The Cold War Victorian: A Coming-of-Age Tale

Do you ever have the experience of hearing a word, and realising that you haven’t heard it since childhood? I sometimes wonder if in some ways I was more literate as a child than I am now. Every so often I’ll hear a word, and–like inhaling  some long forgotten yet familiar smell–be overcome with memories of how it felt to *know* that very adult word as a child, and the great portent it carried; as though I envisioned a majestic future of radiant adulthood that inevitably involved the frequent use of that word: meddling, outrage, hussy…truly there was a time when I saw great things for myself.

Reflecting on this, it occurs to me that many of these words are quite outmoded, and probably were when I learned them as well. Take ‘meddle’ for instance–as in, to meddle in other people’s affairs. No one not being paid ACTRA fees comes out with that anymore, yet I was probably walking around the schoolyard warning boys in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirts not to meddle in my affairs. For that matter, ‘affairs’ in that context sounds a bit starched up as well.
Where was I hearing these words? I lay the blame for the pretentious vocabulary of my childhood on my love of TV shows and films set in Victorian times (think Anne of Green Gables), and also on Murder, She Wrote.
Visiting my parents over the last few weeks, I’ve clocked a few Murder, She Wrote re-runs and have noticed some very affected language to go with those shoulder pads and neck brooches. Reflecting on my entertainment tastes as a child, and the fact that I was naturally inclined to be a bit of a loner, I can only conclude that I was socially doomed. Intelligent, approval-hungry children are like dancing bears to adults–call a boy a scoundrel, get a fish. On the other hand, I didn’t really like most of the kids around me at school for a reason–they were unimaginative, earth-bound lemmings who were suspicious of dreams and who smelled like Doritos. No wonder I liked Masterpiece Theater.

I suppose what I’m getting at, slowly, is that for a certain type of kid, a great amount of unlearning has to take place to facilitate decent socialization. You have to stop talking like Victorian dowagers, and start speaking a bit more like your peers. One of the fastest ways to make this happen is to meet other children like you.
I remember one girl I met in a private theater group that I belonged to for a while. At the age of 9, she was and had always been home-schooled, and spent great amounts of time extending her tiny frame over makeshift plywood settees, using the word ‘wicked’ frequently and preparing herself for impending ‘trysts’. When she wasn’t discussing wicked people and gearing herself up for another betrothal, she was bragging about her dad being a zoologist at the museum. I remember clenching my mental fists and thinking that it must be a poor zoologist who couldn’t even get a gig at the zoo. ‘Seal diagrams and dimly lit whale bones!’ I sniffed haughtily. Thanks to my Victorian programming, I could do haughty well. Still though, despite leaning on my Victorian emotions to guide me through such indignities, I could see that she was a bit lame. Within a couple of years, I had stopped bragging about my dad’s job, and started listening to his old records instead. And so a few Thesauruses worth of words went into hibernation while I learned to drink and swear properly, and have conversations with the Dorito cretins.
But every so often I hear a word that takes me back to 1989…‘beau’, ‘spinster’, ‘dagger’….and it feels providential as fuck.

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2 Comments on “The Cold War Victorian: A Coming-of-Age Tale”

  1. Contributing Factor Says:

    You were insulted when I called you ‘a female’ when you were four. Perhaps your Victorian sensibilities were shocked by the term.

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