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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!