In Defense of Modern Victorian Life

There's a piece on Vox that's been going around Facebook - I Love the Victorian Era, So I Decided to Live in It - by Sarah Chrisman, who's probably familiar to many of you as a blogger and author, even if you haven't read blog or book. Sarah Chrisman is the more public face of a married couple who live in Port Townsend, WA - and as much in the Victorian Era as possible.

They very rarely use electricity. They have an icebox, mechanical clocks, fountain pens, oil lamps, etc. etc. etc. They wear pretty accurate historical clothing, which for Sarah includes a corset. (I don't know her measurements, but it looks like she skirts the edge of the period definition of tightlacing, and if she were wearing modern clothing she'd be classified as a tightlacer.)

The response has been astoundingly negative. (Although some responses have been thought-through and eloquent.)

I'm not totally surprised, because I know that a lot of people see the in-depth study of history as a waste of time, and think that reenacting is a bizarre practice. But it seems like the reaction to the article is more than just "lol this is dumb." So why is this getting such a negative response?

It seems like a lot of people are offended by a perceived tone of superiority in Chrisman's writing. Pretty much everyone who writes a comment or an op-ed piece feels the need to point out that she has a lot of advantages today that she wouldn't have had in the 19th century (modern medicine, education, etc.) and that as a Victorian she would have been better off than many other people - and of course the fact that she runs a blog and has published books means that she sometimes uses a computer, which is a huge source of amusement to the commentariat.

I don't think the superiority is actually in the text, though. It's just what people always seem to read into lifestyle pieces, if the subject/writer enjoys their lifestyle and expresses dissatisfaction with some aspects of mainstream modern life. Obviously, if a woman says, "the greatest gift we give each other is mutual support in moving forward with our dreams," or, "I'd always admired Victorian ideals and aesthetics," what she really means is, "the Victorian Era was the pinnacle of human achievement, and anyone who disagrees is deluded."

Look, I'm not a Mary Sunshine. I think disagreements among people who study history, whether as reenactors or scholars, are a good thing, and the field only suffers when you try to suppress them. But this isn't really an intra-discipline discussion, this is a nasty internet dogpile. It's really depressing to see so many people pile on someone who's only a couple of steps removed from all of us reenactors/living historians/costumers, especially when she's a frequent victim of sexist abuse in public.

What does Chrisman say about wearing Victorian clothes?
Wearing 19th-century clothes on a daily basis gave us insights into intimate life of the past, things so private and yet so commonplace they were never written down. Features of posture, movement, balance; things as subtle as the way my ankle-length skirts started to act like a cat's whiskers when I wore them every single day. I became so accustomed to the presence and movements of my skirts, they started to send me little signals about my proximity to the objects around myself, and about the winds that rustled their fabric — even the faint wind caused by the passage of a person or animal close by. I never had to analyze these signals, and after a while I stopped even thinking about them much; they became a peripheral sense, a natural part of myself.
Wow, that sounds exactly like what a lot of living historians say. Wearing historic clothes teaches us things that studying primary sources can't. We should still study primary sources, but there is something you simply. can't. get. without wearing the clothes or making the food or mock-fighting the battles or hammering the metalwork, or any of the other things we odd people do in our hobby.

What does a Slate writer say about that?
Chrisman may well have a better sense than you or I about how it feels to wear such a skirt. But donning antique clothing doesn’t transport the wearer to times past—it doesn’t even necessarily give you a great sense of what it was like to wear such clothes in the 1880s. Wearing a corset as an adult, out of choice, as Chrisman does, will come with a particular set of physical sensations. Wearing a corset from girlhood on; being told you must wear a corset or you won’t be womanly; or wearing a corset while you have tuberculosis—all of these Victorian relationships to this garment were particular to their time.
Did Chrisman claim that she had a better sense of the Victorian era as a whole than a professional historian just because of her clothes? No, of course she didn't. You can see right up there that she was talking about insights and physicality.

Here's another quote from Chrisman that the same Slate writer has a problem with:
There is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written in the period. Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game "telephone": One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.
This section really resonated with me, because it's so true. Scholarly works do tend to be fairly objective, but I have seen a misinterpretation of a primary source in one (on the subject of what do you think, corsets) be taken and made bigger by other people. Women's history is especially subject to being made to fit an agenda - and I say that as a committed feminist, but I mean, I wrote four long posts about corset myths - but the general narrative that people hated their lives in the past unless they were very well-off is also an agenda.

From Salon:
This is an unfair characterization of professional historians, who generally acknowledge the impossibility of total objectivity while trying hard to be as clear-minded and fair as possible. It also betrays a hopelessly naive understanding of the historical record, which is, itself, incomplete and “twisted” by the agendas of those who have produced, saved, and recirculated its texts. The primary sources the Chrismans choose to read made it to the present day because they held some kind of value for the intervening generations. The couple finds its period magazines on Google Books, that redoubtable Victorian technology. It seems not to have crossed their minds that a series of human decisions resulted in the digitization of those magazines and not others, and that those decisions are themselves a type of commentary.
For one thing, professional historians themselves rely on primary sources for their areas of specialization rather than secondary or tertiary ones, so it's not unfair to rely on primary sources oneself or to remark that tertiary sources aren't  highly accurate; for another, Chrisman's reference to tertiary sources and magazine articles indicates that she's talking about a much broader swath of people than professional historians. But that's at least excusable as a misunderstanding - I don't see where the idea that Chrisman understands nothing about interpreting sources comes from, except a desire to pander to an audience that's already decided Chrisman (and her husband, who nobody ever references except to make cracks about how Chrisman should be submitting to his authority if she really cares at all about living like a Victorian - gross) is an idiot who should be derided.

Very few of us might want to actually be living historians full-time like Sarah Chrisman, but if you like doing it at all, ever, it's kind of upsetting to realize that nearly everything the Salon writers and Twitter users are saying could be applied to you if you came to their attention.

Comments

  1. I saw it shared on Reddit, and as I recall, it seemed to be mostly positive, but I did see those same sort of negative comments. I think that Mrs. Chrisman takes them all in stride, as she did talk about the negative responses she gets in everyday life. I personally was so bothered by the fact that she was essentially getting death threats for just being a little different! Also, they never claimed to live by all of the "rules" of 1800's life, but many people seem more than happy to try to apply these "rules" to them. I don't really know what to make of all these disapproving comments, I think what they're trying to do is awesome!

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    1. I actually just went and checked on r/VictorianEra, and while there were a few somewhat positive remarks there also seemed to be a bunch of the same. :/ A lot of people seem to think she's outright lying about the negative reaction offline, which is kind of hilarious given the online one!

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  2. I thought the article was very interesting and shared it on FB. It's such a shame that some people have negative things to say about it. I've never read any of Sarah's books so I can't speak about how she might come across in them. As for the article, I say good for them! I think it's really great that this couple loves history, and clearly each other, so much that they are willing to live their lives differently and to be supportive of each other. I see nothing wrong with their way of life, they are happy. Is it the life I would like to live? Not necessarily but I give them a lot of credit for doing what they love, despite negative comments.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!
    -Emily

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    1. This morning, I did look up the one about corset-wearing in order to look inside a bit - while there's still a certain stiltedness, having more room makes a big difference, I think.

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  3. You know, I didn't even realize there was such a backlash to this piece (read it, thought "that's neat, good for them," and "I could get behind some of this myself except I am so addicted to my computer"), and that's so disappointing. It's one thing to disagree and have a discussion between historians, as you said, but that's not what this is. This is a big nasty snarky dogpile.

    (And you know me, I am quite the fan of well-aimed snark! This isn't it, though.)

    So many of the reactions seem to be thinking themselves sooooo clever at "catching Ms Chrisman out" in ways, like oooh, you wrote an online article, your husband doesn't consider you secondary to him (seriously, ew), you found Victorian books on Google, etc etc. What do these people want, a cookie for pointing out the ways they use 21stc technology?? I think they're reading things into her article that weren't there just so they can feel superior and tell her all the ways she's wrong.

    And I probably felt the need to spout all this back to you because, as you pointed out in your final paragraph, this could absolutely apply to any of us! (Or, wait, is it okay when I do it for a site but not when I dress up on my own/with friends? Or is it okay as long as I'm not doing first-person reenacting? I'M SO CONFUSED. *ahh, there's the snark*)

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    1. "I could get behind some of this myself except I am so addicted to my computer" - me too, I was thinking last night that I could totally handle doing that ... except that it would mean giving up my research/blogging, so maybe just for half the day, and then not doing it at night? And then I realized that I was describing a job at OSV or Williamsburg.

      Or, wait, is it okay when I do it for a site but not when I dress up on my own/with friends? Or is it okay as long as I'm not doing first-person reenacting?

      I did actually see someone say that "adults should only dress up at Halloween" on r/VictorianEra of all places. My takeaway is that a lot of people aren't thinking about the wider implications, and others really do think that site interpreters and reenactors are either performers who just do the job because it has to be done, or else obsessed loons.

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  4. I was appalled by some of the vitriol. I have some reservations about Chrisman's article, many of which hinged on the short space in the article that likely would have been addressed in a longer piece (for instance--she indicated few concessions to a modern world, when it's clear she and her husband engage in modern technology on regular occasions. It read as disingenuous. It was likely a space issue, not deliberate subterfuge.)

    It's clear that many responses are coming from people who have never engaged in any form of "alternative education," "experimental archaeology," or other ways of experiential contact with a difficult-to-approach subject. Wearing the clothes of the past can't offer insights into the past as a whole? Rubbish! Of course it does, just as reading a primary document offers insights for the professional historian.

    And there is, of course, the Myth of Progress--that we are marching forward, now is always better than before in all ways with no possibility that we could have *lost* anything, and any concession to good or decent things about the past must be qualified immediately. You say it better than I--"but the general narrative that people hated their lives in the past unless they were very well-off is also an agenda."

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    1. I was appalled by some of the vitriol.

      Yes - there's a lot there to be cynical about, and I wouldn't blame anyone for a few pointed remarks (there was a very apropos one somewhere about the late 19th century, when the Chrismans put themselves, being known for having just as much cheap and flimsy crap as we do now), but the internet is inventing a lot of implications to be angry over. I'd love to read/listen to her interviewed by somebody knowledgeable.

      the Myth of Progress

      One of the critical pieces was demanding rhetorically to know where Chrisman's 19th century alter ego would have stood on various pressing issues of the time (child labor, etc.), and I couldn't help but think, writer, where do you stand on them now? So we don't have atrocious working conditions in northeastern textile mills that a Victorian would have perhaps unthinkingly supported by buying the cotton they produced - now we have atrocious working conditions in Bangladesh that get token complaints but still tacit support. Women and African-Americans have the vote, but we're still overwhelmingly represented by white men in the government; misogyny and racism are rampant, and calling it out gets you sneered at. Employment is always brought up as a beacon of progress, but it's not like women never worked before 1960, and it's not like the low-paying female-coded jobs from the late 19th century aren't still low-paying female-coded jobs.

      I'm so glad the internet provided this for me - getting the chance to rant about things I'm passionate about is the best birthday present.

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    2. And most people DIDN'T take stances on child labor at the local factory. That's why it still existed. That comment on the Slate article was an equally hilariously narrow-minded view of the 1890s.

      -- Tegan

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  5. The only problem I had with the article was the aura of "I have money!!!" that poured out of the article. It seemed like they both have the option to either be at home or work from home, and didn't allow space for that consideration. The only comment they'd made about anyone choosing NOT to live their lifestyle was a "they obv prefer modern things while we cool cats like the old things". I can think of a gazillion jobs where dressing in that manner would get you fired. So my response was more "cool for you, but you are acting like a rich white person".

    And yes, her article came across to me as smug. But, as has been pointed out, so are ALL lifestyle articles, and I equally hate all of them. :-P

    -- Tegan

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    1. See, I didn't even really get the sense that there was anything in the article specifically aimed at people who don't live that way. But that's the problem with lifestyle articles, isn't it? By definition, they're people telling you why they thought your mainstream lifestyle was not as good as the one they're doing.

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  6. I thought the hate was really unnecessary as well. People can get as snippy as they want but considering that avoiding technology is really difficult, what more can they expect? They are doing their best which is far more than what the critics are doing and are still learning so much more than just reading about what it was like. Harping on the details doesn't help anyone. If they're jealous, fine, so are a lot of people. Being catty about it doesn't make them look any better, just admit it's cool and move on.

    Really, why should they care? Why get worked up about something that literally has no effect on them whatsoever. Sarah's doing something great, something she enjoys and she's lucky to have someone that enjoys it with her. Leave her be and simply appreciate she's willing to share at all.

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  7. As some english rockstar once said paraphrasing: "eletric guitars and other gadgets are fantastic, but do learn to play acoustic. You might end up in a boat in the middle of the ocean with only a mouth harmonica to entertain yourself".

    You get the gist.

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  8. Women and African-Americans have the vote, but we're still overwhelmingly represented by white men in the government;

    And thank Wotan for that!

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