So last year I was feeling down in the dumps (you know, that whole election thing) and needed something to do as an outlet for my snark. So I decided to start what I called the Hate Read Book Club – and it is what it says on the tin. You hate read a book. What’s a hate read? Reading a book you know you’re not going to like and do it for entertainment value. LOL. Yeah, not for everyone, but I was raised watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I’ve been enjoying bad art for a long time now.
So I started with This Victorian Life by Sarah Chrisman. You may know her as the more famous half of the duo known on the internet as That Victorian Couple. I explain them a little in this Tumblr post. I started doing the Hate Read Book Club on my Tumblr, and got a few chapters in, and then I got a new job and all my spare time was taken and I haven’t revisited it since. Until now…
So I’ve decided to pick it up again, but post it here on this blog. Let’s see if I can get through the whole book this time! You can catch up with the previous posts here:
Now we’ll continue with This Victorian Life: Chapters 4 & 5:
Chapter 4 is a brief history of Port Townsend, the northwestern town our couple has settled down after a few years of moving around. Apparently it’s a time capsule of sorts and is the perfect place for making an attempt at living in the Victorian period.
All those beautiful buildings lay vacant for decades. Denuded of inhabitants who would care for it, the city (like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty in the Grimms’ tale) went dormant and was overrun by thorns and wild beasts.
Geez. It just sounds like a Victorian version of Gary, Indiana. You know, Gary is not that great of a place to live right now. Not really very romantic.
To come here, Gabriel gave up his work at the Library of Congress in DC and returned to his old position of managing a bicycle shop on the West Coast.
We all have different dreams and ambitions and needs, but I also went to library school. I currently work as a librarian. I have student loan debt. And to give up a job in your new profession (at a very prestigious organization, though probably doesn’t pay as well as it should) to return to your retail job just seems… foolhardy. Honestly, I don’t want to judge too harshly, and maybe Sarah just isn’t giving us all the details, but on the surface it just seems like a bad call.
I’ve been out of library school a few years, and I already have former classmates who have left the profession for one reason or another, but they’ve left to pursue different opportunities that build on the strengths they gained as a library professional. Going into major debt to then not use the degree and in essence go back to your old life… SIGH.
The chapter is mostly a love letter to their area of Washington State, and how unhappy they were anywhere else, and how they fell in love with their late 1800s house that they were luckily able to afford.
Chapter 5 relates Sarah struggles with furnishing their new Victorian house. They don’t have a lot of money, and their house needs a lot of improvements, so Sarah laments that their parlor is pretty bare and when a visiting neighbor comments on it, she likens it to someone telling her she’s barren. *eyeroll* As a bike store manager and a massage therapist (yes, that is Sarah’s day job – I still want to know if she performs her job while wearing complete Victorian regalia) they have somewhat limited means, so they have to take their time acquiring items for their house that are historically accurate.
One of the driving ideals of Victorian life was the idea of self-betterment, so if we as middle-class people had the means to adopt a luxury of the upper classes, all the better for us.
I could probably go totally off on how the modern day middle-class is disappearing, or at least the definition of middle-class is shifting, which could be contrasted with the great emergence of the middle-class in the Victorian period, but I’m not totally qualified for that.
Here’s an article from the BBC that can give you a primer on the concept, though.
This also reminds me of my pioneer ancestors who crossed the plains for a better life and would have rather enjoyed my Suzuki sedan to a covered wagon or handcart. Right? Much like I hope my progeny can one day experience a trip to the moon that I never could. So Sarah here, with her chosen lifestyle, is sitting herself firmly in the past like some people after they turn 60, and not relishing in the benefits of new technologies and developments that improve their life over the lives of their forebears. It’s one thing to study the past to appreciate that time and how lives were changed with their own advancements, but it’s another to think that living in the past is somehow better because you have this idealized view of what that means. It wasn’t a great time period for everyone. You could be living in a tenement house with a few other families sharing one outdoor facility for personal hygiene, and hoping you didn’t die of TB or measles. And that’s just one scenario. I’m not even factoring in if she had been born with darker skin.
I had been complaining about walking in the dark on cold winter evenings, so as a holiday present Gabriel had managed to find an antique railroad lantern I could carry to light my path when I went out at night.
Girlfriend. Would a middle class woman be hauling a railroad lantern to go relieve herself? I think a candle would suffice. Right?
We would eventually get period lightbulbs: replicas of the earliest lightbulb patents (one by Edison, the rest associated with Nikola Tesla) carefully made from hand-blown glass. We try to save these for use when we have company; beyond being an appropriate period use of electric lights for the late nineteenth century, this makes them last an extremely long time.
This, I will grant you, is pretty cool. That is a neat thing a person in an old Victorian house could do to up their hipster cred, that’s for certain. And yeah, those Edison bulbs can last a long time.
Victorian philosopher William Morris said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
An older way of saying only keep things that spark joy!
Gabriel and I love our antique artifacts because they were crafted in a time when beauty and its elevating effects were still appreciated. We enjoy incorporating as many elements of the beautiful into our lives as possible because, like the people who made them, we too feel that they lift the spirit and inspire those who are surrounded by them to ever better ideals.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, babe. The Victorians also accumulated a lot of junk because that was a sign of wealth and prestige, and all that junk made it hard to clean on a weekly or even monthly basis. And then you watch the show “Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home” and the time period sounds WAY less idyllic.
Okay, now this story from Sarah is my favorite so far in the book because it’s so ridiculous. One of Sarah’s neighbors has a garage sale and sells her a beautiful Victorian bed – a dream for our couple! – that they want to replace the futon they have been sleeping on (again, no judgement from me. Us Millennials do what we can). But alas, Sarah refuses to buy a used mattress (a smart move, honestly, but new ones are very pricey), and it wouldn’t matter anyway because their new bed doesn’t conform to the traditional sizes. Much like at Schrute Farms.
So Sarah, ever the capable Victorian housewife, decides she will make her own mattress.
“What would you fill it with?” Gabriel asked curiously. I shrugged. “They would fill it with whatever was on hand, depending on their means and what was around. Cotton, if they were in cotton country. I’ve heard of the poorest classes using dried corn husks in corn country.” Gabriel laughed. “That would be a little noisy.” “Yeah, probably not our style,” I agreed. “Besides, we’re in the wrong place geographically for that. I’ve heard of some women around here stuffing their menstrual rags with moss in the earliest pioneer days, but I’m not sure I could find enough to stuff a mattress with. Besides, in that much moss, I’d start worrying about bugs again.” “I’ll say!” agreed Gabriel.
This is a style of writing that rings so false that to me it’s hard to read. Sarah continues her search for how to stuff her own mattress, and decides that while feather stuffing would be the optimal solution, that would be too expensive, so the middle-class Victorian alternative is to have a smaller mattress topper of feathers, and a bottom mattress stuffed with cotton to give the bed bulk.
…when a search of the local stores revealed that buying every single cotton ball in Port Townsend might (possibly) yield enough to stuff a large teddy bear, I put in an order for cotton to yet a third source.
This is where she started to lose me. Stuffing a mattress with… cotton balls? You have the internet, and you didn’t think to purchase raw cotton? Outsourcing cotton scraps and rags from local crafting groups? No? COTTON BALLS?!
I decided cotton was cotton; if upholstery was sometimes stuffed with rags, why couldn’t I stuff a mattress with plain little cotton balls?
Oh good grief. GIRLFRIEND. COTTON BALLS? REALLY?
I used a kitchen knife to slice open the shipping tape on the box and pulled out dozens of dainty little plastic bags filled with cotton balls—the sort of packages one might expect to find on certain women’s makeup shelves next to the toenail polish. Sitting surrounded by them on my kitchen floor, I reflected that if personal pedicures had been the motivation for my order, I would now have a lifetime supply of spacing fluff.
Go look at your mattress and tell me you would think stuffing that same space with COTTON BALLS you use for you makeup needs will be sufficient. I JUST CANNOT. Obviously the internet order of personal hygiene cotton balls wasn’t going to fill a mattress that a married couple could sleep on, so that leads to Sarah hopping on her bike and finding more.
I bought the city of Port Townsend out of its supply of cotton balls.
Despite her incompetence (and I can’t help but think that purchasing processed cotton balls in a vast quantity that still doesn’t quite fill the mattress is more expensive than it needed to be) she manages to acquire enough cotton to stuff a mattress she made that will fit the Victorian bed. It’s not surprisingly more flat than she wanted, but with the feather topper (containing 50 lbs of feathers! She seemed to have gotten one aspect of this right) it seems to do the trick.