I use Grammarly for proofreading because I’m certain Victorian journalists would have used it, too, if they’d just had laptops and internet!
A question many visitors ask me on this blog is about the daily life in the 19th century. Not about the big historical happenings or affairs, those are usually fairly well-known. It’s mostly the smaller details: what people ate, what they thought about, what they did in the evenings since they didn’t have TV, that spark people’s interest.
A very good source to get a glimpse of Victorian life are children’s books. While most adult novels assume the reader knows how things in life works, and spends his words instead on greater themes like life, love and death, children’s books are slower-paced and take the time to really explain daily life to you.
The 19th century was a period in which children’s literature as a genre grew and developed at an amazing pace. The urban middle classes were expanding at a high rate. This meant there was more money to buy books, more leisure time to read books, and more children who had had enough education to be able to read for pleasure. In the 18th century and prior to that, there had been some texts especially for children. These were usually religious tracts or educational booklets. In the 19th century, many other genres of literature were developed. There was something for everyone: adventure books, schoolbooks, fairy tales and fantasy novels. But the books that are most valuable if you want to learn about life in the Victorian era, are the girl’s novels with a focus on domestic life.
These books were written partially to entertain, and partially to shape the minds of young girls and prepare them for a life of domesticity. By reading about exemplary good girls, who were happy, patient and caring, it was hoped that this spirit was distilled in little girls also. Showing girls who overcame their flaws (like impatience or vanity) or poor girls who ended up well by being sweet and good, these books meant to inspire young girls to be a valuable part of society.
By their very nature, some of these books might be a little flavorless. However, I compiled a small list of books that are not terribly exciting, yet sweet and comforting and very educating on the daily life of the 19th century. Download them onto your ereader and read some whenever you feel you need a bit of calm, and I promise you, you will get not just a great glimpse of Victorian life but really start to understand the minds and world views of those who lived in the 19th century.
Cornelia de Groot: When I was a girl in Holland (1917)
I’ve written about this book before and it’s still one of the best finds as a first-hand historical source. This book tells of a young girl growing up on a farm in a small town in the Netherlands, around 1880. The book was part of an American series about children all around the world, and therefore makes a point to really explain very clearly how things were done in the 1880s. The writer and protagonist grew up as a fairly rich farmer’s daughter in a small town in Friesland, The Netherlands. Even though the book relates many things that are country-specific (for example the national holidays or certain habits), there’s a lot of general information about daily life. The book is incredible detailed, telling you what they ate, how they traveled, how animals were kept (cow’s tails were washed weekly, just because it’s nice to have clean cows!), how the school was organized, and what it’s like being a smart and ambitious girl in a small town.
At the end of the book the writer fearlessly travels to America by steamer, and tells of the amazing things she sees. The book is at times fairly stiff because of the many descriptions, but at times really moving and personal. Most of all, it’s one of the clearest accounts of 19th century daily life.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farmer Boy (1933)
This book is part of the Little House series. While the other books in the series focus on the life of pioneers on the prairie, this book recalls the daily life of a farmer in the 1860 in Malone, NY. It gives a lot of great information on the amount of work that was done and how it was done, from sowing the seeds and hoeing the weeds to spinning and weaving cloth to make clothes. It’s very amusing to read about how much the young protagonist likes store-bought items (they were much fancier than handmade ones) and how the American national holidays were celebrated. It also shows you a good deal about the morals and kind of upbringing many young boys got (and let me tell you, it’s different from today’s!)
This book is incredibly centered on food, so if you’re ever in doubt about what 19th century American families ate, just have a read! A summary for you: lots and lots of pies, mostly apple pie and rhubarb pie, lots of mashed potatoes and mashed turnips, big roasts of meat and chicken, preserves and jams. The books even describes how icecream and candy was made, and it’s described so clearly that you can try it out yourself.
Did you know? In the 19th century, rhubarb was sometimes referred to as “pie plant”. Also, vinegar pies were baked when there were no lemons to make lemon pie. Yuck!
Louisa May Alcott: Little Women (1868-67)
Joy Kasson wrote that “Alcott chronicled the coming of age of young girls, their struggles with issues such as selfishness and generosity, the nature of individual integrity, and, above all, the question of their place in the world around them.” Young and adolescent girls could find in this book examples of strong, brave and ambitious women.
Many people know the novel Little Women, most because they saw the movie. But did you know there were actually four novels in this series? If you want to learn about the role of women in Victorian society and about stereotypes, docility and feminine behavior, these books are a great way to start. These books feature four women who all navigate life quite differently. It’s a very interesting read, showing you a lot about the role of women in society and the way women dealt with their lot. The latter books, especially the third and fourth, are not as strong on storyline or as interesting as the first book, but they’re still a pretty good read. Also in book 3, you’ll get some great tips on baking! Did you know soured milk was used to make cakes rise when there was not enough baking powder around?
Louisa May Alcott: An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869)
Another one of Louisa May Alcott, this book is much lesser known. I’ve quoted from it on my blog, mostly because I was very surprised to find some info on make-up use by Victorian women. This is not something you’ll find in textbooks or formal history books, only literature will reveal such small but significant details. There are two books in this series, centering around the girl Polly. The books are sweet and charming though somewhat moral, and will give you a great look in the mind of people from the 19th century. Especially nice I found the passage where a grandmother tells stories from her youth. No dates are mentioned but you might assume the stories take place in the early 18th century or even late 18th century. To hear what girls did for fun in those times is truly something special.
(As you can see this post was sponsored by Grammarly, which I found to be an excellent and very convenient tool. Do check it out, if you do a lot of writing. It doesn’t just check grammar but also punctuation, context and even checks for plagiarism, which I know will be helpful for a lot of college students!)