historical fiction, living history

The Past is a Foreign Country. And You Can Never Go Back.

Plimoth Plantation.
Plimoth Plantation.

A few weeks ago Sarah A. Chrisman published an article on Vox provocatively titled, “I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it.” In it, Chrisman describes how she and her husband have recreated the Victorian era as much as possible, from wearing period-appropriate clothing in their 19th-century Washington State house to washing their hair with soap recommended in a 19th-century advertisement. They’re totally committed to setting up their lives as a living tableau of Victorian American life, convinced that this experiment has helped them disconnect from the technological stress of modern-day life. In a slightly patronizing tone, Chrisman writes that she and her husband are more in tune with nature, since they use kerosene lamps and Edison-era bulbs to light their home, and are more aware of the resources they use, thanks to filling up those lamps on a regular basis. They also rely mainly on books and magazines written during the Victorian period, those “reliable” primary sources that haven’t been filtered through the myopic gaze of secondary historians. Funnily enough, they print these out from Google Books, and within the piece there’s an undercurrent of invisible technology, the Internet and computers that have allowed Chrisman to publicize her experiences.

Anyway, the online world exploded. Twitter had a lot to say (I’ll admit I contributed), and numerous online commentators pointed out the impossibility of recreating the past entirely (including my agent sister, Clarissa Harwood). I had a lot of thoughts about this piece as well as the responses, but I wanted to let my ideas gel before I wrote about them.

And I kept coming back to my very personal connections to “recreating” the past, through living history and through writing.

In January I wrote a little about my experience interning at a living history museum after my junior year of college. That summer I wore mid-19th-century clothing and cooked over a hearth fire, but I drove home to my 21st-century house in my car every night. That didn’t stop me from longing to burrow ever more deeply into the past:

The extreme historian in me wanted to spend the night in “my house,” as I thought of it, reading by lamplight in the tiny parlor and waking up to boil a kettle of water for my morning coffee.

But it was impossible. Sure, maybe I could pretend that I lived on the Ohio frontier in a tiny saltbox house for the few minutes I spent gazing out of the clouded window as I washed dishes. I could imagine that the older man striding across the green was my neighbor, not the veteran interpreter who helped me start my fire in the mornings when the kindling just wouldn’t take. But the village itself was constructed to be a museum, with period homes trucked in from the Ohio area and set down around a green. Each home represented different 19th-century crafts and skills, and only one used first-person interpreters, who pretended the year was 1861 and everyone was all aflutter about the politics of war. And my hearth cooking? Completely out of date by 1861. Visitors moved between decades as they visited each site. We were curating a careful interpretation of early Ohio history based on what we wanted visitors to know, not recreating a village to perfection. Our “village” never existed in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, I love living history museums. But they’re forever imperfect, tainted by the expectations and motivations of those who create them. You can never really recreate a physical place, or a temporal place, once it’s gone. And it’s really hard to get visitors to play along with first-person interpretation; people tend to get upset when their perceptions of history are contradicted by interpreters who stubbornly insist they’re living in the past. Finally, it’s impossible to get rid of our 21st-century mindsets, as when a visitor asks an interpreter what a spider skillet is when every mid-19th-century household would have had one. We’ll always be viewing the past through filters formed by our experiences.

That’s what Chrisman ignores: as hard as she and her husband try, they won’t be able to set aside their modern childhoods and young adulthoods that shaped them and their perceptions of history. No matter how many Victorian books and magazines they read, they’ll still have 21st-century mindsets.

I think I came to writing historical fiction out of this frustration, that I could never fully live in the past. Of course, I’ll never fully be able to live in the past through writing or reading, either. But good historical fiction succeeds, I think, in its ability to place the reader in someone else’s shoes. If the writer does her research well, she can construct a fairly accurate representation of a historical period. That’s not to say writers aren’t guilty of imposing their own perspectives on their characters; YA historical heroines are forever being accused of being too strong and forward-thinking for their times, just to name an example. But the best historical fiction acknowledges and represents the perspectives that seem foreign today, and lets the reader step into them for a time.

It’s not the Victorian–or any–era recreated. But in my opinion it can come closer than any lifestyle experiment.

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4 thoughts on “The Past is a Foreign Country. And You Can Never Go Back.”

  1. This makes me think of several years ago when PBS (I think?) did a series called Victorian House where a modern family lived like a Victorian one. It was so interesting but I remember they were still in the middle of a modern city and I thought it a strange juxtaposition for the experiment.

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    1. Yes, I watched that! (As part of that summer internship, interestingly enough.) You’re right, it was fascinating to see them living a total Victorian lifestyle at home, but going to work or play (I think the dad took the kids swimming at a public pool once) in modern day. I think it’s a great example of how impossible it is to fully recreate the past.

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  2. A wonderful essay, Abby, and so many terrific links. The idea of time travel is a curious one, as every yogi I’ve ever met or read about insists that we’re all suffering from this insatiable desire to be anywhere in time apart from right now. Apparently, our past or our hopeful futures are much more appealing options than this moment in time. I make great mental efforts to remember that as often as possible–not to say I find an inordinate amount of success with the practice, but nonetheless, I soldier on.

    And thank you for mentioning how so many of our strong, plucky historical heroines are easily speared for being anachronistic. Although I think in many cases these people and their character existed, and because they were unusual is one reason we’re drawn to write about them, they still receive criticism for being out of place. I think the fact that many of them were unhappy being in “their place and time” is precisely what motivates a lot of forward movement and change throughout history. A little bit like the real us.

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    1. Beautifully put, Shelley, as always. At least it’s part of the human condition to long for a different time – makes me feel a little better about my constant wishing. And yes, I think you’re right that it’s the dissatisfaction of those heroines that’s so appealing. You get to play with a time and place and still tell an exciting story that looks ahead to change.

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