I believe that we are often wistful of times gone by. We bring up memories of past experiences and think longingly and lovingly of wonderful trips and family celebrations. Babies grow up too fast and grey hairs appear on our heads too early. We consider the future and try our best to live for today, but we never leave the past behind. I was born and grew up in the late 20th century and am raising my children in the early 21st century. Over my 42 years I have seen tremendous changes in the world and an exponential growth in innovation and technology. I live a good life, often live for the day and dream about tomorrow. But with all the comforts and conveniences around me I often ask myself the question, do I live in the wrong century?
Ever since I was quite young I have had a great passion to soak up knowledge about the second half of the 19th century. It is a period in history that fascinates me, in particular Victorian England and the time of the American Civil War. If I can pinpoint a specific decade it would be the 1860’s. So much happened in the world at that time. I often wonder what life may have been like if I lived in London in 1862 or Washington DC in 1865. Or a city or town in Eastern Canada in 1867.
This thought often crosses my mind and I considered it quite a bit this week after I saw a revival of the play The King and I. Originally produced in 1951, the play was based on a book called Anna and the King of Siam, written in 1944. It is based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, who traveled to Siam in 1862 to teach the 39 wives and 82 children of King Mongkut. The play covers Anna’s time in Siam, from 1862 to 1868, when King Monkgut died.
As I watched the play and later that night, I thought about what the world was like and what happened between 1862 and 1868. Queen Victoria celebrated 25 years on the throne in 1862. The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865 and its President, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated. Confederation in Canada happened in 1867. European countries, Great Britain and France in particular, signed treaties and formed various alliances in countries across Asia and changed the landscape of that continent. The Industrial Revolution continued to change the world, with new kinds of automation and inventions.
I am fascinated by the way of life during this era. I don’t doubt that for the lower classes life was hard. For many people it was a long exhausting work week, and they often lived in very harsh conditions. Slaves in the southern United States were finally granted their freedom, but with that freedom came new challenges and still a hard life. Women around the globe, whether it be Europe, the Americas or Asia, were all considered second-class citizens. They did not have a voice or the vote. For poor women who had to work, they earned significantly less than the men.
I don’t know if Anna, from the King and I, really spoke so directly to the King of Siam like she did in the play. She looked him straight in the eyes and told him to respect women and to listen to them. She showed him how the women in his life could guide him and advise him. Which she did. So, whether Anna actually did this or not, I am sure there were strong brave women around the world in the 1860’s who did speak up and let their voices be heard during what was a tumultuous time in history.
I also like to fantasize about the world of the upper classes during the 1860’s. Those giant hoop skirts probably were not too comfortable, but I adore them. The fabrics, the colours of the clothing are spectacular. And some would say it gave women a comfortable one metre distance away from anyone else. No crowding or claustrophobia if you are wearing one of those magnificent gowns!
Then there’s the stately homes and unique architecture of the late 19thcentury. The grandeur of design and splendid style that went along with it. I don’t think that I am that lavish a person, but I think I could have handled it. I can read book after book and watch an endless stream of movies from this time period. I just can’t get enough of it.
I will admit that while I am fascinated by life in the late 19th century, I do enjoy my modern conveniences. Running water and a flushable toilet in my home would be the first to come to mind. My washing machine. Electricity everywhere. Air conditioning. I could go on and on forever about the joys of the modern conveniences we have in the 21st century that could never have even been imagined in 1862. So maybe I am living in the right century or maybe not. But with my imagination I can live anywhere, in any century.