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Reconstructing the Victorians

Woman in victorian dressThis week there was an online furor over the Vox article by Sarah A. Chrisman entitled “I love the Victorian Era. So I decided to live in it.” For those who haven’t read the article and don’t intend to, Chrisman and her husband have re-created the late-Victorian period in their lives as much as possible, wearing period clothing and using products and household items from the era. Some of the criticisms levelled at Chrisman are valid: her tone is a bit smug and condescending, and she conveniently ignores the problematic aspects of nineteenth-century life in favour of what looks like a hazy nostalgic dream. Chrisman also appears to ignore the larger culture and values of the era, which has made her a target for those who assume she shares the racist and sexist beliefs of many Victorians.
I have no idea if Chrisman shares those beliefs, and it seems unfair of her critics to assume she does. But her focus on concrete details of Victorian life to the exclusion of the bigger picture makes her lifestyle look like a retreat from reality—Victorian reality as much as any other. I also find it ironic that this retreat is very much against the community values that actual Victorians espoused: the Victorian era was far more community-focussed than the individualistic eras that preceded and followed it (the Romantics and Modernists). It’s impossible to recreate an authentic Victorian lifestyle while isolating oneself from the rest of the world.
As a Victorian scholar—both a historical novelist and an academic—I am very interested in the way people try to reconstruct this historical period. On the one hand, people such as Chrisman make the common mistake of viewing the era as a slower-paced, simpler, gentler time than our own. On the other, people such as the writers of so-called “wallpaper” historicals consider the Victorians exactly like us, just wearing fussier clothing. As with most issues, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.
In her complaints about modern technology, Chrisman is more Victorian than she realises. Writing in 1895, Max Nordau, one of the most bizarre but influential Victorians, made this astonishingly perceptive prediction about life at the end of the 20th century:

[People will] read a dozen square yards of newspapers daily, [will] be constantly called to the telephone, [will] be thinking simultaneously of the five continents of the world, [will] live half their time in a railway carriage or in a flying machine, and [will] satisfy the demands of a circle of ten thousand acquaintances, associates, and friends.

Add the internet, and Nordau is right on the nose. My point is that a Victorian could predict this because he lived in a time, like ours, filled with a dizzying array of new inventions and technologies that many people felt anxious about.
But Chrisman’s critics make the same mistake she does: they go to extremes. Whereas she ignores the negative aspects of her favourite era—not only medical and dental care but also the way in which non-white races and women were treated—her critics see the Victorians as wholly characterized by these negative things. People who laugh at Chrisman’s retreat into nostalgia don’t seem to realize that modern society is indeed worse than past ones in some ways. For example, a common misconception about women’s rights is that they’ve gradually improved over the centuries. In fact, there have been gains and losses, one step forward and two steps back. Aside from the vote, women in the 1890’s had more rights and freedoms than women in the 1950’s.
I do appreciate Chrisman’s point that “there is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written in the period.” Too many historical novelists seem to read secondary sources or, even worse, other historical novels as their only research, and they go on to perpetuate stereotypes and myths about the era. In a period such as the nineteenth century with a wealth of primary sources, why not read them to find out what actual Victorians thought? It is glaringly obvious to me when a writer has failed to do this crucial research.
Ultimately, the past can never be recreated, only reconstructed, and even then in a fragmentary, flawed way. The Victorians aside, think of your own life. Do you remember your own past accurately? If you think you do, consider the fact that any two people (siblings, for example) experiencing the same event in the same place will have completely different memories of it. Our memories are coloured by our emotions, our prejudices, and our personalities. Thus, what we are reconstructing is always ourselves, whether we are wearing period clothing or not.


  1. Clarissa Harwood

    I mean our memories never reflect objective reality, especially when emotions are involved. We unconsciously change our memories of the past so that it’s more coherent or more flattering to ourselves. We can never fully remember who we were then, so what we are remembering is actually a reconstruction, something we want to see ourselves as (e.g. a hero, a victim). I would also extend this idea to anyone who reconstructs history for a living. Even though a historical novelist is not writing about herself in any obvious way, writing about the past is always coloured by who she is in the present (e.g. the aspects of the Victorian period I choose to focus on say a lot about who I am and what I want from my life here and now). This is hard to explain but hopefully I’ve clarified what I mean at least a little!

  2. Pingback:The Past is a Foreign Country. And You Can Never Go Back. | Keep the Hearth Fires Burning

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