Sarah Chrisman’s article, “I Love The Victorian Era So I Decided To Live In It” has been making the rounds, with some understandable condemnation even from fellow costumers and fans of retro culture.
The summary of “here’s what we’ve learned” is valuable, but the undertow of smugness has turned off many readers. Our appliances are “disposable modern trash”; modern researchers “parrot stereotypes that everyone knows”; life and learning are “segregated” from one another for modern Americans, who “haven’t the foggiest notion what makes the items they touch every day work”; this couple takes their “research project…more seriously than many people take their paying jobs”. Perhaps they stumbled into the Victorian era because its unexplored skies offered the only refuge expansive enough for such flights of ego.
The world can indeed be “hostile to difference of any sort”, as she observes, but it’s hard to take the complaint seriously from someone with nothing kind to say about the modern world or the people who live in it. Whatever illumination their research offers could have been gained without burning modern lifestyles, attitudes and technologies – all of which benefit this couple – for lamp fuel.
There’s a sociological analysis to be done here, exploring the rejection of contemporary education, clothing, social cues – while embracing the privilege that makes all of the above possible. (Rejecting or embracing any of the above may be worthwhile, but these things do not come together by coincidence.) The husband’s career is not mentioned, but I doubt he’s making chimney sweep wages. Their neighbors’ hostility to their “lifestyle choice” sounds reprehensible – but one must wonder if the antiques and period fabrics are the only source of tension in the neighborhood. Can they welcome their neighbors while rejecting the world they live in?
What’s frustrating is that the retreat from modern technology described in the article has a tremendous amount to offer. When these two aren’t BLOGGING about their abandonment of modern tech, they are indeed interacting with the physical and natural world in a way from which we all might benefit. But that’s a lesson in the limits of modern culture, not in the triumphant appeal of Victorian periodicals. Embracing our basic humanity can be done with or without bustles and frock coats.
In short, this couple wants it both ways. They want modern tools, but anachronistic tranquility; modern politics, but anachronistic self-assurance.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that…until the author disparages every detail of modern life in explaining their own choices. They rely on modern systems to which they offer no respect in return.
The author writes “The late Victorian era was an incredibly dynamic time, with so many new and extraordinary inventions it seemed anything was possible.” Exactly the same could be said of today’s culture, which this couple has (superficially) rejected.
The real crevasse to explore separates the “optimism” of the Victorian era and whatever drove this couple away from modern culture. Precisely that distinction has emerged as Steampunk. Technology still fills us with wonder and possibility, but modern technology strips us of our privacy, attention and free time. A creative subculture of would-be adventurers has emerged to celebrate all that technology might yet become, while looking past that which it already is.
I do find inspiration in the article. It makes me eager to work with my hands, make clothes, repair items, and celebrate all that the centuries have brought us. But any problems I find in modern culture, I hope to remedy or reconcile while living within modern culture. That might even be the reason we’re here.