Recently I read the book Public Lives (Gordon, E., Nair, G. Public lives: Women, family and society in Victorian Britain. London, 2003) which was very interesting. The writers looked at letters and diaries to learn about women and family life in the Victorian era, mostly in Ireland. Here are some things that surprised me:
There was the story of one Madeleine Smith and her lover L’Angelier who was stringed along by Madeleine, in 1852. They had a very long correspondence through letters, but in the end she moved on to a more suitable husband. From the letters it showed that the couple had intercourse, which was not so unusual for engaged couples, and in some situations, the engagement was begun in order to have sex. The story also shows the family’s pressure on girls to marry the right person, even though there are no arranged marriages anymore. A fun element I found was when Madeleine promises her lover to become a better person: “i shall practise music and drawing and shall read useful books. I shall not read Byron any more” (pp. 89)
People often comment with questions about a middle class dinner. This is a passage from the book which shows what was eaten at an upper-middle class dinner in 1840 in Edinburgh:
Two soups, two large dishes of fish, four massive entrees, one invariably curry. Roast of beef or leg of mutton, a gigantic turkey, a variety of solid viands – ducks, a ham or tongue, beefsteak pie. Then the sweet course: macaroni and cheese, more especially for masculine tastes. Spun sugar and pastry, filled with preserves. A simple pudding, white vanilla and pink raspberry cream, pale wine jelly. (pp. 118)
The book also shows that much alcohol was consumed, people had to go home because they ‘felt unwell’ or were upset because there was no booze at a party. Going home at one o’clock at night was considered early. It seems the Victorians knew how to party.