The 24th of May
Is the Queen’s birthday!
That’s a little rhyme my grandmother taught me, and it should explain to everyone’s satisfaction why we Canadians (a) have a holiday today (the 21st of May), and (b) celebrate it by going to the beach, getting drunk, and setting off firecrackers.
Now that we’ve cleared up that little mystery, I thought I’d honour the Queen (Victoria, that is) by making a list of the top ten reasons I wish I had lived during the Victorian era. This is a more challenging assignment today than it would have been when I was fourteen and fervently believed that I would be happier and more popular if I’d lived before the sexual revolution. In grade eight, my Victoriaphilia was very much a matter of wanting to wear puffed sleeves at balls where the boys would be obliged to ask the girls to dance instead of sitting around the gymnasium sprawled in those plastic elementary-school chairs, waiting for the 18 girls in our class to fall all over themselves competing for the 12 of them.
In the twenty-odd years since then, I’ve had plenty of exposure to the basic arguments against jumping in a time capsule and setting the dateometer for 1856. Indoor plumbing. Feminism. The Internet. These are twentieth-century innovations whose value is not to be underestimated – but they’re not quite enough to entirely eradicate my habits of nostalgia. Here, then, are my top ten reasons for wishing I’d been born in – oh, let’s say, 1837.
10) Freedom from irony. I’ve always been more Joshua Tree than Zoo TV. The problem with irony is that it’s addictive: the more you use, the higher the dosage needed to stave off an embarrassing sense of sincerity. With a birthdate in 1837, I figure I’d have a good sixty years of morally earnest William Wilberforces and Harriet Beecher Stowes before succumbing in my dotage to the witty parodies of Hilaire Belloc.
9) Increased likelihood of my becoming an authoress. If there’s anything you learn from writing a dissertation on mid-Victorian fiction, it’s that there was a lot more opportunity back then to publish long-winded three-volume novels with preposterous plot twists, stilted dialogue, and heavy-handed morals. There is plenty of literary mediocrity around today, of course – but I feel as if my particular absence of talent is better suited to the production of gothic fairy tales than Oprah’s-book-club selections.
8) Crinolines and lace collars.
With a birthday in the 1830s, I’d be just in time for the full-skirted Scarlett O’Hara dresses of the 1850s and ’60s, and then for little-girl pinafores a few years later.
7) Opportunity to use words like "disinterested," "felicity," and "superannuated" in daily conversation. Also phrases like "with courage burning in their ardent hearts," "gallant little fellow" and "a stitch in time saves nine."
6) The houses. They all had walled gardens instead of fenced yards, bowling greens instead of lawns, and secret passageways that you wouldn’t stumble upon until you’d lived there for several months.
5) Domestic skills. In the Victorian era, there would be a significantly increased likelihood that I would know how to make cream puffs, ride a horse, and sew a fine seam.
4) The Great Exhibition of 1851.
3) The illusion of change and the reality of stability. I can think of worse things than living through a century of peace and prosperity, at a time when what passed for social upheaval was the invention of the typewriter, and what passed for teenage rebellion was conversion to Roman Catholicism.
2) Serialized novels. Nowadays we wait on tenterhooks for the next episode of Lost or Battlestar Galactica, but then it was the novels of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.
1) The bathing costume. Keep in mind: this was an era before the invention of the bikini wax, when plumpness was considered a sign of beauty and fresh butter and cream were thought to be good for you.