Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Second Look at the Vox Victorians

Surely I've said everything I feel the need to? No, because I've continued conversations on the Historical Sew Monthly Facebook group and on Reddit, and Sarah Chrisman did a follow-up interview with SheKnows and then kindly sent me the full text of her answers, some of which were not used. Basically this is like an exclusive interview, in a way. If you see a quote here that's not on SheKnows, that's where it came from!

The Myth of Progress

I think I have to start this post by going back to the myth of progress, which I touched on in my earlier essay and which Rowenna explicitly named in the comments. Let me expand on it.

The roots of the idea of a constant progress in the human condition are located somewhere in the Renaissance. Historians now consider the middle ages to be "dark" because there is a lack of sources, but the philosophers of the Renaissance perceived them as a time in which human (European) civilization degenerated to a less evolved form - "it was bad, and now it's good, because we saw the bad things and got rid of them" - and saw in science the ability to continuously improve the human condition. But the idea flowered during the Enlightenment, when the theory was put together that societies always progressed from barbarism to true civilization through stages of increasing organization and, well, enlightenment. This has led to modern progressive politics, which focuses on improving the lives of the oppressed in order to effect wider societal change, but also to social Darwinism (the wealthy are the fittest, and the poor are inferior human beings) and scientific racism.

Although the inevitability and goodness of progress was called into question and lost favor as a stated philosophical tenet after World War I, due to modernization leading to horrific war instead of lasting peace, the idea is tenacious and hangs on in common thought.

Okay, so, what does this have to do with Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman? Well, one of the ways the idea hangs on is that when most of us are confronted with people trying to use old-fashioned/non-sciencey methods in order to live with less environmental impact, we go, "Stupid (rich) hipsters!" (Although as Chrisman points out, she and her husband aren't wealthy: "In some aspects of our lives we spend more money than other people, but then we make up for it by spending less money in other ways—partly because of the manner in which we've chosen to live, partly out of pure necessity.") Vegans are holier-than-thou. Making an effort to eat local is so trendy. Thrifting clothes for a reason other than poverty is pretentious. Beekeeping, canning, knitting, making-your-own anything that could be bought in a grocery store? For the love of god, why? We know that processed food tends to be full of preservatives, factory-farmed meat is produced in gross conditions, and ready-made clothing is frequently made in unsafe sweatshops, but somehow that's pushed to one side whenever we read about someone happily discussing how they don't want to support that or want to benefit from it as little as possible. Because even though our modern style of living is having tremendously bad effects on the planet to the point of certain impending catastrophe, "we've made things better" is ingrained in us so much that just rolling it partially back seems like insanity.

Money Makes the World Go Around

I need to go back to the long parenthetical in the previous paragraph, because one accusation I've seen slung around a lot is that the Chrismans are secretly rich but pretending their lifestyle is achievable by people without inherited wealth (or something like that). It's really not the case.
Most people don't buy kerosene or paraffin oil very often, but of course for us these are regular expenses. The ice for our ice box costs more than the equivalent amount of electricity to run an electric refrigerator, but we use so little electricity that the power company only ever charges us their minimum fee. It's the same with the water bill. We technically pay for more than twice the water we actually use because it's the lowest tier of the billing scale at the utilities company.

I bake all our bread and we make most of our foods from scratch, which is definitely cheaper than eating out or buying ready-made foods. Neither of us have cell phones so that's a whole set of bills we don't worry about; similarly we don't have bills related to television. We buy more books than some people, but we don't buy video games.

When people who don't know us very well see our house, they often don't realize they're seeing the result of years of dedicated effort and treasure hunting. All our posessions are things that we've saved and searched for with patient dedication, often for years. Every birthday, anniversary and Christmas is an excuse to give each other things which will add to our collection and aid our mutual search for knowledge. Other people give their partners electric appliances or modern furniture; we give each other antique versions. Often the ones we can afford are in poor condition and need to be repaired; sometimes we have to keep looking for years to find an affordable example of something; and sometimes we have to scrimp and save for years to afford something we want. For example, ever since I was a little girl I wanted a Victorian vanity dresser with a mirror on top. After we moved into our house it took me three years of scrimping to save for the kind of vanity I wanted, partly because every time I thought I had enough money to start looking, some minor household emergency would come up and the funds would be needed elsewhere for something more pressing. I finally got it though, and I actually cried with happiness the first time I sat down in front of it.
This idea of self-betterment is a very Victorian philosophy.  They truly believed that every individual has the power to make decisions that either better or worsen their lot in life, regardless of what they started with.  Everything Gabriel and I have together, we have worked for very diligently.  We both take great pride in what we do and what we've accomplished together.  We hope that we provide proof that all dreams are possible if only a person puts enough effort and dedication into them. 
I can't offer much elaboration on this - it is what it is. It's really unfortunate that SheKnows cut this out of what they published, because it's a downright realistic take on what it means to make the choice to change your lifestyle this way.

The whole money issue seems at least mildly hypocritical coming from costumers and reenactors, because we all know that this is such an expensive hobby. Fabric (even synthetics, in the volumes we need), various types of boning, repro shoes*, hairpieces, the gas to drive hours to and from events, camping equipment, and so on. We should understand rearranging one's priorities more than anyone else!

* My Gibsons have gone somewhere and I am so annoyed, they would look perfect with all of my clothes and I can't find them anywhere

There's another unpublished answer that I wish they'd shown, because in my opinion, the question - Why did you feel compelled to tell this story? - is at the heart of a lot of the pushback. (With the emphasis on you.)
People kept asking me to tell it. When I'm asked the same questions twenty times en route to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk, it really interferes with my schedule. (Especially since the questions never have "yes" or "no" answers.) After a while it just seemed easier to tell people to read my book. 
Beyond that, I really hope we can teach people about the Victorian era, and help them re-evaluate their own stereotypes. We want to encourage them to do their own research into the time, and find their own connections to the past. This isn't cherry-picking: this is being yourself and taking a broader perspective on your own passions. Are you into sports? There were some exciting things going on in athletics in the 1880s and '90s—check them out! Look up accounts of some games actually written at the time, not just a bland commentary told more than a century after the fact. The first-hand material is always far better. Are you the sort of person who loves a good mystery novel? Try reading some by Wilkie Collins! Can't put down your technology? Read up on the kinds of technology people had in the nineteenth-century: if you'd lived back then, what would you have felt you couldn't possibly live without? A while back we had a visit from a young man who hardly put down his cell phone the entire time he was here, and he absolutely loved Gabriel's mechanical pocket watch! It was a marvelous piece of high technology he had never seen before. We all view the world from our own perspective: use yours as a doorway to things that will bring you joy and teach you something worthwhile in the process.

I hope we can inspire people to think about what goals they could achieve in their own lives with patience and dedication. We don't expect other people to have the same goals we have, but we do want more people to follow their dreams—whatever those dreams may be.
Which is a) a reasonable reason to write a book, and b) perfectly in line with many other historians, amateur or professional.

Similarly, a few people seem to have their backs up over the idea that the Chrismans look down on reenactors, so I asked specifically about that. Her answer is potentially divisive, but I'm entirely sympathetic.
Our attitude towards reenactors in general depends on how they treat the subject. It's very, very important to us that everyone should treat people of the past with the same respect they would give to people of another country, and not ridicule or reduce them to stereotypes. Helping people understand that the past is another culture —and worthy of respect as such— is a huge part of what we do and why we do it.
I really hope that these extra answers grant a deeper understanding of Sarah Chrisman's perspective, even if you don't agree with her in every respect. The past is a complicated thing, as is the present: we will all have varied opinions on different parts of it, and that's not a problem.

I don't have a good conclusion ready, though! I will end by letting you know that on October 10th, Sarah and Gabriel will be at the Time Travelers' Ball in Hillsboro, Oregon, as guest lecturers. It's looks like a great event - I hope people who are closer to the area than I am can get there.


  1. Bottom line: people (generally) don't like what they don't understand, and they don't like what is different. Here are these folks making choices for themselves based on their own priorities and goals, and the fact that they end up living a completely different kind of life than most modern Americans really is irritating to a bunch of ignoramuses, because they believe it's a commentary on/rejection of their modern lives. But it's exactly what we're all allowed to do in this country--to the extent that we can manage it: live our lives according to our own preferences and needs and desires and within our own means, not anyone else's. What is incomprehensible to me is that members of the reenactor community are negatively judging these people. Maybe they're envious that the Chrismans have managed a lifestyle that they aspire to, but aren't willing to sacrifice to achieve. Maybe they feel that because they get enough out of history by participating in reenacting events, everyone else should limit themselves that way too.
    That said, humanity has indeed made progress. But progress doesn't always mean better or superior; sometimes it just means more efficient, faster, cheaper. But the paradox is that humanity is still as backward and ignorant as ever, too.

  2. Great follow-up, Cassidy. I keep coming back to--what harm are they doing to anyone? And the only answer those opposed to them seem to be offering is that they're pushing an "unrealistic" or "romanticized" view of the past. I can't see much evidence of that actually occurring--they aren't trying to spread any kind of revised history in which there were no problems in the late Victorian era; they're just adopting a lifestyle that fits them. They seem to fully acknowledge that they benefit from modern norms like vaccines and safe labor laws. If anything, the romanticizing that's happening seems to be of 21st century people romanticizing the era we're living in now--as you mentioned, it's far from perfect!

  3. I agree. In fact I think Gabriel and Sarah have it more 'sorted' than perhaps they even realize.