They very rarely use electricity. They have an icebox, mechanical clocks, fountain pens, oil lamps, etc. etc. etc. They wear pretty accurate historical clothing, which for Sarah includes a corset. (I don't know her measurements, but it looks like she skirts the edge of the period definition of tightlacing, and if she were wearing modern clothing she'd be classified as a tightlacer.)
The response has been astoundingly negative. (Although some responses have been thought-through and eloquent.)
I'm not totally surprised, because I know that a lot of people see the in-depth study of history as a waste of time, and think that reenacting is a bizarre practice. But it seems like the reaction to the article is more than just "lol this is dumb." So why is this getting such a negative response?
It seems like a lot of people are offended by a perceived tone of superiority in Chrisman's writing. Pretty much everyone who writes a comment or an op-ed piece feels the need to point out that she has a lot of advantages today that she wouldn't have had in the 19th century (modern medicine, education, etc.) and that as a Victorian she would have been better off than many other people - and of course the fact that she runs a blog and has published books means that she sometimes uses a computer, which is a huge source of amusement to the commentariat.
I don't think the superiority is actually in the text, though. It's just what people always seem to read into lifestyle pieces, if the subject/writer enjoys their lifestyle and expresses dissatisfaction with some aspects of mainstream modern life. Obviously, if a woman says, "the greatest gift we give each other is mutual support in moving forward with our dreams," or, "I'd always admired Victorian ideals and aesthetics," what she really means is, "the Victorian Era was the pinnacle of human achievement, and anyone who disagrees is deluded."
Look, I'm not a Mary Sunshine. I think disagreements among people who study history, whether as reenactors or scholars, are a good thing, and the field only suffers when you try to suppress them. But this isn't really an intra-discipline discussion, this is a nasty internet dogpile. It's really depressing to see so many people pile on someone who's only a couple of steps removed from all of us reenactors/living historians/costumers, especially when she's a frequent victim of sexist abuse in public.
What does Chrisman say about wearing Victorian clothes?
Wearing 19th-century clothes on a daily basis gave us insights into intimate life of the past, things so private and yet so commonplace they were never written down. Features of posture, movement, balance; things as subtle as the way my ankle-length skirts started to act like a cat's whiskers when I wore them every single day. I became so accustomed to the presence and movements of my skirts, they started to send me little signals about my proximity to the objects around myself, and about the winds that rustled their fabric — even the faint wind caused by the passage of a person or animal close by. I never had to analyze these signals, and after a while I stopped even thinking about them much; they became a peripheral sense, a natural part of myself.Wow, that sounds exactly like what a lot of living historians say. Wearing historic clothes teaches us things that studying primary sources can't. We should still study primary sources, but there is something you simply. can't. get. without wearing the clothes or making the food or mock-fighting the battles or hammering the metalwork, or any of the other things we odd people do in our hobby.
What does a Slate writer say about that?
Chrisman may well have a better sense than you or I about how it feels to wear such a skirt. But donning antique clothing doesn’t transport the wearer to times past—it doesn’t even necessarily give you a great sense of what it was like to wear such clothes in the 1880s. Wearing a corset as an adult, out of choice, as Chrisman does, will come with a particular set of physical sensations. Wearing a corset from girlhood on; being told you must wear a corset or you won’t be womanly; or wearing a corset while you have tuberculosis—all of these Victorian relationships to this garment were particular to their time.Did Chrisman claim that she had a better sense of the Victorian era as a whole than a professional historian just because of her clothes? No, of course she didn't. You can see right up there that she was talking about insights and physicality.
Here's another quote from Chrisman that the same Slate writer has a problem with:
There is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written in the period. Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game "telephone": One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.This section really resonated with me, because it's so true. Scholarly works do tend to be fairly objective, but I have seen a misinterpretation of a primary source in one (on the subject of what do you think, corsets) be taken and made bigger by other people. Women's history is especially subject to being made to fit an agenda - and I say that as a committed feminist, but I mean, I wrote four long posts about corset myths - but the general narrative that people hated their lives in the past unless they were very well-off is also an agenda.
This is an unfair characterization of professional historians, who generally acknowledge the impossibility of total objectivity while trying hard to be as clear-minded and fair as possible. It also betrays a hopelessly naive understanding of the historical record, which is, itself, incomplete and “twisted” by the agendas of those who have produced, saved, and recirculated its texts. The primary sources the Chrismans choose to read made it to the present day because they held some kind of value for the intervening generations. The couple finds its period magazines on Google Books, that redoubtable Victorian technology. It seems not to have crossed their minds that a series of human decisions resulted in the digitization of those magazines and not others, and that those decisions are themselves a type of commentary.For one thing, professional historians themselves rely on primary sources for their areas of specialization rather than secondary or tertiary ones, so it's not unfair to rely on primary sources oneself or to remark that tertiary sources aren't highly accurate; for another, Chrisman's reference to tertiary sources and magazine articles indicates that she's talking about a much broader swath of people than professional historians. But that's at least excusable as a misunderstanding - I don't see where the idea that Chrisman understands nothing about interpreting sources comes from, except a desire to pander to an audience that's already decided Chrisman (and her husband, who nobody ever references except to make cracks about how Chrisman should be submitting to his authority if she really cares at all about living like a Victorian - gross) is an idiot who should be derided.
Very few of us might want to actually be living historians full-time like Sarah Chrisman, but if you like doing it at all, ever, it's kind of upsetting to realize that nearly everything the Salon writers and Twitter users are saying could be applied to you if you came to their attention.