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Finding Comfort In Victorian England

I’ve spent all of quarantine watching documentaries about Victorian England, but why?

Since I reached the depths of my quarantine sadness in mid-April, I found myself exclusively watching any documentaries I could find on YouTube about everyday life in Victorian England. Whether it’s a video on how to make authentic meat pies, or a scientific experiment about how corsets made it hard for women to move around, and do everyday tasks (I don’t think we needed a full experiment to prove that, but I appreciate the scientific data nonetheless). Personally, I’ve always been a history lover, but there is just something about watching how dreary life once was that made dealing with this new solitary normal more comfortable. The more I talked about it; other people started telling me that they were watching similar videos. What is it about these nuggets of wisdom from a different time that brings us some kind of strange level of comfort in a strange time?

I started my journey with British Victorian baking tutorials. They were short, mostly sweet, and they get to the point. Since April I’ve learned how to make various vegetables suspended in gelatin, a very questionable, and mostly melted ice cream, and a suspicious meat pie made out of freshly caught, wait for it… pigeons. Will I ever attempt to make a pigeon meat pie? Absolutely not, but in an emergency could I make one? Maybe (they don’t really give you measurements which can be a little confusing).  Alright, so Victorian cooking and baking tutorials aren’t exactly Food Network material, but it’s definitely reminiscent of a time 3-5 months ago when everybody was making their own bread. It can be kind of cool to be self-sufficient with simple baking. DIY ice cream recipes have come a long way, so while all of you are tending to your sourdough starters, I’ll be hanging out with my home-made fully frozen chocolate ice cream.

Once my hunger for Victorian England grew, I began to dive into hour long docs about THE Queen Victoria. Victoria was kind of a badass you guys. She proposed to her own husband (ok I know this was because she was already a queen so he technically couldn’t propose to her), and she tried to bend the rules as much as she could (you know, in the confined way the queen of England can be). Turns out good ol’ Vic caused quite the commotion wherever she travelled (as she should), and people of all social standings worked day and night to make sure her stays at their palatial homes were top tier. These docs included various excerpts from the Queen’s diaries from the time she was a teen writing about her love of popular music, to details of her travels, and how bored she sometimes was because it is terribly boring being a queen. Humans teenage girls really haven’t changed that much, and I take comfort in knowing that Queen Victoria would have loved One Direction, and Ariana Grande as much as I do.

Because my appetite for more information only got bigger, I found some pretty intense docuseries about people (c-list British celebrities and athletes) stepping back in time to live and work in the gruelling conditions of Victorian workhouses, and factories. Seriously, these places were the gloomiest to work in, and the punishment for not doing them correctly were harsh. and the fact that this back-breaking, 24/7 jobs hardly paid, and sometimes they only paid their workers with a straw bed to sleep on. Often, it was the last place people had to turn to, and it wasn’t exactly a luxury stay with a complimentary breakfast each morning. It was like Oliver Twist came to life, and I’ll admit, these shows were a strange addition into my regular comfort viewing rotation of Friends, The Office, and other Disney Channel shows from my childhood. But there was something strangely warm and comforting about them. I was being entertained, and I was learning something new. Watching people working their fingers to the bone, brought comfort to me in a time where I felt the whole world was changing. Perhaps it is the soft lull of an English accent talking about pigeon pies that somehow works like a lullaby.

Through this whole shared experience of loneliness, boredom, and just being scared and tired of the information overload we are all getting every minute of every day, is it really that strange to take comfort in something that’s a little dark?  I think it makes the endless nightmare that 2020 has given us a little easier to deal with. We’re getting something new thrown at us weekly. Contagious virus, murder hornets (what ever happened to them?), among many other things. Life looks really different this summer. Drinks on patios, and concerts have turned into late night video calls, and while I’m not upset that we’re taking the time to slow things down a little bit, I think we all miss the lives we once lived so carelessly. Learning about how people once lived in less than ideal conditions somehow makes me feel warm and comfy. After all of this, I could never see myself thriving in Victorian England.  But I can take short trips there with high-speed Wi-Fi and homemade bread.

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