Taking up the theme of food again, I’m still reading about Victorian houses and customs in order to get a feel for how the very old people whom I knew in my youth grew up. One of the things that strikes is me is how indelibly the Victorian age made its mark on those who were born within it. My grandmother was born in 1892 and was nine when Queen Victoria died, yet all her life she was a Victorian. She even dressed like one, in ankle-length skirts and pastel-coloured blouses trimmed in lace, with high collars.
Not only did Queen Victoria’s reign seem to imbue everyone who lived in it with norms and values that were immediately spurned by the next generation, but it succeeded in erecting an almost insuperable barrier between itself and the age which preceded it. The most alarming thing of all is how women seemed to become walled up as part of this process.
They were literally walled up: condemned to stay in the house almost all of the time, maintaining and cleaning it or supervising its cleaning and maintenance, depending on their class; spending each day of their lives ensuring that the master of the house returned to a perfectly-kept residence. This in itself would have been irksome enough, but social aspirations added to women’s domestic workload in the most intolerable way. In an age when the middle classes were burgeoning, so that many people had more of what is now called ‘disposable income’, and when, for the first time, machinery could churn out materials and finished goods very cheaply, houses became filled with all kinds of artefacts, many of them quite useless. Whether they were bought or made at home, all of these things also needed care and maintenance – the latter involving a great deal of washing and cleaning when houses were warmed by coal fires and lit by candles or gas. Clothes and food became much more elaborate. Women were not only not allowed to go out to work, they felt compelled to spend every waking hour carrying out tasks which today we would regard as of minimal value or even futile. Meals in middle-class households consisted of many dishes. When providing food, the housewife was expected to achieve an illogical combination of outward show – especially when there were guests at the table – and the practice of frugality. This often meant that the same food appeared on the table several times running before it was finally consumed, each time ingeniously and time-consumingly served up in a slightly different way.
I’ve often reflected that, to a greater or lesser extent, all except the very young spend some of their time living in the past. Although my own and my husband’s tastes in furniture are quite traditional, and therefore most of our possessions have not dated all that much, I know that the décor and soft furnishings in my house are very much of the period at which we moved in to it in 1994, and that visitors will recognise this. It is a phenomenon that was yet more true of previous generations: they thriftily kept the same furniture until it had, quite literally, worn out. And it wasn’t just the surroundings that belonged in the past; attitudes, values and points of reference were also behind the times. Exactly how far behind often depended on location, sometimes also on education. In London at the turn of the twentieth century, the Bloomsbury Group famously rejected the lifestyle and morals of their Victorian parents; however, Victorian lifestyles and morals were still alive and well in the Spalding of the 1950s and 1960s. It took the combination of the pop scene (I don’t just mean the music, but everything that went with it) and the advent of the first working-class generation to be university-educated to instigate real change.
In some ways I feel privileged to have lived through all of this and, through aligning my reading with my own memories, to have come, belatedly, to some kind of understanding of it. Women today still complain about glass ceilings and the impossibility of ‘having it all’. True equality has been a long time coming and is not quite here yet. The journey was started by those Victorian girls who were allowed just enough education to understand what they were missing. Some nineteenth century women were so frustrated, or so badly treated by their husbands, that they turned to murder (the weapon of choice was poison), knowing that the death penalty would surely be their fate if they were caught.
What I’d really like to be able to do would be to travel back to the past and knock down that huge Victorian edifice, as the Berlin Wall was knocked down, in order to be able to see beyond it to the Georgian age that preceded Victoria’s. I wonder what those women, in their lighter, brighter, more sparsely-furnished houses, were like; whether they led happier lives than their Victorian descendants; whether knowing them better would prove the hypothesis that civilisation develops, not in linear fashion, but in loops and curlicues, like oxbow lakes. The Victorians, so enterprising in so many ways, were out there in their boats, not realising that they were grounded in a swamp.