With the UK going into a fairly strict lockdown, many people here are going to be spending a lot more time in their homes than they might otherwise do. Fortunately, the British, and particularly the English, have a special fondness for the home that goes back to at least the 1800s, and that just happens to be the focus of my research work for my PhD. In these difficult times, it might be of some value to reflect on just how the special fondness for home developed in Britain, perhaps as a way to better appreciate the place so many of us living here are going to see an awful lot of for the next few weeks (or more).
Home has taken on a remarkable set of qualities since at least the middle of the Victorian period as a place distinctly separate from the rest of the world where the inhabitants go for respite, succour, and moral rebuilding from the perils of all that is outside it. This is not to say that homes were not special places before then, but many of the ideas of the home we continue to have today originate from around the 1830s onward. Prior to that, homes were a place of rest, a place one could be at ‘ease’, which is to say in a physical state of repose, but with much less concern given to the idea of them being places of comfort and moral sanctuary. For the majority of the population, homes were dark, small, and often provided only the most basic shelter from the elements. Even among the aristocracy, and by the mid-eighteenth century the middle classes, homes were much more focussed on function, and to an extent on display, and less concerned with what we consider today the comforts of home.
Well before the nineteenth century, the fire was central to being at ease in the home, and the open fire was the preferred method in Britain long after wood and coal stoves came into use in other parts of the world. Whereas the fire was largely a practical necessity in homes great and small prior to the Victorian era, it took on far greater connotations during the period. The first reference I have been able to find to the fire being central to the well-being of the family is from 1834, in a text called Cottage Comforts, with Hints for Promoting Them, Gleaned from Experience. The author, Esther Copley, notes ‘Does not the thought of home, the cheerful fireside, and the dear little smiling circle [of family] sustain the fond father through many a day of toilsome labour’. She adds later the ‘best enjoyments are found at home’. A guide to Clerical Economics from 1842 adds to the idea by noting that ‘sitting around a good fire… the minister at the one side, the mother at the other, and “the bairns” among their feet amusing themselves with the two cats, or the favourite dog, forms as happy a group as the world can produce’. It is interesting that the book emphasising the presence of animals was published in Scotland rather than England, and speaks to some of the distinct differences between English and Scottish ideas. By the 1860s, the fire has taken on a far more prominent role, as Lady Bountiful’s Legacy to her Family and Friend notes: ‘The fire, to which an Englishwoman almost invariable advances as soon as she enters a room, is so important to comfort, that it is worthwhile to devote some further space to its management.’ Lady Bountiful also echos Esther Copley with the idea that being ‘happy at home … is the ultimate result of all ambition.’
The introduction of comfort as distinct from ease has a lot to do with how the British concept of home took hold. Comfort includes the physicality of being at ease and adds emotional elements so that the person who is comfortable is physically, mentally and emotionally in a state of repose. My research into the idea of comfort has found a tremendous amount was written about it in terms of the home during the nineteenth century. For example comfort: is not related to income (1855), is desirable to every English gentleman (1865), comes from the little things in a home (1876), or is made by trifles in the home (1897), and guest thinks of it more than beauty or elegance (1909).
Of course, most of the work of making the home a comfortable place fell squarely on the mistress of the house. The woman of the house increasingly had an awful lot of pressure put on her to make things perfect. Her unselfish disposition could make any place, no matter how humble, a cheerful home (1855), such that she was the ‘main-spring’ of the household (1876), and the whole comfort and wellbeing of the home depended on the woman at the helm (1897), so she was always looking for ways to make the home more comfortable (1911). Easy-peasy.
Despite the ridiculously high standards, which does not even go into the nearly absurd worries about having the right colours and patterns on display in the home, the interesting thing in my research is just how many middle-class families actually felt their homes did live up to at least the correct ‘feel’ of the home, even if the objects within it might not pass muster. A young child who was away from home wrote to her mother no place could ‘be as dear as home’. (1820). A schoolboy in 1850 noted more than once a ‘pleasant evening’ spent at home or visiting family in their homes. A woman in 1865 noted ‘we had a very quiet and happy days at home’, and later that her family was ‘delighted in my coming home so soon’. A traveler noted of her guest house it was ‘very comfortable tho small’ (1871) while a shipping clerk in Newcastle noted the most comfortable way to help with a toothache ‘was to pass away the morning by reading over the fireside’ at home (1887).
There was not some master plan in the nineteenth century to make home the epicentre of the universe. Instead, there was a gradual rise in the possibilities of the home for more and more people, starting with the gradual separation of the working space from the home space in the eighteenth century. As the middle class expanded and developed greater economic power, they were able to apply that power to create a more and more refined home environment that was supported not just by the mistress of the home but also the swelling population of servants. With greater capital outlay came greater expectations for the results, spurred on by the proliferation of prescriptive literature being written to tell first-generation middle-class families just what they were to wish for. The result was that by the turn of the twentieth century, the cliches of the perfect home, the separate spheres away from the world, had become thoroughly entrenched in British society, and have remained so ever since, fictional though it may be.
The homes many in Britain are now confined in still bear the marks of this legacy. Rather than servants, we have appliances to look after some of the harder jobs, and probably there is a boiler or central heating rather than a hearth, but the same basic ideas of home as a shelter from the whirlwind of life outside remain. As the UK settles down for a minimum of three-weeks of ‘shelter-in-place’ life at home, it might be worth remembering the long legacy that comes with the space we are in. The flat I am living in dates to about 1895, so I am keenly aware of how many lives have been lived here, how many people sat in the same room I am in right now, looking out onto the same row of terraced houses that I see as I am writing. Even if people live in modern buildings, the same keen British sense of the home has been built into each one. I’ll missing going out to the pub, or for a cup of tea, but I am also aware that for me just it was for those Victorian-era people who sat in this room more than a century ago, this is a fine place to enjoy some of the more modest pleasures of being at home, in Newcastle.