Loving the Victorians

There were so many problems with Sarah Christman’s recent Vox blog post, ‘I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it’, that it’s difficult to know where to start. Luckily my peers on social media and Slate’s Rebecca Onion were quick to identify these issues for Chrisman – though as someone ‘living’ in the Victorian era, I wonder if she’s been able to access this valuable education?

Many Twitter users had fun pointing out the obvious anachronisms involved in publishing an online piece boasting about a dedication to living in the manner of the Victorians.

Other issues pointed out aren’t so funny. As Rebecca Onion explained in her excellent article, Vox’s Victorians, there are some serious blind spots to this couple’s love of the Victorian era, caused by their emphasis on encountering the Victorian world through its artifacts.

The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part. (Rebecca Onion, ‘Vox’s Victorians’, Slate)

Twitter users were also quick to school the Victorian couple in the social (in)justice of their beloved era.

As @MariaWritesStuff points out, these blind spots also extend to the contemporary era – only a privileged few would be able to follow the Victorian couple’s historical ‘methods’: not only are the artifacts expensive, but the amount of work involved in Victorian housework precludes the possibility of a full-time job (she really hand-sewed her own mattress??).

And then of course, there’s the issue of Chrisman’s ‘methods’ themselves and the serious misunderstandings about history that made those of us in the business cringe and groan. Rebecca Onion rightly identifies Chrisman’s piece as showing:

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. (Onion, ‘Vox’s Victorians’)

As someone who values the work of historians and the methods of our trade, I also agree that Christman needs some critical support/feedback on her methodology and theoretical approach. Her own dismissive and critical characterization of Victorian history (all of it?!) was guaranteed to offend:

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. (Chrisman, I love the Victorian Era. So I decided to live in it.’, Vox)

But I’m going to jump off this bandwagon – fun though the ride has been – as I think there’s a danger of us ‘serious’ academics/students alienating a potentially supportive public with what might appear to be intellectually-snobbish ridiculing of a sincerely interested amateur.

After all, a ‘love’ (albeit uninformed) of the Victorians is sort of what keeps people like me in business. If no-one cared, there would be no students and no book sales beyond the academy. I think you can find a pretty much healthy Victorian department in nearly every university – you can’t say that for Medieval studies, for example, which doesn’t have the same non-expert fan-base.

I think we maybe have to accept that what Chrisman means when she says ‘I love the Victorian period’ is that she loves some aspects of what she thinks life was like for people like her (or the kind of person she imagines she would have been) in the Victorian period. (But of course that doesn’t make such a snappy headline for a blog post.) This is still an ethnocentric position, but that’s not an unusual first position for most people. And she’s certainly passionate about attempting to understand how her sorts of Victorians experienced their lives. This is naive, but surely most of us engaged in history wanted to do this when we first started? And I think, in a way, it is the tension between this still extant desire and the apparent impossibility of discovering what those in the past experienced that drives me, along with a love of historical methods developed through years of study. I found Chrisman’s description of the effects and experience of wearing long skirts in daily life fascinating. But then I also found fascination in thinking about in what sorts of ways her experience of her body in skirts would be different from how a Victorian woman might have interpreted the sensations transmitted by her clothing. This appreciation of how people experienced things very differently in the past has only developed in me since I had the time to think and study.

I’ve been guilty of intellectual snobbery when confronted by students who express their ‘love’ of authors and time periods through buying Jane Austen t-shirts or attending country dances. But then I realized that while we can teach critical theory, and we can teach historical methodology, we can’t teach enthusiasm. At this point I’m not sure Chrisman would welcome any more constructive criticism. But I would warn those planning to use this piece or something like it with undergraduates to do so with sensitivity, and to remember that we weren’t always as sophisticated as we like to think we are now.

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2 thoughts on “Loving the Victorians

  1. When I read the original tweet embedded in your post, all I could think about how much I would hate to live in the Victorian Era.. Sure the dresses are cool, but living as a woman during that time.. ugh

    On another note, loved how you ended your post. “But then I realized that while we can teach critical theory, and we can teach historical methodology, we can’t teach enthusiasm.” It’s true. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking for security in (literary and cultural) criticism because studying theory gave me the right tools to analyze what I read or watch. But I do miss the times I spent as a child obsessing over Disney animations…

    1. I totally agree that it would be terrible to live in those times as even a middle-class white woman – genteel poverty, or life as a governess? Or both? I’m lucky that I can get enthusiastic now about historical methodologies for discovering women’s understandings of themselves in the Victorian period – but that’s quite an acquired taste!

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