Yesterday Vox printed I Love the Victorian Era. So I Decided to Live in It, an essay by Sarah Chrisman, a woman who has turned her life (and her husband’s) into an elaborate Victorian-era cosplay/roleplay. Because it includes lines like “Gabriel said watching me grow accustomed to Victorian clothes was like seeing me blossom into my true self,” the internet predictably went bonkers.
A lot of questions spring to mind about Chrisman’s decision to live as a Victorian, particularly since she’s far more specific about the modern conveniences she’s giving up than which ones she’s holding onto. Has she forsaken smoke detectors? Antibiotics? ATMs? What’s her stance on fluoride toothpaste? Does she take public transportation? How do they handle birth control? As I suggested on Twitter yesterday afternoon, you can’t actually live like a Victorian in 2015, because our society isn’t a Victorian society, and Chrisman’s project of mashing up the technologies of today with those of the Gilded Age — she prints out old newspapers from the internet to read in the tub! — marks her definitively as an enthusiastic citizen of our own miraculous age.
Chrisman and her husband are white, and the simulacrum of Victorian life they’ve chosen to enter is a decidedly upper-class one (though without the extensive staff her forbears would have enjoyed — kerosene has gotten cheaper since 1890, but servants have become a lot more expensive, what with minimum wage laws and child labor regulations and so on). This gave rise to another, more pointed, set of questions yesterday: Does Chrisman’s nostalgia extend to lynching? To eugenics? Phrenology? And what about Chrisman’s own role in society — what about the advances the last 125 years have brought to women? Does she want to throw those away too?
It turns out she kind of does.
Chrisman wrote a book a couple of years ago about her experiences as a Victoriankin, and though it’s mostly about corsets and how everybody’s a bunch of jerks for not understanding how awesome they are, she does find time in its pages to share her views on the social environment of the fin de siècle, and on that era’s women’s rights movement specifically.
Chrisman isn’t a big fan of the suffragettes, whom she considers violent and uncouth, and she’s unimpressed with the franchise itself. (She voted Gore in 2000, and regards that experience as an indication that Votes For Women have been oversold as a liberatory development.) As for more contemporary feminism, she writes that
“the really important work was done a long time ago, and a lot of what people have been trying to do more recently has been sort of counterproductive. I think that in a lot of the efforts that women have made to try to prove they’re the same as men, a lot of the power that women used to have has gotten lost along the way … in the past there was a lot better understanding that women can be different than men and still be very powerful.”
So there’s that.
The words “child labor” are missing from Chrisman’s book, as are “tuberculosis,” “pellagra,” and “cholera.” She mentions racism twice — once in the course of bemoaning the fact that modern audiences who are sophisticated enough to reject the racial caricatures of Gone With the Wind are hoodwinked by its calumnies against corsetry. (In another passage she compares myths about corsets’ ill effects to “the idea … that Jews eat babies.”)
But it’s the second reference to racism in her book that reveals her worldview. “Those who denounce contemporary cultures are denounced as xenophobes or racists,” she writes, “yet we have no word for those who treat the cultures of the past in this same manner.” She continues: “It is difficult for many people to grasp that lifestyles may have been different in the past, and yet still completely satisfactory to those living them.”
This is cultural relativism of the most simpleminded sort — an assertion of cultural equality via an erasure of cultural difference. (At one point in the book she denies that “any given generation or culture is truly either more or less prudish than any other.) And it cuts against the grain of her larger argument, too — if it’s bigotry to denounce aspects of past cultures, surely it’s also bigotry to denounce the values and habits of the present day that she herself repudiates.
Chrisman’s essay yesterday was mocked as a manifestation of privilege — the privilege of a woman who could look back at an era marked by tremendous suffering and injustice and see only her imagined self, happily occupying a position of wealth and comfort. As her book demonstrates, that solipsism wasn’t just a feature of the essay — it pervades her understanding of the era she longs for.
Chrisman argues that we should view the Victorian era a “completely satisfactory” time for those who lived through it, but of course that era wasn’t completely satisfactory, and of course no era is. The defects of the present day are acutely visible — and endlessly irritating — to her, while the defects of the past are effortlessly erased.
Because today, as much as she enjoys pretending otherwise, is where she lives.