Woke up feeling a little contrary today, so here’s some things that are often repeated about the Victorian era that aren’t true:
Sometimes people were buried alive. Not that anyone can discern, but there were rare cases of people who’d been declared dead reviving a few hours later. Eventually the urban legend arose that folks were routinely pronounced dead, sealed in their coffin, and left to scream and scratch at the lid until they gave up the ghost for real. This led to all sorts of anti-buried-alive devices, like a wire on the (presumably) deceased person’s finger that led to a bell above ground, so they could ring for rescue. Many such devices were sold — it was a public obsession for awhile — but none were ever used.
The women saved themselves for marriage. Of course, we’re talking middle and upper class women. The lower classes did as they pleased, or as circumstances demanded. But the idea that Victorian women all went to their wedding nights as virgins, like a 1970s Barbara Cartland romance, has been statistically disproved. According to public record, the average firstborn arrived 7 months after the wedding. Reminds me of the old proverb: Babies usually take nine months, but the first one can come anytime.
Marriage was forever. Only if you were female. It was virtually impossible for a woman to obtain a divorce. Simply proving her husband cheated on her wasn’t nearly enough; she had to prove he also beat her excessively (ponder that) or was cruel in some other way. If she succeeded in her petition, she would lose not only all social standing but also access to her children, who always went to the father. But men could and did obtain divorces when their wives stepped out of line. In general, however, many married couples did one of two things: (1) the man kept a mistress and the wife kept to herself or (2) they lived apart for the rest of their lives. Sometimes in different houses. Sometimes on different continents.
Females deformed themselves with corsets. In a few cases, they surely did. (There are famous photographs.) But in general, the terror of “tight lacing,” of unnatural wasp waists, of ribs and organs dislocated in the pursuit of perfection, was another urban legend. More like an urban fetish, actually. Pamphlets were written about it, describing the “natural” female form and then its “perversion” quite breathlessly. The Victorians may have been hypocrites about sex, but they never missed a trick when it came to finding a new way to get off.
It was a simpler, more innocent time. Review the following and decide for yourself. Children over the age of eight were expected to work full-time unless their family (usually middle or upper class) kept them in school. And work was necessary, since there was no such thing as Juvvie — a child could be hung for stealing, say, food if the judge deemed him or her “incorrigible.” Certain services we take for granted, like the fire department, existed by subscription only. In other words, if your house caught fire and you weren’t paid up, the brigade wouldn’t scramble and your house would burn down. (But they would arrive on the scene and watch if you lived close to neighbors who were paid up, so they could spring into action for the subscriber.) And if you were unlucky enough to be born with a disability, you were destined to be a beggar, even if your parents were middle or upper class. Why? Because they would send you away the moment your disability was known. A “baby farmer” or some other lower class family would take your imperfect child and raise them up to be a beggar, or else lock them in a room or even hang them (by a harness) on a wall to keep them out of trouble. Jane Austen (not a Victorian, I know, but the practice continued beyond the Regency) had a sibling who was mentally challenged and lived apart from the Austens all his life, too imperfect to be associated with them.