Reading about Victorian England is one of my homely pleasures.
I heart the era for the same reason that fans like steampunk. It takes me away from the unbearable lightness of all things beginning with an “i” or an “e.” The past feels more solid than the present, principally, because of the manner in which it was rendered by writers of that era, such as Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle.
Through the sheer choice and arrangement of words, they were able to convey the fine nuances of lights and sounds from the surfaces of their lives. A page or two into a Sherlock Holmes adventure, I arrive in gray London, on a terrain, where I can hear clear, crisp sounds, each distinct from the other: the rattle of the wheels of a carriage, the clink of a horse’s hooves, the raucous holler of a knot of “street Arabs.”
What we’re surrounded by today, by contrast, is ambient noise—everywhere, yet nowhere, at the same time. The fabrics of our existence are versions of Jackson Pollock art, splintered by the aural confetti of ringtones, commercial jingles, Facebook “Pokes,” the hum of smartphone vibrations, and others too diffuse to even label. And when narrated by 21st century literature, they seem all the more cacophonous, a pixelated jumble that resists all effort at plucking out its individual squares.
I wonder how Virginia Woolf would’ve described the Internet.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote: “Hell is a city much like London. A populous and a smoky city.” Indeed, at the time, the air quality in London was at its worst, having reached a nadir in 1890. What with its open fires, opium dens, and vile alleys, the English capital was once a grimy and seedy city.
Yet, descriptions of that very dirty metropolis, when they come to me, distilled by the pen of Watson, are imbued with a quality that fills me with an indescribable joy. The old-fashioned turns of phrases and the long-winded prose, seem to filter out from that urban slag heap, the foul stench of the dung that littered the streets, the grains of soot that hung in the air, and other civic inconveniences of the time.
What I see and hear, only, are the sharp crackle of an outdoor fire by the Thames, the romantic flicker of gaslights, the toasty warmth of a fireplace, the homey atmosphere of dun-colored houses, the pale-yellow penumbras thrown by gas-lit streetlights.
Such is my fascination with that period, as created purely by 19th century writing. The sartorial fashion of the day was heavier, and I’m fairly certain I’d have been encumbered by it. But that doesn’t enfeeble my romantic notion of it.
Take the ulster. A daytime overcoat, with a cape and sleeves, it was a clumsy garment by modern standards. One cannot deny, though, that it bestowed gravity on the wearer. A pair of fleecy sweats, for instance, seems almost diaphanous next to a scarlet dressing-gown, hanging on a wooden peg.
The act of lighting the gas sounds degrees more charming than the flipping of a light switch on an LED lamp.
Soon, coder-scholars will create a three-dimensional digital clone of Sherlockian London, which we could enter through a pair of 3D goggles. Still, reading provides no less an enjoyable form of time-traveling.