Note: We are running this story once again to wish a fare-thee-well to Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman, who will move to a Victorian house in Iowa that calls to them. It was fun doing this story and getting a peek into a lifestyle that is so very interesting –Kate Poss
Two months ago, when no one knew what was to come now, I visited the Coupeville Library, asking about a good story to write. Gabriel Chrisman, who dresses in Victorian-style clothes and pedals to work from the Coupeville Ferry, was suggested as an interesting interview.
You may have seen Gabriel and his wife Sarah Chrisman where they live in Port Townsend, dressed in Victorian-style clothes. Sarah publishes a historical fiction series, in which we learn about clothing, bicycles, and ways of thinking from the late 1800’s. Her webpage, This Victorian Life, lists her books, Victorian-influenced links, press, poetry, and a window in their world. It’s appealing and interesting.
With social distancing now in place, I sent Gabriel a list of questions via email. This is Whidbey’s David Welton went out last month to photograph Gabriel on his way to work at the Coupeville Library as he exited the ferry wearing wool knickers and riding a bicycle he built based on what was ridden in the Victorian era .
Here are Gabriel’s email replies to my questions of why he and Sarah choose to live the way they do:
“We have been dressing this way for 12 years now. Our interest in the period (we focus on the late Victorian era, 1880s-1890s) started pretty early in each of our lives — Sarah loved places like the Flavel House in Astoria as a kid, and always appreciated the aesthetic of the late Victorian Era even before she knew any of the history. I have always been interested in technology, and the history of technology – especially mechanical technology such as bicycles. I was homeschooled, and was encouraged to explore subjects that interested me by immersing myself in them, and by trying things for myself. Sarah majored in languages (Kate’s addition: at UW and internationally) and cultural studies at university, where immersion is the norm for studying and learning. After initially trying computer science, I majored in history, with a significant focus on primary sources and archives, before getting my MLIS (Master of Library and Information Studies) from the iSchool at the UW.
“All of this came together when we started to seriously explore the history of everyday life and culture in the late Victorian Era. While studying original clothing and technology, we realized that you can only learn so much by reading about something, demonstrating a machine, or even by putting on clothes for a short presentation. It is an entirely different experience to live with these things in the long term, just as the people living with these clothes and technology did originally.
“This really came home to me when I realized how different the posture was for the original Victorian clothing, and how the technologies we use on a daily basis physically shape our bodies differently, which in turn shape our clothing and the way we present ourselves to the rest of the world. For Sarah, actually wearing a corset shattered all the negative things she (and everyone else) has been told about them — the reality was very different than the story usually told by modern history writers (and by history writers of the 20th century), who often had no direct experience with the garment being worn as they were intended. Going back to the primary sources, we found a completely different story than all of the histories written after the fact. A lot of history is colored by stereotypes, oversimplification and the distorting lenses of modern assumptions and misconceptions.
“This set of realizations, along with the strong reactions we encountered from many people, led to Sarah writing her first book, Victorian Secrets. This book was intended to answer a lot of these questions, so I would highly recommend it!”
Kate’s note—I asked why Gabriel bought a corset for Sarah as she notes in her book Victorian Secrets. He writes: “It was so she could wear period clothes as well. Women’s clothes at the time all were fitted to the corset, and just wouldn’t work without it.”
Sarah writes on her webpage that after wearing a corset, her posture improved, her waist grew smaller, and she experienced fewer migraines.
Gabriel adds, “She followed it up with This Victorian Life, which told more about all the other various elements of historical technology and culture that we try to build into our lives. Our goal in all of this is to understand and learn from the details of a culture that fascinates us. Many of the details of a culture are not written down in histories, but they can be approached and appreciated through all the material and technological artifacts that made up the patterns and shape of daily life at the time. Doing all of this has been a gradual process — no one is funding this but ourselves, and it often takes a lot of work and money to restore and install elements of our Victorian technology.
“Sarah’s real dream, however, was to share what she was learning about the culture and world of the late Victorian era through fiction. She has been a full-time writer since the publication of her first book. For the last several years, she has been writing a series of books set in a fictionalized version of Port Townsend she calls Chetzemoka. She has written six books so far in the series, Tales of Chetzemoka, and they follow a group of friends through relationships, mysteries, and other challenges.”
In an email tonight Sarah writes: “The characters in my fiction are inspired by a lot of different sources. There was actually a dressmaker in 19th-century Port Townsend named (believe it or not) Pussy Butler! I found her in the census records in the county archives. The name Pussy Butler seemed a little too much like a Bond girl for modern audiences, so I toned it down to Kitty. Her personality is a composite of various romantic heroines from nineteenth-century magazine stories and novels of the time. (She owes more than a bit to the protagonist in Amélie Rives’ book, The Quick or the Dead?) Some parts of her come from these fictitious works, some come from various 19th-century diaries of real women, and yes, there’s some of me in her, too. I think all authors put a bit of ourselves into our characters to one extent or another. If you read later books in my Tales of Chetzemoka series, there’s even more of me in Addie and Sophie than there is in Kitty. Addie is me as a grown woman, and Sophie is me as a little girl (wreaking havoc despite the best of intentions). Gabriel helps me extensively with all my male characters and his insights are invaluable. I really couldn’t write men as realistically as I do without his help, despite all my research. So there’s a bit of him in Doc, too – and in all my admirable male characters. I made a little video that tells a bit more about how I craft my characters. And I also made one about some of the various research that goes into my books–this one includes some nice footage of Gabriel working in the library. This video tells some of our philosophies and why we do what we do, and it’s also got some pretty nice footage of our home.
“We have done numerous talks and presentations over the years, focused on many elements of our interests,” Gabriel wrote. “Our favorites right now are centered around the culture and technology of bicycles in the late 19th century, and the challenges and methods of writing historical fiction set in this period. Past talks I have given at the libraries include the Edison cylinder phonograph, bicycle and tricycle technology, etc. Sarah has done readings from her books at the library as well. We have also presented at the University of Minnesota, and the Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville. You can find more about these talks here: This Victorian Life: Past Events.“
Until their trip was cancelled this week, Gabriel and Sarah planned to travel to Japan, where Sarah had once spent a year working in Komatsu.
“When we get to go to Japan, we plan to study the culture of the Meiji period, when Japan was dramatically connected to the rest of the world in the late 19th century,” Gabriel wrote. “We have been planning this trip for months. Sarah taught English in Japan for a year 13 years ago, and we have wanted to go back together. This period and culture has fascinated us, as has the obvious fascination of American and British culture with Japanese culture at the time.
“Most people associate Victorian history with England, America, and maybe Europe, but the late 19th century happened all over the world, and all of it interests us, not just the stereotypical parts. While not much of the Meiji architecture has survived in Japan, and it is not a favorite period for modern writers, it provides a great example of how cultures collided during the Victorian era and shaped each other in the process. The speedy adoption of modern technologies in Japan at the time is of particular interest for me! One more thing we love about Japanese culture is that they have a different approach to keeping their history alive — people wear historical clothing in Japan, the kimono or the yukata, much more often and in many more contexts than people in America or Europe. We clearly agree with this integration of visible cultural history into everyday life. All of our travel and study plans do rely on museums reopening on schedule, so that is what we are watching carefully right now.”
I asked Gabriel to describe himself:
“My interest in technology and how it relates to people and everyday life is very broad. In my own life, my favorite technology is the bicycle. I worked as a bicycle mechanic and shop manager for nearly 20 years before coming to the library, and I chose that industry because of the way the bicycle let me engage with the world and with other people. Previously, I had been a computer science major at the UW in the 90s, and this made me realize how alienating the technology could be. Spending all my time working with black boxes that were obscure, opaque, and only really relevant in their own imaginary world was not the way I wanted to interact with life —whereas the bike I was riding to class every day rewarded tinkering and effort with actual physical progress in the real world, and brought me into contact with people to have real interactions with. Our technology is the lens through which we view and encounter the world, and changing our technologies can radically change our experience of that world. I like to have control over the technologies I use, and that means that I prefer technologies that can be fixed, understood, repaired and aren’t designed for planned obsolescence.
“Of course, now that I’m back in the world of technology through the library, I hope to use my past experiences and perspective to help people when the technology in their world can be overwhelming. I am part of the system-wide digital literacy team, and in the Coupeville Library I help numerous people understand their digital devices and what their options are. Technology can be a choice, if we remember that it is meant to help us achieve our goals in the world. If it doesn’t help that, why are we using it? I still ride my bike to work every day — often bicycles I build myself that are copies of late-19th-century models. The clothes I wear every day at the library are copies of late-19th-century cycling outfits. I run bicycle maintenance programs at the libraries as well!
“A lot of people get stuck on the anachronism of what we are doing, and try to find and point out all the details we can’t replicate from the past, or the modern elements that we need to keep in to engage with the modern world or make a living. The implication is that we’re somehow ‘doing it wrong’. This focus highlights how modern American culture is not tolerant of technological diversity —people are expected to conform with the very American idea that new things are inherently better, and reject older technologies and methods out of hand. Or, if we do try and bring back historical technologies and practices, we are somehow expected to replicate everything perfectly and completely reject modern technology —pretend that it doesn’t exist. It is seen as an either/or option in our increasingly black-and-white, polarized society.
“We know, probably better than anyone else, how impossible it is to replicate all the aspects of the past in our modern world. It is equally impossible to completely avoid modern technologies (at least with a normal level of resources). However, we try not to let any of this get in the way of recreating whatever elements and aspects that we can make possible, so we can learn from them.
“When people pick at our lives, it reminds us that this is one of the major reasons more people aren’t doing what we are —society can make it uncomfortable to do so. This has been one of the challenges in talking to journalists in the past —the story that many of them want to tell usually doesn’t reflect our actual story or values —because it is much more complicated to explain and doesn’t fit with people’s expectations. It is easy to say ‘these people live just like they did in the past’, but it is much harder to explain what is possible, what isn’t, and why, and how to make those choices. This is too bad, because these sorts of discussions would possibly make other people aware that they, too, have options about what technology they want to use in their lives. That they can potentially pick and choose for themselves.”
Now that their Japan trip is postponed, Gabriel wrote in a latest email: “I’ve been able to use some of this time to finish the bicycle project I’ve been working on—a bike commissioned by an HBO production company for use in an upcoming period drama. Here is the link.
During these time of resetting our lives, explore what it is that makes you feel alive—spending virtual time with Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman this past month gives me an appreciation for their love of each other and how their shared interest enriches their lives and ours.