Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's your take on the Victorian Lady?

Figure 1.J. Herbin ink and some of my pens.
Recently, the frivolous corner of the internet has lost its mind over something even more inconsequential than the "blue-black or white-gold dress" controversy: Victorian Lady Sarah A. Crisman, who chooses, she says, to live as a Victorian in Port Townsend, Washington. This means dressing up, making your own clothes, lighting by kerosene, and so on.

There's an article on Vox,  a precursor article on xojane from a couple of years ago, and innumerable pieces like this snarky one on Deadspin that point out the things that get left out of this vision like, oh, slavery, racism, colonialism, imperialism, industrial oppression of workers, and all those wrongs that we are at least trying to right.

My most immediate reaction on reading the article when she mentioned ink "from a company started in 1670" was "Cool! She uses J. Herbin ink, just like me!" I have written with dip pens, although I don't currently own one due to an act of heroic resistance to buying one when I was in Research City this summer.  I cook and bake from scratch (cakes, bread, pizza, Yorkshire pudding, etc.) using cast-iron pots, so there's that.

But think about it: who among us doesn't have some vestiges of the Victorian age that we carry over into our lives? Isn't that what a lot of craft-people are actually doing with scrapbooks, quilts, and so on? We/they just don't write blog posts patting themselves on the back about living like the ancestors. And is this different from the many other acts of impersonation that populate television reality or reality re-enactment shows like Pioneer House or its brethren?

And who doesn't remember the implicit "Thank DOG I now have a sewing machine" in Ma Ingalls's voice when she had to do all that sewing for Laura's wedding in These Happy Golden Years? Okay, that's not what she actually says, which is this:
"[Pa] lifted the blanket away, and there stood a shining new sewing machine.
"Oh, Charles!" Ma gasped.
"Yes, Caroline, it is yours," Pa said proudly. There'll be a lot of extra sewing, with Mary coming home and Laura going away, and I thought you'd need some help." . . .
A long time ago, Laura remembered, a tone in Ma's voice when she spoke of a sewing machine had made Laura think that she wanted one. Pa had remembered that.(241-242)

And when Laura decides to sew the long seams of the sheets down the middle instead of using the traditional method, Ma agrees: "Our grandmothers would turn in their graves, but after all, these are modern times" (265).

Why, yes, Caroline Ingalls. Yes, they are. Caroline would have shooed Victorian Lady out of the house with her ever-handy broom. 

I think a lot of the condemnation that Victorian Lady has received is due to her smug tone, insistence that she's living as a Victorian rather than doing this as a hobby, and condemnation of the 21st-century's pace, as if she herself doesn't have a website and a business plan for monetizing her way of life. She's living a medical age of penicillin and pretending that she's not, so to speak.

Or maybe it's a fear that, like some other re-enactors (see Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic) this kind of cosplay will encourage the erasure of historical evils.

But the counter-argument is this: Victorian Lady obviously has plenty of money to indulge her hobby, and what's the harm?

What's your take on her decision to cosplay (or is it steampunk?) by "living" in a different era?


Anonymous said...

I'm a professional historian (with a strong interest in the history of race) so I'm not at all inclined to romanticize the nineteenth century.

That said, I read the Slate article about this couple (what about the COLONIALISM! and the CORSETS! and the CHOLERA!) and thought, "Geez, some couple wants to dress up and pretend they live in an era with long skirts and gaslights and penny-farthing bicycles. What's the harm in that?"

undine said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I have been wondering what historians think about all this. They're not doing this to defraud anyone, after all, and no sensible person would take seriously the Victorian Lady's dismissal of all other approaches but hers.

Flavia said...

It's primarily her smug tone that gets me (and her simpering, and the fact that I think she's a pretty wretched writer). Like you, I have a lot of vintage or antique objects that I use and wear weekly, if not daily, and I love them; I can certainly see an alternate me who might outfit a house in a thoroughly 1930s style. So no, the fact of what she's doing doesn't bother me or strike me as any weirder than any other "alternate lifestyles" (like people who are serious back-to-the-landers, or who've rigged up devices to power an entire house with solar energy).

But I'm also annoyed by the degree to which Victorian Lady insists she's "researching" and talks about her "field of study." I'm a committed material culturist, and I think there are some research questions that CAN be best answered through re-enactment (like that hairdresser who recreated the vestal virgin hairstyle a few years back). But it's not clear to me that these people are learning anything that historians don't already know, or that they're trying to. That's fine--but don't pretend to be something you're not, honey! You sound like someone who washed out of grad school and now has to insist that the whole scholarly enterprise is a sham.

Bardiac said...

I'm so glad I don't have to live like she does!

Other than that, lots of folks with enough money do quirky, useless stuff just because they enjoy it. My habits use resources (I drive around to bird, and so on), so probably not ideal, and certainly not everyone's idea of fun.

Ever notice, though, how no one wants to be a Victorian era factory worker or miner. (I think I remember one of those "house" shows was 19th century and had people living as servants, and they pretty much hated the whole thing pretty quickly.)

Fretful Porpentine said...

I didn't really see the smugness everyone's complaining about, although I have to admit I only skimmed her original piece. To me, she just sounded like someone with a quirky, harmless hobby she was enthusiastic about and wanted to share with the world.

At any rate, most of the articles criticizing her seem WAY more self-righteous and holier-than-thou than her article did (how DARE SHE romanticize the COLONIALIST OPPRESSORS!), and I'd find the level of vitriol a massive turn-off even if I thought they had a point.

undine said...

Flavia--I would like pictures of your 1930s house, if you ever do that. Yes, in things like the Vestal Virgin hair or even making flint tools reenactments can help, but they're not the whole story. That's why we have history, isn't it?

Bardiac--you're right, and a lot of people find the money to do the hobbies that they enjoy. I know people who say they can't afford a new computer but have a pair of jet skis, for example. At a certain level, it's where they're choosing to put their resources (this and not that) rather than an absolute lack.

Your comment about servants reminds me of people who think they remember their past lives: they're always nobility, never the wretched masses.

Fretful Porpentine--the web seems to demand holier-than-thou outrage, or maybe it just demands that we all have an opinion all the time, and outrage is safer than ambivalence. It gets more page views, anyway.

undine said...

Fretful-- it's this kind of absolutism and holier-than-thou attitude that is so annoying in higher ed circles, too. I recently saw an article citing a tweet about professors who don't permit laptops at all times; it said "too many profs act like dictators." ( Wow. Dictators? Really?

Anonymous said...

I think she is super annoying and offensive. I am really uncomfortable, in our current political landscape, with the romanticisation of the past. Honestly, the past sucked for the vast majority of people. By claiming that she is living in a manner that places her 'closer to truth' (or some such nauseating claim that she closed her vox piece with), she is positioning herself in ways that are incredibly problematic, and which erase the material realities of oppression and misery which allowed the chosen few their gilded age.

More than anything, though, it is her insistence that people are hating on her because of their fear of minority lifestyles that rankles me. She seems to be making a claim in which her 'oppression' is equivalent to the very real violence faced by all manner of minority peoples, and that's gross. Let's not pretend that rich white people with too much time on their hands face the same struggle as BME, LGBT* and other minorities.

If she presented herself with the time and resources to take up a weird hobby, and stopped there, I wouldn't have an issue with it.

undine said...

Anonymous--her claims about "oppression" for her "difference" is, as you say, not something she should be claiming at all, nor should she be claiming a higher truth for living this way.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Q: "If you lived in the Middle Ages, what do you think would you be?"

ME: "Probably dead of a simple bacterial infection or fallen down a well because I'm so damn nearsighted."

I'm from the Pacific NW, so I recognize (and even sympathize with) this species of rebellion against a culture of easy consumption. But as the author of one critical piece noted, their vision of what it means to "live like a Victorian" is rooted in interaction with physical objects and a romanticizing of the past that doesn't take into account that even this "simple" life was predicated on privilege and on the brutal exploitation of others. Mostly, that this isn't really the way that most people lived, any more than most 19th-century southerners were Rhett and Scarlett, or most families in the 1960s looked like the Cleaver family.