Putting Things in Their Places: Vox’s Much-Despised Victorians

Vox Victorian

For the last couple of days, the most hated person in Twitterdom has been Sarah Chrisman. Her crime? An article she wrote in Vox, entitled “I Love the Victorian era. So I decided to live it.”

http://www.vox.com/2015/9/9/9275611/victorian-era-life

Love of the Victorian era, particularly its ideas and aesthetics, has inspired Chrisman and her husband, Gabriel, to study it in their own idiosyncratic way. This “study” appears to consist of doing away with modern conveniences and living in a Victorian house, wearing Victorian clothes, using Victorian artifacts, and reading nothing but Victorian literature. Chrisman explains this way of life by referring to her husband’s opinion that there should not be a “strict segregation . . . between life and learning.” The Chrismans’ entire lives, then, revolve around this research project which they justify in a variety of ways. First, it teaches them things about Victorian life and values that they could not learn in any other way. Second, they see a virtue in living what they understand as a simpler life. Third, they are happy pursuing life in this manner. Unfortunately, from Chrisman’s perspective, she is surrounded by people who do not understand her project. Her neighbors in Port Townsend, WA, have apparently bullied her and Gabriel, sending them, among other things, death threats. Chrisman concludes her essay by writing that:

This is why more people don’t follow their dreams: They know the world is a cruel place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant culture. Most people fear the bullies so much that they knuckle under simply to be left alone. In the process, they crush their own dreams.

One Thing after Another admits it is surprised somewhat by the internet’s reaction. The Concourse, hosted on Deadspin, issued a predictably profanity-laden judgment of the Chrismans:

http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/to-hell-with-voxs-victorian-living-idiots-1729873090?utm_campaign=socialflow_deadspin_facebook&utm_source=deadspin_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

Slate provided a more restrained assessment of the Chrismans’ experiment that is excellent and well informed:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/history/2015/09/vox_victorians_sarah_a_chrisman_s_essay_on_living_like_a_victorian_is_preposterous.html

Salon was also very critical:

http://www.salon.com/2015/09/09/victorian_lifestyle_hipsters_unleash_masterpiece_theater_level_trolling_on_tech_tethered_readers/

And the Observer produced some samples of the Twitter reaction (hardly positive) to the Chrismans:

http://observer.com/2015/09/voxs-victorian-couple-is-twitters-latest-punching-bag/

What are we to make of these contemporary Victorians? One Thing after Another recalls the British reality show 1900 House (1999) in which a contemporary British family (the Bowlers) lived like Victorians for three months. Like all reality shows, of course, this one was something of a gimmick, and the Bowlers did not approach their Victorian life in the same spirit that the Chrismans did.

Perhaps a better analogy comes to us from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1941). In this absurd tale, it is Pierre Menard’s ambition not to transcribe Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but “to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” To accomplish this feat, Menard initially plans in 1918 to “learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918—be Miguel de Cervantes.” Borges’ short stories being what they are, Menard eventually discards this approach as too easy and decides to “continue to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.” One could argue that the Chrismans’ experiment falls somewhere between these two ridiculous extremes. On the one hand, they appear to believe that in some ways, they have gone back in time by living the way they have. On the other, they are still coming to the Victorian age through the experiences of 21st-century people. In short, they are no more Victorians than the “hard-core” Civil War reenactors who populate Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic.

Surely, one might ask, shouldn’t historians sympathize with the Chrismans’ exercise? One Thing after Another does believe that material culture has much to teach us. Using the objects of our ancestors gives us some insight into their methods of solving problems, the nature of their work, and maybe even some fleeting sense of their values. But it would be the worst kind of materialism to believe that using Victorian objects makes one Victorian. As Rebecca Onion in Slate puts it:

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.

To put it more succinctly, things cannot reproduce the world view of the Victorians.

Another major problem with the Chrisman’s experiment is their uncritical understanding of the Victorian period. A number of critics have lambasted the couple for their love of the Victorian age. The Chrismans, so the argument goes, seem to have ignored the era’s difficulties (e.g. social conflict, racism, etc.) and chosen the best of all possible Victorian worlds to live out—a kind of fairy-tale, Merchant Ivory, sanitized Disney version of Victorianism. One Thing after Another’s great-great-grandfather, who lived in the real Victorian age, was conscripted, fought in a terrible war, witnessed a revolution, worked in a coal mine, and died at the age of 39 from tuberculosis. Not surprisingly, the Chrismans have not chosen to live out that kind of Victorian life.

It is love of the Victorian age that has completely tainted the Chrismans’ research project. Sarah Chrisman’s essay implies that love came first and then the “research.” In other words, their love has led them to this antiseptic Victorian life and shut them off from darker, alternative visions of the Victorian age. The Chrismans claim to have avoided secondary literature written by modern academics because it is full of misinterpretations and exaggerations. For that reason, the Chrismans read only primary sources as it is “the only way to learn the truth.” The Chrismans are wrong. The real problem is that they themselves are biased, and they will not brook anything (including secondary sources produced by extremely experienced scholars) that might contradict their rosy vision of the Victorian period. Because they are not willing to approach the subject with an open mind, they are not conducting research—no matter how much they claim their artifacts are “primary source materials.” What their experiment boils down to is a fantasy that they live out for enjoyment’s sake (although it is hard to see why anybody in 2015 would want to wear “hand-knit wool swim trunks”). For sure, they should not be bullied for their eccentricity, but at the same time, we should not buy their specious claims that they are historians or time-travelers.

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