We all know that the best way to study a foreign language is to go to a country where it's spoken, but can the same immersion method be applied to history? How do interactions with antique objects influence perceptions of the modern world?
From Victorian beauty regimes to nineteenth-century bicycles, custard recipes to taxidermy experiments, oil lamps to an ice box, Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman decided to explore nineteenth-century culture and technologies from the inside out. Even the deepest aspects of their lives became affected, and the more immersed they became in the late Victorian era, the more aware they grew of its legacies permeating the twenty-first century.
Most of us have dreamed of time travel, but what if that dream could come true? Certain universal constants remain steady for all people regardless of time or place. No matter where, when, or who we are, humans share similar passions and fears, joys and triumphs.
In her first book, Victorian Secrets, Chrisman recalled the first year she spent wearing a Victorian corset 24/7. In This Victorian Life, Chrisman picks up where Secrets left off and documents her complete shift into living as though she were in the nineteenth century.
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A Home of a Distinct Form
"Residential buildings profoundly shape the behavior of people. Individuals who live in homes of distinct forms and contents internalize a spectrum of spatial and social rules regarding appropriate activities there. They become socialized via cultural norms and kin to be sure, but also through interactions with their furnishings and built surroundings."
— Jeanne E. Arnold, et al, 2012
I've always loved electrical outages, even as a child. For me, these failures in technology represented not inconvenience or hardship, but much-longed-for peace. Growing up in a household where the television was never silent, even while we slept, and always growled in the background, I yearned for quiet. Power outages silenced the television and put the vulturine eyes of all the myriad blinking devices to sleep. What bliss that quiet brought! The gentle glow of lamplight or candle flame seemed almost holy in the solace it offered.
I never stopped yearning for that balance between sacred light and velvet darkness, and when I matured, I married a man who understood my sympathies in that quarter. Throughout the early winters of our marriage, we would celebrate the coming of the winter solstice by forgoing electric lights altogether for the weeks between December's first day and the official coming of winter on the solstice. While the pale radiance of our northern latitude grew rarer, and all our friends and neighbors fought the ever-increasing nighttime blackness with blinking strings and streamers of light, we eschewed electric illumination and faced the darkness.
The first year we did this, I was deeply struck by the psychological impact of the night. I had not been expecting to be hit so profoundly by the darkness — after all, I had grown up in the Pacific Northwest. A map places Seattle at 47.6 degrees northern latitude: farther north than Maine. Differences in geographical features mean we have less snow than many other locations, but the only US state with longer nights is Alaska. In some ways, the lack of snow seems to make Seattle winters even darker; there is nothing to reflect the sallow moonlight on those long nights, and gray rain clouds hide the wan sun throughout the ever-shortening days. Even when one or the other of those celestial orbs appears through a crack in the slate ceiling that covers us through all those long months, no crystals refract their light. It drowns in the puddles and is swallowed up by the mud.
I had understood these things about the light on an intellectual level, and, of course, discussions about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and full-spectrum lighting are such popular topics of conversation in Seattle that they grow wearisome. On one of the coldest, rainiest days of winter, a text message received by one of my husband's colleagues ran, "Sitting under sunlamp. Gun to head." The Northwest does that to people.
Yet, I had never truly appreciated the stark difference between night and day when I could simply toggle a switch to convert one to the other. During our first several years of marriage — and thus of this particular tradition — we lived not in the city but in a rural location hemmed in by fir trees, so no metropolitan light intruded upon our self-imposed blackness. In those long weeks of darkness, I caught a glimpse into the minds of our ancestors. The death of the light grows very obvious as one nears the winter solstice in high latitudes.
With powerful electric bulbs destroying all distinction between night and day, it is easy to overlook the dying of the sun, simple to dismiss religious light festivals as mere superstition. But when the fallacy of electric light is banished and one must face the truth of the darkness as humans have done for thousands of years, with only flame between our mortal frames and the night, every lost minute of sun is mourned. The nights grow ever longer as the light dies, and the most stalwart logic cannot completely banish the primal doubt that creeps through the back door of the soul: will the sun truly return? As we sit through lengthening hours of darkness awaiting an ever-enfeebled dawn, the evidence contradicts our logical argument of a detached notion of planet rotation. The light is not coming back. Winter has given it a mortal blow, and nothing shall ever be bright again.
Then solstice passes. The days grow longer. Can words possibly express the absolute bliss of the soul as light returns to the landscape, the relief brought with brightness as logic is affirmed and celestial bodies proven to be turning in their proper orbits? Never! As humans, we can analyze the phenomenon, we can discuss it, but we can never truly understand it in our souls until we have lived it. We must confront the darkness to know the value of the light.
Darkness lends itself well to retrospection. Even while Gabriel and I lived through those powerless nights of winter holidays, we recognized how limited the experience was. "Imagine," we would tell each other, "what it would be like without any electricity at all. No noisy fridge humming, no modern inconveniences." The idea excited us.
Time and again, we came back to the topic and had variants on the same discussion. It was inevitable that conversation should lead to the extreme conclusion of the idea.
"What if we went all the way?" Gabriel asked. "Not just for a specified time, but always? What if we got rid of all the extra modern stuff we don't really need and went back to how people used to live?"
"I always did want to live in the nineteenth century," I said dreamily. "When I was a little girl and my mom took me to the Flavel House Museum in Astoria, I begged her to leave me there." I smiled into the darkness, my imagination split between memories of a girl younger than myself and visions of a century older than my time. "I used to dream about what it would be like to live there amidst all that beauty, what it would have been like when the house was new."
The Flavel House was the nineteenth-century home of a wealthy Victorian family, now converted to a museum, all its rooms filled with period artifacts as though it truly were still a bygone era and the family had simply stepped away for a short time. I wanted to stay there — to live there — more desperately than I had ever wanted to be anywhere else.
"I spent all my allowance on a little scented soap in one of the nearby shops, and after we went home I used to lie in that old fiberglass bathtub in the house where I grew up, closing my eyes and breathing in the scent of that soap. I would imagine I was in the bathroom of the Flavel House and the smell of the soap was the ocean air coming through the window. Then I would dream about being out in the rose garden with that same ocean scent all around me. I spent hours thinking about it." I sighed and looked over at my husband.
He smiled at me. "Wouldn't it be nice?"
"To go back in time? Of course it would." I shrugged in a fatalistic way. "Not gonna happen, though."
I laughed at the illogical question.
"I mean —" he specified, "what I was saying before. Why couldn't we just incorporate as much as we can of the past into our lives? Bring back as much of it as we could?"
"Okay," I responded flippantly. "I'll stop driving and we'll both give up cell phones."
Now it was Gabriel's turn to laugh. The joke, of course, was that I have never possessed a driver's license and neither of us have ever owned a mobile telephone. As an adolescent, then later in college, I had never had the money to buy or maintain an automobile so there seemed very little point in learning to drive one. By the time I could theoretically have afforded a car, I understood how easy it was to do without one. I saw no reason to devote a large portion of my income to a machine whose role seemed to consist of fouling the air, eliminating exercise, and occasionally murdering squirrels and pussycats. I also admit that there was a certain degree of mulish stubbornness at work. Every time yet another person heard I didn't have a license and responded that of course I had to learn to drive, I became all the more determined to prove it is possible for an American to be a fully functioning adult without an internally combusting toy.
The story behind our lack of cell phones is a similar one. When they were initially introduced, they were expensive, and when they became cheaper and virtually ubiquitous, society's insistence that they were necessary made me want to prove that this was not the case. Human beings survived quite happily throughout the vast majority of our history with neither motorized vehicles nor mobile phones. They lived, prospered, procreated, and died without the slightest intimation that such things would ever exist. Large numbers of people covering huge swaths of the globe still live without such things. Why so many modern Americans have come to consider them as essential as oxygen is a mystery to me.
"Just because other people live a certain way doesn't mean we have to," Gabriel continued. It was an affirmation of the sentiment that lay behind my last sarcastic comment and, at the same time, a support of the larger idea he was arguing.
Suddenly, our refrigerator started its customary howling. It had a malfunctioning compression coil that went off with increasing frequency to split the air with a warbling shriek like a ghost in a low-budget horror movie. Profoundly irritating though this was, it didn't affect the cooling apparatus and we had grown accustomed to it. We calmly covered our ears until it finished.
Once we could hear each other again, Gabriel gestured toward the appliance. "Wouldn't it be nice to do without all that?"
"Or, we could just buy a new refrigerator," I suggested.
"So are your bicycles," I told him.
Gabriel worked at a bike shop and had a penchant for flashy models.
"Not nearly as expensive as a fridge," he argued.
"But maybe a little more practical?" I ventured.
"That depends on your point of view. Bikes take you places. It's not like you can ride a fridge."
I rolled my eyes at him.
"I'm not just talking about the fridge though," Gabriel went on. "I'm talking about everything. I'm talking about getting rid of all the modern stuff, all the modern inconveniences, and stripping it down to just what we really need."
"It's not exactly practical," I mused.
"Yes, it is! Honestly, what could be more practical than deciding what we really need and just going with that?" He kissed my cheek and took my hand, stroking the skin at the back of my wrist. "Think about it: wouldn't you love to live those old dreams you had as a kid, actually see those old fantasies become real?"
"I don't think that's possible."
He wrapped me in his arms. "But what if it were?"
* * *
It took a number of years for those old buds of thought to blossom and bear fruit. Life intervened, as it has a way of doing, and its obstacles led us in roundabout paths. I had an opportunity to work in Japan and I took it, spending a year teaching English in a small city on the northwest coast of Honshu. Meanwhile, Gabriel went back to university and earned a degree in history, and then at about the time I was returning from abroad, he started pursuing a master's degree in library science.
I had returned from Asia with a much-deepened perspective on culture and the influence of human environments on the lifestyles of individuals and societies. Gabriel had been enhancing his knowledge of a past that had always interested us, then honing his skills in research and learning to glean forgotten information from primary-source materials.
Traveling along different routes, my husband and I were converging at the crossroads of those former discussions: the idea of setting up our lives in such a way that we could choose our culture — not based merely on the gilt embossing on the covers of our passports, but on the entirety of the lives we wished to follow. There were a number of detours along the way, but glossing over the larger part of these brings this story to its interesting bits.
* * *
It almost seemed as though Mother Nature approved of our choice to journey backwards in time and was helping us along with it, while at the same time reinforcing any doubts about exactly how difficult the path we had chosen was going to be. Snowstorms are rare in the Seattle area in the twenty-first century. Before global warming settled over the planet, they used to be more common: the biggest snowstorm of Seattle's recorded history happened in January 1880, when five days of steady snow drifted into piles six feet deep in some places. Now, though, a few inches of white crystals on the ground in January or February are sufficient to make news stations interrupt regularly scheduled programming with reports so sensationalized that they might seem better suited to avalanches than to a bit of slush barely adequate to making a snow-fetus, let alone a snowman. Snow in November is virtually unheard of, yet here it was: a whirling, frosty delight. Gazing out the window, I reflected that this touch of nature could in a certain way be a metaphor for the nineteenth century, which is always so much in my mind: both are either beautiful or troublesome depending on one's perspective. My own attitude gives them the former description.
It was two days before Thanksgiving 2010, and I was relishing the weather. "Could there be any more Victorian weather than snow?" I asked Gabriel, who was watching through eyeglasses ground to his own prescription but framed by antique rims more than a century old.
My husband started to shake his head, then reflected. "Fog," he replied, smiling.
I gave him a peck on the cheek. "I do love fog," I said, pulling his arms around me in a hug. "But we get that all the time around here. This is far more unique and special." I gazed out the window at the cascading lace draping the world.
We were at my mother-in-law's house and she broke into our reverie. "Are you sure you guys want to go up there in this?" Barbara asked, putting emphasis on the last word and peering out into the storm.
We wanted very badly to spend a cozy Thanksgiving in our new house as soon as the realtor's paperwork went through, so we were spending some preholiday time at my mother-in-law's to make up for not being with her on Thanksgiving itself. "They're telling people to stay off the roads if they don't have to be out." She frowned, squinting first at the radio, then at the damp Pacific Northwest snow.
"It'll be fine, Mom," Gabriel reassured her. Around us, the lights blinked as the weight of snow on the area's power lines threatened to knock out the region's electricity.
Gabriel and I grinned at each other. "Go out! Go out, go out!" I jeered at the electricity in a quiet but excited whisper while my mother-in-law's back was turned. Gabriel smirked at me and gave the dimming of the lights an approving thumbs-up. Like me, he has long taken a delight in power outages that most of our compatriots would probably consider perverse.
Dusk settled and, as the natural illumination disappeared, the electrical lights, which had been blinking all day, finally went out. We retired to the guest room that Gabriel and his two siblings share in rotation when any of them happen to be visiting their mother. Surrounded by an odd hodgepodge of doll paraphernalia left behind by Gabriel's grown sister and musical miscellany stowed by his brother (the middle sibling, a professional hammer-dulcimer player who is almost perpetually on tour), we tucked ourselves snugly into bed and dreamed about a future based on the past.
* * *
In the morning, we awoke to a cold, hushed world. The power was still out, but a different sort of electricity was in the air — that empowering adrenaline rush that flows through animals' blood when we realize we are experiencing the eye of a storm. The sky outside was a clear, topaz blue so bright it almost reflected its color upon the snow on the ground, but no birds sang. When Gabriel and I ventured, shivering, out of the bedroom where we had slept, a battery-operated radio on the dining room table announced that more heavy weather was on its way and repeated the advisory to stay off the roads.
"Have there been any calls from the mortgage company or the realtors?" Gabriel asked, as eager as I was. We were anxious to get to our new home, but to be legal about it, we had to make sure all the paperwork cleared first. There hadn't been any calls yet, so we watched the telephone as a cat watches a mouse hole.
Our anxious wait slowed down time. Our nerves were as tight as overwound clocks from anticipation, and beyond this our skin could feel the shifting barometric pressures in the air from the other half of the storm, which was still on its way. The radio station, tuned in on the little battery-operated device on the table, kept interrupting their programs to give updates on storm damage throughout the region and to warn that the situation would get much worse after the eye passed and the second half of the storm hit.
The phone calls telling us the paperwork had cleared came through just after lunch, and we immediately rushed to leave before the weather could get worse again. The storm was still tensing to strike, but we had no idea how long it would hold off and truly no concept of what the situation would be in Port Townsend. (The radio gave detailed descriptions of conditions in Seattle and each of its suburbs, but our new and future home was part of the consolidated category of "further north" where it was said conditions were stormier.) We wanted to get as many miles behind us as possible while the weather was still restraining itself and hopefully be in our new home by the time the winds and snow descended once more.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Victorian Life"
Copyright © 2015 Sarah A. Chrisman.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Angels in the Details,
Chapter 1: A Home of a Distinct Form,
Chapter 2: Thanksgiving,
Chapter 3: Settling In,
Chapter 4: Our New/Old City,
Chapter 5: The House — And Furnishing It,
Chapter 6: Maligned Plumbing, a Beautiful Toilette Set, and a Surprise Visit from a Daughter of Arachne,
Chapter 7: A Detail as Fine as a Hair,
Chapter 8: The Brackens,
Chapter 9: Ghost Stories,
Chapter 10: Writing,
Chapter 11: The Book of Household Management,
Chapter 12: An Exotic Flavor,
Chapter 13: Our Daily Bread,
Chapter 14: Chestnut Shrapnel, "Pure Evil," and a Few Sweet Delights,
Chapter 15: A Problem That Didn't Exist in the Nineteenth Century, and a Treat That Did,
Chapter 16: Portrait,
Chapter 17: Communication Parallels,
Chapter 18: Chatelaine,
Chapter 19: Watches,
Chapter 20: Science Matters and Outdoor Outings,
Chapter 21: Strength and How to Obtain It,
Chapter 22: An Ordinary Bicycle,
Chapter 23: Woman's Cycle,
Chapter 24: My First Adventure in Cycle Touring,
Chapter 25: Wheeling,
Chapter 26: A Typical Day,