Since 2009, the duo has painstakingly structured their house and surroundings to resemble life as it used to be in Victorian times. The house they inhabit was built in Port Townsend in the 1880’s. It all started with small steps like collecting clothes from the period but gradually evolved into a deep immersion in Victorian culture.

 

They say one man’s obsession is society’s idea of insanity. Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman are a living testimony to this. Based in Washington, this atypical couple is breaking the barriers of time to recreate the most written about period in literature – the Victorian era (1830s to the beginning of the 20th century); within the sanctuary of their house. When Queen Victoria was on the throne of England and the period that saw the birth of what we call “classic” literature – that continues to dominate modern discourse in the field of English literature across the world.

Since 2009, the duo has painstakingly structured their house and surroundings to resemble life as it used to be in Victorian times. The house they inhabit was built in Port Townsend in the 1880’s. It all started with small steps like collecting clothes from the period but gradually evolved into a deep immersion in Victorian culture. Their focus is on the last decades of the period that witnessed the emergence of gadgets like the telephone, electric bulb and cars. They ride 19th century bicycles to travel, and wear hand-sewn vintage wardrobes.

The Chrisman house is furnished with antique appliances, such as a wood-fired stove set, an ice box, a lamp that uses gas and matches and toothbrushes made from “natural boar bristles”. They don’t have modern appliances like a washing machine, dryer, microwave or mixer. In order to survive in 2016, they do have to make some compromises, such as having a modern phone, though they say they’ve never owned mobile phones.

Gabriel has a library sciences degree but works at a bike shop, and Sarah works at home as a writer. She has written three books on the subject, the most recent one being “This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technologies.” They have documented the details of their life and adventures on their website and is putting their detailed research of the period to use by offering consulting services to writers, film producers and radio programs.

Sarah, a humanities student like any good Victorian lady, insists that there is no better way to understand history than to live it; and that what may appear to be an anachronistic experiment to outsiders is just their way of experiencing a time they find more fascinating than the present. She had even written an entire book in script with ink but could only submit it to an editor by typing it up.

Criticisms to the couple’s unique lifestyle range from being stuck in the past to attracting unwarranted media and public attention. In her blog, Sarah writes: “People assume that the hard part of our lifestyle comes from the life itself, but using Victorian items every day brings us great joy and fulfilment. The truly hard part is dealing with other people’s reactions.”

This seemingly bizarre lifestyle choice and the reactions it has elicited points to the society’s uncomfortable position on non-conformity of any kind. It raises questions on how we confront individual quests and where we place them within the intangible boundaries of our “acceptable” social structures. It also forces us to confront the eternal philosophical questions of time and the hold that the past has on the present.

As Kierkegaard said, “life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forward.” One way to look at it is that the Chrismans are, perhaps, more inclined to understand life as it was than to merely live it as it is.

 

Varun Dhingra

Varun Dhingra

Varun Dhingra is a New Delhi based finance professional and writer.

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