What the Victorians Would Actually Tell Me To Do

I’ve been trying to follow Victorian homemaking advice for a little while now. But I’ve been ignoring what most nineteenth-century experts would actually tell me if they were here right now.

They would tell me to give my brain a break.

I’ve dealt with anxiety for a couple of years now. It started when my sister and I had to leave our parents’ home suddenly, and it’s popped back up again every time my life starts to feel overwhelming. Back in March of 2020, my anxiety was so high for so much of the time that I was excited when I thought I might get a couple of weeks off work because I desperately wanted some space to let my mind rest, time away from the rush of regular life so I could get myself and my emotions back to a place of stability.

Of course, exactly zero percent of what started last March has done anything to alleviate my anxiety (oh, for the hopeful naivete of those early days!) but the point is that there’s a part of me that’s always craving a break, a time when I can just do and be rather than think about everything all the time. That’s what drew me to focus on homemaking in the first place: the desire to focus on something that’s meaningful but that doesn’t require the mental effort of reading classic literature or writing the next great American novel.

When I left my job to get married and move to a new city, I had high expectations for these first few months as a full-time homemaker. I expected my anxiety to gradually dial down until there wasn’t even the hint of its static left in the spaces of my brain it used to monopolize.

That…isn’t what ended up happening.

At the time, I was convinced writing about Victorian homemaking was a brilliant idea. It was a way to keep writing and to keep creating content for this blog without the heavy mental load of the literary analysis I had initially set out to write. This was a way for me to have my cake and eat it too, a way to devote myself completely to the day-to-day work of homemaking without having to give up my identity as a writer. It was a stroke of genius, I thought. I’d write about homemaking for a month or two, and at the end of that time I would have a clean and tidy home, all the routines I needed on autopilot, and no more anxiety. Life would be wonderful and perfect and everything I wanted it to be.

Except it wasn’t. It isn’t. And as I slipped further and further into discouragement and anxiousness, I kept wondering, Where did I go wrong?

Where I went wrong

When I started this challenge, my goal was to focus on the practical side of homemaking: the routines, the organizing, the cooking and baking.

But, like any good literature major, I became captivated by the bigger themes I was seeing in the nineteenth-century homemaking books I was reading—the themes about duty and responsibility, about vision and purpose and how the day-to-day work of “keeping house” plays into our worldview, our beliefs about what matters most in our societies and in our lives. My tendency is to analyze, and my training is to do it thoroughly and well—so that’s what I did, cross-referencing source after source, filling pages and pages with notes until the Victorians and their homes and perspectives consumed nearly every waking thought.

In the end, I was spending more time analyzing the source material than putting any of it into practice in my home. And as my home slipped further and further into chaos, my stress level continued to climb until the project I thought would rescue me became just another straw on the back of a camel whose back was beginning to splinter.

Here’s the thing about homemaking: the actual day-to-day work of it doesn’t really look all that interesting—especially if you’re trying to write about it, and especially if you expect all your writing to be beautiful and amazing and “literary”. Actually tending to our homes is repetitive—we wash the dishes every day just like we did the day before. We wash laundry, we wear, we wash again, over and over and over, world without end, amen. At the end of the day, there’s very little novelty in any of it, which is probably why most of us don’t think of household work as “fun.”

When you think about it, though, the lack of novelty is one of the very things that makes homemaking feel so safe to us—especially now. We’ve just gone through a year that was practically all novelty, a year where we’ve had to respond to new and unfamiliar situations on an almost daily basis. Our brains are engaged all. the. time—and after a year of living this way, we’re tired. Homemaking gives us a chance to do something productive, something that matters, without having to expend the mental energy we ran out of months ago. We don’t have to do this work through a screen. We don’t have to make decisions about whether this activity is safe or questionable or whether anything significant has changed since the last time we made the exact same decision. For once, we don’t have to come up with the words to describe what we’re doing; we just have to do it. 

Turning my Victorian homemaking experiment into an exercise of textual analysis stole that mental restfulness from my homemaking. Instead of letting my brain rest while my hands produced order and comfort and beauty, I forced myself to think more, to think harder, to come up with the right words to express why homemaking matters instead of experiencing that meaning in my own home. I started out in pursuit of a peaceful home, and I ended up analyzing the peacefulness right out of my homemaking.

Anxiety and the Victorians

The Victorians would have been able to warn me about all of this weeks ago—if I had been willing to listen.

Victorians attributed anxiety and similar states of mental distress to one of three causes: a lack of oxygen in the blood, overactive thoughts and feelings, or not exercising the thoughts and feelings enough.

The solution to each of these ailments, according to the Victorians, was straightforward:

  1. Get fresh air.
  2. Balance the exertion of the mind with exertion of the body; just as you allow the body to rest, allow the mind to rest as well.
  3. Exercise the mind appropriately by pursuing a worthy purpose in your life.

Obviously, we now know that treating mental illness goes far beyond simple lifestyle adjustments. Many nineteenth-century thinkers focused primarily on observable, environmental cause-and-effect, never dreaming that there could be deeper, biological factors influencing people’s mood and energy levels. I will never suggest that someone attempt to treat anxiety or depression with nineteenth-century medical advice. These people treated opiates like Tylenol; they are not a reliable source of medical advice. If your thoughts and worries ever feel beyond your control, please speak to a twenty-first-century physician or mental health professional right away.

But let’s set aside the issue of mental illness for a moment. The fact of the matter is that, while some of us do have diagnosable anxiety disorders that require medical interventions to help us cope, not everyone who feels anxious or stressed has “anxiety,” just like not everyone who feels sad has depression in the clinical sense. And when it comes to managing the regular worry and sadness and stress that we experience as part of being humans in a complicated world, some basic lifestyle shifts can have an enormous impact on our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Just as the Victorians’ observations about fresh air were accurate even though their explanations were mistaken, their observations about mental health are likely not without merit. Opening windows like the Victorians suggest has been helping me think more clearly and feel more alert—so I’m guessing some of their mental health advice will help as well.

That is, if I actually hear their advice in the first place.

The Victorians would probably advise me to stop analyzing the big picture in these homemaking books. They would advise me to let my intellect rest and focus on working with my hands, on moving my body without exercising my mind disproportionately more than I exercise my body. And it makes a certain amount of sense. As soon as I read Catherine Beecher’s chapter on “The Health of the Mind,” I knew instinctively that her advice would likely benefit me. My mind felt tired, frazzled, stretched too thin. Letting go of some of that mental load would help me feel less scattered and overwhelmed. It would give me space to get my feet back under me.

It made sense—but I didn’t want to hear it. I love writing. I love drawing connections between old books and modern reality. I love the research, the intellectual challenge of tying all these separate ideas into a single cohesive piece of writing. And I resisted the idea of taking a break from that process, even though I instinctively knew it would help me.

But if I’m going to follow Victorian homemaking advice, I need to actually follow it. And the advice someone like Catherine Beecher would give me right now is to take a break from “intellectual efforts.”

I love thinking about things that matter—but these days I’ve been overthinking at the expense of my health and my sanity. I need to move my focus away from all the big-picture worldview topics homemaking opens up to me and spend some time on practical matters. How, specifically, do I make my home feel peaceful to myself and to my family? What actual tasks should I do, and when should I do them?

The worldview questions will still be there, and knowing me, I won’t be able to help myself from touching on them from time to time. But during the average day in March 2021, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the day everything shut down, I need to keep my hands busy and my mind at rest. I need to do what matters without having to think about it quite so hard.

I already know why homemaking matters.

Now it’s time to just do the work.

What about you? Do you find yourself overthinking the things that are supposed to give you rest? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. Nicanelle said:

    What a wonderful and restful perspective!

    March 3, 2021
  2. Danielle Banerjee said:

    Thank you for this. Yes, I also can over think through things too from time to time. What I really found very helpful was the reminder to equally exercise the body along with the mind. Most days I need to remind myself to step outside for a walk, and when I do it makes such a huge difference. So, thank you for that reminder. Can’t wait to read more.

    March 5, 2021

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