Does Steampunk Romanticise the Victorian Era? Some feel it does and that real problems such as Imperialism, racism, class issues, child labour (to name but a few) are just ignored. This is often said not just about steampunk, but about any interest in the Victorian era, but I do not feel steampunk does romanticise the Victorian era, by over-looking the worst of that time. Indeed, I am drawn to many aspects of Victorian England, especially London at that time, but that does not mean that I am not aware of the plight of so many at that time.
I wrote an article called My Victorian London and one of the first questions I asked was ‘Is it OK to like the Victorian Era?’ I quoted the below piece which was written by Charles Dickens in his A Tale of Two Cities. He was a Victorian writer, but he was actually referring to the time of the French Revolution. However, I feel he sums up the Victorian Era very well:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
It was an awful time for many and one of the people who commented on that article had this to say:
“Having done a bit of family history, the grim side of the Victorian era is brought into focus. This was the time when more or less all the branches of my ancestry were evicted, starved or otherwise moved off their land in Scotland and Ireland. In Glasgow they lived in cramped conditions and lived short lives even if they were lucky enough to survive childhood. The working classes really were treated worse than livestock. My great great grandmother bled to death in labour and the first doctor to see her was the one who signed her death certificate. I share your passion for the other sides of Victorian life but it’s important to see the whole picture.”
My family is originally from India; all my grandparents were born there and as we all know, India does not look so fondly or affectionately on Victorian Imperialism. But I think that it is wrong to assume that those that love the era be it historically or the steampunk version are ignoring, romanticising or glorifying the harsher side. I know several Ripperologists and they are not glorifying the Whitechapel murders or romanticising the deaths of these women who lived such terrible lives. Indeed, one of the first things you learn when reading about those murder cases is how terrible life was for the inhabitants of the east end of London. This was a dark and dangerous place where you were lucky to live to be middle-aged. Yet, it was also during the Victorian era that the first social reforms were implemented to try and improve the lives of those that suffered.
That is all well and good for the historical side of things, but what about steampunk? Well, I feel that these aspects are not forgotten in steampunk literature. If I use The Parasol Protectorate series as an example, just because they were the last steampunk books I read, there is reference to the racism and class issues of the Victorian era, even though we have vampires and werewolves present in what is otherwise quite a light-hearted romp through London. Gail Carriger’s series is in no way the best example of this either. Still, what I feel people forget is that steampunk literature is fiction, and science-fiction at that! We have the right to imagine what we want of the world we write about.
Steampunk is a movement, not just a genre or fashion statement, so there are different aspects of it that interest different people. Some want to get dressed in their steampunk finery and hit a convention or throw a steampunk tea party, while others are penning their own sci-fi story set in their very own steampunk world. Some people are discussing how steampunk can help us face the economic, social and political issues we face today, while others are inventing, creating and modifying modern gadgets and machinery. This is what steampunk is and there is no right way to be a steampunk.
Personally, I find the fact that there were these amazing advancements on so many levels in Victorian England all the more astounding when we look at how awful it was for so many as well and vice versa. I like that we can recast that incredible time in steampunk colours and have a completely new world. Steampunk is for me a very personal thing; I like what I can create as steampunk and I like to see what others have created. It is this creative aspect that draws me in the most.
Street Life in Victorian London
The images used on this page are taken from ‘Street Life in London’ and you can view more images in the video below or read the PDF version here.