Monday, May 21, 2007

Why I Want To Be a Victorian

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.

44 comments:

marian said...

So would you be speaking with an American southern drawl, a proper British accent, or neither in all of your glorious Victorianism?

Love your new title for comments, btw!

bren j. said...

Oh man! Those swimsuits!

The only bad thing about learning all those domestic arts is the lack of 'modern conveniences' to make them easier. No sewing machines, no Kitchen Aid mixers, and no air conditioning in a hot kitchen in the summer. Oh wait. We don't have that last one NOW either!

Happy Victoria Day!

bubandpie said...

Marian - English accent, I think (or maybe Scottish). They got the big Scarlett-O'Hara dresses too (I checked).

Bren - Now, see, the lack of helpful machinery is a plus for me. I hate figuring out how to operate appliances.

Karen said...

butter and cream aren't good for you? Bummer. I like the houses and the novels. I wish you had been a Victorian novelist, great reading for me!

Kyla said...

My main draw to the time period is the beuaty of plumpness. Ahhh, I would have fit in nicely.

But the domestic skills and the lack of modern convenience tip the scales in favor of living in the now.

PS: Love your Harry Potter ticker. :)

Beck said...

I would have been quite a looker in the Victorian era: I have the height, the weight and the dark dramatic colouring, although I may have had to gain a bit - Lily Langtry, the great beauty of the Victorian era, weighed 200 pounds. I also like fainting and lounging around, and would quite cheerfully be An Angel In The House while my husband was A Master Of Industry. Off to the time machine!

Mad Hatter said...

Bathing suits good. Chamber pots bad. And what do you think the chances were that either you or I could've lived in one of those houses?

Pieces said...

I love the bathing costumes. The houses would be drafty. I'm already cold all the time.

creative-type dad said...

Those are some pretty risqué' bathing attires.
I think some might even call them indecent.

Karen said...

It's a fine vintage: both Mt Holyoke College and Tiffany & Co were founded in 1837.

Long for the bathing suits. Positively long for them.

Aimee said...

Amen, Amen, I say to you!
One of the nicest compliments I received as a teenager was when someone told me I was "an old-fashioned beauty"
Besides, I could totally ROCK the big hat/glove/parasol look.

bubandpie said...

Mad - What, that Scottish mansion? I'm pretty sure it's the 19thC equivalent of my current (semi-detached) residence, aren't you?

Aimee - Yeah, I wanted to work in some kind of reference to the sheer number of PARTS involved in any ensemble (hat, shawl, gloves, fan, overskirt, underskirt, etc.).

Sandra said...

This post is fantastic. I am sending it to my friend (who I swear was separated from you at birth) immediately.

I am quite sure I lived in the Victorian era - though in France.

And the swimming suits were the very best part :)

Julie Pippert said...

I am WAY too lazy, outspoken, and self-indulgent to make a good Victorian. LOL

The bonus to that is I will be no competition for you when they invent the time machine. ;)

Karianna said...

Indeed, the bathing costume sounds absolutely wonderful. :)

kgirl said...

Plus, you'd get to have the vapours. I don't know what exactly that is, but all refined ladies got them.

And I can't believe that you don't know how to sew a fine seam.

Christine said...

Oh, I would be so, so happy feasting on cream and butter. Around these parts the whole Civil War thing would have seriously put a damper on the fun.

Jenifer said...

I used to have the same thoughts, that I was born much too late. To make up for that I went through a very unfortunate period of wearing flowered blouses with large, lace, collars.

My biggest influence was the Little House books...I so wanted to be a part of that family. I never quite grasped the seriousness of malaria or locusts.

Major Bedhead said...

kgirl - the vapors were depression or a nervous condition. They were also a new wave band, but that's a different era altogether.

I would have loved to live in the Victorian era. Loved it. With my luck, though, I would have been the 'tweeny rather than the lady of the house.

Luisa Perkins said...

Oh, I am with you on many of these, especially numbers one and ten. Have you read For Common Things, by Jedediah Purdy?

Maybe I am a throwback, but I believe cream and butter ARE good for you!

Gunfighter said...

Can I assume that your wish for Victorian life includes being born into the sort of wealth that would allow you to do the things you describe? Else your life would be one of unremitting drudgery, eh?

GF

Lawyer Mama said...

I'd like it, but only if I could be assured by the time travelling gods that I would be born rich. But then, I'm not really sure if I could live without irony...

alpineflower said...

I assume you've watched Victorian House that the BBC did several years ago? It was the first in the series of "(Insert time period of interest) House" shows done by public television. The best part was that the family they got was vegetarian, a lifestyle which doesn't particularly mesh well with late 19th-century England.

nomotherearth said...

Victorian clothing styles are really friendly to my figure. That would be my numero uno reason. I'm vain.

NotSoSage said...

Amen to #1. For sure!

#2: I remember my dad telling me that people used to rush to the harbours in Atlantic cities to greet passengers arriving from England, yelling for the latest news about Nell...

Not to be a killjoy, but my one quibble: 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.

For a select few, I think. I'd wager that my family were more than likely not living that type of a lavish lifestyle...but the empire waist might just be enough to convince me to give it a shot.

theflyingmum said...

All I can say is, bring back the bathing costume! Please! I have recently started an "ab workout" hoping to be able to wear a modern bathing suit for an up-coming vacation. I am SURE no Victorian ever uttered the words "ab workout," and "core training" had something to do with preparing apples.

mcewen said...

I still think those swim suits are very fetching - certainly perfect for my current figure.
Cheers

kittenpie said...

Yes, I would have been quite the beauty back when plump pinkness and slopey shoulders were all the rage and full hips hid beneath wide skirts! (The later narrow tailored ones, though, would have been problematic. Perhaps I'd just have to die young and dramatically of consumption?)

PunditMom said...

I'm SURE you could "sew a fine seam" today! ;) Also, I think maybe I should engage in the aforementioned celebratory activities on President's Day!

lildb said...

i love this post.

i want to hug it.

and you.

Mimi said...

Ah, Victorians. I can't believe they erected the Crystal Palace ... then packed it up and moved it.

The thing with the big skirts is that they were a real fire hazard: more than one young miss was lit ablaze at her periphery, and died strapped into her steel air-funneling cage. At least one was blown off the wall into the sea at Exeter, and at least one was dragged under a carriage in London. Ask me how long I researched Victorian fashion. And about the Punch cartoon of an exasperated father using discarded steel 'hoop' skirts as gardening cages for his peonies as his daughters moved into the just-as-ridiculous fishtail fashions.

Ack.

metro mama said...

Great list.

I think I would have been great at the pianoforte (when I wasn't writing a novel, of course).

jen said...

i think one of the things i enjoy most about you is how completely different we are.

i am nothing without irony. i flourish in the absence of domesticity. i use too many commas. i think you catch my drift here.

Lady M said...

I just posted a bunch of Victorian gown photos at my place. They're mid-century (petticoats, rather than hoops), hopefully amusing anyway!

natalie said...

Yes, but what if your husband

a) locked you away in an asylum to steal your fortune
b) locked you in an attic to cure you of your vapours
c) forced you to wear diamonds wrenched from the neck of his mistress?
d)sold you at auction
e) showed himself to be a milk-blooded coward who feigned more valour than he possessed!

Lara said...

hi, i came here from lady m's place. i dance with her in her troupe, and i can tell you first-hand that wearing the big poofy gowns is really fun for the first few times, and then extremely annoying and uncomfortable every time after that. the corset? the three petticoats? the heavy double layer of satin skirts? not so fun, let me tell you. :-P

bubandpie said...

Natalie - Oooh, fun. A quiz!

a) The Woman in White
b) "The Yellow Wallpaper"?
c) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall???
d) The Mayor of Casterbridge
e) ...I dunno...hard one...Vanity Fair?

Lara - You're breaking my heart! I wore a hooped crinoline in a high-school play and my first wedding - but that wasn't long enough for the novelty to wear off.

Her Bad Mother said...

I agree with every single one of these points - though for me, personally, the bigger hankering is (oh for shame) to have been an aristocrat in pre-revolutionary Enlightenment France. With my own salon.

Queen Vickie's day has always coincided with my own, and has been the cause of many an poorly attended birthday party, so I grew up kinda resenting her.

Jaelithe said...

You mean I'm not supposed to use the word disinterested in daily conversation?

Oh.

Of course, the corsets would be a pain. Sexy, maybe, but a pain.

mayberry said...

I tried on some bathing suits this weekend and am now fully willing to return to the Victorian era myself.

ewe are here said...

Except for those large estate homes (which are stunning I have to admit and I love to check them out), I live surrounded by little Victorian-buit type homes right now. I can only say that for the most part, the Victorians must have been a small people with few belongings. Very small.

Says the depressed house hunter.

natalie said...

Well done. It seems you are a virtual Victorian.

a) Check, The Woman in White
b) Check (But I cheated here and combined "The Yellow Wallpaper" with Wide Sargasso Sea's imagined backstory for Bertha in Jane Eyre)
c) Tough one--Daniel Deronda
d)Check--The Mayor of Casterbridge
e) This one was a bit impossible actually--Wuthering Heights (Heathcliff of Edgar)

bubandpie said...

Natalie - Edgar!!! I should've got that one, but I don't remember Edgar even feigning valour, so that threw me off.

Becky said...

Love number 7. I so enjoy verbosity! Using long words makes me feel smart... (is that okay to admit here?) :)