Stay in shape
Given how crazy the Victorians were for tight-fitting corsets and how they penned so much romantic writing about the gentler, fairer sex, it might come as a surprise that Victorian women weren’t expected to be overly fragile and delicate. But they weren’tâat least according to the self-help marriage manuals. Victorian men were told they were supposed to like their women strong; if not strong enough to plough the fields then at least strong enough to deal with the everyday labours of raising a family.
Over in America, George W. Hudsonâthe Methodist madman from earlier who suggested men seek out bulbous-headed womenâpenned his thoughts on a woman’s desirable physicality. With the characteristic literary flair we’ve come to expect of him, he wrote: “Choose for your wife a woman with full bust and good round limbs, as well as a good, large, well-proportioned headâone who can run and walk and lift a good load.”
But what was brain without brawn! Even Hudson conceded that brain is a “good thing”. It wasn’t just Hudson who stressed the importance of the body beautiful. Back in Britain, the turn-of-the-century writer Haydn Brown presented it as indisputable fact that: “All women would be healthier and none the less beautiful if they possessed firm muscles and strong limbs.” Even those who have no intention of marrying would do well to be mindful of their health, Brown warns.
There were enough activities to keep them in shape, especially towards the end of the Victorian and the beginning of the Edwardian Age. As well as what look like the absolutely agonising home exercises of the kind illustrated in this leather-bound book above, there was a growing trend of women taking part in sports. As an 1898 edition of the “Sportswoman’s Library” summarises, because of increased participation over the last decade in sports such as hunting, croquet, golf, and personal exercises, the women of the present generation had a “physique that would have been regarded with wondering awe, not unmixed with disapproval, by their gentle and delicate grandmothers.”