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As someone who is often incorrectly seen as being like this (and looking on Facebook, the author and I seem to have no shortage of mutual friends), the article is fascinating, even if I don't agree with some of the things being said.

It's very difficult to accurately experience the life of another time period. Minor, seemingly insignificant details can have significant effects on the experience. One example I like to use was an event some friends of mine attended that was trying to recreate the experience of a Regency era country house. The hostess, not being particularly experienced in organizing such a thing, didn't think about lighting.

Yet lighting is extremely important. It dictates the hours that people keep, how people interact, and the appearance of much of what one sees after dark. My friends pointed out the problem, and had all the lighting replaced with candles and lamps. What some there thought would be a minor improvement in environment and accuracy ended up having startling effects: several guests, all adults, having always been accustomed to the constant light of electric lamps, found the ubiquitous moving shadows in a country house lit only by flames to be terrifying, and many of them became insistent that they were seeing flitting supernatural apparitions. One was reportedly unable to walk up the stairs to her room by herself.

Finding all these seemingly minor changes necessary to recreate an experience, knowing what impact they have, and actually being able to change them, is extremely difficult. One thing that immediately jumps out at me, for example, is that the visibility and lack of distortion through the windows in the photographs, and the pane sizes, makes me think they have panes of float glass. How important is this to the experience? I don't know. It certainly changes the way the outside world appears. Are their mirrors made with float glass? Are they looking at the photographs of them? Both would significantly change their own self-images.

And while I would love to know the tailor her husband uses, I do have to wonder about whether the reproductions are actually accurate. Fabric, for example, has changed considerably in the last hundred and fifty years. Over a century of breeding and improved techniques mean that wool today is far finer, and fine wool far cheaper, than it was in the Victorian era. Obtaining wool of the correct coarseness and weight would likely involve commissioning it. Tailoring has evolved, too: understanding of cutting and particularly fitting techniques improved considerably in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Is their tailor intentionally ignoring those advances? I doubt it.

Even beyond these visible issues, there are differences in upbringing, in culture, and in perspective. There are differences in surroundings: the building I live in may be almost 120 years old and in its original state in many ways, but the sounds here are completely different. And there are differences in the people around you. These are not things that can be changed, and they have significant impacts.

The differences in perspective are particularly visible in the article. The environmental focus, and suggestion that seeing resources being used results in an appreciation of conservation, seem to me to be essentially modern views, and I would argue are not reflected in typical Victorian perspectives. Nor do I think that the view on understanding technology is entirely accurate either: the typical Victorian, I would argue, would be unlikely to understand the cylinder process of glass pane production, for example, or methods used for metalwork, joinery, and the construction of much of what was around them. As other have pointed out, very few would know about the production of the resources they were consuming: I'd argue that people today have a much better understanding of those things, given our frequent societal discussions of them.

The idea that modern items are "trash," too, and Victorian ones are far more reliable and usable, is perhaps unfortunate. Yes, there are problems with the reliability, longevity, and repairability of many modern items, but that's a choice in purchasing: there are many modern items that are more reliable. The flexibility of my steel dip pen nibs may be impressive, and my early fountain pens beautiful, but my modern fountain pens are far more reliable and repairable, and modern ballpoint pens are simply so reliable as to hardly ever need repair. Tips of modern alloys last far longer and are far less fragile. Plastic is far sturdier and long-lasting than resin, and fine machining has allowed for far more repairable mechanisms. Watches are not too dissimilar: maintenance for 19th century watches often meant throwing out and replacing parts, which is one of the reasons why they are so difficult to repair today. Modern mechanical watches require far less maintenance, and good quality modern quartz watches require essentially none.

All of this ignores, of course, that in looking for original items today, the author and her husband are only obtaining things that were built well enough to have already lasted for over a century.

I also get the sense that the author has a dislike of the academic study of history. That's unfortunate. Primary sources can help to explain an era, but can also mislead. They assume a certain perspective on the part of the reader. Contemporary writers often have difficultly seeing elements of their own culture, and even when they see them, often have their own agendas. Without studying a wide variety of primary sources and analysing them as a whole, it is difficult to come to accurate conclusions.

For example, I would argue that, in reading a large number of original dance manuals of the 19th century, one would develop a wildly inaccurate perspective on dancing in the 19th century. Dance manuals, perhaps like etiquette manuals, represented the ideal visions of individual dance instructors, pushed complex dances and elegant forms requiring more instruction (for obvious reasons), and were often out-of-date. A preliminary statistical study I'm doing of 19th century dance cards suggests that the vast majority of group dances and round dance variations in dance manuals were hardly ever danced, if at all, outside of dance studios. Analysis of dance instructor commentary, newspaper reporting, letters, interviews, period works of fiction, and other sources also suggest that many people dancing did so very inexpertly, that by the mid-to-late 19th century quadrilles were very unpopular amongst trendier sets, and that dancers often danced in very energetic and rambunctious ways not at all reflected in dance manuals of the era except in their admonitions against doing so. If anything, in "getting their own insights" rather than also studying the era academically, I fear that they may be inadvertently reinforcing their own stereotypes, as reflected in their modern perspectives.

As for the difficulties in dealing with those around them, I have to admit I'm surprised that they would receive such reactions. Perhaps it because I live behind high walls, insulated from the world around me, or because I'm fortunate to live in a more tolerant area, or because I'm more private about my lifestyle, but I have walked down the street for decades in clothes not too dissimilar to theirs, and have never experienced any hostility—nor, I believe, have many of my friends. I don't know why their experiences would be so different.

With all of that said, that they are able to live this life, and be happy living it, is wonderful. I think it gives, if not an accurate perspective on life in another era, then a different and useful perspective on life in our own.




I have found your comment so interesting and thoughtful as somewhat shallow and simplistic the article. Many, many thanks for spending the time to write it and share it with us. I really think that you should submit it to Vox as a "letter to the editor".


An unfortunate thing about Vox is that they don't appear to have normal letters to the editor or, indeed, any way of responding to their articles. Nevertheless, it's something I might consider.




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