Posted by: emmajem | December 5, 2012

Reel Victorians

“We never called ourselves teenagers, but we were certainly Victorians.”

This quote ends a clip of a show that I would love to get my hands on someday, called Reel Victorians.  It is a series of three episodes which are comprised of thematic interviews about daily Victorian life.  And yes, the interviewees are actually (very old and very vivacious) Victorians.  While studying any time period it is easy to forget that it was once a very real present through which people lived, and I found these reflections on the period (remembered (mis)representations though they might be) quite refreshing.

The first segment is from the episode called “Nineties Girls,” and alternates between interviews with two women.  Both were young adults in the 1890s, living in London, but while one was working class the other was at least upper middle.  Of life in London, Berta talks about the “hansom cabs slurring through the mud; where there wasn’t mud there was fog and in between was us enjoying ourselves.”  Of course they enjoyed themselves in very different ways.  Berta (of the upper class) talks about art and how “the thing to be was decadent” (which meant enjoying Oscar Wilde).  It was Effie (the working woman) who most interested me, however, perhaps especially because of our recent discussion of Munby’s working women.  While, as one of the first secretaries, Effie was not Munby’s kind of dirty working  woman, her comments on the work of women bring a sense of the personal to a topic we have spoken much about in class.  She recalls being seated in a window typing at her typewriter, surrounded by “crowds” looking in through the glass to see what she might be doing.  Being in a window seems a very odd place to do work, but this (as well as the crowds) indicates how much women’s work really was a spectacle, and not just in the Munby way.  It reminds me of manikins in shop windows used to advertise clothing–but what is this woman in a window advertising?  The service of typing, foremost, but might she also be advertising herself?  Or women’s labor in general?  I would be curious to know just how much of women’s labor was so flagrantly flaunted.

Effie also sheds light on the condition of the Victorian woman when she discusses that radical method of transport, the bicycle.    She remembers riding along in typical Victorian bicycle dress (near-scandalous dishabille in those days) when a man shouted down to her, “Don’t you want any children?”  I am not quite sure what to say about that, but I wanted you all to at least read it (if you don’t watch the clip, which you really should do) and enjoy with me the fact that a woman riding bike in her bicycle clothes is treated as just as scandalous as a woman not riding but “walking the street” in her similarly “scandalous” occupational dress.

Another interesting thing about these clips is the mixing of genres.  All presented to the viewer in a cinematic format, the video itself–as historical videos so usually are–is an amalgam of clips from more modern interviews, clips from the Victorian period, pictures of the younger versions of the women speaking, pictures of other Victorians, and drawings from the time period.  They are all used to construct the same narrative–an episodic wander through the streets of Victorian London–and experience a kind of fluidity of essence as though they all are different they are meant to represent the same thing/time.  Since it is a first-person narration, the images shown, whether they are of the person speaking or not, are meant to represent that person, and then all contemporary persons in a more general sense.  I know it is a common technique, but I have always found the use of images to simultaneously represent the individual and the general interesting.

You should definitely take a look at these videos–they are lively, engaging, and fascinating windows on what we have been studying framed by a very personal viewpoint.  The first is from “Nineties’ Girls”:


This second one I add just because it is rather wonderful to see a 93 year old Princess Alice (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) reminisce about her grandmother.  Highlights include footage of the queen’s funeral, as well as endearing little anecdotes of the queen.  I can’t get the host site to allow me to put another video in, but here is the link:


  1. Thanks for sharing these. I love listening to people’s personal experiences.. I think I learn more from a story than an article.

  2. So very wonderful!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing! These videos are precious and absolutely charming.

    I really appreciated the connection you drew of women riding bicycles and women in their “occupational clothes”. It brings to light the novelty of dress and how clothes were (and continue to be in some degree, though I think we’ve trained our eyes to be more accepting) strict signifiers of what “type” of person someone was. It must have been such an exciting time to live with all the changes happening and yet like you mentioned, these changes were turned into spectacle as described by the woman typewriting in the window.

  4. What a great find! So interesting to see and hear this women. It is always interesting to put a voice to a moving image and to hear this women, in their own words. Remember the great fan fare that surrounded the release of the Jacqueline Kennedy audio recordings last year?

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