I'VE BEEN READING OLD books again; books about domestic economy, about everything from how to kill a pig and make the most of every single bit of its carcass, right down to its toes and not excluding its tail, to how to dye Brussels lace a nice shade of beige. I learned how to recognise the onset of death (the nose takes on a sharp appearance) and how to blacklead a kitchen range. I was informed that a concoction of snails and frogs' legs does much to alleviate the symptoms of consumption, and told how to organise a ball for several hundred persons. I also now know how to make a soup for charitable purposes and how to take a stain out of marble.
I have learned many things that no longer have any practical application and am torn between admiration and pity for our ancestors. The pity is probably misplaced in certain cases, for the Victorians were splendidly sure of themselves and those who were not had access to an almost infinite amount of advice on how to behave in every conceivable circumstance.
The nouveau riche were told how to organise the servants and the servants how to comport themselves towards their employers. Not a detail was omitted, not a stone left unturned. Their lives sound unbelievably crowded and exhausting and I'm not surprised they had a tendency to die young.
The authors of the books assumed that even quite "modest" middle class families would employ between sixteen and eighteen servants and the mere thought causes one to want to go and lie down. Employers were expected to keep a close eye on all these servants and the servants were expected to be up and about the crack of dawn, doing things.
Cook (who probably had a hangover, for cooks were notoriously prone to drunkenness and who can blame them) would be overseeing the preparation of breakfast kidneys, brawn, game pie, kedgeree, fish, curries (yes, really), ham, toast, buns, jam, marmalade, tea, coffee and chocolate, and trimming the edges of poached eggs.
Maids would be sweeping rooms, clearing fireplaces, emptying slops, carrying water, cleaning windows, shaking curtains, making beds and making sure their caps were on straight. Gardeners would be tting pineapples, grapes and nectarines in the greenh use in readiness for dinner, f tmen would be pulling on th white gloves and grooms wo Id be out in the stables seeing o the horses. Knife and boo boys would be coping with
and boots, while the butler and housekeeper would be watching each other to make sure neither got above their station.
Housemaids would be feeding the children horrid pap, for Victorian children were poorly fed as a matter of dietary principle, and the older members of the family, probably already suffering from dyspepsia, having chomped their way through twelve
courses the night before, would be preparing to chomp through the kidneys etc.
Then the gentleman would go Off to their place of business, always supposing they had one, or to the club or hunting foxes, while the ladies would apply themselves to the gruelling social round, tightly laced up in whalebone stays and wearing far too many layers of clothes for comfort.
I often whine about the complexity of our lives now the bureaucracy, the technology, the chaos, but on the evidence our ancestors complicated their own lives to a similar extent and at least now we don't have to blacklead the microwave. t