I don’t actually believe, in the end, that I’m much of a Victorian.
I am part of an in-between generation, much in the way of the put-upon Millennials of this day and age–born between old and new technologies and world-views, somewhat comfortable with both, and generally regarded as being the root of all problems by those too lazy to question their own proclivities and shortcomings.
You are Scarlet Johansson. I am Emily Bronte.
What does this look like in practice? Well…
I arrived on the scene in 1818, as part of the post-French Revolution “baby boom,” as you might call it. Disembarked soldiers arrived back on the shores of England, told stories of heroism, took up with young women, and populated our tiny island with soon to be orphans.
I came up as a very young man in an almshouse in Yorkshire, walked to London when I was 12, discarding my lilt and taking up something a bit more Cockney, and then came of age in the city. I had a printer’s apprenticeship, a poor boy’s scholarship to University College London, which had just opened thanks to that blessedly eccentric Jeremy Bentham, and a feeling of continual bewilderment.
I was a transplant, you see, and I could never entirely shake that.
For instance, I developed active, functional literacy, but rather slowly, with the topics of my tutelage quite differentiated from those of young men and women who were brought up in traditional homes. Where they read the classics, histories, and Shakespeare, I hadn’t the cultural scope for such things, and cut my teeth on pamphlet literature, newspapers, and music. (Although I did come back around and discover Shakespeare. Don’t worry.)
Or to take another example of this in-between becomingness–I was just shy of penniless throughout college, which does colour one’s attitudes toward reasonable goals. So while my mates purchased finery, fought over politics, attended the season, and planned their first, or in some cases, second European tour, I purchased brown bread and cheese, ignored all the politics because lord knows I couldn’t vote in an election anyway, and occasionally tagged along after them at social events in a borrowed, ill-fitting suit and a consistently droopy cravat.
And even aside from my own personal out-of-placement, I was not privy to those things that 20th and 21st century folks tend to think of as Victorian nor was I really high Regency.
I lived in a world as of yet uninformed by John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, or Oscar Wilde. But I had also missed the heyday so vibrantly described and lived by John Keats, Lord Byron, or Jane Austen.
I was born after the dawn of the factory system…but only just–my birth missed the Luddite movement by only two years. So, the air that I breathed was a mite cleaner than the air of later Victorians, but sooty enough to inspire the Chartist labour movement, of which I was proudly a part, despite my apprenticed status.
I was born in the age of the King Georges. Victoria did not take the throne until 1837.
I was born before the height of empire, before the extension of the franchise and the era of mass politics, before the earliest welfare systems of the late-nineteenth century. Before germ theory, votes-for-women, the decline of the aristocracy, or Darwin.
I remember the Irish Famine, but I was not alive to see the struggles for Home Rule.
I remember the Corn Law battles between the Whigs, Tories, and Radicals, but the resultant liberal and conservative parties were fledgling at best when I passed on.
I remember reading Karl Marx when he was fresh off the presses in the Springtime of the Peoples, and I read things off the continent in that year of revolutions, just out of translation. But the resulting conservative backlash and nationalism, as you know it, was still in flux–an open and contested project, rather than the stuff of flags and anthems.
I did drink a lot of tea though. That stereotype holds.
And I was forced to participate in my fair share of lawn games and parlour games and turns about the park.
So, I suppose my point is, when I speak on things Victorian, keep in mind that my experience of that romanticized world was quite rough and tumble at times, and quite oddly situated, and quite idiosyncratic.
Keep in mind that when I did develop a politics of sorts, they were radical. I was and am a (small R) republican, a feminist, an anti-imperialist, an abolitionist, a philanthropist, a revolutionary, and an advocate for all rights broadly queer.
And if you ask me about Charles Dickens, expect a full on profanity-laced tirade.