So19 talks with SARAH A. CHRISMAN

Many people, including myself, are fascinated by the 19th century, but very few of us actually live it. Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman are exceptions to that norm, choosing to live as Victorian an existence as can be managed within the framework of today’s goods and infrastructure. As described in Sarah’s book This Victorian Life (Skyhorse, November 2015), the result of this decision has been a journey both practical and spiritual, challenging and joyous. Most of us will never follow in their footsteps in any literal sense, but the Chrismans’ choices are thought-provoking nonetheless. First, they help describe and document the way life felt in the 19th century, and how that “feel” differed from what our own times lead us to expect—worthwhile knowledge for anyone studying or writing about the century. Second and more importantly, their story reminds us of how many choices we all have and how free we are to shape our lives (be it by wearing corsets or being an avid Whovian). In that way, This Victorian Life isn’t about a singular path but a universal journey toward identifying, claiming, and celebrating one’s own best and authentic life. Sarah Alma Chrisman is the author of Victorian Secrets: What A Corset Taught Me About The Past, The Present, And Myself; True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen; and This Victorian Life. Her website has lots of information on 19th-century life and customs as well as her own experiments with both, and she posts frequent updates and photos on her Facebook page. Society Nineteen is delighted to talk with Sarah Chrisman about living, and loving, a Victorian life.—SF

So19: Your first book, Victorian Secrets, talks about the journey of exploration and transformation that began when your husband gave you a Victorian corset on your 29th birthday. For readers who aren’t familiar with that book, perhaps you could give us a glimpse of it, and that earlier part of your story.

SC: I've always loved imagery associated with the Victorian era and the beauty of tangible objects connected with that period. For a long time though, I believed all the vitriolic things other people told me about the culture of the era because it never occurred to me to question the dominant narrative. I blindly believed all the oft-repeated old chestnuts about the era being an oppressive time for women, and other such rubbish. I believed these stereotypes because (supposedly) they were things "everyone knows," and as I said, it never occurred to me to question them. Looking back, my narrow-minded attitude in those days was somewhat analogous to someone who loves Italian art and fashion but repeats every vile slander they hear about Italian people because they've never met one in person nor visited the country.
In retrospect this is all profoundly ironic, since I have a degree in International Studies and would never dream of swallowing stereotypes of modern cultures without analysis. While I was in school I went to France for a study abroad program and was deeply intrigued to see how much more complicated the country and its people were than my blinkered American perspective had led me to believe. Later after graduating I taught English in Japan for a year, and the ways in which the country itself disproved American myths of it were even more profound.

My prejudices about other times remained deeply rooted though, and unfortunately time travel is rather more difficult than buying airline tickets. I couldn't go to the past the way I'd gone to other countries to debunk my misconceptions.

My husband Gabriel always knew how much I loved the aesthetics of the Victorian era. Our collection of antique clothing started with a few garments he gave me as gifts. I cooed over their beauty, but couldn't wear them because—of course—they were made to fit a corseted shape. Knowing my husband's love for problem solving, I could guess his mental processes as my twenty-ninth birthday approached and I specifically told him not to buy me a corset. I still blithely accepted all the myths I'd always heard about the nineteenth-century, and Victorian corsets are loaded with more modern cultural baggage than any other single item from the period.

When I told Gabriel not to buy me a corset, I rattled off a whole laundry list of things I thought I knew about them—the standard nonsense about corsets breaking bones, and so forth. When he bought me one anyways and I tried it on (just to humor him, at first), I instantly realized how wrong I had been.

The corset was comfortable, it did not in the least interfere with my breathing, and—far from being restrictive—it supported my back and offered numerous other benefits. It instantly debunked a whole host of modern myths about a garment I had always heard thoroughly—and unfairly—villainized. I started to wonder what else "everyone knew" about the era might be equally untrue. It was a very short step to re-evaluating stereotypes I'd heard about Victorian culture in general.

So19: The experiences chronicled in this new book represent a broadening of that original intention—not just to wear a Victorian garment 24/7, but also to live a Victorian life 24/7. Could you talk a little about how that decision came about?

SC: Wearing a corset on a daily basis—and then progressively more Victorian clothing until my whole wardrobe was converted—really opened a door into the past for me, and encouraged me to learn all I could. Gabriel encouraged me as well. He was homeschooled as a child and he's always felt that learning should be an ongoing thing that seeps into all aspects of a person's life, not simply locked away in a monolithic educational institution. Spurred on by my example with the clothes, he started wearing Victorian garments as well, and our desire to comprehend the era became a mutual obsession. Our research constantly drew us together, and continues to do so.

Every partnership contains two separate skill sets. Whereas my own academic background is in cultural studies, Gabriel's university degrees are in history and library science, with an emphasis on archival research. My education taught me the value of examining my own prejudices. Gabriel's convinced him of the importance of primary sources, materials that came directly from the time he was studying. His classmates made a beeline for Internet search engines and read up on commentary based on commentary based on commentary, like learning history through an elaborate game of telephone filtered down through generations. Gabriel, meanwhile, passed days in dusty archives, ignoring mouse droppings and telling his asthmatic lungs they just had to deal with the situation. By searching through piles of documents no one had even glanced at in years, he uncovered information that sometimes surprised even his professors.

Gabriel's appreciation for primary source materials combined with my own learning style of studying cultures in context, and item by item we started accumulating other artifacts (besides the clothes) which taught us increasingly more about the past. Now virtually everything in our house is Victorian in nature.

So19: You focus on the habits, objects, and tools of one particular time period in the 19th century. Tell us about it and why you chose it over other possibilities.

SC: We focus on the 1880s and '90s because it was a particularly dynamic time. Remarkable new inventions were being introduced to the world at an astonishing rate, and twenty-first century people still struggle with the things which were brand-new challenges in the late nineteenth-century. Take people's interactions with telephones, for example. There's a popular joke these days when people see someone walking down the street having an animated conversation with the empty air: the viewer asks themself, "Hands free device, or just off his meds?" This might seem like a new concept, but back in 1883 people were already writing short stories about seeing people they were convinced had lost all sense and reason—until they realized the apparent lunatic was simply talking on one of those newfangled machines, a telephone.

The last two decades of the nineteenth-century were an incredibly optimistic time, even in the mid 1890s when the American economy was at a particularly low ebb. The culture's unshakable belief in the power and capabilities of individuals to form their own destinies fit right in with our personal philosophies.

Most of the questions which people face in their daily lives have been asked and answered repeatedly by the generations which came before us. The past is a vast mine of information; seeing how people in other eras have dealt with their problems can help us when solving our own puzzles.

So19: Many of us have seen television shows in which folks spend some period of time living in the conditions of a particular past. But as you note, “We are not playing a role, but living a real life…” You’ve made a real commitment, and with it embraced the challenge of making your lives truly sustainable—financially and otherwise—over the long term. That meant a lot of careful planning—and clearly, some sacrifices.

SC: Indeed. When Gabriel graduated from library school, he was hired for a job at the Library of Congress. We jettisoned many of our possessions, packed up all the rest, and moved to Washington D.C. with every intention of staying there permanently. We soon realized we had made a mistake, though. The job was good—a dream job, really, for an archivist straight out of school—but the place was all wrong for us. We had a dream and a vision for how we wanted to live, and D.C. was simply not compatible with the life we desired. I could go into lengthy explanations for why we felt we didn't belong, but the bluntest illustration was the day someone walked up to me and told me flat out, "You do not belong here in our nation's capital."

Gabriel gave up his dream career and we returned to Washington State. He went back to his old job at a bicycle shop. All this was done so that we could live in a place where we believed we could make our dreams come true.

We bought a house in Port Townsend, Washington's Victorian seaport. The home we chose was built between 1888-89, right in our favorite period. Everything since then has been an ongoing process of living our dreams.

So19: It’s also clear that your choices have also brought deep fulfillment and joy. Is it possible to speak a bit about that? What does living the way you do offer that an “ordinary” 2015 lifestyle might not?

SC: Living this way gives us a lot more opportunities to really think about the ways we interact with technology, and why we choose the options we do. It also makes us more aware of the resources we're using. To give an example: watching the oil level decrease in our lamps or our heater gives us very tangible notice of the resource we're using, and constantly forces us to ask ourselves if we really need that resource quite yet.

So19: You make the point that rather than cutting modern things out of your life, you felt your job to be putting historical elements and objects back into it to see what you could learn. Iceboxes, fingerlamps, pitcher-and-basin sets, fountain pens: could you speak about one object that felt specially enriching and educational to you?

SC: People seldom realize the extent to which the items we interact with every day affect them, but it's a theme we've become very conscious of as we've slowly phased out modern elements of life (like getting rid of our electric refrigerator) and replaced them with their historic equivalents. Our built surroundings and everyday objects become invisible to us over time, and yet they shape our view and experience of the world.

Our oil lamps have put us far more in touch with the seasons and the natural world, since as the days grow shorter in the colder months of the year we notice ourselves lighting the lamps at different times and I have to fill them more often. It seems like such a simple thing, yet life is made up of little details.

So19: For many, life without a car (at least, when one lives outside a large city) is close to unthinkable. Could you talk about how you transport yourselves as well as any goods or objects you need? What gifts has using those strategies rather than an automobile brought you?

SC: I've never had a driver's license, although Gabriel does drive. Port Townsend is still laid out on its basic 19th-century ground plan, which makes it a very “walkable” town, since not all Victorians owned their own horses and many got around primarily by walking. The fact that Port Townsend is so accessible by walking was specifically one of the big reasons we chose to live here.

I also cycle a lot. My "daily driver" bicycle was made by a company that's been manufacturing ladies' cycles with the same basic frame geometry since the 1890s. It weighs 50 lbs, which actually would have already been considered beastly heavy back in the 1890s. Back then most bikes weighed closer to 22 lbs, and racing cycles could weigh less than 9 lbs! Mine's very dependable though, and I like it. It may not be as fast as a lighter bike, but I like to think it gives me a better workout—and certainly gives me more exercise than a car! I've taken it on multi-day cycling tours that covered as much as 130 miles in a trip.

So19: Paradoxically, sharing your message about Victorian living demands the use of contemporary technology and media: having a website, for example, or posting on Facebook. How do you manage these tools in a way consistent with your Victorian lives?

SC: Our touchstone is that when something Victorian still exists and we can use it, we do. For instance, we use an antique icebox instead of an electric refrigerator, and we prefer oil lamps to electric light (though all the electric bulbs we do have are period reproductions). All the heat in our house comes from restored gas and kerosene heaters.

Sometimes though, a whole infrastructure is gone. For example, if we were doing this interview in the 1890s, we might be using the telegraph! The building where the telegraph office used to be in my town is still there: it's a five-minute walk from my house, and there's a nice little brass plaque on it saying the telegraph office was there. However, the telegraph itself is long gone. We have to use the closest modern equivalent, and that's the Internet. There's a really good book by historian Tom Standage about how similar the telegraph system was in many ways to the modern internet: his book is actually called The Victorian Internet.

Gabriel drives a car to get to and from work, because he hasn't found a job close enough to home to cycle there, and there isn't a train he could take.

We have a website as a way to encourage other people to explore history. We also do it to inspire other people to live their own dreams, whatever those dreams may be. These are our two major goals in life, and they are so important to us that we feel they are worth engaging with technology a bit.

So19: Though the specifics of the life you chose are obviously 19th-century, I felt that your book speaks to a much broader theme: living intentionally, on the basis of conscious choices and one’s own authentic truths rather than received wisdom and assumptions. Fair reading?

SC: Absolutely! That's the biggest thing we always strive to get across to people: that we are all in charge of the choices which shape our lives. We all have the power to follow our dreams—whatever those dreams may be—and to make the world a better place.

So19: Tell us about current projects. Is a new book in the works, we hope?

SC: Right now I'm working on a book about cycling, past and present! The same way This Victorian Life used our own experiences as a framework for telling the histories of everyday things around a home, my next book uses our cycling experiences to tell a history of transportation in America, and where it could go from here.