That Victorian era couple – some thoughts from a Victorianist

4

September 12, 2015 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

About that neo-Victorian couple who’ve been getting a lot of press lately.

They can live any way that makes them happy (with the usual caveats – no sending orphaned toddlers up the chimney). Not anyone’s business, and I’m not mocking them for that.

Using the physical artifacts from a particular time period is certainly an effective way to connect to that period. During my PhD, I started crying when I found a letter written by Mona Caird – I had never actually seen her signature before. (Thankfully, I didn’t cry ON the letter, which would have rightfully annoyed the staff in NLS special collections.) Although, for obvious reasons, I didn’t have access to any possessions of the Goebbels children while writing The Girl in the Bunker, seeing and handling Nazi-era toys and globes and traffic codes gave me an extra insight into daily life. Objects are powerful, and to know that a book or a chatelaine or an oil lamp was used and handled and read and mended by real people over the course of the past x years is literally a physical link to the past. One of the most brilliant details in A.S. Byatt’s phenomenal Possession is that one of the Ash scholars owns Ash’s pocket watch.

I have always found it amusing that, in most cases, people who sigh about the past and wish they could live there always assume that they’d a) live past the age of five and b) be born into the upper classes. It’s about wearing lovely dresses, daintily sipping tea in Jane Austen’s parlour, and giggling about Mr Darcy; who wants to be the scullery maid, getting up at 5am to start the fires and scrub the area steps?

I love immersive experiences – it’s why I used to be a living history interpreter, and why I’m a sucker for “Victorian shopfront” exhibits in museums. But no immersion will let you really understand what it was like to live there. Nothing can. We simply do not have the same social, cultural, physical, or mental mindset as people from the nineteenth century. And, of course, the past is not homogenous, just as the present isn’t – the toddler in the chimney, the scullery maid in the pantry, and the lady in the parlour will all have different perspectives, different life expectancies, different hobbies and tastes, and above all, different rights and privileges.

Now, I’m not going to berate these neo-Victorians for the fact that what they want to do is impossible, but I have a lot of problems with the fact that they don’t even acknowledge this. They’re narrow-minded, in the sense of having little to no historical context. A few examples:

“When cheap modern things in our lives inevitably broke, we replaced them with sturdy historic equivalents instead of more disposable modern trash.”

Thus demonstrating no awareness of WHY modern goods are less sturdy, and how today’s manufacturing processes, distribution networks, public consumption, and percentages of disposable income differ from those of the nineteenth-century. Just dismissing the modern in favour of the old, with some added smugness. Also, let’s use some basic logic here – ONLY the sturdy household items survived for 100+ years. For instance, cheap teacups were used daily and broke often, at which point they were disposed of. The items you find at flea markets are not a complete representation of consumer goods available in the final twenty years of the nineteenth century. They’re the ones that survived, and there are a lot of factors behind that. (Ask yourself why you’re much more likely to find the jacket of a wealthy woman than the dress of a poor child.)

“Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.”

First off, assuming that there’s one single truth about anything is a recipe for disaster. Remember what I said about the three people in that one household having vastly different perspectives? Each of them could write a book – well, not the toddler, since she’ll probably die before she’s even capable of learning to read if anyone bothered to teach her, and not the scullery maid, because who the hell has time to write when you have to peel all those potatoes and anyway she’s paid a pittance so buying paper and writing materials will cut into the money she’s sending home to her widowed mother, if she even gets enough time off to purchase any. BUT IF THEY DID WRITE BOOKS they would tell a much different story than the lady in the parlour. All of them would be writing the truth.

“But Tracey,” cries a convenient rhetorical device, “those books would all be original sources and thus prove her point.”

So are these people reading multiple original sources to counter the bias in any particular one? Are they analysing, not just reading? I agree with her that there are fundamental differences between books written in the nineteenth century and books written about it (having read dozens of novels for my PhD, I have a very low tolerance for neo-Victorian fiction, but I digress), but she’s proclaiming that the former are somehow inherently truthful, while dismissing modern work as “the game ‘telephone’: One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on.” Yet works written in this or any period are going to have the same issues of multiple perspectives. Every publication has an agenda and a sense of how to write to their audience; if you’re not sure how that works in practice, pause here and go read articles about the same topic in the Daily Mail and the Atlantic.

My PhD was on one particular author of New Woman fiction – the loose name for fiction on Women: Who They Were And What They Should Do, written during the period these people are trying to re-enact. I wrote 80,000+ words on the subject and read, as I say, dozens of novels from that period. Even in that narrow band of subject matter and time period, the literature does not reveal any single “truth” about this topic. The novels literally argue with each other (see Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did and its numerous parodies), and the responses in the Daily Telegraph, Punch, Hansard, and other publications display a vast range of opinions. It’s great that she’s reading primary sources, but she keeps talking about getting to the truth, of learning about the culture, as if truth and culture are absolutes. They aren’t, and they can’t be.

“Absorbing the lessons our artifacts teach us shapes our worldview. They are our teachers. Seeing their beauty every day elevates and inspires us, as it did their original owners.”

Which original owners? Oh yes, the wealthy ones. White, unquestionably. They certainly had a worldview, and I can see why these people enjoy that worldview, because it matches their own. There’s no hint in this article of how they could afford to buy a house in Port Townsend and yet spend “a large percentage of our days” reading, no acknowledgement that “a seamstress who could make Victorian men’s clothing with the same painstaking attention to historic detail that I was putting into my own garments” will need to be paid substantial amounts for her work and the finished product if she is to make a decent living, the conclusion that the reason why “more people don’t follow their dreams” is because these people are scared of bullies who dislike differences. They are devoid of financial and social context, both in their own time period and the nineteenth century.

Look, if you want to surround yourself with beautiful oil lamps and wear hand-made ankle-length dresses, knock yourself out. But don’t claim you “study” history (and make a sideswipe at academics who actually consider the context of what they study), and unironically state “Not everyone necessarily wants to live the same lifestyle we have chosen, of course” as if choice is the only factor here. Don’t claim that you’re avoiding “stereotypes that ‘everyone knows'” while only discussing culture and objects that no one but the Victorian 1% could own or use, without even a hint of how it is that you’re able to afford all these lovely things, and a nice house, and leisure time to pursue this dream. Don’t claim that “Constantly using them [period artifacts] helps us comprehend their context” when you are resolutely avoiding all context except the bare minimum.

One thing is clear: I can completely see these people living in the nineteenth century. I see them sipping tea in the parlour, shaking their heads and gently bemoaning the fact that the toddler in the chimney and the scullery maid in the pantry are crushing their own dreams.

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4 thoughts on “That Victorian era couple – some thoughts from a Victorianist

  1. Louisa says:

    Nice response! I went and read the Victorian couple’s article first and had many similar thoughts about what they are doing, so thank you for articulating then so well.

  2. Emily Watson says:

    Thank you for writing this :]

  3. Tracey S. Rosenberg says:

    Thank you for reading it! 🙂

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.

Books

CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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