The original, unabridged interview with SheKnows.com:
Apologies for the delay! I don't know what happened to the email I sent you. Here are a list of questions for you. I really tried to ask ones that will highlight genuine reasons for your lifestyle, rather than just address the negative comments from people. I've given you a big list in the hopes that you choose 6-8 to answer. That said, I'd really like it if you could focus on the questions with an asterisk. Apologies for the frankness of some questions, but I really want to give readers a chance to understand and appreciate your choices, Sarah!
When you write in your diary, do you use different, more time-appropriate language?
I'm very charmed that you asked this! You're the first ones who have, and it's such a big part of my life. Yes, I do use different language when I write in my diary. It's more florid, and closer to the way I actually think. Gabriel and I read so many nineteenth-century texts that we've both internalized a lot of the material and styles. I modernize things a bit when I write for public consumption.
How do you support yourself financially?
What is the cost of living for you? What are some of your expenses that modern people have/don't have? Please provide examples.
Gabriel works at a bike shop and I'm a writer: neither of these is a very lucrative profession, to put it mildly. Our household income is considerably below the average, and that's a restriction we have to work within. So we set our priorities carefully, decide what's really important for us, and work from there. In some aspects of our lives we spend more money than other people, but then we make up for it by spending less money in other ways—partly because of the manner in which we've chosen to live, partly out of pure necessity.
I sew my own clothes by hand: this takes a lot of time, but the only outlay of money is for fabric and little things like lace and buttons. It ends up costing far less than I think most other American women spend on clothes these days. On the other hand, sewing men's clothing requires an entirely different set of skills. Gabriel's clothes are made for him by a seamstress in Seattle. This costs more than most other bike shop employees spend on clothes but less than the average business man, and by paying a local seamstress we're helping support small-scale American industry.
Most people don't buy kerosene or paraffin oil very often, but of course for us these are regular expenses. The ice for our ice box costs more than the equivalent amount of electricity to run an electric refrigerator, but we use so little electricity that the power company only ever charges us their minimum fee. It's the same with the water bill. We technically pay for more than twice the water we actually use because it's the lowest tier of the billing scale at the utilities company.
I bake all our bread and we make most of our foods from scratch, which is definitely cheaper than eating out or buying ready-made foods. Neither of us have cell phones so that's a whole set of bills we don't worry about; similarly we don't have bills related to television. We buy more books than some people, but we don't buy video games.
When people who don't know us very well see our house, they often don't realize they're seeing the result of years of dedicated effort and treasure hunting. All our posessions are things that we've saved and searched for with patient dedication, often for years. Every birthday, anniversary and Christmas is an excuse to give each other things which will add to our collection and aid our mutual search for knowledge. Other people give their partners electric appliances or modern furniture; we give each other antique versions. Often the ones we can afford are in poor condition and need to be repaired; sometimes we have to keep looking for years to find an affordable example of something; and sometimes we have to scrimp and save for years to afford something we want. For example, ever since I was a little girl I wanted a Victorian vanity dresser with a mirror on top. After we moved into our house it took me three years of scrimping to save for the kind of vanity I wanted, partly because every time I thought I had enough money to start looking, some minor household emergency would come up and the funds would be needed elsewhere for something more pressing. I finally got it though, and I actually cried with happiness the first time I sat down in front of it.
I always have a private chuckle with myself when people accuse us of being "privileged" or think we're rich. When I was a small child my family was on food stamps, and I remember times growing up when my mom had to borrow my piggy bank money to buy corn flakes. From a very young age I learned how important it is to prioritize carefully and make wise choices when buying anything. Looking around our wonderful home now, I feel a poignant pride in how far I've come. It's all been a result of very hard work, and dedication.
This idea of self-betterment is a very Victorian philosophy. They truly believed that every individual has the power to make decisions that either better or worsen their lot in life, regardless of what they started with. Everything Gabriel and I have together, we have worked for very diligently. We both take great pride in what we do and what we've accomplished together. We hope that we provide proof that all dreams are possible if only a person puts enough effort and dedication into them.
You seem like a very independent woman - how do you reconcile that with the way women were regarded in the Victorian era?
What are some things that people get really wrong about the Victorian era?
Actually, Victorian women were just as diverse as their modern counterparts. (Incidentally, the same goes for Victorian men.) The individuals in any society —in any place or any time— exhibit the full spectrum of human attributes and inclinations. Some are shy, some are bold; some are witty, some are analytical; some are optimists, some are morose... The list is endless.
Think of your own nationality. Now think of a cliché about that nationality. Do you fit into that cliché in every single way? Of course not! Human beings are far more than stereotypes. It's just as wrong to say all people in a given time were one way than to say that all people in a given place are one way.
I have a cultural studies degree. When I went abroad, I was always awestruck by how marvelously different every individual was in each country I visited. I was fascinated by the marvelous diversity that exists between unique individuals in every culture.
Ironically though, before Gabriel and I started living this way, I did believe a lot of stereotypes of historic cultures. I believed things other people had always told me about Victorian culture —tired old chestnuts like the idea of women being oppressed, etc,—simply because they were the things I'd always heard. It never occurred to me to question them until we started going back to primary sources (texts and artifacts from the actual period itself.) It was just as eye-opening about the diversity of the past as going to other countries had been about cultures of the present.
One of the biggest lessons that Gabriel and I absorb throughout all of our studies is how marvelously unique all people are, no matter when we're living.
It seems the era was not kind to a lot of people. In fact, it was downright cruel. Please explain.
Again, be careful about blanket statements regarding any culture! There are parts of modern America that are terribly cruel, and injustice is sadly a part of the human condition. In 2015 there are horribly racist public figures, homophobes in positions of power, and bigots of all sorts doing horrible things every day, here in America and all around the world. But there are good people as well, and that was just as true in the past as it is today.
The comment "The Victorian era was downright cruel," slaps that description on Frederick Douglass, and Florence Nightingale, and millions upon millions of other people who don't deserve it. It slanders their memory. Gabriel and I try to honor that memory by working to understand their world better and appreciate their contributions.
Do you control what people do when they visit you? As in, can they bring their modern lifestyle choices into your home? Any restrictions?
We're real people, not actors; and our house is a real home, not a stage set. Our friends are welcome to bring whatever they want. We respect their choices just as they respect ours. That's what friendship is all about!
Is this an actual lifestyle you have adopted and plan to keep up? Or is it purely for research purposes? What will you do with this research?
It's a lifestyle: how we love to live and how we love to learn—no more, no less. Learning isn't something that's only locked away in schools, and it shouldn't end when we graduate from those schools. We both feel that education is something that should continue throughout a person's life, and enter into every part of that life. Of course we plan to continue it. The things we learn from it and the insights we gain are an end unto themselves: they bring us closer together as a couple and give us each happiness in the process. We always have something to talk about, and share with each other. I keep a little notepad at my waist as part of a Victorian chatelaine: throughout each day I'm always jotting down things I want to talk with Gabriel about when he gets home. There's always more to learn!
Do people owe other people an explanation for the way they live their lives?
Certainly not! But it's funny how many people seem to think we owe them an explanation for how we live ours.
Why did you feel compelled to tell this story?
People kept asking me to tell it. When I'm asked the same questions twenty times en route to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk, it really interferes with my schedule. (Especially since the questions never have "yes" or "no" answers.) After a while it just seemed easier to tell people to read my book.
Beyond that, I really hope we can teach people about the Victorian era, and help them re-evaluate their own stereotypes. We want to encourage them to do their own research into the time, and find their own connections to the past. This isn't cherry-picking: this is being yourself and taking a broader perspective on your own passions. Are you into sports? There were some exciting things going on in athletics in the 1880s and '90s—check them out! Look up accounts of some games actually written at the time, not just a bland commentary told more than a century after the fact. The first-hand material is always far better. Are you the sort of person who loves a good mystery novel? Try reading some by Wilkie Collins! Can't put down your technology? Read up on the kinds of technology people had in the nineteenth-century: if you'd lived back then, what would you have felt you couldn't possibly live without? A while back we had a visit from a young man who hardly put down his cell phone the entire time he was here, and he absolutely loved Gabriel's mechanical pocket watch! It was a marvelous piece of high technology he had never seen before. We all view the world from our own perspective: use yours as a doorway to things that will bring you joy and teach you something worthwhile in the process.
I hope we can inspire people to think about what goals they could achieve in their own lives with patience and dedication. We don't expect other people to have the same goals we have, but we do want more people to follow their dreams—whatever those dreams may be.
How do you square using technology for your site/communication?
Our touchstone is that when a Victorian option still exists we use it. Remember though that it's not just a question of individual pieces of technology, but also of the whole infrastructure that supported that technology. Communication is a good example. By the end of the nineteenth-century, major cities could have five or more deliveries of physical mail every day; a situation that's no longer the case. For even faster responses, there was the telegraph. In the past few days a lot of reporters have been contacting me: with the tight deadlines their editors expect, in the Victorian era our interviews might have been conducted by telegraph. We live up the street from what used to be our town's telegraph office: a proud little plaque on the building tells of its nineteenth-century role, but the telegraph itself is long gone. Even if we bought a telegraph key and learned Morse code, it would do us no good since the entire infrastructure is gone. To use a modern analogy, it would be like a cell phone that would never have any possibility of getting a signal.
We know better than anyone that it would be ridiculous for two people to try reinstating industries that used to employ millions. We're committed to making all this a sustainable lifestyle, and part of that is navigating the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. When an older method of doing something is just no longer an option anymore, we carefully discuss and debate what the closest modern equivalent would be, and what fits in best with our philosophies. We have the website because we want to educate people and encourage them to learn more, and websites are just the way modern people are accustomed to receiving that sort of outreach. If we tried handing out pamphlets instead, it wouldn't be as successful because it's not the engagement people expect anymore.
You said people come up and try to put their hands on your waist or touch you in some other way – why do you think that is?
First and foremost it comes from a lack of any sense of human decency. Pregnant women experience the same thing, and women who've gone through it tell me about how violating it was to be treated as though their body were public property.
What do you use for birth control?
That's a very personal question, indeed! It brings up some things that get left out of most people's history educations though, so I'll answer it. We use condoms, an innovation which has been around since Ancient Egypt and certainly was widely available in the Victorian era. Sometimes the simplest solutions really are the best.
A lot of modern people are surprised when they hear that women have been able to control their family size since the very start of civilization. Some of those who aren't surprised by the idea are people who study folk songs and traditional medicines. Various methods of preventing conception come up quite often in folk songs dating back hundreds of years. Probably the most famous of these in modern circles is an old English folk song; it entered pop culture when it was covered by the group Simon and Garfunkel under the title "Scarborough Fair." (People interested in the original versions should look them up in the Child Ballads; they fall under the category usually classed as "Child 2: The Elfin Knight.") In this song, one lover issues a number of impossible commands. The other lover responds in the refrain by listing herbs which—as essential oils in large enough dosages—induce menstruation: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Along similar lines, homeopathic doctors and midwives know that women who are trying to get pregnant should avoid certain herbs: it's not new knowledge!
Do you take antiobiotics, other medicine? Please explain.
It's extremely popular to pick on Victorian medicine, but in a hundred years people will look back on the medical practices of today and criticize them just as strongly. We try to stay as healthy as we possibly can through our living choices, such as cycling, proper eating, and paying close attention to what our bodies tell us. These are just good practices in any time! We haven't been very impressed with modern medicine in our few experiences with it. Neither of us has had health insurance for over a decade, and we're certainly not alone in this. It's a situation faced by many Americans, and we all do what we can. Part of what we've learned from our studies is a wide variety of wellness activities that were a standard part of daily life in the past, such as walking and balanced workout routines. Gabriel's morning workout is based on one developed by Austrian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow at the end of the nineteenth century.
We do avail ourselves of modern dentistry, although admittedly it is the one time when we wish we could go to the future instead of the past.
Do you vote? Please explain.
I'm not a political animal by nature. Very few parties or candidates represent our values and priorities, and it is the rare issue that can get me at all worked up — or even interested. I have a lot of sympathy with the anti-suffragists such as First Lady Frances Cleveland, who emphasized the huge amount of power women held in many aspects of life and feared that getting dragged down into the political mud would dramatically diminish the power they already exercised. First Lady Cleveland and those of her movement felt that women were inherently morally superior to men, and that by getting involved in the political arena they could only jeapordize that status. Who can deny that politics is a dirty business?
What do you miss?
Anonymity, sometimes. It's hard being a constant target for other people's ignorance. But we're doing what we want to do, and that's what matters. We won't let other people's small-mindedness steal our joy from us.
Thank you for this interview! I hope you don't mind if I conclude with a quote from 1889. It's one of our favorites and it sums up our philosophies very well:
"From my earliest boyhood, ancient wearing apparel, old household and kitchen utensils, and antique furniture, have appealed to me with peculiar force, telling facts and relating incidents to me in such a plain, homely but graphic manner of the every-day life of our ancestors, that I look upon them more as text-books than as curiosities; for it is only by the light of truth reflected from these objects that we are enabled to. . . pierce the. . . fiction with which the perspective of years surrounds the commonest objects of those remote times." —Beard, Dan C. "Six Feet of Romance." The Cosmopolitan. July, 1889. p. 226.