter

I’ll be honest and say that Dr Souter’s forte is not the written word, but this book is still pretty readable and it’s packed with well-researched information in an easy way, and is a great introduction to the subject. He writes with a warmth of understanding, not wishing to belittle the beliefs that we might now find ludicrous.

The Society for Psychical Research: 1882-1982, A History – Renee Haynes

You need to know from the beginning that the author is a member and indeed editor of the SPR so this is not an impartial book but it’s a good insight into the SPR’s workings and original aims.

The Table-Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult – Ronald Pearsall

This is a fun book from an author who seems to have written on every topic under the sun – he is nearly as fascinating as the book itself. It’s a light, readable book, not too long, offering a broad introduction.

Ghost-Hunters: The Victorians and the Hunt for Proof of Life After Death – Deborah Blum

Written with the thrills and twists of a novel, this is a hugely well-researched book exploring the SPR and the the key players in the Victorian world of spirits and spiritualism, with all the gossip and underhand tricks and double-dealing that go along with any organisation. (Also reprinted with the subtitle “William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death)