This is the complaint of Amber, a character in Phil Rickman's novel, The Prayer of the Night Shepherd, about her newly-acquired home on the Welsh Border. My father complained about "dust, darkness, and depression" in the Victorian homes he remembered from his childhood. These are valid comments about many Victorian houses on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it is also a stereotype built on impressions of 19th-century house museums and the grand houses of the well-to-do that have survived the ravages of redevelopment.
Most Victorian houses were of modest size, like the workers' cottages described in Darkness Visible. My great-grandparents Busch and their eleven children lived in such a house, three-down, three-up. They had to be packed like sardines in the bedrooms, and meals likely were served in shifts. If I hadn't seen this photo of the two-story house myself, I would not believe that thirteen people could live there in conditions not approaching those described in Gorky's The Lower Depths.
|My great-grandmother with family in front of her Pittsburgh house, c. 1910. By the time we revisited the house in 1970s, the house on the left had disappeared. Too big to maintain and heat?|
So why do we Victorian house owners put up with these drafty old barns? Well, for one, the best ones are not just big houses, but Romantic interpretations of earlier architectural styles. Probably the style that most people think of as Victorian is the Queen Anne, so named for its evocation of the architectural style of the early 18th century in England.
|Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool, England (1717) built in the original Queen Anne style.|
|1890's Queen Anne row houses in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., urban versions of the style.|
|The Melvin and Ida Forbes Residence, Duluth, MN. Built in 1886, this fanciful Queen Anne was cut up into apartments before it was wrecked in 1966. It is what represents "Victorian house" to many Americans.|
|The dining room, one of two rooms today with painted woodwork. The cabinet at right used to open into the kitchen, so that dishes could be washed, put away, and set out without having to be carried around.|
With all the expenses, inconveniences, irritations, and work involved in Victorian house ownership, it may seem crazy that anyone wants to live in these old, somewhat alien structures. For me, the mystery and strangeness is a large part of the attraction. These houses were embellished with all manner of fancy ornament, the more, the better. They did not stay in style very long, less than two decades. In 1893 the Chicago World's Fair introduced a new style of architecture, inspired by Colonial and Neoclassical building styles. By 1900 the first owners of the multicolored, weird Queen Annes had abandoned them for white (or brick) classically proportioned houses.
Sometimes when I come home at night and see my house with its steep roof, with two chimneys and seven gables in dark silhouette, I wonder if passersby think it intimidating. Would they hesitate to go inside the house without turning on all the lights? If I didn't know the house, I might feel that way, and that's why I love the sagging, scarred old wooden structure. It embodies the romance, mystery, and strangeness of the late 19th century--yet at the same time it's a functional modern residence. What could be better in a home for a student of history and aficionado of the Nineteenth Century?
|This photo, taken at dawn after a heavy April snowfall,suggests something of the weird inscrutability of Victorian houses. It is the exact opposite of the contemporary house made of glass and steel, where everything is open to the street.|