The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I loved the Elizabethan era so much I decided to live in it

Editta Sherman dressed in a Victorian period costume on the train to a photo shoot for Bill Cunningham at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1972 in New York. (New-York Historical Society via Associated Press)
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(The second Elizabethan era, that is. I’m not a maniac.)

The past, like New York, is a three-day town.

I’ve been amazed by the story of that couple (today in Vox, in 2013 in XOJane, as the editors of the Toast pointed out) who have consciously chosen to live like Victorians. They have an icebox. They ride those bicycles. They whip their cream in an authentic old mixer. They live by lamplight.

Like these semi-eminent Victorians, I understand wishing you lived in another era. I think everyone does, from time to time. This is why we have Civil War re-enactors (I’ve done that) and costumed laborers on Colonial farms (I’ve also done this) and Jane Austen regency balls (on the bucket list.) There’s a limit to how far this goes — I am the sort of time traveler who comes rushing back out of the machine and flings my arms around the flush toilet and my voting rights — but who hasn’t wondered, Midnight-in-Paris style, whether he missed the boat 60 or 100 years ago? When you’re born, that’s it, as Gore Vidal quipped. And if only you’d been a few notches back on the timeline, you could REALLY have lived.

I respect the eccentrics of any era. Anyone can be strange, but it takes a certain measure of privilege to be eccentric. Thoreau went into the woods to “live deliberately,” which took a certain measure of privilege and stunned people who were living that way but NOT on purpose so they could write a book (though he didn’t have a donation page up, that I’m aware of), and maybe our era’s version of Thoreau goes to empty the icebox tray to live Victorian-ly. One of the uses of eccentrics is that they are not harming you personally but you can still disapprove of them.

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Louis CK has a wonderful bit about how time travel is a paradise for white men — you can go almost anywhere (within reason, don’t just jump into Biblical times on the strength of a Mel Gibson casting decision) and feel relatively sure that when you get there, you will be in charge. You will own property, not be it. Then again, as CK points out, while he as a white man has access to the whole past, time traveling into the future will probably be rough.

But. The past, as Cher Horowitz would say, is a total Monet: much more appealing from far away.

If you said “I love the ’80s so much that I am going to live in them,” we would look at you like you had a hole in your head. Familiarity breeds contempt — with eras, as with anything else. Who wants to relive the 2000s? Dial-up? Come on. Didn’t we just leave this party? And the people of the ’70s (who remember the ’70s) would doubtless say the same to warn us off the ’50s. And so, on, back and back and back until you hit the pyramids. We can only warn you off the things we’re close enough to touch. As the past recedes, its accoutrements grow more appealing — hey, vinyl! Hey, togas!

Cherry-picking the past has been a hobby as long as there’s been a past. You don’t want everything. You want hoop skirts and not slavery. You want those droll bicycles and mustaches and no syphilis. You want to be able to cut what you disapprove of, but keep what you like and still feel that you are getting the authentic thing — like Victorians, thumbing through Plato with instructions to “omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.” Or, to bring this back to the news, a cheery alliterative slogan like “heritage, not hate” can let you fly a nice colorful flag without having to think twice about its implications. The past, like certain zoo animals, is best appreciated from a safe distance. And because we live in 2015, you really can have it all. The glamour! The lamp-light! And the right, as a woman, to call those things your property.

In a peculiar way, choosing to live like an authentic Victorian is the kind of thing you could only do in 2015. It’s almost … hip. “We were Victorian AFTER it was cool.” (And they’ve got a Web page and everything.)

But at the same time, from the comfortable vantage point of the present, it is easy to get a little complacent about the past in a negative way. We have undeniably made progress as a society, moving from era to era. But you can speed up the rate of progress and exaggerate how well things are going on your end by labeling a whole time period the “dark ages” and dimly insinuating that it was rife with monsters and dragons. Not everything was so bad. It is important not to reduce the Victorian era (or any other era) to simply its worst aspects, although it can be tempting when those aspects include child labor, slavery and dumping bodies in the Thames. Like any era, it was full of thinkers and reformers and people who managed to transcend their time and make the whole world better for it, and it was also full — as our era is — of people who didn’t and whom we can only judge so harshly.

I think the mistake everyone who gets too nostalgic about the past makes is to think that there was a “there” there — a special ineffable something that everyone back then understood, implicitly, and we can only grasp at. Sometimes I think that thing might be “racism” but on other days I think the thing we are looking for doesn’t exist.

Read enough writers from a certain era and you can feel convinced that All The People Who Truly Understood Me Were All Hanging Out in 1890 And I Missed It. But the one thing the past doesn’t have a monopoly on is people. There are plenty in your era capable of understanding you. And you can probably find them on the Internet.

What I don’t understand about our modern-day Victorians is why they embrace only the minutiae of day-to-day life — the skirts, the corsets, the mixers. That seems to me the least exciting part of the past — the onerous daily round of keeping body and soul together. That’s the least important part of existing, the part you skip when you fast-forward through the movie of your life. Stopping your cooking and clothing clock at, say, 1880, is merely inconvenient, not virtuous. It’s like saying “I’m only going to wear clothing sold at H&M in 2008” and asking for applause. I suspect if we dragged a Victorian inventor with us and he saw that someone was painstakingly blending whipped cream by hand to be more authentic and Victorian, he would tear his top hat into pieces and scream “DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? WE ONLY DID IT LIKE THAT BECAUSE WE HAD TO! FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, GO TO CRATE & BARREL.”

After all, there’s no gift like the present.