Don't look now, but the '90s are looking more and more like the Victorian Era

December 18, 1993|By Anemona Hartocollis | Anemona Hartocollis,Newsday Staff Writer Karol V. Menzie contributed to this article.

Everywhere he looks these days, Baltimore photographer Tim Fields sees evidence of the turn of the century.

But in these days when the 20th century is about to turn to a new millennium, Mr. Fields sees the last century, the age of Victoria.

It is back, say academics, Victoria-buffs, even interior decorators: Back with its predominance of middle-class values, its dichotomy of poverty and crime and excess and opulence, back with its prudery and lasciviousness, its touching faith in technology and its terror of losing control.

Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901, from carriages to subways, from bucolic to urban.

Mr. Fields' vision was attuned by his travels across the country photographing nearly two dozen beautifully preserved Victorian houses for the new book, "The Secret Life of Victorian Houses," with text by Elan and Susan Zingman-Leith (Elliott & Clark Publishing, $36). "You can sense that the home is truly the center of social life. There's a lot of security in a Victorian home, because it really envelops you," Mr. Fields says. Denizens of the Age of Anxiety find comfort in such Victorian touches as upholstered furniture (a Victorian invention), ornate picture frames, lace curtains and rich colors and fabrics, he says.

Victorian nostalgia is not exactly new, but it has been building. The editors of Victorian Studies, an academic journal out of Indiana University, are so impressed with the number of references to Victorian society that have been cropping up lately that they are preparing a special issue on the subject, due out next summer.

"There seems to have been an upswing in say, the last 10 years," says Andrew H. Miller, editor of the journal.

The passion for Victoriana has even infiltrated the Internet, the global, computerized information highway. From the privacy of your chintz-covered home, you can access the "Victoria" mailing list, where computer messages range from scholarly exchanges about the significance of blushing in Victorian literature to hints on touring Victorian London.

On a material level, perhaps, Victoriana appeals to us because it is just plain pretty. "Victorian" as a decorating term is synonymous with excess -- we think of lace, swags, tassels, pattern on pattern, cherubs and a profusion of bibelots and memorabilia. It is an excuse to be acquisitive in the name of nostalgia, to consume without guilt.

But beneath the tchotchkes, on a psychological level, our affinity for Victoriana -- from clothes to home decorating to movies and books -- provides a way out, an escape from the chaotic, let-it-all-hang-out standards of modern life. It is rooted in a sense that in those days, the rules were clearer, that people knew the difference between right and wrong, moral and immoral, permitted and forbidden and that they allowed their behavior to be guided by that knowledge.

In an age of AIDS, abuse and date-rape, many yearn for virginity, for a time when men were gentlemen and women were ladies. In the age of Oprah and Geraldo, we long for discretion and a distinction between public and private.

"This is a reflective time," says Nancy Lindemeyer, editor of Victoria magazine. "For most of us, we can still touch this period through family recollections, through pictures in our photo albums, even if it is our grandparents talking about their grandparents."

Five years after it was launched, Victoria, with its misty homages to family, heritage and home, is booming, with a circulation approaching 900,000.

Also booming is "The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton's bittersweet look back at New York Victorian society. This tale of suppressed desire, first published more than 70 years ago, is back on best-seller lists today, thanks to a reverent film interpretation by Martin Scorsese.

When "The Age of Innocence" was released in September, many department stores piggy-backed on its success by featuring a month of lace, velvet, brocade and broomstick skirts.

"The whole romanticism is a great way of escaping," says Macy's fashion director Benny Lin.

In many ways, it seems an unlikely revival -- this return to discretion in such sinful times -- as contradictory as the notion that Mr. Scorsese, chronicler of the blood-spattered Mafia, would be the right choice to direct a work by Ms. Wharton. But Victorian society, as Ms. Wharton so well understood, was more complex, and more deadly, than our nostalgia imagines it to be. The pillars of society in those days knew how to thwart a forbidden love affair as neatly as a hit man silences a rat. They were skilled in the art of "taking a life," as Ms. Wharton put it, "without the effusion of blood."

And the parallels with our own times are strong. In many ways, our society mirrors all the worst of that age of industrial revolution, aggressive colonial expansion and sharp divisions between rich and poor. Where once Britain ruled the world, the United States carries on, albeit with less confidence.

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