I have serious mixed feelings about the Victorians and the Victorian era. On one hand, the Victorian era set a lot of aesthetic standards that remain today. They created a terrible amount of beauty. The setting of the Victorian era just bleeds colour and style. It was also an amazing period of scientific advancement.
On the other hand, the Victorian era was a period of rampant inequality, injustice, homophobia, sexism, child workforces and colonialism. Not to mention full of sexual repression.
I absolutely love the documentary Vintage Tomorrows, which focuses on the steampunk subculture. One of the points its raises however is the pith helmet.
To some, this helmet just an iconic symbol of the explorer archetype. Google “Victorian Explorer” and you primarily find pictures of men wearing pith helmets. It is commonly used in Steampunk costuming to signal a daring Victorian scientist, archaeologist, or hunter on a voyage of discovery.
But this innocent symbology can’t exist in a void. There is a whole lot of messaging attached to pith helmets. In the Victorian era, they were widely worn by British occupiers in Africa. This gives them an intense connection to the imagery of colonisation.
Melanie Trump recently was part of a controversy when she wore a pith helmet on safari. The image of a wealthy white woman wearing this outfit on tour in Africa struck to close to Victorian gentlemen and their exploitative hunting trips of the 1800s for many. Plain and simple they are also a symbol of white colonialism and rule for many people.
If I’m set on writing in the Victorian era, what do I do?
Nostalgia omission is a real danger when writing anything about the Victorians. It is super easy to imagine the Victorian era as one of beautiful dresses, gaudy interior decorating, and scientific discovery. Full of brooding romances or dashing heroes on big adventures.
The reality is a lot more complex. When we’re writing anything set in a historic period, we need to temper it with a dose of reality. We white people shouldn’t be writing our ancestors into the role of saints and heroes.
I personally view fiction as a wonderful education tool. People embrace fiction far more readily than dry history books. That means authors writing in a historical context are not just telling stories, but also teaching people about that context.
As a result there is a serious danger in writing of the Victorian era only as some enlightened, wonderful period where the curtains were pulled back on all that old medieval thinking. Because the problems that era caused are still here. Putting them in a petticoat doesn’t get rid of them, it just inhibits solving them.
Shades of grey are much more appropriate. Because not everyone was bad. But even more certainly, they weren’t all good either. To handle it any other way is not only a lie, but a disservice to history.
I spoke with the creators of Good Society, A Jane Austen RPG about how they handled this issue. They spoke about how players need to collaborate and decide on the issues they want to confront ahead of time. This can be a great way to work through this topic in collaborative media.