by Kristine Hughes
Published by Writers’ Guide Books, Cincinnati, Ohio
Review by Cathleen Myers
This is a far better researched book than the infamous What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew and is a far more valuable guide for both historical novelists and re-creationists. Ms. Hughes has culled much of her historical detail from first hand sources and the book is loaded with first person narratives. While she devotes little space to the English Regency (1811-1820, there is plenty of useful detail on the essential trivia of daily life in Victorian England (1837-1901), including sections on matters historians usually ignore but which are of essential interest to most female readers: lighting, plumbing, refrigeration, food prep, shopping (including that new institution, the Department Store), furniture, household management and dressing in fashion on a small income! Her chapters on the Byzantine complexity of the British Court system and the 19th century Military do an excellent job of making order out of chaos. Unlike many historians, she is aware that the mere passing of a law (like the law forbidding mantraps) does not mean it was necessarily enforced and obeyed.
The book’s chief weakness is the author’s excessive reliance on an 1864 etiquette manual called The Habits of Good Society. It is extremely doubtful that the manual was written - as claimed - by a real member of one of London’s exclusive clubs and even more doubtful that the author intended all his remarks to be taken seriously. The section on when to give the Cut Direct is clearly tongue-in-cheek (something Ms. Hughes clearly misses), and his account of a Country House Weekend is clearly not based on first hand experience. No one in the first rank of society would dream of asking permission to take a maid and valet along on a country house weekend; it would be assumed that a visitor and his wife would be accompanied by their servants.
Ms. Hughes, like many American historians, fails to understand the social gap between the British Middle Classes - no matter how wealthy - and the gentry. Her section on dinner service a la Francaise and a la Russe very clearly explains the difference between the two styles of service. But as an example of a fashionable dinner for eighteen, she quotes from Mrs. Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management. While Mrs. Beeton’s sample dinner menus appear to be lavish meals by modern standards, they are actually intended as a guide not for the Society hostess but for the well-to-do Middle Class housewife!
Ms. Hughes’ chapter on Regency and Victorian dance is also riddled with inaccuracies - surprising for someone who lists Elizabeth Aldrich’s excellent From the Ballroom to Hell as one of her sources. Anyone familiar with the evolution of ballroom dance from 1800 to 1900 will be amused by her statement that "dancing changed very little during the 19th century" and anyone who has struggled to master the agile footwork of the Regency quadrille will be amused at her description of it as a "walking" dance. For a far superior guide to the etiquette of 19th century England and America - both in and out of the ballroom - read Ms. Aldrich’s book, which is based on a far wider variety of first hand sources.
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