Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

On the front lines of the war against dirt, dust, and vermin

Recently, a friend of mine and I each got a copy of Judith Flanders's splendid book, ''Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England" (Norton, $34.95), and, comparing notes, discovered that we had both zeroed in on the chapter called ''The Bathroom and the Lavatory." After all, the mysteries of Victorian sex are as nothing to those of its plumbing. I have always wondered what arrangements existed in such places as Bleak House, and have never felt at all clear on the question of ''drains," even though, based on my reading, they were as disquieting to the thoughtful Victorian as ''Doubts."

Now all is revealed. Flanders moves from room to room, and from birth to death, in middle-class Victorian houses as they came into being from 1850 to 1890. This turns out to be an exceptionally good way to organize a social and cultural history of an era during which the home became something of a fetish -- as did specialization and segregation. In the course of examining the layout and furnishing of the rooms and the activities that were carried on in them, Flanders illuminates the values that each space reflected. The bedroom, for instance, was strictly for sleeping; anything else (mentionable) was, according to one guide, ''unwholesome, immoral, and contrary to the well-understood principle that every important function of life required a separate room."

The nursery was for children after weaning. (Breast-feeding, you will want to know, was a ''period of privation and penance," according to household-management expert Mrs. Beeton, who spoke darkly of the debilitating effect of the ''baby vampire.") The kitchen was for cooking, of course, and, at night, for the servant to sleep in. Far from emanating a feeling of warmth and family intimacy as it does now, the room and its attendant scullery -- also exhaustively treated -- represented frugality and all the rigors of domestic management. As for the lavatory, or WC: Flanders, who admits to having been accused of being ''more interested in S-bends than . . . sex," supplies enlightening diagrams and is most helpful on the subject of drains.

In the course of her tour, which also takes in the drawing, dining, and morning rooms, the parlor, sickroom, and street, Flanders introduces an extraordinary amount of consumer and housekeeping detail. She knows what we want to know and is thoroughly engaging, undidactic company. She allows Victorians to speak for themselves, drawing on novels, journals, correspondence, and, most entertainingly, advice manuals. The last were presumed to be aimed at the upper middle class but were, unsurprisingly, bought and anxiously studied by the lower-middle and middle classes, whose means, however, would never allow them to realize the ideals they presented. Flanders notes again and again the gap between the serene dictates of instructors in refinement and duty, and the reality into which they were translated by tight budgets.

The most painful contradiction of values concerns the plight of the female servant. The ceaseless work of ill-paid women was behind every comfort and decency in the home, but most mavens of domestic regulation, so scrupulous in calculating the time it should take to clean a grate or make a bed, failed to allot time for a servant to wash, to tidy her room (assuming she had one), to sleep, or to eat. When it came to food, Flanders remarks, ''the main concern was not when [servants] ate but the need to ensure that they did not eat more than their allowance."

The moral value of frugality was matched only by that of cleanliness. The labor involved in keeping a middle-class Victorian home clean is staggering, in part because of the filth generated by the city's smoke-laden atmosphere, its manure-strewn streets, the house's fireplaces, greasy candles, and gas lamps; and in part because of the dirt-harboring qualities of the horsehair, feathers, draperies, and knickknacks with which the Victorian home was so well supplied. Aside from the campaign against filth, which is gloriously returned to again and again, there was the struggle, waged ''with commitment and constancy," against vermin: rats, mice, fleas, bedbugs, black beetles, and ''the family cockroach."

It amuses me to imagine the reception a Victorian person would have given Marion Copeland's ''Cockroach" (Reaktion, paperback, $19.95), which is nothing less than a paean to that creature. Of course, it doesn't do to consider any animal bad these days unless it is a man -- as Copeland's book illustrates so well: The cockroach, she claims, ''may become one of the heroes of twenty-first-century ecofeminism, dedicated as that movement is to cleaning up the remains of patriarchy along with reestablishing healthy, balanced ecosystems for all life forms." Looking at the way the cockroach has been presented in folklore, literature, and art, Copeland argues that it is emblematic of the oppressed, that it ''speaks a language understood by people the world over who suffer at the hands of those who sacrifice community for wealth and compassion for power." Those hands, however, aren't all bad; for they sound to me as if they might include those of the generous slumlord who, thanks to the ideal conditions he has arranged for his cockroaches, has given his tenants the benefit of so much of their company.

Copeland refers to the cockroach as the ''least loved of all creatures," but surely that honor belongs to the rat -- which much-despised being is the subject of Robert Sullivan's ''Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants" (Bloomsbury, $23.95). Taking a naturalist's approach, Sullivan had the inspired idea of observing the rat doings of a New York alley for a year; after all, a ''rat in a garbage bag is a keynote detail of the city landscape." This winningly disgusting book has many memorable, revolting scenes and much practical information, such as rats do not especially like peaches and are just wild about chicken pot pie. If you have not already taken care of your Mother's Day obligation, it will just fill the bill.

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives