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Book Review: How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

Narrelle Harris books we like non fiction

How to be a Victorian by Ruth GoodmanWhen you’re writing canon-era Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s not enough to read Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories from start to finish. Although that is something I definitely did before (and during) the writing of The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, it didn’t always tell me important things like… what was Victorian era underwear like for men in the 1890s? I was writing a Holmes/Watson romance, and although I didn’t intend to be super explicit, I fully expected we’d be getting these gentlemen out of their underthings at some point.

Obviously, it was vital to know what those underthings might look like, and how Watson, for example, might go about getting Sherlock Holmes out of his.

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman was a great resource for discovering such small but vital details – and more besides.

Ruth Goodman is an historian who has first-hand knowledge of how things like Victorian underwear works – not because of venerable age, but because she’s spent a year living on a Victorian farm as well as carrying out practical research.

How to be a Victorian can tell you the things you’ll never learn from books written in the era. Goodman covers everything from what the different social classes did for work and fun, what they ate for breakfast, and their attitudes to gender, sexual relations and marriage.

Importantly for a writer, she also covers more personal issues with chapters called ‘Getting Dressed’, ‘A Trip to the Privy’, ‘Personal Grooming’ and ‘A Bath Before Bed’. She also touches on attitudes to female sexuality and homosexuality.

The book is entertaining and informative – and for me, inspirational. The following scene (from chapter 8 of The Adventure of the Colonial Boy) was written purely because of the section I read on bathing. I loved the idea of this quite circumspect and almost prudish method of non-bathtub cleansing being the source of Watson’s erotic fantasies about the man he loved and thought he could never have:

 

     Watson banished himself from his own quarters, having first laid out some items for Holmes’s use – tooth powder, a fresh collar and a spare linen shirt. He sat on the stair, brooding and listening to the faint sounds of trickling water.

     He tried not to imagine the scene, but couldn’t help himself. It was an old imagining, in any case. Holmes standing in front of the basin in his long, white shirt, sleeves pushed up past the elbows. His drawers draped over the bed, legs and feet bare. Holmes dipping a flannel into the basin of warm water and rubbing it first over his arms, soaping them sparingly, rinsing the pale skin over wiry musculature, before drying his limbs with the provided towel.

     He imagined Holmes squeezing the wet flannel so that water flowed freely over long fingers, over his knuckles and the back of his hand, his strong, narrow wrists.

     He imagined Holmes washing his skin. Every part of his body. Holmes dipping the wet flannel and then the towel in turn below the neckline of the shirt to wash his neck and upper back. His throat and shoulders and collarbones and armpits. Chest, stomach, hips, thighs. Bending to wash his feet, and to dry them. Again, to wash calves and shins, knees, the curve of his backside, drying as he went, those long-fingered, elegant hands Watson had for so long admired running over Holmes’s own body.

     He imagined Holmes touching himself in a way that surely Holmes was never wont to do. Sherlock Holmes had made it perfectly clear, long ago, that his body was in service to his mind in all things.

     But still Watson imagined. He imagined Holmes’s hands lingering over sensitive skin: over the secret strength of his muscles and tendons, over the hair of his chest and the bump of stiffening nub and areole, through the coarser curls at his groin, along the responsive staff.

     Watson drew a sudden breath that contained as much anger as horror at himself.

     I should not still love him so, or want him so, after the infamous way he treated me.


Whether you’re planning your own Victorian-era Holmes/Watson love story, or I’ve whet your appetite with chapter titles like ‘A Bath Before Bed’, Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Victorian is an excellent writing resource, and just a darn good read on its own account.

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