Living in the past

This is interesting, from The Strand (Canada)

1.-Gatsby-Garden-Party-at-Spadina-House-2013-Maddy-de-Sousa-720x480This past September, I learned of a couple in Washington state who live their lives as though it were the late Victorian era.

The wife, Sarah A. Chrisman, published an article on Vox titled, “I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it.” In the article, she outlines the material aspects of their daily lives—they use an icebox instead of a refrigerator, for example, and both wear period-appropriate clothing, and Chrisman explains how and why they came to live this way. Both Sarah and her husband study history and work as consultants and speakers on late Victorian life. They claim that by living their everyday lives with antiques from the time, they gain special insight into the lives of late Victorian people as a form of primary source study. They love the era, admire its perceived aesthetic and ideals, and simply like living this way. Chrisman ends the piece by recalling some of the negative reactions they’ve received from other people, ranging from relatively mild (her husband’s “hand-knit wool swim trunks raise more than a few eyebrows”) to the decidedly more serious (including a threatening letter repeating the word “kill”).

Trying to recreate the past in one’s present is not a recent phenomenon. The modern historical re-enactment movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with a renewed interest beginning in the 1990s. Generally, the term “historical re-enactment” refers to the re-enactment of a particular historic event or activity as it was performed during a period of time, often with participants portraying real historical personages. American Civil War re-enactments are a good example. “Living history” is the portrayal of the broader everyday life of a given period, with participants generally representing “types,” rather than specific historical figures. The interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg, and the show The 1900 House and its numerous spin-offs are examples of this.

“Historically-themed events,” a term I’ve coined (I think—if anyone thinks otherwise, do get in touch), refers to events that have little concern for historical accuracy and are rather trying to recreate an approximate “look” or “feel” of a time period, occasionally with some fantasy elements thrown in. This category includes events like Renaissance fairs and “era” parties (think Mad Men-themed parties or Spadina House’s Gatsby Garden Party). There is a great deal of overlap between these three categories—one could make the argument that either historical re-enactment or living history is the parent category of the other two. The Chrismans, for instance, base their whole-life approach to the re-enactment of a particular historical period, similar to living history. By contrast, a bicycling demonstration on an antique penny-farthing would fall under historical re-enactment. To keep from getting bogged down in terminology, I’m using the term “historical re-enactment” and its various iterations throughout to refer to any form of re-enacting some aspect of the past.

Chrisman’s Vox article incited a slew of responses in the form of articles and blog posts both defending and critiquing the couple’s lifestyle. The critics focused on their failure to live wholly as though it was the late Victorian period—many mention the fact that she must have used a computer to publish the article, as well as the existence of This Victorian Life, their website and blog. Others commented on the Chrismans’ choice to ignore the more negative aspects of life in the period, with illness and disease, racism, and sexism being the most commonly mentioned. Most of the defences come from historical re-enactors who wish to support the validity of the practice of re-enactment as a genuinely useful research or educational tool; they express sympathy and solidarity against what they feel has been a barrage of harsh, nonconstructive criticism. The more thoughtful responses on both sides of the argument, while mentioning most of the above points, focus on the ultimate impossibility of re-creating a genuine experience of living as though it were some point in the past. It would be next to impossible to perfectly replicate the material surroundings, but more importantly, while material culture is increasingly being recognized as a valid and important source for historical research, history is more than just material objects—the history of any given society must include that society itself. The Chrismans, try as they may, do not live in late 19th-century society. They are living their lives as early 21st-century people in early 21st-century society who choose to live in a house kitted out as closely as possible to the late 19th-century standard.

I’ve spent a great deal of time combing through the Chrismans’ online presence, which, I must say, is considerably more extensive than my own. My opinions on them are similar to my opinions on historical re-enactment as a whole: deeply ambivalent and unsettled, but likely to drive me crazy if I spend too long trying to commit them to paper. (I have gone crazy.) I don’t want to go through their lives critiquing what I think they’re doing wrong; those lists have already been compiled (I will mention that they eschew consulting secondary historical sources, relying entirely on primary sources for their research, with which I strongly disagree). More broadly, the most significant problem that I see with historical re-enactment, and with the Chrismans’ research and public presentation of their lives as nearly-authentically Victorian, is that it presents either an overly positive or overly negative view of the period. Both of these have consequences for how participants and viewers develop a sense of history and how they incorporate their knowledge of history into their view of contemporary life.

There is an overwhelming tendency for re-enactment events and groups, both at the hobbyist and professional levels, to focus on “happy histories” or the history of elites. Rarely are the histories of marginalized or oppressed peoples re-enacted in a professional museum or educational setting, and even less so as a leisure activity. I understand that when undertaken as a hobby, people will focus on the aspects of history that are fun, and the histories of marginalized or oppressed peoples generally aren’t fun or readily re-enactable. However, historical re-enactment does contribute significantly to a society’s collective historical memory. We re-enact what we deem important. Leaving huge swathes of society and aspects of culture out because they are unpleasant and uncomfortable to remember may not strictly be rewriting history, but it’s certainly heavily editing it. This issue gets even trickier when historical re-enactment is either practiced by participants or interpreted by viewers as a form of “small c” social conservatism, praising the values and morals of the past.

Presenting an overly negative view of the past, however, is just as reductive. This view comes through in some historical re-enactments (for example, in the television show The 1900 House, the desire for modern shampoo and a hot bath provides a good deal of the drama for several episodes), as well as in many of the broader criticisms of historical re-enactment as a hobby or a less directed nostalgia for a historical past. In expressing a distaste for re-enacting history because it was dirty, disease-ridden, poverty-stricken, racist, sexist, classist etc., is tacitly, perhaps inadvertently, setting the present not only in opposition to the past, but completely separate from the past and its problems. This suggests that such problems do not exist in modern life, when, of course, they do.

My own experience with historical re-enactment is small and limited to the amateur, “historically-themed event” end of the spectrum. The first event I attended was a “Jane Austen” ball when I was 16. A new friend I’d met in my high school cooking class had been to a couple before, and having bonded over our hard opinions on the relative rankings of the dozens of Austen adaptations committed to film, she invited me to the first ball of the season. I looked forward to it with more ferocity than I’d looked forward to anything before. I should say that although I was familiar with Jane Austen’s novels and did enjoy them in their own right, I didn’t know much of the actual history of the era, and I knew almost nothing beyond the socio-cultural world of English gentry in the period. I was certainly much more interested in the pretty Regency dresses and pretending that I was a pert young heroine than I was willing to admit.

The ball was held in the evening, in the back room of a local church outfitted with fairy lights. The live, costumed band consisted of a violinist, a flautist, and keyboardist. Pineapple and punch (served in Styrofoam cups) was offered at the break. About 25 people attended, most of whom were female and adults rather than teenagers. It quickly became apparent to me that dancing was the focus of the event, the organizer being a dance teacher who had studied dance history. As far as I could tell, the music and dance steps were highly accurate, but any strenuous attention to historical accuracy ended there. Costumes were hit or miss—my own, a sleeveless floral sundress circa 1995, handed down from my mother and tied at the waist with a contrasting sateen housecoat sash, being a hard miss. I danced with a great deal of middle-aged women and one carefully dressed older man who, I’m pretty sure, referred to himself as Sir Roger. It was not at all like the past, but I loved it. I had an absolutely fantastic time. I got to dance to music I recognized from Austen adaptations while wearing a long dress in a warmly lit old building. I was with other people that were into the same weird niche thing that I was into. By some miracle, there was even a boy my own age with whom I’d managed to wrangle a dance, and who kissed me graciously on the hand and the cheek. I really didn’t get out much back then, so this was a thrill I could hardly handle. The whole experience was so nice, so comforting, and had so little to do with history.


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