Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Port Townsend

In case you have never been and if you are a Washingtonian there really is no excuse, Port Townsend and its environs are well-worth a visit. I haven't gone there in years but when I was stationed at NAS Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, I would often go there with friends.

It was a day-trip kind of place, not known for its nightlife but quaint and Victorian in appearance. Nearby, there are even naval gun emplacements that guard the entrance to Puget Sound--these too date from the Victorian era. Also in day-trip range is Victoria BC, which given the name should not surprisingly be quite Victorian. The Empress Hotel and Butchart gardens take one back to what one might imagine those times looked like.

The one flaw to the whole scene was the people: It is hard to feel like you are in Victorian times when all the tourists are dressed in t-shirts and shorts. I recently heard of a couple who live there and have adopted Victorian dress styles. They are very charming and the woman has even written a book:

Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself by Sarah A. Chrisman

Their very presence adds, at no charge to the local community, to the allure of the place.

Here is an image from their website:

It is clear from what I have read about this couple that they have not only taken up the appearance of Victorian people but much of the same outlook. I say much, because so far they do not appear to have done the thing Victorians were most famous for, which is have a large family. They are young so if they choose it, there is time for this . I am hoping that they do have kids and pass-on their ways to another generation.

To some extent they already are spreading their outlook, but in dilute form. Depending on how famous they get, they may touch millions of lives, but how much difference will one book or a television appearance make? On the other hand, one can only have only a fairly finite number of children but a much higher influence over them than with consumers of your creative output.

If you have an idea or a way of living that is valuable, shouldn't one want to have it carried forward into the future? Take Henry David Thoreau, in Walden he made an economic case for living a simple life. His point was that if you dispensed with much of what people spend their time working for, you would have much more time for what you really want to do. All fine and well, but if an able bodied man in his prime years only works hard enough to sustain himself, there will be no second generation to live this kind of life. His plan was not sustainable. An author who has ideas more fully-baked than Thoreau and also happens to hail from the Pacific North West is Neal Stephenson, who wrote a story about a future containing neo-Victorians. In The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer the neo-Victorians form communities in various locations and can raise their children, work and live all within a community that re-enforces their values. I do not think this is too far-fetched: Isn't this more-or-less what the Amish do now?

Added: Like most of Stephenson's works, I think his main goal is to take the reader on a tour of his imagined world, the plot is just a tool to move you from scene to scene. The device is a "book" which I put into quotes since it is really a supercomputer that teaches its owner whatever they need to learn. A neo-Victorian plutocrat commissions the book for his daughter, with the idea that their civilization for all its laudable ideas, can be too conformist and book is to introduce a bit of subversiveness into its reader. The upper middle class engineer sees the value in this and secretly makes an extra copy for his own daughter. This copy falls into the hands of a neglected girl living in a slum. The story revolves around this girl who would have been doomed by her circumstance to a base existence and early demise, but instead is taught skills and an outlook (the Victorian outlook) that allows her to survive and thrive.

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