A bit more of a ‘factual’ post this time. I’ve been asked quite a lot recently about various facets of Victorian history and my methods for researching the stuff that I write about. Often, it boils down to questions like ‘Where did you find the information on that village?’ Or ‘Was he a real person?’ Or even ‘So, if I was in Victorian London, how exactly would I send a telegram, and how much would it cost?
The secret is that I spend an awful lot of time in bookshops, and I own an awful lot of books (including many antique or out of print editions). This blog, then, is about reference material; I present to you my top 5 reference books on the 19th century. If I had to give up all my books but five, these are the ones I couldn’t be without, as I use them almost every day!
1. Baedeker’s Great Britain, 1890
(reproduced by Old House Books, 2003)
The iconic travel guide to Britain in 1890, written with the English-speaking foreign traveller in mind, but now the ultimate guide for the time-traveller. This has a great introduction on British customs, etiquette and the prices of things, as well as a town-by-town guide to Britain itself. Best read alongside the Guide to London for probably the most exhaustive travel guide to Britain ever written.
2. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
(Daniel Pool; Touchstone 1993)
This is a lovely little book, focussing on everyday life in England from 1800 to around 1860. Full of facts and figures about everything from the hierarchy of English peers through to the social rules of the country house visit, and supported by quotes from period literature.
3. Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870
(Liza Picard; W&N 2005)
Simply the most engaging, well-researched and well-written guide to life in Victorian London ever written. There, I said it. It’s third on the list only because its scope is quite focussed, making its use limited to the Big Smoke in mid-Victorian times. Thankfully, that suits me down to the ground.
4. Enquire Within Upon Everything 1890
(reproduced by Old House Books, 2003)
First published by Houlston & Sons of Paternoster Square, this book is the essential guide to, well, everything in the Victorian era. It sold over a million copies, which was unprecedented for its time, and was added to annually to cover more and more diverse topics. The Victorian householder would use this little manual to learn the rules of backgammon, prepare tonics, operate a barometer, treat the bite of a viper, or observe the correct etiquette at a dinner party.
5. Bradshaw’s Illustrated Handbook to London & Its Environs 1862
(George Bradshaw; reproduced by Conway Books, 2012)
This is the book recently made famous by Michael Portillo in his Great Railway Journeys TV series. As a result of the show’s success, Old House have published two facsimile versions of the book – one a standard hardcover, and one a plush leatherbound edition. Both offer the determined rail traveller an unparalleled companion around Britain. Used in conjunction with the Baedeker, this book provides a fascinating insight into the development of late-Victorian Britain.
And the Runners Up…
As I own over a hundred books on the subject, I couldn’t leave it at five… Books that narrowly missed the final cut include: Baedeker’s London & Its Environs 1900 (reproduced by Old House Books); Telling Dildrams & Talking Whiff-whaff (Mr. Holloway, 1839; reproduced by Old House Books, 2012); Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (reprinted by BiblioBazaar, 2010); Life in Victorian Britain (Michael Paterson; Robinson 2008); A History of Everyday Things in England (Marjorie & CHB Quennell; out of print); The Complete History of Jack the Ripper (Philip Sugden; Robinson 1994); A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Eric Partridge, out of print).