Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Somewhat Victorian Life--A Book Review

Under discussion: Sarah A. Chrisman's This Victorian Life.

I first became interested in reading this book while I was researching books about living in Victorian New England. I found a clip online of a modern man looking like a Victorian man jumping on the back of a two-wheeled Victorian bicycle and then sort of leap-frogging to the top of the gigantic front wheel. Beneath this clip was an article that was itself mostly well-written, but angry towards this modern / Victorian man. The gist of the articles anger can be summed up by saying the writer was pissed off at the attitude of the bicycle man and his wife. The wife, as it turned out, wrote this book.

So I read the book hoping for New England Victorian-era stuff and got current-day Washington state married couple living like they're in the Victorian Era, but with the internet and other conveniences. I have to admit that I also read it to see what the article writer was so pissed off about. So this couple wants to mostly pretend they live in the Victorian Era, minus all the horrible class and racial struggles that went on, and forgetting that they wouldn't be able to live where they do (on the Puget Sound) because that wasn't part of America yet, and they'd have to displace indigenous Indians to live there. But I have some Victorian things around here (an 1895 drum table; two 1870s chairs; an 1890s rocker with the original leather headrest and seat, and pins in the leather, and some 1888 Old Judge tobacco baseball cards) and I love certain homey-like, fantasy aspects, like woodstoves, and candlelight, etc.

I read this thinking it would be another example of some eccentric but determined people trying to live their lives as they wish, and modern America not leaving them alone. I was ready to appreciate what they do, and to defend them.

While I do (mostly) appreciate what they're trying to do, and while I do steadfastly defend their right to do it, I have to say with regret that the article writer had a point: Chrisman's (and, to a lesser extent, her husband's) tone and attitude are irksome, and the way she states things, and the way she is able to devote an incredible amount of time to things like bread-baking, sewing, and looking for those little ornamental things that hung off women's clothing--well, he was right: her tone is terrible, and it will at least make you annoyed, if not outright angry.

Chrisman isn't so much fascinated by the Victorian Era as much as she is horrified by the present era. She runs to the later Victorian Era, I suspect, because it's the newest oldest era we could still mostly retreat to. There is a lot of attitude towards modern technology (of which I am also not a complete fan, as I believe it we have let it further ostracize and de-humanize us) and towards modern people. This is fair enough, as far as it goes, except that she also needs the modern reader to read her books and blog, as that's how she makes the majority of her income. (She also seems to have an at-home massage business. She mentions this once or twice, but never once refers to a client. Left unanswered is whether she would massage the client in her Victorian wear.)

A further point raised by the many upset people on the internet (and this does, in fact, seem like overkill, despite the Chrisman's tone and attitude) is that she never refers to the horrors of Colonialism of the Victorian Era, whether it be the American's treatment of African slaves or American Indians, or the British conquest of lands and the virtual annihilation of those lands' people. Though I suspect that the average Victorian never gave a thought to the slaughter of whales, for example, that provided much of the oil that lit their sconces, as a self-proclaimed expert and living historian of the time, she should have at least touched upon it.

She never does.

And so it all comes across as play-acting as life, or of a lifestyle in a vacuum. Yes, she uses Victorian iceboxes, and heaters, and bicycles, and clothing, and furniture, and so on--but it seems like she's maybe a Victorian Era Barbie, and these are all of her props and toys. It seems a willfully narrow life. And more than a little bit, it's a big, giant ef-you to this modern era and to everyone (besides her friends) in it. She never once touches upon that, either. So this is a tunnel-visioned memoir.

Having said all that, there's a lot of really interesting things in here, if you're interested in history, or in the Victorian Era, or in trying to at least a little bit live like that era, or to understand the similarities and differences between that era and ours. You may find, like I did, that you don't need to read long chapters about finding Victorian buttons, let's say, but it's okay to skip some pages every now and then. I don't normally advise this, but I had to skip over the occasional off-puttingly toned sentences, and so I was already skipping.

I'm guessing that Chrisman does not realize she produces this tone in writing. And if she does it in writing, she'll do it when talking, as well. Because she does not seem aware of her tone, or of people's response to it, or of social cues and such, I do suspect an at least slight disorder, such as Asperger's. (A retreat from your current era or reality often has a traumatic event as the cause of that withdrawal, or escape. I can only guess as to what that may be, but the guess makes me feel badly for her. I'm guessing that she suffered an event [or events] that she never mentions in this book. Maybe she will in a future memoir. But this is one thing her [many] critics haven't considered: The trauma that made her withdraw. Sort of like Dickinson, in a way)

She also reminds me of a time in which a high school kid told me she didn't like her English teacher because this teacher didn't realize how offensive she was when she talked to her students. This teacher, apparently, thought she was simply communicating, but actually she was consistently offensive. (I happened to know the woman this kid spoke of, and I'm tellin' you, the kid was spot on.) Anyway, Chrisman strikes me as someone very much like that. She'd be offensive and off-putting and not know it. She's the one at a party (though she would not go to parties) who you want to get away from, but you can't because she does say some interesting things every now and then that makes you stay to listen to her talk (at) you some more, which then makes you regret immediately that you've done that.

She's an obviously talented internet researcher (which is a very heavy irony she never addresses). If you're reading this book, you'll be interested in much of the information she provides. A lot of it I already knew from my own research, but there was a lot I didn't know. For instance, her inclination to only buy from companies around since Victorian times will give you a surprisingly long list of such companies. She also goes into some interesting local and natural history. And this is really the closest I've seen of a living person trying to live as a Victorian, including all of the daily nuances and problems that only living like that, and not just researching living like that, can give you.

Chrisman does mention the hatemail they get, and the vicious ill-behavior they have to suffer through, which she says happens on a literally daily basis. I'm not surprised by this, and you probably won't be, either. It only re-fuels their fire to get away. Though I was annoyed and sometimes borderline angry at the tone and attitude shown by the author and her husband, this also made me angry. Why can't we just leave each other alone? They're eccentric, and perhaps a little off-putting, but, hell, can't we all just get along?

So, yeah, a mixed bag here. Sometimes I had to put the book down in annoyance because I just couldn't take the tone anymore, but I always picked it back up again, curious about what new interesting thing I might learn next. If you read this in that vein, it'll be productive and worthwhile.

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