So You Want to Be a Victorian?

Staff PicksNortheast Library

So You Want to Be a Victorian?

Nonfiction Books on Life in Victorian Times

There's something about the Victorian era that so many people - myself included - find enchanting and idyllic. I feel like every time that old cocktail party question "If you had to live in a different time period, which would you choose?" comes up, several people always gush "Ohh, Victorian London, definitely." Full disclosure: I have for sure been one of those gushing people at times. But then I thought Ehhh, would I really want to?

Here's some nonfiction reads you can find in our collection to decide if time-traveling to the world of pinafores and petticoats is truly how you want to use that time machine one day.

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Gordon
There's lots of information out there about what it was like to be Queen Victoria or Prince Albert, but what was life like in the Victorian era for the commoner? Ruth Gordon acts as a quirky guide to how regular Victorians prepared for their day, bathed, dressed, ate, what medicine they took, how they approached childcare, exercise, work, and even sex. This book is packed with facts such as most Victorians ate a fried breakfast because it was the easiest way to cook in the morning because the range would take too long to heat up for proper baking or that many Victorian babies were given a dose of medicine with each of their meals, leaving them drowsy and addicted. Sometimes all of the info can get dry, but Gordon's credibility is undeniable. She spent months living in recreated Victorian conditions on a farm. Her anecdotes from this experiment liven up the text and give context to some of the more obscure living conditions of the day. And let's be honest, if you're going back in time to live among the Victorians, you probably won't be shacking up in Balmoral Castle, so best to know what to expect.
Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill
Being a man in any time or place has never really been an issue. Being a woman in, well, any time ever, has been not great. In Unmentionable, Therese Oneill uses humor and wit to point out that although we revere the time period now in novels, films, and BBC shows, they all omit the darker sides of the Victorian age. Things like bad hygiene, hack medical treatments and inherent misogyny in healthcare, and head-shaking restrictions on social interactions for women. Oneill is funny and passionate in her writing and her book is educational, amusing, and fascinating - but horrifying.
Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert
If you're going to time-travel back to an era named after an individual, it's probably best to know a little bit about that individual, right? I mean, you've got to be quite the someone to get an entire age named after you. Well, scholar and historian Christopher Hibbert gives you more than a bit in his 500+ page biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on the queen's extensive letter correspondence, her diaries, and other official documents, Hibbert reveals a complex figure under that weighty crown; one who detested racism yet refused to support the suffragette movement. He pays equal attention to politics and prime ministers as he does to royal weddings and palace life, leaving the reader with a greater understanding of the inimitable woman who defined an age.
The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders
Murder in nineteenth century England was rare. But when it did happen, it was an absolute sensation. Between the press and fiction writers, murder was transformed into entertainment in Victorian Britain, and Flanders does an excellent job of chronicling just how and in what ways that happened. She examines crimes famous and obscure, from Jack the Ripper and the "body snatchers" Burke and Hare to the Ratcliffe killings and the murders of the Murr family. She delves into what the appeal of these crimes was for Victorians and how their stories dominated the local gossip for weeks or months at a time. She also goes on to explain how these stories inspired the first penny dreadfuls and the creation of Sherlock Holmes and continues all the way through Agatha Christie and P.D. James to the detective stories of Patricia Cornwell. Fascinating for both true-crime fans and Victorian enthusiasts and definitely required reading if you want to know what you're talking about at all those posh dinner parties you'll want to attend when you get that time machine working.
What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth Century England by Daniel Pool
If you're going to fully commit to your hypothetical time-displacement living arrangement in Victorian London, you'll need to know how to properly set your tea table so you don't stick out like a sore thumb. You'll also need to know how to address lords and ladies of various titles, what to wear to different social functions, and how to play all those curious card games the Victorians seemed so fond of. Daniel Pool includes it all here as well as information on food, fashion, and how much exactly a "pound" will get you. This book is perfect for fans of Austen, Dickens, and Hardy. Pool fills in all those odd knowledge gaps you have from your favorite Brit Lit classics so that you'll be confident in your ability to shout "Tally ho!" at the right moment during a fox hunt, seat the archbishop at the proper place during your dinner party, and follow all those other rules and customs to make you a right proper Victorian.