Friday, January 9, 2009

Dismally frumpish?

'Mrs Beeton lived in the Victorian era‚ which‚ as everyone under 30 knows‚ was dismally frumpish.' Florence White‚ The Times‚ February 1933.

So what are your impressions of the Victorian era?

An exceedingly long period in British history which includes the colonisation of New Zealand, the Irish potato famine, the Crimean War, the Indian mutiny, the publication of The Origin of Species, the occupation of Egypt and Jack the Ripper.

I imagine the 'dismally frumpish' comment is a reflection of the clothes and social mores perceived to have gone with them, the repressed sexuality, the constraints in society - and yet this is a time when prostitution was on the rise. However, even wikipedia disputes this, suggesting that "Corsets stressed a woman's sexuality, exaggerating hips and bust by contrast with a tiny waist. Women's ball gowns bared the shoulders and the tops of the breasts. The tight-fitting jersey dresses of the 1880s may have covered the body, but they left little to the imagination." Check out this foxy minx and tell me she's not as equally exciting as a Victoria's Secret model.

Lytton Strachey writing to Virginia Woolf, November 8, 1912:
Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don't believe it... I should like to live for another 200 years (to be moderate).
(Cited in The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy, Penguin, 2005.)

So do we have a misconception of Victorian society? And if so, why? Is it because our high-school history teachers never bothered to explain it to us in depth? Or because we love to watch Dickens' adaptations and just accept that everything was dark, dirty and repressed? And are you a Victorian realist or romanticist?

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