1. Dating Expensive mistresses, sordid-themed clubs, reckless curricle racing, dueling with pistols, gambling away his inheritance… the Victorian bachelor sowed his wild oats and got away with behaving very badly indeed. Once his dowager grandmama gave him the ultimatum to marry or else, he then had the burden of keeping his naughty behavior from the notice of whomever paid his allowance.
Since his prestige and wealth came foremost in marriage contract negotiations (his looks, health, character, and age incidental), so long as his indiscretions stayed out of the public eye, he was considered a good catch if he presented himself to the ladies with pretty manners.
The Victorian maiden, in contrast, risked total ruin at the very perception of her being anything but an innocent, mild-mannered debutante, blooming with health and youth. She couldn’t be too talkative, too intelligent, too much fun – she shouldn’t even be caught laughing with her mouth open. If she gave away her smiles too freely, she was thought fast and loose.
Heaven forbid she be caught unchaperoned with a man for even a moment; if said gentleman didn’t come to her rescue by promptly announcing their engagement, she was ruined. A rumor, a disgraced family member, a public mishap, a poorly-judged comment to an influential member of the Beau Monde could likewise spell ruin for an unlucky miss.
“Ruined” meant the poor lady was expected to be shunned, or “cut” by her fashionable friends and acquaintances, or else they risked the same punishment. Once a woman lost her good name, her tainted self was unwelcome any place considered respectable, since pure women were in danger of being corrupted by her contagious wickedness.
Even if a girl survived a few Seasons of meat-market-like balls, soirees, and house parties unscathed, if she she didn’t attract an eligible offer of marriage within her first few Seasons, by age twenty she was said to be “on the shelf,” or a spinster. Sad but true; 20 was the new 65 for the Victorians.
2. Getting Drunk If your life expectancy hovered around 40, then you might drink like a Victorian too. The average Victorian consumed 30 gallons of alcohol per year. Shocking, unless you consider that their untreated water was more dangerous. Gin, brandy, and rum was for the lower classes; the rich invented a complicated system to justify being a bunch of lushes.
At the proper dinner party, a host should serve “Sherry with soup and fish, hock and claret with roast meat, punch with turtle, champagne with whitebait, port with venison, port or burgundy with game, sparkling wines between the roast and the confectionary, madiera with sweets, port with cheese, and for dessert, port, tokay madiera, sherry and claret.” *
The fashionable lord employed a wine steward, who would procure the best of all these libations and keep them coming on schedule. Not to mention after dinner, the gentlemen would linger over cigars and… you guessed it, more alcohol.
3. Waste Management You get mad when the dog turns the room green, right? Well, in Victorian England, you wouldn’t have noticed even the severest flatulence. Household cesspits overflowed into yards and streets then overwhelmed the sewers, but passersby thought themselves fortunate if they weren’t hit by a bedpan being emptied out the window. Since there was no animal control on call, pedestrians side-stepped carcasses of stray dogs and cats, as well as the 100 tons of horse manure dumped on the streets of London each day. With no trash collectors either, household garbage including rotten food, was likewise dumped out into the street, to be picked over by scavengers.
Not to worry – the streets weren’t always smoldering heaps of offal. The rain washed most of the filth away… into the Thames. While centuries earlier the river ran clear with thriving salmon and swans, by 1858, the daily 278,00 tons of raw sewage dumped into the Thames – not to mention the toxic pollutants from the factories upstream – caused a stench so terrible, Parliament ended its session early. Not even the Queen was aloof to the menace; the sewer less than 100 yards from Buckingham palace ruptured and overflowed.
Far stinkier than our modern natural gas was ammonia- and sulfur-scented coal gas, which piped throughout London with leaky valves. Cholera and malaria epidemics overwhelmed burial grounds; dead paupers were tossed in a churchyard hole and covered with a layer of soil until the next load arrived. Industrial odors from leather tanners, smelters, slaughterhouses, fishmarkets, and glue factories created a stench so horrific, people dropped dead from the poisonous gases it created.
It took the engineering talent of Prince Albert, dignitaries from the church and Parliament, a small army of civil engineers, and 1,000 laborers to install drainage and pumping apparatus in 1864. The Illustrated London News recounted the flower pots and colored lights placed around the pumping stations in a “monument of sewage.” Go ahead and poke fun, but effective waste management is no laughing matter!
4. Celebrities While the Who’s-Who of today consists largely of Hollywood stars, the Kennedys, and the posh few who own hillside golf community property or a penthouse, Victorians organized their celebrities in a complicated, authoritative system. The “peerage” owned most of the property, still largely ruled the roost in Parliament, governed individual counties and parishes, and reigned supreme over the “Beau Monde,” or the elite of society. Even a distant family connection to a titled lord would’ve guaranteed you brighter prospects.
The nutshell version of Victorian Who’s Who: royalty, nobility, then gentry. Breaking down the particulars, including titles, precedence, and family relations, required guidebooks which savvy Victorians tried to memorize, such as Debrett’s and Burke’s peerage.
Ranked at the top of the peerage is the Queen, whom you’d address as “Your Majesty.” Her consort, siblings, and children are “Your Royal Highness.” Next in rank are Dukes and Duchesses, whom you’d address as “Your Grace.” The other titles of the peerage in order of rank are Marquess/Marchioness, Earl/Countess, Viscount/Viscountess, and Baron/Baroness, all of whom are addressed as “My lord” and “My lady.” If you were close friends, you might greet one by title: “Ho there, Devon,” but otherwise he was “Lord Devon” to you, or “Your lordship.” Never would you be caught calling him “Wilhelm.” Apparently spouses seldom used first names, even in private. “For heaven’s sake, Lord Devon, will you stop stealing the blankets!”
The gentry consisted of Baronets or Knights, addressed as “Sir.” Sons of dukes, marquesses, and earls could take their fathers’ lesser title until they inherited, called “courtesy titles.” (This explains why Andrew Tilmore in Rougemont #2 is “Lord Preston” (earl) while is father is “Lord Courtenay” (marquess). Members of clergy and Parliament were also regarded with prestige, but discerning whether an archbishop or the nephew of a duke, or grandmother to an Austrian prince takes precedence was a puzzle that explained why puzzled Victorians consulted their peerage manuals.
5. Death The only vice Victorians loved more than alcohol was the macabre. Made popular by the ever-grieving Queen Victoria (who never came out of mourning for her dear Prince Albert), elaborate funerals, rituals, and trappings were an obsession for the Victorians. A family was expected to commission a monument carved with symbolic glyphs (such as a broken column to indicate a life cut short) in a park-like cemetery. Funeral processions meant pageantry, including horses dyed black pulling the hearse with black ostrich feathers on the livery. The front door of a bereaved family’s house should have a black wreath hung on the door, black curtains pulled shut, with black drapes covering every mirror inside the house. Mourning warehouses sold all the trappings necessary for a proper, over-the-top Victorian memorial – think “Funerals-R-Us.”
A widow was expected to mourn her deceased husband for at least two years, the first year in “full mourning:” solid black dress in drab fabric, veil, and no jewelry. She would be absent from social events and maintained a generally somber demeanor. For her second year in “half mourning,” she might wear dark purple or grey and remove the veil. Still, any show of gaiety during her mourning would’ve been unforgivable. Men had it easy; a black armband signaled mourning.
And just in time for Halloween… a guilty fascination of mine: the popular Victorian practice of postmortem photography, or “mourning portraits.” I don’t mean crime scene photos or a coffin snapshot. The dead body was dressed then posed with props and a backdrop, typically with living relatives so as to appear alive – even if the eyes had to be propped open. Sometimes glass eyes were installed.
I’m not making this up. Search the internet for “Victorian postmortem photography,” and you’ll find dead Aunt Edith playing the piano, little Sally sharing her doll with her brother – and the cosmetic appearance of the corpse didn’t seem to be a factor. It was a sentimental keepsake. Just when you thought the Victorian era was romantic…
Where did I find all this info? For more about Victorians, check out: