“Do you live in a Victorian House?”
Over the years, we have often we are asked this question by clients, friends, and even complete strangers. Although it seems like a simple question, it really is not . What they are really asking is “do you live a Victorian lifestyle with all that it entails?”
The short answer is: no. The longer answer is that no matter how interesting we find the Victorian Era (which for us really means the period from about 1870 through 1903 or so), we are still rooted in the 21st Century and more specifically, 2015. Trust me, there is no end to our fascination with various aspects of Victorian fashion, culture, society, politics, et al., there is also much that is negative such as grinding poverty, inequality, and racism. While it is easy to sink into an depressingly endless cycle of compare and contrast between today and then, it’s ultimately pointless. We, as human beings, are in part a product of our environments and there is simply no getting away from that fact no matter how we try. At least that is how we see it.
While we actively take part in all manner of Victorian-themed events, we are also aware that they can only give us a small taste, at best, of life back then. At the same time however, we can enhance our experiences through various forms of research such as reviewing first-person accounts. Thus, it is possible to get a good idea of the social and cultural milieu or environment of the time.
So why a sudden desire to impart the “Lily Absinthe Philosophy of Recreating History?” 🙂 The first reason is that it’s a natural question people ask of us and it deserves an answer. We have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years involved in various aspects of historical recreation (living history or reenactment, if you will) and while there have been some frustrating moments, it’s overall be very rewarding and it’s added to our everyday modern lives.
The second reason is in response to a recent flurry of commentary, both positive and negative, in regard to a one Sara A. Chrisman who has attempted to re-fashion her lifestyle around one characteristic of the 1880s and 1890s. Residing in a house built in 1888 located in Port Townsend, Washington, Ms. Chrisman (we should probably address her as Mrs. Chrisman) has gone to great lengths to recreate period equivalents for the modern activities of daily life and she notes these both in her blog and in an upcoming book entitled This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technology. It is evident that Ms. Chrisman has taken historical recreation to extent that is far beyond what most enthusiasts are able and/or willing to go and it’s to be admired. It is not something that we readily could, or even desire, to attempt and we freely admit this.
Before we go any further, we can gain a little insight into Ms. Chrisman’s experience though this blog post:
This is not an easy life. People seldom understand lives which are different from their own, and often do not accept them. I’ve received everything from hate mail, to taunts from children whose parents were actually egging them on and encouraging them to behave still more badly.
People are constantly demanding that I first explain and then justify my entire existence. Complete strangers attempt to grope my waist, and then have the gall to expect an apology when I don’t let them. (I’ve even had the experience of a customer in a café – a woman whom I had never seen before in my life – demanding the owner that I be thrown out, simply because I wouldn’t let her fondle me!)
And yet I refuse to let the ignorance and misbehavior of others prevent me from living as I truly am in my heart, from following my honest ideals.
This is not the critics’ life, it is mine: the one I have always wanted, and feel I was destined for.
It’s clear that Ms. Chrisman has chosen a path that most of us would not be inclined to follow, a path that takes a great leap of faith. However, at the same time, it could also be argued that Ms. Chrisman is creating a very select part of the late 19th Century life and it omits many realities. Even in terms of her book (her third), you are no doubt thinking “well, she probably used a computer to prepare that manuscript for that book” and you may be right. So here, we see a demonstration of the idea that we really cannot completely escape the time we live in. But more importantly, it also demonstrates the tendency to sentimentalize or idealize history, only selecting the better parts and ignoring the more unpleasant aspects. Idealization is a something that is often discussed among Anthropologists when they study a particular culture and there has been an extensive literature built around this.
Pulling away from our digression into Anthropology 101, we are seeing the various flaws in Ms. Christman’s approach and it’s nothing that has not already been pointed out ad nauseum. It is not Ms. Chrisman’s attempt to recreate a Victorian lifestyle that bothers us, but rather the high degree of negative feedback that she has received. Perhaps readers may find the tone of some Ms. Chrisman’s comments somewhat condescending (we have never met her in person and electronic media is a poor medium for communicating emotions) but at the same time also appreciate what she is trying to accomplish as well as her frustration with others who do not understand or treat her as some animal in a zoo or an exhibit at Disneyland (we have often experienced similar situations in Tombstone when we go into town dressed in period attire).
Ultimately, Ms. Chrisman has harmed no one and the harsh criticism she has received is completely unwarranted. Over the years, we have found that each person has a different take in how they interpret history and each is valid in its own way. No one has a lock on the truth and before we criticize, we need to look at ourselves.