Book Review: The Victorian Home

The Victorian Home:  The Grandeur And Comforts Of The Victorian Era, In Households Past And Present, by Ellen M. Plante

I borrowed this book from a friend and when I looked at it, I was struck by the fact that this particular volume reminded me a great deal of my own childhood.  As I frequently note, this is generally a bad thing.  I do not like being reminded of my childhood for good reasons, but this book did so in a way that was particularly unexpected and profound.  As it happens, I spent a fair amount of time in the farmhouse owned by my father’s side of the family, a house that was itself built by an ancestor [1] during Queen Victoria’s reign, and the room I happened to sleep in was itself still in Victorian fashion, largely because I come from a family that has little particular urge to change its habits and traditions, which in the case of interior design [2] is not such a bad conservatism after all.  Whether the reader has, as I did, the sense of deja vu upon reading this book or is inspired to create a beautiful interior design that seeks to embody the elegance of Victorian interior design, this book will likely be of some interest to those who enjoy the relationship between history and design in the home.

The book is organized by room, and is full of beautiful pictures that will be of great aid in helping the reader to better design their rooms from the shell to the furniture patterns and color schemes that demonstrate the beauty of Victorian interior design.  The book starts by introducing the complex history of design during the Victorian era as well as ways that modern houses can echo Victorian principles even while maintaining a sense of modernity.  Starting with the parlor, the author gives the history of various rooms of the house and how they were designed during the last sixty years of the 19th century, and how such rooms can be recreated today, looking at dining rooms, his library room and her sitting room, the utilitarian kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, and finally the porch.  The author also helpfully includes a glossary of terms as well as the chronology of different styles and trends in interior design that took place during the Victorian era.  The author makes some assumptions, such as the fact that a library would be a luxury for many people to have, but a necessity for someone like myself for whom the presence of large amounts of books is a given, and one is merely faced with the task of how to do so in an elegant and useful fashion.

Although it might seem like a book that offers little to enjoy for men, this is a book that is full of surprises in terms of its relevance.  Over and over again the author quotes the style guide in the late 1860’s that was co-written by Harriett Beecher Stowe, namely the same woman responsible for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Her efforts at reforming interior design were of the same piece as her efforts to reform the house of American politics by removing the stain of slavery, and once slavery had been vanquished, she was able to write authoritatively on more domestic pursuits, something that struck me as particularly pointed in comparing our personal houses to the larger metaphorical house of the body politic.  I was also struck in this book by the fact that styles and trends frequently oscillated between two poles, where at times there was a push for simplicity and austere plainness and at other times a push towards ostentation and fanciness, where the social aspects of interior design and the desire to show off wealth and aesthetic taste was balanced by other claims that the house had merely utilitarian functions and did not need to be showy.  This sort of push and pull between different trends is something that can be noted in many aspects of art, as the desire to show off and the desire for simplicity are seemingly hopelessly at odds, and where the multiple layers of our presentation of ourselves and our creativity are difficult to examine or even acknowledge.


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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