Reviewed by Richard Morrison

Oct 17 2009
The Times [London]
Richard Morrison

“[A] cracking social history”
Sometimes a book’s title belies its riches.  Deborah Cohen is ostensibly writing about Britain’s “love affair with the domestic interior” from the 1830s to the 1930s.  But her book isn’t only a chronicle of décor wars in the era when the British middle classes were the world’s most prosperous shoppers (rather than what we are now – the most incurable).  It’s also a cracking social history, all the more fascinating for approaching quintessential period figures such as Oscar Wilde or the Suffragettes through their furnishings – or their effect on other people’s.

Before Wilde’s trial in 1895, Victorian men were surprisingly interested in how their homes looked.  Males ruled the roost, and everything else.  But after the shaming of the ultimate aesthete, the words “artistic” and “effeminate” were insidiously linked.  (In some circles they still are.)  As Cohen puts it:  “Too conspicuous a pursuit of the House Beautiful left men open to ridicule, possibly even misperception.”  Women seized their chance.  Remarkably, the first great stirrings of feminism were in home decoration.  Emmeline Pankhurst ran a furniture shop.  

But the gender tension in British home is but one thread that Cohen untangles.  It’s a gripping story because it mirrors so much else, from the rise and fall of decadent art to the catastrophic clash of grandiose empires.  I wish Cohen hadn’t confined herself to the middle classes.  And I longed for insights into pre-1830s Britain.  After all, we were a nation of shopkeepers long before Messrs Heal and Liberty came on the scene.  More, please.