Friday, January 25, 2013

Vicky and the Pirates

So what does Queen Victoria have to do with pirates?

The answer is that Vicky is The Past, with capital letters – her era, the Victorian Era, is everyone’s idea of “long ago”, a sort of very repressed, hoop-shirted “then.”  Most people, not being as insane as this writer, don’t spend huge amounts of time thinking about the past. Queen Vicky’s world is completely different from their own, and that’s good enough for them. The past, after all, is the past.

And Vicky, they think, is a pretty good place to stop, because, after all, the farther back in time you go the more repressed everyone was. The 1950’s were more repressed than the 2000’s, and the 1900’s were so uptight that women couldn't even show their ankles. And before that was the Victorians, who put skirts on pianos so they wouldn't have to see naked legs, ate the “bosom” of the chicken so they wouldn't have to say “breast” in mixed company, and strongly discouraged young women from having any idea whatsoever about how sex worked. Lay back and think of England
People figure, you can’t get any more repressed than that. So that’s how those old-time people were, all the way back.

Now, I’m not here to support or reject the idea of Victorian prudery. What I’m here to say is that, however it was then, it was different before. Before Vicky were the Georges, (including number III, who lost those American colonies) and the Georges were bawdy.

I like the word “bawdy”. To me it means laughing too loud, probably at a dirty joke, shooting beer out your nose, and not making any effort to hide the fact that you’re having a good time. The Georgians were like that. It was a time when a man (even in polite society) could tell a woman, “That’s a fine pair of breasts you have, madame!” and the response would be a hearty “Thank you!” and perhaps an invitation to admire them more closely.

It was a time when the medieval still lurked in corners, and modern life, in the form of paved streets, manufactured goods, and big business was just starting to stretch out.

There was no privacy. One tenth the population of England lived in London. The rich lived in houses that required hoards of servants just to get food cooked and the fires lit. The middle class and poor still lived in medieval squalor, so people carried out their business in the streets and taverns, including the business of sex.
And in the midst of all this was the fact that everyone was drunk, all the time. The idea of purifying water was over a hundred years away, so to be safe, you either had to boil it or mix it with alcohol. The Victorians later solved this problem by making tea, which is proof the water has been boiled long enough. The Georgians had tea only if they were well off. Everyone else drank beer.

Remember that party? The one with all the beer? Remember the courteous way you solved your disagreement with that ugly guy? The wise decisions you made regarding the opposite sex? The safe-and-sane manner in which you drove home? Yes, it was like that.

Of course, sometimes people wanted to actually party. This generally involved quarts of gin, prostitutes, naked dancers, and not going home until you’d set the building on fire. I’m quite serious . “End of party” equating to “building on fire” was kind of a Georgian meme.  Then, if you owned or had rented a carriage, you could run down pedestrians and crash into buildings.

Of course, all this set a pretty high bar as far as partying. The pirates had a lot to live up to.

And Vicky? Well, she and the moralists of her reign tried mighty hard to clean up everybody’s act and cover up the excesses of the past. Too good a job, really, if today we don’t remember what it was really like. That’s part of the appeal of pirates. Finding out things that you're not "supposed" to know.

Vicky would not be amused. 

(images are engravings from the early 18th century  published in  the book Engravings by Hogarth edited by Sean Shesgreen)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a night in Columbus after Ohio State won a football game. I love your posts. I love thinking about the past. Thank you!