I spent Sunday before last at the Dickens Fair. It required a great suspension of disbelief on my part.
Like its brother, Ren Fair, Dickens Fair is a venue where adults can go to pretend that they are back in a period of time when life was simpler, more interesting. It doesn’t work for me because a) the anachronisms* (aside from all the people not dressed in garb at all, the fashions range through a wide time period — like today, women’s fashions changed relatively rapidly) and b) I was a history major in college.
A history major with an emphasis on women’s history. With a particular interest in women’s history in Britain and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s been nearly thirty years since I graduated, but I remember enough to know that no sane woman would want to return to Dickensian England.
Life for the upper classes could be comfortable, for the middle class tolerable, for the working poor miserable. This goes double for women. A woman’s property (and children were seen as property), including her dowry if she had one and her earnings, if she were a working woman, legally belonged solely to her husband. He could — and in some recorded cases, did — return home only to divest her of whatever she had before leaving again. Divorce for any reason — including cruelty or adultery on a husband’s part — was a disaster for women: it meant ostracization, and loss of children, home, and property.
The double standard was extreme: it was assumed that men would indulge their sexual desires, where women were expected to be pure and chaste. Women’s emotions were seen often as pathological, hysterical. (One interesting side effect was the cure: inducing orgasms. The vibrator was invented by a Victorian doctor who was tired of the fatigue of “vulvular stimulation.” See the movie Hysteria, which while not exactly accurate did get some basic facts right.)
Rates of infant and maternal mortality were incredibly high. This was an era before antisepsis. A hospital was where you were taken as a matter of last resort.
There was child labor. There were debtor’s prisons. Dickens was very familiar with both: his father spent time in the latter, and Charles was forced to work ten-hour days at a boot blacking shop.
There was no safety net — you starved if you did not have enough food.
The zeitgeist of the era — at least where women, or at least those who were not poor, were concerned — was conveyed by the contemptible poem “The Angel in the House” by Coventry Patmore. Women were to be devoted, submissive, meek, living only for home and family and above all pure. They were not supposed to think.
There was no higher education for women. The first college for women at Cambridge, Girton Hall, was founded in 1869, the year before Dickens died, but women were not granted Bachelor of Arts degrees until 1921. The first college for women at Oxford, Lady Margaret Hall, was established in 1878 — eight years after Charles Dickens died — and women were not allowed to receive degrees from the university until 1920. Women were prevented from becoming doctors or lawyers.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman to get a medical license in England in 1865, only five years before Dickens died. No medical school would admit her, so she applied for the School of Apothecaries, where she was successful in obtaining her license to practice. After she graduated, the school amended its charter to prevent women from enrolling. (She later attended the University of Paris, and received a medical degree from there. The British Medical Register did not accept this qualification.) It was not until 1922 that Carrie Morrison became the first woman solicitor.
Not to mention the suffrage movement, which was in its infancy. I could go on and on, but since I suspect I am already addressing people who know some of this anyway, I’ll stop.
I’m not sure why all of this bothers me so much. After all, Dickens Fair really is just “LARPing for adults” as the Red-Headed Menace calls it. People dress up (and I thought about wearing my corset and a black skirt, even though I would have looked like a spectacularly disreputable dance-hall girl) and pretend.
I blame Hollywood. The reason this entire endeavor is so attractive to people is because of how the world of Dickens is portrayed on the big and small screens. The children in Oliver! appear hungry — if that — not starving. The streets in any version of A Christmas Carol that I’ve seen are clean, not filthy.
That world is neat and tidy, even as it proclaims itself not to be. It is the glamorization of what was a dirty, unpleasant time. The Disneyfication of history.
I love history. It is incredibly important that we view the past as clearly as we can, as honestly as we can. To do otherwise risks us minimizing the hard work of the people who have brought us so far: the women who fought for suffrage, the scientists and doctors who fought for proper medical care and cleaner living conditions, the activists who fought to end child labor. It took effort on the part of a great many people,most of whom never made it into the history books, to create the world of today. And while it may be fun to play act as though I am in Dickensian London, it’s so much better to look around and recognize the world I live in.
A world without children working ten hours a day or people dying from cholera and where women are (at least in theory) allowed to pursue whatever dream they might have seems good enough to me.
*My favorite anachronism story: when the family visited the reenactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury in 2008, while we were discussing the costumes, the Red-Headed Menace mentioned that he saw some EMTs. “How are they dressed? In armor?” I asked sarcastically. “No, in blue uniforms with “PARAMEDIC” written on the back.” My other favorite story from that day: the Not-So-Little Drummer Boy asked “Which side do you think is going to win?” I explained that this was a reenactment, that the House of York won every year, the same as they had in 1471. “The same side wins every year? What’s the point of replaying it then?” I had to admit he might have a point.