When I was a child, I had this book set in the Victorian era, about a family living in a nice house with servants. I can’t remember what it was about now, but there was an ice-house and a black servant boy who brought the rich children hot chocolate. The gorgeous illustrations, the excitement of the ice-house – all this gave me a very rose-coloured view of Victorian life, and the life of Victorian servants. I wanted to be one of the maids in this book, mainly for the frilly apron, and the friendship she had with the rich kids.
I was seven, I was a bit weird, so cut me some slack!
As I romanticised the idea of Victorian maids, I remember my mum telling me how her nana – my great nana – was ‘in service’ in Wales as a teenager. I remember my mum saying that her nana never spoke about what happened to her during that time.
I was reminded of my great-nana – who would have been ‘in service’ around the teens or twenties of the last century – when reading this startling article about a couple who have dedicated their lives to living like ‘the Victorians’. I thought about how her mother, so my great-great nana, would likely have been in service during the Victorian era, the period this couple are so happy to fetishize. And I thought about how their idea of Victoriana would not be at all recognisable to my family, or to the thousands of families who grew up without rights, without money, without healthcare, without sanitation – women like my great nana and great-great nana who grew up scrubbing rich people’s toilets.
To be fair to this couple, there are some laudable statements about their desire to live in the Victorian age. They talk about sustainability, about being more connected to where the things we use come from, to combating the disposability culture that we live in today. That’s all well and good. They seem remarkably willing to forget that the Victorian age was the height of the industrial revolution, a time of great mechanical innovation that paved the way for the modern machinery we have today. It’s actually quite insulting to look at the huge scientific leaps of discovery, the artistic revolutions and the brilliant novels of the 19th Century and think of it was a ‘simpler time’. But to be honest, that is the least of my worries.
To pretend that living in a ‘simpler time’ is something that can be achieved by eschewing all modernity in favour of living a fantasy of Victorian life is a nonsense.
What the couple seem to ignore in their idealisation of the Victorian era is that the vast majority of Victorian married couples were not upper-middle class. They did not spend their time riding penny-farthings and completing embroidery projects. They were poor. They were child labourers – boys choking to death up chimneys, girls losing hands on cotton looms. They were children dying of diphtheria and cholera in slums because there was no sanitation. They were women dying in childbirth, men dying down coal mines.
Many Victorians were servants like my ancestors, forced to work long hours with no legal rights, and in some cases at the mercy of violent masters. The Victorian age wasn’t genteel and noble. It was just as corrupt and unequal as any other era.
And that’s just England. What else do we know about the Victorian era? It was an age of Empire – of rapacious and bloody wars designed to repress and destroy the cultures of the countries we invaded. It was decades of white supremacy, building on the history of the previous centuries that treated other countries and other cultures as a resource for us to plunder. The experience of a Victorian living in India or Zimbabwe is miles apart from the romanticised gentility imagined in this article. There was nothing polite about Empire. It was bloody and brutal and nations are still living with the legacy of that brutality today.
Let alone the fact that this couple are American – whose ‘Victorian’ era included slavery, the Civil War and the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. I’ll say it again: the Victorian experience was not limited to white, middle upper class families.
Anyone who knows me knows about my love of vintage clothes. I have a gorgeous collection of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s frocks that I wear out and about to parties, revelling in the beautiful cut and delicious fabrics. But that love of a vintage aesthetic has never fooled me into thinking that ‘things were better when…’ (7 year-old book reading me aside). No woman should look back on the Victorian era and think of it as a better, more ideal time. We should never idealise a past where women were the legal property of their husbands, where we were forced to give up our rights as soon as we said ‘I Do.’
In the UK, women fought hard for our rights during the 19th century. They fought to change the divorce laws that said women had to prove adultery and cruelty against their husbands, whilst men only needed to prove adultery. They fought to change the laws so after divorce, they could maintain custody of their children. Women stood with the Chartists under the mistaken belief that an extension of suffrage to men would lead to suffrage for women. Women went to prison to secure the right to vote. Women worked together to improve education for girls, labour rights for men and women – they fought and fought and fought to have the rights we take for granted today.
Think of Eleanor Marx, think of Caroline Norton…
They fought for rights that even a romanticised view of the good old days can’t take away. Rights that anyone who fetishizes the past are still grateful to have when the chips are down.
There’s a reason why so much changed for working people in the first half of the 20th Century – why the early decades saw an end to workhouses, education bills, a trade union movement, labour rights, contraception, the suffragettes. They looked to the past and thought, right, enough. Children need education. Workers need protections. Women should have the vote. People should stop dying of cholera.
Of course, things are not perfect now. We are far from an equal society and there’s an argument to be made that our unequal society, the continuation of entrenched inequality, and our deifying of capital, is a hangover from the Victorian era.
But it was a start. As this Government slides us back towards that past, with its restrictions on striking and its dismantling of social security and the NHS, we should be grateful everyday to those women and men who fought for our rights back then. We should stand strong and ensure their legacy is not destroyed a century on.
I’ll leave the last word to historical fiction writer, Phillippa Gregory, who was once asked which of the periods she wrote about she would most like to live in. She responded that no woman should ever be nostalgic for the past. She said that everyday she is grateful to live in a time and a country where we have modern medical care, and where women are at least entitled to basic rights – such as education, financial independence and bodily autonomy (even if we don’t always have access to them).
I look at this couple, and I think about what it would mean for me to live as a Victorian.
It would not be their vision of the era.
I think of my great nana and her mother before, and why they never spoke about what they knew.