I've posted before about how much I love vintage homemaking and recipe books but I'm not sure if I've ever blogged about another great favourite - Victorian Sunday Books. I've made that name up - I'm not really sure what to call them or if antiquarian booksellers have a special name for them (they do for most things). I'm thinking of the kind of book a happy and contented Victorian family would have settled down to read on the Sabbath and in particular the bound volumes of magazines designed for this purpose. They are still relatively easy to find in second hand bookshops and sales and, as they aren't really valuable at all in the financial sense or desirable to any but a small number of dedicated fans, not terribly expensive.
I think they offer a priceless look into the lives of Victorian Christians and a fascinating glimpse of the Church of that time. Of course, like magazines today, they reflect the aspirations of the readership at which they were aimed - or at least the aspirations that the publishers thought they ought to have! And how things have changed - particularly with regard to 'Lord's Day Observance'.
These books were written at a time when the notion that Sunday should be kept as a day apart was widely accepted and put into practise - not just in the public sphere but behind closed doors at home and in one's private life. Certain public activities were virtually impossible on a Sunday: shops were closed, offices and factories silent, fields empty. Recreational travel was difficult and frowned upon (at least in the early Victorian period) as indeed was public recreation of any kind. These restrictions even the non-religious had to put up with. But for Christians across the denominations (and to some extent across the classes too) keeping the Sabbath was a matter of private obligation and joyful sacrifice in one's home. The reading of Scripture, of religious books and improving, morally edifying works was thoroughly in keeping with the Victorian Sunday and something to be shared with the entire family. Hence these delightful volumes.
Over the years I've picked up a number of volumes with titles such as 'The Family Friend', 'The Sunday At Home', 'Words For Hearth And Home' ranging in date from 1865 through to 1905. The early volumes are weighted towards exposition of Scripture, sermons, Bible quizzes, essays on church history and missionary updates (fascinating and poignant accounts which make one long to know what happened to the people mentioned). Later volumes contain more household hints, domestic advice and geographical essays on the wonders of the British Empire ('The Dams of Canada'; 'Australia's Courageous Miners'). All feature a serialised story, fiction but of the improving sort, to keep their readership anticipating next week's instalment. Most have wonderful illustrations.
If you've never come across such volumes, I do encourage you keep a look out. They really are a captivating read. An edifying one too. They all contain a fair share of what to modern eyes does seem quirky and sometimes down right ridiculous, but with it comes stories of bravery and courage, faithfulness to God and sacrifice that should not be forgotten. Plus some very meaty articles on Scripture and church history that would never make a mainstream Christian publication these days. Even the occasional knitting pattern! Reading these books, for me, always makes me consider my own Sabbath practise too; an exercise never wasted.
Over the next few months I want to share some of my favourite excerpts with you. One of the volumes, for example, has an advice page where readers' problems are tackled by the redoubtable 'Aunt Flo'. Now she definitely deserves a wider audience!