Culture At Large

Vox’s Victorian couple and living with authenticity

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

A fun feature of our information age is how easy it is to access documents, ideas and even objects from other times. Even a few years ago someone might have combed antique stores for years to find something that is now available for purchase (or maybe several!) on eBay or Etsy. Researching at a distant archive can be done through an online database. There is something delightful about using cutting-edge technology to access something very old.

These tools have also helped a couple live as if it were still the Victorian era of the late 1880s. Writing about their experience at Vox, Sarah A. Chrisman says she and her husband “love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it.” For her, this means wearing hand-sewn copies of Victorian clothing, riding high-wheel bicycles and printing out reading material from the period on Google books and reading it by kerosene lamp. She seems less inclined to delight in a mix of old and new, but is more interested in claiming some “authentic” experience of the antique.

As many have pointed out (Slate, Washington Post), an important element of Victorian life that this couple overlooks by fetishizing objects and clothing is, well, all of society. Chrisman claims toward the end of her Vox piece that the biggest difficulty of their lifestyle choices isn’t tedious chores or uncomfortable corsets, but that “we live in a world that can be terribly hostile to difference of any sort. Societies are rife with bullies who attack nonconformists of any stripe.” This element of society, of course, was also present in her beloved Victorian era, but the judgment of others (as well as their help, community, insights and blind spots) is not necessarily a part of her experience of the past, unless it is in her reading material.

We should live the best we can in our time because it’s part of who we are.

While I’m inclined to pile on with those making gentle fun of these folks, I want to be careful because I also implicate myself. I too gain a certain kind of companionship and insight from text and objects created long before I was born, and whose contexts and societies are more or less lost to me. I engage stories and wisdom from ancient Israel in the Bible, for example. I read theologians from earlier eras. I hesitate to dismiss someone’s attempt to understand others across time and learn from them.

On the other hand, I think Chrisman serves as a prime example of a common misconception in our culture: that there is some “good old days” when everything was better, and we’d be better if we lived then too. As others have pointed out, especially for a woman like me who enjoys her right to vote, access an education and conduct a career, there really is no time like the present. Appreciating the past may be a way to notice some of the sins that are unique to today, but I worry it is also a way to double-down on the sins we’ve always shared and paper over the ugliness of other times. Sin has always been a part of human nature.

Reflecting on the Incarnation helps me feel committed to our contemporary society as well. Jesus came to earth not in the form of a statue or mountain, but as a human being, who wore sandals and celebrated cultural festivals of a specific time and place. Likewise, God put us in the here and now. We should live the best we can in our time, just as Jesus and His disciples were creatures of their time, because it’s part of who we are. (Even if we do enjoy the occasional anachronism.)

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, History, North America