“We bought an 1888 house in Port Townsend (Washington’s Victorian seaport and long our favorite place) and proceeded to see how Victorian a life we could truly carve out for ourselves in the twenty-first century world.”
It’s all too easy to romanticize the past, and that is exactly what Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman make their life doing.
To say the least, they have an unconventional lifestyle. They live like Victorians, abandoning modern comforts and conveniences for antiquated technology. Sarah documents this living experiment in her memoir, This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technology.
It all started with a corset. For Sarah’s 29th birthday, Gabriel gave her the controversial undergarment and it didn’t take long before Sarah wore it regularly and fully adopted Victorian dress. Sarah chronicled this experience in her last memoir, Victorian Secrets, which I reviewed here. Years later, Sarah and Gabriel have completely fallen down the Victorian rabbithole. Their newly-purchased Victorian home in Port Townsend, WA becomes a time portal where they warm themselves by kerosene heaters, read Victorian periodicals under oil lamps, and store their perishables in an icebox.
But it doesn’t stop there. Sarah makes all her clothes (by hand!) and even constructs a custom mattress to accommodate their Victorian bed. In their quest for authenticity, they intend to install a nineteenth-century wood burning stove once their funds allow. They also prefer to use products by companies established in the Victorian era.
Sarah enjoys experimenting with Victorian recipes, needlework, and dabbling in taxidermy. Together, Sarah and Gabriel partake in various Victorian pastimes, from fossil collecting and other aspects of naturalism to the 1890s cycling craze.
I found her section on Victorian exercise to be one of the most interesting parts. In this chapter she details how Gabriel follows Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow’s recommended workout. She remarks, “The entire workout takes my husband about twenty minutes and has definitely given him a more Victorian physique. I highly approve — and enjoy it!”
The memoir makes for an interesting read as Sarah strives to provide context to the many artifacts they’ve incorporated into their lives. However, her patronizing tone detracts from the book’s limited positive aspects. She is continuously defensive. We get it, Sarah – you are tired of people reacting so critically to your unusual lifestyle:
“An overwhelming majority of people assume that interacting with nineteenth-century artifacts and technology is the hard part of what Gabriel and I do […] The hard part is dealing with other people’s reactions. We live in a society that prides itself on diversity, yet has ironically narrow definitions of which types of diversity it will tolerate.”
She and Gabriel see themselves as emissaries of history to the point of obnoxiousness:
“The people we find truly anathema are the ones who reduce the past to caricature and distort it to fit their own bigoted stereotypes. We’ve gone to events that claimed to be historic fashion shows but turned out to be gaudy polyester parades with no shadow of reality behind them. […] “When we object to history being degraded this way, the guilty parties shout that they are ‘just having fun.’ What they are really doing is attacking a past that cannot defend itself…It’s time someone stood up for the past.”
As the author of this blog and fan of all things Victorian, I definitely understand why Sarah and Gabriel are drawn to this period and its artifacts. It’s easy to admire the architecture, fashion, and technology and so much of modern life we owe to the Victorians. But never for a moment would I wish to live a Victorian life. You keep “standing up for the past,” Sarah. I’m perfectly content to be amused at a distance.
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