History in the Making

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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29 thoughts on “Playing at History?”

  • Wow!! This book sounds like a mess. But what do you think about short recreations of the past, I have watched a couple shows on You Tube where historians get together to re-create a meal or moment from the past by assuming the technology and everything. The reason I enjoyed those was that sometimes its hard to imagine cooking equipment or people when reading but visuals just bring it a bit more to life. Of course its not as outrageous as claiming to live like an era and recording it in a book with extreme comments. But what do you think about using play to recreate parts of history?

    • I think that living history can be quite useful for both the trained historian and the general public! Like you say, it puts past lives into reality when we might otherwise be unable to truly understand it. However, I think that those shows (like Ruth Goodman’s) do well at showing both the good and bad parts of the past, and don’t romanticise it. Many people (like this couple) don’t seem to recognise both sides of the coin, so to speak!

  • This is crazy!! I mean, obvi, the whole racism stuff is ridic, but their whole attempt to live a “Victorian” life is pretty insane. I was a history minor – Medieval Studies – and I love me a good Renaissance Faire. I go to at least one faire each year, in costume, and I thoroughly enjoy it. However, I am aware that I am not actually living an authentic Renaissance lifestyle for those few hours, despite whatever Middle English I may remember to spout from my Chaucer class back in college. But I do think the faires give non-history lovers a good taste of the best parts of that time period – or, at least, what we, today, would view as the best parts, if reserved only for certain classes…that most of us would not have been part of, lol. While I love history, there isn’t an earlier decade that I wish I had lived in.

    I don’t really believe living any previous time period’s lifestyle is “superior” to what we have now. I think society makes progress each day, each year, and we are decidedly better off now than we were before, even though the “now” sometimes (a lot of the time, lately) doesn’t seem all that much better. Things to be grateful for in the here and now? As you mentioned, modern medicine and medical facilities. On paper, having equal rights for all genders and races. Not being defined solely by your social class. Being able to marry for love and not for convenience or to upkeep a dynasty. Flush toilets and city plumbing lines. ALL GOOD THINGS, and things I wouldn’t trade, no matter how fabulous I feel wearing a medieval corset and long skirt at the Ren Faires (and I do feel fan-freakin-tastic in that ensemble).

    Along this book topic, though, have you read THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY by A.J. Jacobs? It’s pretty hilarious and very insightful, as the author acknowledges that living faithfully to a historical text is REALLY difficult. I highly recommend it. He’s trying to do (has done, since this is an older book) what these hipsters are doing, but he takes himself much less seriously. 🙂

    • It was kismet we “met”! My second undergrad degree was in Medieval Studies and I indeed took a Chaucer class 😂 I think that recognising that the romantic version presented of the past is key- I think that without that we are doing a disservice to those who lived before us! I do wonder to what benefit of presenting these idealized versions of the past we receive. If non-history lovers are only interested because it is full skirts and heaping feasts and swords, then I fear that (as you say), we have forgotten about 98% of the population!
      I haven’t read it but it is on my to-read list now!! That is what I love about Ruth Goodman’s shows- she points out exactly what is so challenging for her, how we have improved, and sometimes how ridiculous she feels. Living in the past is quite difficult, indeed!!

  • That’s great! I could name more . . .
    I enjoyed Judith Flanders’ ‘The invention of murder. . . ‘ and was outraged when Lucy Worsley had an extremely similar TV series. My outrage was eased when I saw Judith Flanders had been credited at the end of the show. ?

  • Hi, I too have trained as an historian and yet work in a different field. I started my blog to keep informed and to inform and yet life gets in the way. I love a good audiobook but I’m not sure I could listen to people explain how they ‘become’ Victorian and would rather listen to a general narrative or analytical study of the Victorian era. And I have to agree that the argument of wearing inauthentic clothing is akin to blacking up for entertainment purposes is rather disturbing.
    FYI one of my favourite audiobooks is ‘They All Love’ Jack by Bruce Robinson – a study of the Jack the Ripper crimes.

    • I’m not sure why but WordPress put this in my spam folder 🙁 It was the most bizarre thing to hear someone say- how on earth do you write something like that?? There are so many books about Victorian life (I enjoyed Judith Flanders’ study!) that don’t take a glib or snobbish tone that actually give you insight and information. Somehow, this made it past editors…..
      This has been added to my GoodReads list!! And one of my good friends is in a true crime book club- I shared it with her, and they will be reading it next month! Thank you for the recommendation 🙂

  • fictional period of clip dramatic event or books can consume liberties as long as the geological era representations are right and not the generator cerebration that’s what goes on or happened. The fundamental here is not looking at it from our cognition root word, but to put option us into that clip period of clip in the minds of the people then.

  • 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.

  • 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 🙂

    • 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!!

      • I can see this is something you enjoy, not just the history but the ability to converse about the whole subject and debate the rights and wrongs of the past. I watched the Suffragette movie not so long ago and, as with many movies I’m often sceptical of total accuracy, but it was an eye opener on a subject I’d not really come across in my own educational experience (biochemistry and microbiology). My sons keen on history mind and doing it st A level at the moment.
        You almost wrote a whole post here too! Love that and I’ve never had a reply back this big before either! Imagine what a chat over coffee would do! I feel modern society has entirely lost its way when it comes to the suffering in the past. As you say, upper class perspectives dominate and make life look easy when the majority were working all hours if the day in conditions that modern people would think belonged to several centuries ago and yet it’s onky a couple of generations ago. In that space we’ve had flu epidemics, two world wars, hard fought changes to sexual equality and the people involved in all that would look at today’s general society and think “Why?” If you tune into that ethos then no wonder you want to avoid rage blackouts. My writing does take me into history quite often. As you probably know, a lot of it is dark and the source of that is rarely upper class, apart from my short story on the paranormal brothers. I actually find “real” people are the inspiration and that often means looking deeper at what went on in the past. Personally I do try and get the facts straight and then overlay it with the fiction.
        I really enjoyed the various working farms and scenarios Ruth’s team did too. It should show modern people how very fortunate they are. But how many watch it and think it was all so very long ago it’s not real? I think if you fail to feel the pasts events then the future is going to drop off a cliff at some point. The errors and bad decisions of governance reflect that. No appreciation of what happened and why they should be uniting to prevent things going that way again. So much here could skew conversations in all directions…huge subject we have covered already and even then, just fringed on it all. Really enjoyed this post ?

        • HOW ON EARTH WAS THIS MARKED AS SPAM, WORDPRESS?? I am hoping that Suffragette becomes available on Netflix here in Canada soon- I’ve heard mixed reviews on it, and I would love to see it for myself. (My prof spent a lot of time on the movement in my second year British history course, and I would love to see it for myself!)
          I find that people do often look at history with rose coloured glasses and anachronistic frames of reference- it’s like people seem to forgot that in the Victorian era there was rampant racism and anti-Semitism, women were property of their husbands, and children were literally forced to climb up chimneys to clean up the coal that the author claimed is better than it’s modern alternatives. Boiling it down to “normal, every day” problems, you could very easily end up dying from an infected tooth or a cut, a cold could take you out for weeks or months (or lead to something more deadly), and to quote that professor, many families were one bad break away from starvation. It’s so important to place things within a context!!
          I’ve discussed her shows and books with people, and a lot of them do have that very attitude- I was shocked when they did their Christmas during the Blitz episode, and people said that that couldn’t happen now. I mean, it’s unlikely that it would happen in the exact same way, but explosions?? Unfortunately, that is used as a form of attack frequently in this modern age of ours. The 1940s aren’t that far away. I do appreciate the difference between fiction and non-fiction though- I don’t expect fiction to follow everything bit by bit, just stay generally possible within the world the author has created! Non-fiction (including this bizarro memoir)? You have to play by the rules of reality, folks.

          • Crumbs, your blog has decided I talk rubbish and marked me as a pest??? Lol.
            I’ve seen that film and found it quite moving. I can’t pretend to know if it’s accurate or not, but it did show the struggle facing the movement. Gave me empathy with the time period.
            I was discussing historical records with a friend and the stark conclusion is a lot is directed by “winners” wrt wars, religious mantras that are one sided, and often loose interpretations that may or may not be right. Obviously, that gets potentially worse the further back one goes. It’s why I love research. Digging and looking for alternatives texts or theories. Truths don’t seem to marry up with some peoples wants! (If you see what I mean).
            The Victorian era is fascinating. On the ind hand great opulence, technological and engineering advances that put modern ones to shame, expansion and growth….and alongside that are the things you mentioned. Wealth separation was huge. Poverty, suppression of rights, one step away from starvation. It’s all there, but I find people don’t like to see it….don’t like, or don’t want?
            War is never as far away as people like to think. The 1940’s are not that far away and less than a generation. Kids now can’t even imagine a world with no wifi or Internet. To me that’s how things go wrong…in the past it wifi might have been running water in the home…kids of the first parents with it would have the same opinion…”what? People had no running water?” I could rant for ages lol.
            Wrt fiction, I love to blend in points in time and endulge in stories about individuals there. As King says, ordinary folk put into an extraordinary situation. Even fiction has to have a believable world!

  • The chocolate coating of riches does not a life make; for of faded wisps, once whirlwinds, the dust whispers without thirst…

  • 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.

    • 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

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.”

  • 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.

    • 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 :'(

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