Would you like to be a Victorian?

January 29, 2018

 

Given that I’m an allegedly retired history professor and have done a living history interpretation of Cape May’s leading Victorian, Dr. Emlen Physick, for several years, this is a logical question frequently asked of me.  My answer may surprise many.  No!

 

Why not?  Why, if I could live the life of this upper-class Victorian man of wealth and prestige, would I not want to do so?  My answer is based primarily on issues of health, both physical and mental, and creature comforts.  The issues are the primitive state of medical care compared to today, the somewhat surprising stresses of upper class Victorian life and the lack of air-conditioning.

 

Being fortunate enough to be Upper Class or even Middle Class during the era doesn’t change my mind.  If I were unfortunate enough to be a lower class Victorian, my answer would be even more emphatic.

 

It’s difficult for people of contemporary times to fully understand how wretched lower class life was in any past era.  It was especially horrible during the Victorian Era.  Those unfortunates lived in cramped, poorly-ventilated and poorly-heated quarters, consumed food of questionable quality and low nutritional value, and worked 10-hour days,  six days a week at hard labor and were barely able to survive day to day.  If they did survive, it was at a subsistence level, barely doing so. This was true of most urban industrial and rural agricultural families alike.  In addition, most middle and upper class Victorians told them their plight was a result of their own sloth and moral deficiencies.  They ridiculed them for being of the meaner or lesser sort and not rising to at least middle class status as 40 percent of the American population had done during the era.  Exploitation and condemnation was their lot.

 

This same social philosophy placed tremendous stress on middle and upper class Victorians, as well.  They were obsessed equally by achievin