I have been reading this weekend Ruth Goodman’s fascinating volume How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life (2014) in preparation for the new course I start tomorrow. Goodman is a rather well-known freelance British historian who makes a living as a consultor to museums, theatre, television, and schools of all types. She is known not only for her books–who wouldn’t want to read How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts (2018)?–but also for the TV series she has hosted, which include the six-part BBC series Victorian Farm (2009). In it Goodman and others recreate everyday life on a farm in Shropshire in the mid-19th century, as it supposedly was. In fact, much to my surprise, there is quite a remarkable number of TV programmes of this type, based on the idea of the immersive historical experience, on both sides of the Atlantic and other countries like Germany.
Goodman peppers How to Be a Victorian with comments on her personal experience of cooking Victorian food or using Victorian clothes and cosmetics. Her case is a very extreme form of immersive experience in the past (she also specializes in Tudor times) but it is also closely connected with the passion for historical re-enactment that drives so many amateur clubs and that is almost indispensable in today’s museums. Beyond this, a quick internet search beginning with Goodman’s Wikipedia page soon takes me from the TV series she has participated in to the debates on how Virtual Reality technology will alter the understanding of the past in educational contexts. The debate has been going on for more than a decade now, triggered by the commercialisation of the first VR headgear sets, though I must say that VR cannot give the bodily experience Goodman aims at. One thing is walking a Victorian street in a VR environment (with no smells…) and quite another wearing a Victorian corset or, as Goodman did, keeping your hair clean Victorian-style with no shampoo for four months.
On the other hand, as Patrick T. Allen argues in an article published in The Conversation, “A Brief History of Immersion, Centuries before VR” https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-immersion-centuries-before-vr-94835, “immersion is a technique much older than technology. It is the key to storytelling, in literature, film, videogames, even in the spoken stories told by our ancestors around the campfire”. He makes, of course, a very good point but even so what I learn from Goodman, and from so many years teaching Victorian Literature, is that our immersion in a text of the past is woefully superficial in many senses. Goodman’s detailed description of everyday life makes me see the characters in Victorian fiction with an unexpected fullness. I can now imagine the underwear of the richer ones and what they had for breakfast, but also notice the absence of the poorest ones, except marginally in Dickens, Gaskell, and a few others. Indeed, preparing these days a PowerPoint presentation on Victorian fashions for my students I couldn’t help noticing once again how classist our approach to teaching 19th century Literature is. I don’t think that the 20th and the 21st century have done much better in representing the working classes but one might say that working-class life is conspicuously missing in the fiction of the century in which the Industrial Revolution changed everything.
Other type of volumes aim at enhancing the immersive historical experience that reading the Literature of the past always is. I started reading What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England (1994) by Daniel Pool but I soon stopped, frankly overwhelmed. Unlike Goodman, who mentions Victorian fiction only occasionally, Pool has paid attention to all the details that may baffle any contemporary reader and written a prodigious volume which is partly a collection of brief essays and partly an extensive glossary. Unfortunately he begins with a description of 19th century currency, in the section he calls ‘The Basics’, which made me throw up my hands in despair. I have never found the energy to understand guineas, sovereigns, and crowns and the question is whether I should find it. It’s the same with the types of carriages or other abstruse matters such as the difference between a baron and a baronet (the former is a peer, the latter is top of the gentry but plain Sir, not Lord).
This means that, unless we are scholars preparing a critical edition, no matter how many times we have read a text many small details will escape our notice. In part because there is always a limit to the energy we are willing to invest on reading a text and in part because we miss much information implicitly available to the original readers or that needn’t be included for their sake. Even so, they must also have missed much context for many Victorian novels were set decades before their date of publication. Just to give an example, imagine a twenty-year-old reader of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in 1848. The heroine, Helen Graham, refers in her diary to events that happen around 1827, when my imaginary reader hadn’t even been born (and incidentally, not Victoria but her uncle George IV was king). How was this young reader supposed to reconstruct that past? Did s/he bother to ask about life twenty years before? Where could s/he have found the relevant information? I am just a few clicks away from images of the 1820s on the internet but what could my imaginary reader check back in the 1840s? Remember that public libraries as we know them today were established later, from the 1850s onward.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”, L.P. Hartley famously wrote as the first line of his novel The Go-Between (1953), and he is absolutely right. What is refreshing in Goodman’s perspective is how she takes this ‘differently’ to celebrate it. Take the matter of personal hygiene, which always baffles and disgusts any person thinking of a past when the daily shower routine was missing. Goodman gently reminds us that a daily shower is a luxury we enjoy, precisely, thanks to Victorian advances in indoors plumbing and electricity (imagine washing your hair daily with no hair dryer!). The flushing toilet may not have been generalized in Victorian times but Victorian entrepreneurs made it a desirable domestic fixture. Goodman makes this point but at the same time she praises to the sky the sensible management of human waste, above all in the countryside where contraptions such as the earth toilet resulted in abundant compost.
What she is saying, then, but we tend to forget is that people living in the past were not barbarians who didn’t know better as we often assume but persons making the most of their circumstances. Goodman comments, for instance, that corsets were not really less comfortable than underwired bras or shapewear (of the kind Kim Kardashian uses and sells) but we tend of think just of the questionable practice of extreme tight lacing, which is what caused the bodily deformities so often criticized. In a similar vein, we know that high-heeled shoes are absurd but this doesn’t stop many women from wearing them and even claiming they feel comfortable. Goodman also makes a point of constantly stressing that many basic ingredients in Victorian cosmetics and prepared foodstuffs are still present in current products. There are elements of the Victorian past that scare her–she basically says that babies were routinely poisoned by concerned parents who fed them dangerous medicine–but she makes on the whole a very good defense of Victorian ingenuity and capacity to correct the worst situations. Life in 1890s Britain, thus, does not appear to be substantially worse than life in the post-WWII 1950s.
So, does it help to know about flushing toilets or about the difference between a crinoline and a bustle to understand Victorian fiction? I think it does, and very much. Some authors may not care very much to describe the background of their fiction but look at what Bram Stoker does in Dracula (1897). We miss the horror of his tale if we miss that Count Dracula comes from a medieval land to terrorize ultra-modern Britain. Stoker’s characters put together a record of the vampire chase using all kind of modern devices (a typewriter, a phonograph… both 1870s inventions) and they follow him back to his lair thanks to perfectly reliable train schedules. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation was the first to understand Stoker’s ultra-modernity. It even has a beautiful scene in which Dracula follows Mina into a cinema, which is not anachronistic as it might seem: “The first public film shows in the UK to a paying audience took place in London in 1896. On 21 February that year, the Polytechnic Institute on Regent Street hosted a display of the Lumière brothers’ new moving-picture device, the Cinématographe” (https://www.londonssilentcinemas.com/history/).
Reading Goodman’s volume and other excellent books such as Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2003) I cannot help being impressed by the massive effort Victorians made to improve matters. “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century”, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “was the invention of the method of invention”, as he is right indeed. It can be argued that many of these inventions resulted in the hell that factory life was for many 19th century children, women, and men. Also that others were delayed for suspicious sexist reasons: the washing machine was invented by one Jacob Christian Schäffer (in 1767!) but not commercialized. American inventor Nathaniel Briggs was granted the first patent for a hand-operated washing machine in 1797, and others followed in his steps, but only the introduction of Alva J. Fisher’s electric Thor washer in 1908 started changing domestic life for women. As Goodman claims, doing the laundry was the worst chore Victorian women had to face, particularly those in the working classes and in service to the middle- and upper-classes. One never reads about these matters in Victorian Literature, in which clothes are worn and soiled with little mention of who makes and cleans them.
To sum up, then, yes indeed reading the fiction of the past is an immersive historical experience but a limited one–as limited as reading the fiction of the present, which can hardly make sense of the widespread use of the smartphone and the impact of the social media (can it??). I am not sure how far deep into the past we need to understand what we read or if we have simply to handle the background as well we can, which is possibly the only practical option. Let’s be at least aware that in the past things were done differently, and enjoy the difference.
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