When Living in the Past Distorts the Past; Or, Why I Study the Victorian Era

What you are about to read is somewhat off topic for the Renaissance Mathematicus, but as I’ve said on a number of occasions I reserve the right to post here what I will, after all it’s my blog. I received an unsolicited email from Jacob Steere-Williams, who is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston asking me to post this on Whewell’s Ghost. As I only post Whewell’s Gazette there theses days, I didn’t think it was a very good idea but because I found Jacob’s post well worth reading I have decided to post it here. Although it doesn’t deal with the history of science, Renaissance or otherwise, it does deal with some general historiographical points that I consider important so I offer it to my readers to read, contemplate and digest. I’m sure Jacob would also be interested in any thoughts it provokes amongst those that read it.

I am a Professor of Modern British History (and the History of Medicine) at the College of Charleston, and have written a piece that responds to the recent article on Vox about a couple who live as if they were Victorians: http://www.vox.com/2015/9/9/9275611/victorian-era-life

I study history, namely the Victorian period in Britain that roughly spanned the lifetimes of the well-known and indefatigable writers Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde.

Like the flâneur, itself an idealized literary type from the nineteenth century, I perambulate the Victorian world, consuming its echoes through the traces of modernity. Fueled by my own curiosity of the period, I am consumed by the past. But unlike a bygone wandering traveler, as a professional historian I interrogate, criticize, and find meaning in the past. Both in the classroom and the archive I privilege the historian’s however fallible creed, to approximate the past “was eigentlich gewesen [ist],” as it essentially happened, the dictum of the Janus-like nineteenth century historian Leopold von Ranke.

It’s with a good bit of vexation, then, and no little amuse, that I recently read about privileged hipsters living the solipsist dream of a phantasmagorical Victorian world in the twenty-first century.

Don’t get me wrong. The winding of a mechanical clock and brushing of ones teeth with a boar bristle brush in the morning, and the heating of wax and plunging of a personally-monographed seal on a hand-written letter in the evening by the Edison bulb with a bit of sherry all sound lovely, albeit in a kind of super-ego stroking masturbatory way. Eschewing the technology of the present, however, for that of the Victorian past, is an odd perversion of the Thoreauvian luddite sentiment towards simplicity and nature. This is made all the more dogged when one “blossoms” into their “true self” through the ritualized play of what university-aged Brits today might call perpetually living in period specific “fancy dress.”  The Victorians themselves of the 1880s would have rightly called this behavior Silver Fork Snobbery.

Yet, the political rationalist in me embraces the freedoms that have it made possible for a handful of twenty-first century Americans to choose to happily obtain that 14-inch waist through tightlacing a corset, all the while finding time to delight in a weekend stroll on the high-wheel tricycle.

Again, don’t get me wrong. We historians have long embraced material culture as an arbiter of the past. An antique kerosene space heater, a crinoline skirt, and even a bar of Castile soap are all indeed are primary source traces that help us to understand and interpret the past. Yet they don’t do so in and of themselves. We as human actors—either today or in the past, the difference being critical— provide and attach meaning to material objects, apart from their Kantian ding an sich (the thing in itself). Plucking nineteenth century objects from museums and dusty attics and revitalizing them to navigate the twenty-first century is a kind of Frankensteinian Promethan dream. Decontextualizing these objects from the time and place in which they were created doesn’t privilege the lived experience of the past, but rather is the akin to the scholarly sin of being ahistorical.

The irony of the twenty-first century posturing of Victoriana material culture would not have been lost on the nineteenth century critic Karl Marx, who as early as the 1860s fully articulated the concept of “commodity fetishism” to explain how objects gain culture power in the marketplace apart from their inherent labor value. In this way, subverting twenty-first century technology for its nineteenth century counterpart is a fuller expression of bourgeois capitalism. But what Marx would have found disdainfully surprising is the inversion of historical commodities being fetishized. It’s the professional historian in me that sees this behavior and what it undergirds as a dangerous foray into historical revisionism. At its core living the Victorian dream is a performative act that tells us more about twenty-first century tensions and fears than nineteenth.

Such idealization of the Victorian period represents a decontextualized distortion of the past. At a deeper cultural level, it signifies the staying power of what the philosopher Walter Benjamin identified as the shock of modernity. Yet the great irony of finding refuge in the Victorian era is that the Victorian themselves were disillusioned with the fast-paced technological and social changes of their time. There were moral panics surrounding the railroads, where riders were sickened with the medico-moral disease “railway spine,” which struck Dickens himself. The Victorian period saw for the first time in history the collapse of space and time. Sure, the age that domesticated nature via industrialization was at times bubbling with bravado over science and technology, yet Victorians were also frightened by what they had produced.

Aristocratic Victorians were fond of ‘retiring’ to their country estates to relieve the mounting fast-paced pressures of steam engines, timetables, and telegraphs (and, lest we forget, the urban poor). I suppose that twenty-first century hipsters are finding refuge in an idealized version of the past would strike those uber wealthy Victorians as perfectly normal. For the rest of us it’s perfectly odd. For professional historians, it’s down right dangerous.

In the world we live in today our interpretations of the past loom as large as ever. My own state, of South Carolina, for example, has been emblazoned of late because of the discord between an object of the past—the Confederate flag—and competing interpretations over its meaning. The past, it seems, is perpetually being made handmaiden to political perversions. The wearing of nineteenth century clothes and cooking with nineteenth century utensils is far from an innocuous appropriation of powerless objects from the past. There is a very real danger in a cherry-picked, tunnel-vision version of history, one that ignores power, inequality, racism, and privilege.

For a truly authentic Victorian experience, kids these days might be better off lounging around an opium den, or cordoned from society from the effects of hysteria. Ever try the gripping effects of typhoid fever or cholera—you can’t understand the Victorian world without them.

Jacob Steere-Williams

Assistant Professor, Department of History

College of Charleston

31 Comments

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31 responses to “When Living in the Past Distorts the Past; Or, Why I Study the Victorian Era

  1. Phillip Helbig

    Wonderful piece, excellent writing!

    I have long loathed those who idealize the past without actually realizing how bad it was in many respects. (As Isaac Asimov said to someone who said that he wished he had been born a hundred years ago, chances were one in three that he wouldn’t be alive now. 🙂 Or, as he said to his first wife after she wished that they lived in a time when there were lots of servants: no, we’d be the servants!) Then there is just the ignorance. I find it rather strange that some people cultivate a 1967 look, thinking that this gives them some Beatles mentality or whatever. However, knowing how quickly hair grows, it is clear that this was just a necessarily transitional hairdo on the road to a more hippie-like coiffure.

    On the other hand, I see no harm in informed eclecticism. I am glad I didn’t live in the Middle Ages, but I think that the music, the architecture, and the clothing was better than much music, architecture, and clothing today. Certainly no harm in listening to such music. Similarly, why not ride the tube dressed like Henry VIII rather than wearing a boring 3-piece suit?

    Yes, ignorantly idealizing the past is bad. But so is thinking that everything new must be better.

    • > I find it rather strange that some people cultivate a 1967 look, thinking that this gives them some Beatles mentality or whatever. However, knowing how quickly hair grows, it is clear that this was just a necessarily transitional hairdo on the road to a more hippie-like coiffure.

      This just blew my mind.

      • Phillip Helbig

        Then my day has been made. It used to be more difficult to blow minds.

      • When I found out that Paul is in fact Faul my mind was not blown.

        When I found out the entire hippie culture was essentially manufactured by the ‘powers that be’ in Laurel Canyon in order to control, distract, dilute and generally discredit the growing (and initially rather respectable and intellectual) anti war/ anti government movement my mind was not blown.

        When I found out that Hollywood is basically a massive cult, and half the celebrities we’ve had since the age of Monroe have been under some sort of mind control, or at least controlled by their handlers, and most major entertainment events are in fact elaborate occult rituals ‘hidden in plain sight’ my mind was not blown.

        But somehow the hair thing was a true revelation… but now I think of it, it all makes sense now…..

  2. Phillip Helbig

    Talking about her husband so much, the question arises if they have returned to the Victorian era with respect to sexuality as well, although I am pretty sure that she does close her eyes and think of England!

    Is it deliberately ironic that we read about this on a blog?

    I recently read about some musicians who wrote a song criticizing social media, and distributed the same via social media.

  3. gonmrm

    It looks like a very interesting Era to study, I truly would care to have time to learn such interesting things. In the meantime, I will read your blog which looks like it’s helping me learn great stuff. Nice post all in all!
    Sincerely, Gonçalo from https://thebeautyofspace.wordpress.com

  4. Iggy

    “Like the flâneur, itself an idealized literary type from the nineteenth century, I perambulate the Victorian world, consuming its echoes through the traces of modernity.”

    Huh? Flowery language signifying nothing.

    ” Fueled by my own curiosity of the period, I am consumed by the past. But unlike a bygone wandering traveler, as a professional historian I interrogate, criticize, and find meaning in the past.”

    What a guy!

    “Both in the classroom and the archive I privilege….”

    My unsolicited advise to the author of this post is to expel from his vocabulary that most unbecoming of all words (in these times), “privilege”, the use of which is the signature of a reactor, not a thinker.

    I expect a future post from Prof. Steere-Williams explaining how, if only he hadn’t been so interested in physics, Einstein might have said something actually interesting.

    • I expect a future post from Prof. Steere-Williams explaining how, if only he hadn’t been so interested in physics, Einstein might have said something actually interesting.

      Congratulations, this is probably the most ridiculous example of a non sequitur that has ever been posted on this blog.

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  6. Humans vows to symbols and ideas, its only normal to possess an respect to an civilization and history period, but your statement about the “tunnel vision”, I found difficult to agree, me myself, I must admit to be quite Anglophile, but I know the history of once the British Empire, its greatness, and its flaws, the gray world is as its is, gray.

  7. For historians, our job is to understand the past – and to do that we have to put ourselves in the mindset of the period – to understand how people acted and the reasons why they acted as they did. I enjoy reading the posts of people who enjoy a specific time period and can write about it from a social, economic as well as political point of view. Many historians tend to focus on the political aspects than the social-economic. But we also need to be able to stand back without getting too deep. A well written article

  8. Pingback: When Living in the Past Distorts the Past; Or, Why I Study the Victorian Era | schminkef

  9. Oh the ‘Good ‘Ole Days’. A professor of mine had us read an article about slums, addicts, whores etc., then guess if it was Vietnam era or Victorian. It was of course Victorian. Also makes me think of Octavia Butler’s book, Kindred, where the black character time travels and ends up a slave. This Victorian romanticism is only possible for white people of a certain class. And even white, middle class woman were in danger of suffocating Yellow Wall Paper style. At the same time, more power to them to live how they want. Ride the high-bike. Just don’t believe that this is some kind of authentic, historical experience that gives true meaning to the era.

  10. laura

    Someone’s getting spammed😉

  11. Even though hipsters are awful, isn’t it a bit insulting – even to them – to imply they are being unrealistic or unfaithful (or committing some other crime) by ‘cherry picking’ from the Victorian era?

    I mean, don’t we normal people try to cherry pick the best bits for ourselves from the 21st century era? (I mean is anyone planning a holiday to Fukushima? .. or does anyone want to move to a modern inner city slum?)

    Hipsters are a bit like people who have to read out loud to themselves AND show everyone what it is they are reading when in company. They are extremely annoying for this reason….. but what the couple in the article are doing seems kind of legit to me, because they are going all the way. They have come full circle and are actually living their own fashion statement. We have to respect that, surely?

    It’s more authentic to literally go without TVs and electric lighting than it is to have a piece of driftwood lying on the floor next to your 72″ TV … which is itself sitting on a ‘distressed’ chest of drawers. Fair play to them.

    And what is the difference between working in the city and then taking two weeks off to stay in a rustic cottage and go fishing and hillwalking every day and doing this? Do we point out that they could just buy their fish in the supermarket and that by reverting to primitive rods and tackle they are being ridiculous and cherry picking from the past?

    Isn’t it more authentic to integrate your holiday into your actual day-to-day life, than it is to jet set off to a log cabin every few months?

    It might be unfashionable to admit this, but it is true that objects made in the past did have a superior air of craftsmanship about them, and they did ‘reek of humanity’ which often (but not always) made them a joy to use, rather than reeking of the inhuman mass production line. We have a cheap plastic ladle/ serving spoon which literally bends double if you try and scoop baked beans with it. It is literally unusable as a serving spoon, which is what it is supposed to be. It is a serving spoon in name, in appearance but not in function…. and this is because it was made by a machine and not by a craftsman with a family business, and a reputation to maintain!

    We also have a wooden stepladder and wooden trolly (originally for shifting milk churns) which are a century old and still working fine.

    One does not necessarily need to own and use objects or clothing from the past (or discard objects from the present) in order to celebrate and reclaim certain beneficial aspects of those lifestyle that we’ve lost, such as focus, peace, tranquility, study, presence in the moment and so on…… but often it does help.

    In fact we own an old victorian carriage with exactly that written on a plague on the bumper….. (not really)

    If hipsters are guilty of anything it is stigmatising this natural and often healthy – or at least rewarding – attraction to antique objects and antique lifestyles or attitudes by being so annoyingly in-your-face about it.

    • Phillip Helbig

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with eclecticism. I’ve often said that I like the music, the fashion, and the architecture of the Middle Ages, but nothing else. I certainly wouldn’t want to have lived then. (To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, if I had I would almost certainly not be alive now.) But that is no reason not to enjoy the music, say. I think there are often problems with people thinking that they have to accept, or reject, all aspects of something.

      The problem here is different. The sentiment is that the Victorian age was generally better. First, it was certainly much worse for almost everyone. For the elite, yes, if you were rich it could have been nice, but even then you had to put up with the lack of modern medical care etc.

      There is nothing wrong with wearing Victorian clothes, say, if it floats your boat, but the couple seemed to be implying that the age was better in essentially every respect and we have lost something by moving away from it. I wonder how Victorian they will be when an operation is needed, say.

      • >The sentiment is that the Victorian age was generally better.

        Yes but that is my point. Is anybody really saying that? I mean even if they say those words, isn’t it a given that they are only referring to certain aspects and not to, say, healthcare or space flight or communications technology which is obviously much better today than in Victorian times?

        I mean, does that sort of thing really need saying?

        > the couple seemed to be implying that the age was better in essentially every respect

        Are they really? It didn’t come across that way to me. It was a typical ‘lifestyle’ article to me, albeit with a twist. In a lifestyle article you expect people to say things like “I couldn’t live without my Aga” or “Underfloor heating changed our lives”…… they are not always to be taken literally🙂

        If I said I holidayed in Mexico and “It was Amaaaazing!” would you take me to task about poverty, drug gangs, street crime etc and say “Well actually it’s not as amazing as all that” or would you understand the context of my praise for Mexico?

        > I wonder how Victorian they will be when an operation is needed, say.

        I’m guessing they will be not very Victorian at all. But isn’t that the same as travelling around some third world country and getting health insurance which will fly you to a first world hospital in the event of a health emergency? Do we call them hypocrites, or naive for doing that?

        Can’t believe I’m siding with hipsters lol😉

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  14. While you twist a clever phrase, it is utterly ridiculous to state that you, as a historian,” interrogate, criticize, and find meaning in the past.”

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