(Not a) Review: How to Be a Victorian

I always feel a bit confused when people refer to the past as “simpler times.” If you’re talking about an international scale, I guess countries have grown more interconnected, and there’s a greater potential for events in one part of the world to impact people’s lives elsewhere.

Even in past centuries, however, communities were remarkably vulnerable to ripple effects. In many ways, far more vulnerable than we are today: societies hadn’t yet built the sorts of resilient infrastructures and diversified resource pools that we benefit from.

For almost everyone, the past was not a simpler time. How to Be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman, highlights the tenuous grasp on survival that most people living in that period had to contend with. Historical fiction often presents it as a genteel age of tea parties and quaint manners, or else as a thrilling period of innovation where visionary people could change the world by snapping their fingers.

Both those stereotypes have a hint of truth in them, but just a hint. In developed western nations, few modern families must choose between risking their six-year-old’s life in dangerous factory work for fifteen hours a day or being able to feed the rest of the family. Choosing to care for our sick neighbors isn’t a death sentence anymore, as it used to be.

The point I’m trying to make is that, morally and ethically, the world has not gotten any more complex than it always was. Despite the arguments made by intelligent stories like The Good Place, I believe it’s easier for most of us to make choices that seem ethical, at least on the surface, because they rarely involve personal risk. Sure, we may have to pay a bit more for products that were (theoretically) sustainably sourced, but that (generally) isn’t going to break the bank account.

It’s easy to stand in judgement of Victorian moralism and hypocrisy, but people at that time were only reacting to the complexities of the world in which they lived.

I know a lot of people will disagree with this for good very reasons. After all, the world is less secure in 2022 than it was a few years ago. Democracy itself is in danger. There’s a major war in Europe. Costs of living are rising. When I talk to people in my generation—even those with impressive jobs—they feel frustrated not to have the same opportunities their parents had to own property and raise families in a relatively stable economy. My friends and I feel constantly stressed about the present and pessimistic about the future.

Which brings me to the major seeming-contradiction of the Victorian period, and of history in general: it is possible for things to both be getting better and worse at the same time.

Many authors have addressed this in far more depth than I’m able to do. I encourage you to read Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, for a clearer picture.

Basically, the more I learn, the more I’ve come to believe that the trajectory of history is an upwards arc towards an easier, more comfortable world as technologies, ideas, and systems build on each other, and the benefits of that process seep unevenly into the global population.

The thing is, the gradient of that arc is often incremental, and is composed of smaller arcs with their own troughs and crests. Entire generations can feel like the world is getting more violent and less stable. Because for them, it is.

The Victorians illustrate this perfectly. The very technologies that gave rise to the conveniences, medicines, and resilient infrastructures that benefit us today also made life hell for them. Old trades vanished, leaving millions at risk of starvation. At the beginning of the 1800s and before, it was common for workers to take off multiple days throughout the week, and to have longer start times and more frequent breaks. (Read up on “Saint Monday” to learn more about this period of transition. I also highly recommend the “Victorian Britain” lectures from The Great Courses, delivered by Patrick N. Allitt. Expensive if you can’t get it at a library, but surprisingly entertaining and wildly informative.)

As society shifted itself to conform to factory schedules, the work week became longer and more grueling. One sadly amusing result of this was a generational gap: older Victorians remembered how things used to be, complained bitterly about the changes, and were less reliable when it came to showing up for their jobs. Younger Victorians, who’d never known any other life, were the hard-working, thrifty generation.

This contrast is pretty hilarious when you compare it to the stereotypes about millennials versus baby boomers in today’s workforce. In my opinion, people who say that the habits of one particular generation are ruining society don’t actually know very much about the society they claim is being ruined.

Climate change is the big caveat that may reverse these historical progressions. Even then, I feel confident(ish) that, in the long run, future generations will be healthier, safer, and more comfortable than we are now. Of course, they will also be less equal: the wage gap between the richest and the poorest is snowballing. And, if you listen to authors like Thomas Piketty[1] and Yuval Noah Harari, equality with your neighbors has a far bigger impact on how happy you are than do the actual conditions of your life.

(It’s also worth noting that progress is never fair. Marginalized groups are always the last to benefit. Like William Gibson says, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” Clearly there are big structural changes that still need to occur.)

Despite how depressing I’ve made this book sound, it’s actually a lot of fun. It takes you through an ordinary day in the lives of average Victorians from various social classes, and the author illustrates it by sharing her own experiences in anachronistic living.

Hmm. “Anachronistic Living” should be a magazine title, don’t you think? It would be a lot of fun, and might sell as many as five or six copies.


[1] Full disclosure: I haven’t actually read Capital in the 21st Century, or any other books by Thomas Piketty. I’ve just read people who’ve reference him a lot. He’s on my list.

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