Monday, September 14, 2009

the victorians? who cares?

In her song "Swallow," musician Emilie Autumn sings:
Filthy Victorians
They made me what I'm made of.

As I sit here, I wonder: Is this true?

In many ways the Victorians have shaped the person I am today. Most of my pleasure reading after 6th grade was the Victorian literature in my father's den. My first serious experiments with fiction writing were set in 1890s London, amidst the dark, foggy gas-lit streets and brilliant, twisted criminals a la Sherlock Holmes stories. My fictional writing style has increasingly mimicked writers such as the Bronte Sisters (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre). As a history major in college my readings turned to the social life of the Victorians. My own personal library currently consists of titles such as Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey; The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale; Public Lives: Women, Family and Society in Victorian Britain by Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair; and Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders.

As I've read these books I began to notice how influenced modern culture is by the Victorian period, determined by Queen Victoria's reign, 1837-1901. Not only have the gothic and steampunk scenes heavily borrowed from Victorian fashion; it's entered the mainstream as well ( see especially Alexander McQueen's fashion designs of 2007.) Corsets and camisoles are now outerwear, while ruffled skirts and shirts, lace, ribbons, tweed and the like, all inspired by the Victorians. Modern artists from Rasputina to Emilie Autumn have created a sort of "Victorian Industrial" music genre, with lyrics concentrated on topics and issues of the late 19th century. Victorian science fiction from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to The Wild Wild West led to the creation of the steampunk subculture in the 1980s and 1990s, which has a steady following. On top of that, Sherlock Holmes holds the record for being the most commonly portrayed fictional character in film, with Count Dracula, another Victorian literary figure, coming in second.

My goal is to explore as many aspects as possible of Victorian culture's influences on our 21st century culture. Why is this era of history still so prominent over a century after it ended? Why aren't we sick of it yet? Most importantly, how does it shape our lives?

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