The scrubbing was never done

Victorian London's Middle-Class Housewife
September 7, 2001

Television programmes such as The 1900 House have stirred up interest in the history of domesticity. But how much do we actually know about the domestic lives of the late Victorians? The vast majority of the era's middle-class women were housewives, but relatively little has been written about this downtrodden majority. Studies of the period's gender politics have concentrated largely on the New Woman rather than on her less rebellious sisters. Yaffa Claire Draznin's book offers a welcome insight into the daily lives of these invisible women.

In an age when women's options were severely limited, the housewife was expected to be a combination of housekeeper and courtesan. Staying at home all day, she had no income of her own and few interests outside the house. So what did she do all day? Cleaning the carpets was a long and dreary task in the days before vacuum cleaners, and doing the washing could take an entire day. For housewives with limited skills and budgets, meals were often a far cry from the splendid repasts recommended by Mrs Beeton. Draznin constructs a clear narrative from a catalogue of lowly and exhausting domestic chores. There are chapters on marriage, housework, cookery, fashion, health, children, religion, servants and managing household budgets. She offers a wealth of domestic detail in a clear, jargon-free style. Her approach is statistical rather than anecdotal, which sometimes makes for dry reading. Surprisingly, she was unable to find sufficient extracts from letters, diaries or novels to bring these women to life, so the book gives little indication of how housewives felt about their role.

The book's main flaw is that Draznin relies heavily on secondary sources, some of which are arguably outdated. Her footnotes rarely cite primary source material, which will limit the book's usefulness for researchers. Undergraduates, however, will find it immensely useful to have so much information from different sources gathered in one book. The background sections on Victorian London make fascinating reading, providing information on subjects ranging from middle-class income levels to the amount of horse-dung littering London's streets. Draznin's work will be of interest to gender historians and general readers with an interest in the minutiae of the Victorian age. Anyone who doubts the achievements of feminism has only to read this book to realise how far women's lives have changed for the better over the past hundred years.

Chris Willis works at London Metropolitan Archives and teaches at Birkbeck College, London.

Victorian London's Middle-Class Housewife: What She Did All Day

Author - Yaffa Claire Draznin
ISBN - 0 313 31399 7
Publisher - Greenwood Press
Price - £31.95
Pages - 2

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