Lasdun, Susan. Victorians at Home.

NY: Viking, 1981.

Comparing the title of this interesting and well-produced book to its actual content, it’s unclear what the author intended and it’s not really what I had expected. Still, if your interest is in domestic life and architecture in 19th-century Britain (and mine is, among other subjects), there’s a lot of good stuff here, both textually and visually.

Drawn by the fact that Mark Girouard provided its introductory essay, I had thought to find a social history of the Victorian-era family, a study of the people and their surroundings, but that’s not entirely true. Instead of a synthesis, this is sort of an anthology of twenty or so discrete pictorial essays, each devoted to a particular physical establishment, the heydays of which are spread over the century. The author, who is an artist married to an architect, begins with John Harden, a Regency gentleman and amateur artist who produced a number of watercolors of his family and the rented home they all shared in the Lake District. His informal paintings record the daily life and activities of a group of genteel but not wealthy people in the period just before Victoria came to the throne. These range from the mistress of the house playing the pianoforte to a scullery maid preparing meals in the kitchen. Moreover, his wife kept a series of journals in the form of long letters written to her sister in India. The accompanying text does a good job of describing what the reader is looking at and what it all means, from the family’s musical interests to the scheduling of mealtimes.

Another chapter considers domestic life from a far different perspective: The search by the young Queen for a part-time home less formal and more comfortable and relaxed than Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. She found it, more or less, at Claremont and later at Osborne. Victoria being who she was, and a royal residence being what is, the art here is much more formal and archival in perspective and the records quoted from are more official. (A later chapter does something similar for the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House.)

The subjects of other essays range from George Scharf, a bachelor and professional man of wide talents, whose artistic record of life in London and in his own cluttered apartment have been “rediscovered” in the past couple of decades, to the home of Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, caught in watercolors and photos from the 1890s. Some of the chapters are quite short, only a page or two, and might better have been collected into a couple of longer, more thematic chapters, but that’s a quibble. Girouard’s opening essay concentrates on providing an overview of the whole range of chapters that follow it and brings in a number of his enduring themes, which you will find developed at greater length in his own later books — all of which are worth finding and reading. There’s also a lengthy and very detailed bibliography to jump-start further research.

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