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Neal Stephenson on Victorian literature

Miss Bowlware taught them History of the English-Speaking Peoples, starting with the Romans at Londinium and careening through the Norman Conquest, Magna Carta, Wars of the Roses, Renaissance, and Civil War; but she didn’t really hit her stride until she got to the Georgian period, at which point she worked herself up into a froth explaining the shortcomings of that syphilitic monarch, which had inspired the right-thinking Americans to break away in disgust.

They studied the most ghastly parts of Dickens, which Miss Bowlware carefully explained was called Victorian literature because it was written during the reign of Victoria I, but was actually about pre-Victorian times, and that the mores of the original Victorians—the ones who built the old British Empire—were actually a reaction against the sort of bad behavior engaged in by their parents and grandparents and so convincingly detailed by Dickens, their most popular novelist.

The girls actually got to sit at their desks and play a few ractives showing what it was like to live during this time: generally not very nice, even if you selected the option that turned off all the diseases. At this point, Mrs. Disher stepped in to say, if you thought that was scary, look at how poor people lived in the late twentieth century. Indeed, after ractives told them about the life of an inner-city Washington, D.C., child during the 1990s, most students had to agree they’d take a workhouse in pre-Victorian England over that any day.

Neal Stephenson – The Diamond Age

Of course, this is not the voice of Stephenson himself, as such.

We’re often aware of the pendulum of reaction and over-reaction in the arts or politics, but I (shamefacedly) confess I hadn’t thought too much about it in terms of culture and social norms more broadly.

How have “reactionary” impulses shaped you?

What mores do you wish you’d understood better, earlier, and wish we could hold on to?

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