Wednesday 11 March 2009

Evenings at home

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management provides advice on all aspects of Victorian middle-class home life. Alongside the famous recipes there is guidance on managing one's servants, choosing one's home ('the neighbourhood of all factories of any kind, producing unwholesome effluvia or smells, should be avoided'), and child-rearing. However, it had never occurred to me that advice was needed on how to spend a quiet evening at home. Mrs Beeton, though, has plenty to say:
Of the manner of passing EVENINGS AT HOME, there is none pleasanter than in such recreative enjoyments as those which relax the mind from its severer duties, whilst they stimulate it with a gentle delight. Where there are young people forming a part of the evening circle, interesting and agreeable pastimes should especially be promoted. ...
Light or fancy needlework often forms a portion of the evening's recreation for the ladies of the household, and this may be varied by an occasional game at chess or backgammon. It has often been remarked, too, that nothing is more delightful to the feminine members of a family, than the reading aloud of some good standard work or amusing publication. A knowledge of polite literature may thus be obtained by the whole family, especially if the reader is able and willing to explain the more difficult passages of the book, and expatiate on the wisdom and beauties it may contain. This plan, in a great measure, realises the advice of Lord Bacon, who says, 'Read not to contradict and refute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.'
Perusing such earnest advice on evening activities, it is difficult not to be reminded of the Grossmiths' Diary of a Nobody, with Charles Pooter's anxiety about suitably respectable language and behaviour. However, there is also a stark contrast between Beeton's vision and the picture the Grossmiths paint of life among those at the lower social end of her readership:
Carrie and I can manage to pass our evenings together without friends. There is always something to be done: a tin-tack here, a Venetian blind to put straight, a fan to nail up, or part of a carpet to nail down - all of which I can do with my pipe in my mouth; while Carrie is not above putting a button on a shirt, mending a pillowcase, or practising the 'Sylvia Gavotte' on our new cottage piano (on the three years' system), manufactured by W. Bilkson (in small letters), from Collard and Collard (in very large letters).

One imagines that recipients of the earnest expatiations recommended by Beeton might secretly envy Carrie Pooter her practise time at the hire-purchase piano.

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