Playing at History?

If the title of my blog doesn’t hint strongly enough, my training and education is in history. Though I’m not working in the field currently, I’m still doing a lot of research on my own and staying up to date with what is happening. Although it wouldn’t seem like it given that history is the study of the past, history is an ever changing and evolving field that constantly re-examines and rewrites itself. Well, in the past week, I’ve stumbled across possibly one of the most bizarre (and horrifying) approaches to the study of history, to the point that I thought I was misunderstanding what was going on. So, what did I find?

Playing at History-

It Started With a Book

Okay, in fairness, nine times out of ten, it starts with a book for me. I grabbed a random audiobook on Hoopla from the library and went on my merry way…. until I started listening to it. This Victorian Life follows author Sarah Chrisman and her husband Gabriel as they live life as thought it is the 1880s. Weird coincidence, they live their old timey life in Port Townsend, Washington- I’ve spent a bit of time there, it’s an interesting town. Still, already the book immediately gives off an unpleasant hipster vibe that makes you question a whole lot of things.

(Dear hipsters of the world,
You aren’t my people, and I don’t think that you are really producing much of anything. Looking back into the past for no apparent reason isn’t interesting and “cool”, it’s pretentious and off-putting.
Sincerely,
The Historian.)

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Via Goodreads

Wait, WHAT? 

The book begins with the author making the argument that people with inaccurate historical costumes is akin to people wearing blackface, to which I say, “WHAT NOW?”. No, inaccurate petticoats are not the same as someone mocking a race of people, and the people of the past “not being able to defend themselves” is not like racial aggression. WHERE WERE THE EDITORS IN THIS PROCESS?? DID NO ONE SEE THE ISSUE WITH THIS ARGUMENT??? I’ve got to question every single person who came into contact with this book during the production process. Entitled and self-involved hipsters maybe shouldn’t be given the freedom to publish whatever bizarre thought comes into their head… I think that it was even worse in audiobook form, when you are literally hearing a human being say those words aloud, and not vomit immediately after from the stupidity.

Palace of Holyroodhouse

History Isn’t a Game

If you care to move on from that horrifying statement, you move straight into two self-involved twits who believe that living an “authentic” Victorian lifestyle is superior to all others. Well, any historian worth their salt will point out several problems there. 1) Most historians will not argue that one period of history is better than another- there are pros and cons to every historical period, but one isn’t “the best”. 2) The Victorians were historical cherry-pickers- they are known for romanticising the past, and taking the more picturesque elements to create an image that they wanted to project. It’s more than ironic that this couple is doing the same with their bicycles, lantern, and corset. 3) If you are going to argue that it’s better for the environment, you may want to take a gander at the huge amount of environmentally damaging production processes of the Victorian period. Sure, you canned those vegetables at home but people burned coal on the regular and then had small children clean their chimneys. 4) This might be coming later in the book, but I’m going to take a small guess that they don’t fully commit to this Victorian lifestyle. Opium and laudanum for headaches, no antibiotics for infection, and not ever stepping foot on an airplane again? I’m guessing no.

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Finding Balance

I don’t believe that history has to be an overly serious- it can be approachable and interesting and open to anyone who wants to dive in! However, it doesn’t mean that it’s a bizarre two-hander play that openly mocks the past (even though it’s premise is to not mock the past). This woman who claims that wearing garb from the late nineteenth century is just what “feels right” for her seems to think that the clothing that is largely connected with the subjugation of women (who were in fact simply the property of their closest male relative) is just clothing. And the education that she is proud of probably wouldn’t have been possible in the period, certainly not her time spent in Japan. Historians spend most of their time either arguing that there are periods of study other than the First and Second World Wars (we know that they are popular, but there are other periods!) or that history is still a worthwhile subject in this STEM based world we live in. This “experiment” is simply a game that appears to be for publicity. So, congrats to them for making money off of it?

Sidenote: There is a similar but entirely less offensive version of this experiment in different periods. Ruth Goodman has attempted to recreate life in various periods of British history but completely recognises that it is to study the period (not for some odd personal game), and conducts it in a much shorter time frame. She also highlights the negatives of whatever period she is living in, and doesn’t view it through rose coloured glasses…

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Historians, how do you feel about this? And non-historians, would you want to permanently re-create another period? I’m dying to hear everyone’s thoughts! 

Until tomorrow,
The Historian!

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14 thoughts on “Playing at History?

  1. Hannah August 30, 2017 / 6:06 am

    I think are you saying about how do we feel about authors making up their own interpretations of history? I think it is something to be cautious about, especially maybe for books for younger children/young adults who may be more misled by books. Personally though I’d like to hope the author properly researched the time period they were writing about.

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    • anhistorianabouttown August 30, 2017 / 6:10 am

      I would say it is more like they are treating it like a game or a fancy dress party. As she points out in her own intro, these were people who had their own lives- they aren’t here to simply to amuse us. I would say the difference between this and say a living history museum would be the intended outcome- the museum is aiming for education! We all do have our interpretation, but we don’t act it out like it’s a game 😥

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amber August 30, 2017 / 8:05 am

    I think that it’s a bit haughty. It’s one thing to say “we are choosing to live in a lifestyle reminiscent of the Victorian era” and another to claim that they are authentic and superior. I agree – I doubt they’re following Victorian medical beliefs or gender roles.

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    • anhistorianabouttown September 1, 2017 / 10:00 pm

      That’s my issue- I would argue as a historian that every period has it’s finer points but none are better than the others! And I’m almost done the book now, they do follow Victorian gender roles for the most part. Her thoughts on the suffragettes are terrifying given what is happening- she thinks that they are misguided. She wouldn’t have the ability to make any choices without them, terrifying.

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      • Amber September 2, 2017 / 7:36 am

        Oh boy, that’s incredible. It sort of makes me wonder if she was already into this lifestyle before she met him or if he convinced her of it, or if they made this choice together. I can’t imagine taking a step that far back and looking at my rights to say “thanks, no thanks.”

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        • anhistorianabouttown September 2, 2017 / 7:38 am

          I think both options are fairly terrifying. I like being my own person, literally. It also seems hypocritical that she was educated as a modern women to the -nth degree but now dismisses it. SO WEIRD.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. stephieann8 August 30, 2017 / 8:55 am

    We live in a world nowadays where people get their “facts” from memes. I am a believer that people need to be careful what content they are putting out into the world for this very reason. It sounds as if this book would give me high anxiety from yelling at it and most certainly not something I should listen to as I drive.

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    • anhistorianabouttown September 1, 2017 / 10:03 pm

      Okay, I’m almost finished and I should NOT have listened to it while I was driving. My concern that has grown is her promotion of Victorian gender roles- it is scary to see someone willingly embracing and promoting the total submission of women in 2017. Thankfully, the rest of the internet also seems to think they are nuts

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  4. Ritu September 2, 2017 / 6:49 am

    Like you say every era has it’s ups and downs!!!!

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  5. fancypaperblog September 2, 2017 / 7:21 am

    I support people choosing their own lifestyle as long as it is obviously not harmful in any business no one has right to superiority as history has surely taught us!!

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    • anhistorianabouttown September 2, 2017 / 7:24 am

      My issue is that she promotes Victorian gender ideals and roles- when you claim that suffragettes were misguided in fighting for the vote for women, I’m out completely. It’s also just odd to say that history is a game, and then cosplay it… thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Gary September 2, 2017 / 10:19 am

    Gosh, I never expected a blog rant from you, but you have seriously nailed this one. I’m quite a “fan” of the Victorian era myself. By that I do not mean I endorse cherry picking because for the lower classes it was a very hard existence. Historical research should be all encompassing and offer a factual base with which to learn from. Fictional period drama or books can take liberties as long as the era representations are correct and not the author thinking that’s what goes on or happened.

    I have a thought question though (and this is by no means meant badly as this is not my area of research), but among the “general population” AT THE TIME, do you think the majority population would have said the suffragettes were misguided? I know it wasn’t an instant hit and that lives were affected by those forming the movement. I think for that part in time they were incredibly brave women, but there must have been many (most likely majority male, but I suspect even some women) who thought they were rocking the boat and wrong. The key here is not looking at it from our knowledge base, but to put us into that time period in the minds of the people then.

    OK, that’s my writers mind at play. How would I have felt at the time without future knowledge of the outcome.

    I enjoyed Ruth Goodman in the TV series too; mostly because it was taken from the lay persons perspective and not the lord of the manor. It showed how much work both sexes actually did just to survive. As a non-historian things like that are eye openers because most period dramas are set in the upper classes, although Dickens does trip through them quite a bit.

    All that said; industrial revolution and the ability to engineer some outstanding machines was, from a history of science perspective, pretty awesome. Counter that against smog, Thames pollution and gin and its so much more than it often seems.

    Totally agree, no one period is better than another either. How can it be? lives live where they are
    and have to react to the time they are in. Great civilisations have grown and collapsed several times. One might argue it was better just before collapse; except those folk might well have contributed to said collapse in which case arguably its not…

    hmm, I may have gone off topic a bit. Love these debate posts 🙂

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    • anhistorianabouttown September 3, 2017 / 9:27 am

      Gary, I do believe that this is my favourite comment ever!! I do try not to rant too often, but I couldn’t help myself with this one. The Victorian period is a very interesting albeit fairly dark period, and I think that they cherry picking is part of what makes it so interesting- it has to be acknowledged, though! As you say, the lower classes endured pretty much hell on a daily basis, so to claim that a privileged, white, upper middle class dream of what Victorian life might have been is reality is just insanity. I don’t have any problem with fictional writers taking liberties with the stories, by the nature of what they do it will undoubtedly happen! They usually don’t claim that it is fact, though *ARGH*.

      There certainly was a strong divide on the suffragettes- while many women (and men) believed that women did have the right to vote, many believed that women weren’t intelligent enough to vote, that not owning property would mean they wouldn’t care who they voted for, and that it would really just give married men two votes (because obviously women would vote for who their husbands told them to vote for). There was a surprising number of women who were against it, with fears that it would ruin the sanctity and upset the balance of the home- given that much of the social change that occurred in the late nineteenth and twentieth century was accompanied by violence (in the movements), and the fact that life was dramatically and continually changing with the advent of these movements and all of the developments in technology, I can appreciate the views of those at the time who opposed it. I can’t give the same free pass to a woman who has reaped all of the benefits of those movements and then snubs them once she has taken what she can from them.

      I love Ruth’s series! She always gives a great overview of all of the main facets of life, and even takes you into those often forgotten areas. My favourite part is always when they go through the holiday season in whatever period they are in- I took an upper level course on the History of Christmas (and have done a fair bit of research myself), but it’s something else to see it happening before your eyes. And it does drive home just how much work everyone did in the past- no having a moment to yourself for a cat nap or a cappuccino, most likely just moving onto a very strenuous and involving task in your endless list!

      People are ridiculous, and the longer I live in this world, the more I realise that I probably should start cutting people like these wingnuts off, lest I start suffering from rage blackouts!

      I’m so glad that you enjoyed it!! I must say, this has been one of my favourite posts to write!!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. ardalionanguiano September 12, 2017 / 6:29 am

    The cardinal here is not looking at it from our cognition foot, but to put us into that metre menses in the minds of the people then. fancied menses drama or books can study liberties as long as the era representations are right and not the writer intellection that’s what goes on or happened.

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