Thursday, March 4, 2010

I Want To Be A Retronaut

Some people haven't the slightest interest in reading period literature. "No thanks," they demur. "I'd much rather read books that were were written by my contemporaries." This has always frustrated me because so many of my favorite books were written in the last century (or well before) and yet when I try to persuade to them how modern they still are, they look at me like I'm trying to stuff Queen Victoria into a J. Crew bathing suit.

Well, to a certain point, I get it. To someone who isn't rabid about history, the past can seem awfully dull and two-dimensional. All those stony-faces, stiff postures and overstarched collars. What they need is an entry point. A rabbit hole, so to speak.

Well, I've found one.

Chris Wild's absolutely fascinating blog "How to be a Retronaut" features rare photographs and archival footage that bring the past to life with such vividness and power that you realize these ghosts are our contemporaries; we just happen to be inconveniently separated by the handicap of time instead of distance. When I watch these long-dead people laugh into the camera or dodge between horse-drawn carriages across a busy street, history becomes not only immediate but personal.

Take Edwardian London, for example. Watch this...

...and then read George Gissing's unsparing novel "The Odd Women" which was written around the same time. His tale of two respectable and increasingly impoverished sisters living in London will haunt you all the more after seeing the above glimpse into what -- as Chris Wild so neatly calls it -- "the business of being human was like back then." I swear if I squint, I can see one of Gissing's sisters atop an open-air omnibus on her way to another fruitless job interview.

(available here)

Or watch this incredibly affecting home movie of a much-loved little girl in 1930's England...

...and then lose yourself in Eleanor Graham's "The Children Who Lived in a Barn", a 1938 classic about five children who are forced to look after themselves after their parents go away and fail to return. After gazing at those cherubic faces smiling out at you from that sepia-toned film footage, Graham's novel will feel like an intimate, first-hand account of children you knew well 80 years ago.
(Image via Persephone Books;
book available here)

Or transport yourself to the glamorous south of France in 1912...

...and then lose yourself Colette's 1910 novel "Vagabond", a poetic, passionate tale about a recently divorced music hall artist who struggles with the familiar conflict of independence versus love. The end of the video clip shows three actresses in much the same type of revue that I envision Renee, the main character, touring in.

There are so many other dazzling photos and images on Chris Wild's blog that I'm practically sitting on my hands to keep from typing about them -- I won't because it'll be more thrilling for you to explore his website on your own. It's still relatively new, which means you can catch up on all his old posts and then come sit by me while we wait/pant for a new one. (For the definition of a retronaut, click here.)

In an amusing corollary to the Macbook "book" protector I recently wrote about, I found this keyboard sticker set featured on the site as well. It's out of stock at the moment, but you can put your name on a waiting list.

And now back to that rabbit hole. With the upcoming release of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland", here's a rare clip from the 1903 original.

Note: All film footage is viewable in a larger format via "How to Be a Retronaut."


Helen James said...

what a gem.....I'm off to discover Retronaut.... My favourite novels are also from or set in another century... I always say that its not for me unless their skirts rustle. Some great suggestions there, I think The Odd Women is next on my list. x

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Helen James: Tell me what you think of the site...I think you are going to absolutely freak out! xx

ArchitectDesign™ said...

I often have this same problem. The reasons the 'classics' are still around (and some are forgotten) is they were just REALLY good and still are! More often than not for me it's convincning friends or loved ones (they know who they are) to watch a movie made more than 10 years ago. ABSURD! A good film is still a good film, same goes for books -and furniturue and clothing....the list goes on! Take advantage of our history!

Anonymous said...

I am re-reading Edith Wharton's House of Mirth and can hardly bear to put it down.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

This sound very much like my cup of tea. So to speak.
As for good books... our book club is currently reading Our Mutual Friend!

Also... I did see The Young Victoria (oh the clothes, oh the sets!), but have yet to make it to Avatar!

The Down East Dilettante said...

This wonderful and thoughtful post opens up so many avenues for discussion that I don't even know where to begin....

magnaverde said...

I'm glad you stumbled across this amazing site, glad that you shared it, & glad, too, that I've finally progressed beyond dial-up, so that I can actually watch these little gems. I guess there's something to be said for modern technology, after all.

At any rate, those clips bring to mind a phrase from a John Updike poem that's been kicking around in my brain ever since I first read it, thirty years ago: "flickering lost Edens". Ain't that the truth.

mary said...

What a find, I so loved the footage of London especially as those are streets where I used to work and still tread pretty often ... I wonder if anybody was ever filming me? Ambling down the street - still a death-trap to cross - with a polystyrene coffee instead of a parasol! You've certainly inspired me to read Gissing. I'm another who'd sooner my time machine travelled backwards.

Susan's Snippets said...

Lisa -

I seriously believe that you are a very old soul, captured in a much younger body.

reading while sipping a hot toddy

Gaby said...

I had never heard of the word "retronaut" before, but as I majored in British Romanticism (and am quite possibly addicted to all things Persephone Post-ish), I do think that this term applies to my literary indulgences!

Also--That Alice in Wonderful 1903 film is absolutely extraordinary. The pack-of-cards schoolchildren look ecstatic beyond belief, and that Cheshire cat has the look of a weathered sea captain!

Joanna said...

That's so funny, I JUST read and blogged about The Vagabond and commented how modern the main character is. It's a very pro-woman feminist book.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa -

Thank you very much indeed for writing so graciously about "How to be a Retronaut" - you have expressed absolutely perfectly the philosophy behind the site, and the effect I hoped it might create.

For me, everything is now, and we appear to be as you say "inconveniently separated" by the nature of time. We so often focus on the inconvenient separation.

Its thrilling that the site has spoken to you in this way, and I will make sure it continues to do so


Lisa said...

Oh how your post hit home and thank you so much for the link to the Retronaut blog. I've held off all these year joining a book club because they all seem to read what's atop the "New York Times" bestseller list or what Oprah recommends - not my cup of tea. For me it's bios or books set in days gone by. (My favorite fiction is Jane Austen - I've read her by candlelight). I'm not sure who it was who said that reading history helps in not repeating past mistakes. I've taken that to heart but it seems my contemporaries are not interested so maybe that explains 'history repeating itself'.

froogal said...

I finally found a name for what I am...Retronaut!...I love that! I adored the Harry Nillson heartbreakingly sweet...the dog with the stick just reminds me that dogs are the same no matter what era they are from.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Architect Design: Brilliantly said.

Anonymous: Oh, I know what you mean. That book still haunts me.

Pamela Terry and Edward: You and I are on a similar wavelength. "Our Mutual Friend" is one of my favorite books ever and I was just looking TODAY on iTunes to download the unabridged audiobook so I could listen to it while I sewed. But it costs $55.00! I'm wondering if it's worth it or if I should join

And that's very funny about The Young Victoria vs. Avatar. I've been too busy to see either, but you know which one I regret missing. :)

The Down East Dilettante: Thank you, but I'm curious as to what's in your head...did you have a chance to peruse the Retronaut blog?

magnaverde: "Flickering lost Edens" just might make me cry. That describes those clips perfectly. I so long to be a time traveller for a day, don't you? I want to walk around London and melt into a crowd and follow people and listen to what they're saying and eat a twopenny bun and take an omnibus ride and go to Lyon's Cafeteria (mentioned in so many old novels) and...well you get the idea.

m: Explore that blog fully. There are so many incredible posts that I didn't mention. You will LOVE it. And I love imagining you as a doppelganger for a 19th century pedestrian -- it's merely the vehicles that have changed!

Susan's Snippets: I think that's seriously the best compliment I've ever, ever gotten. xxx

Gaby: Check out his post from yesterday, I think(?) The color photo session from 1910 with the most beautiful young girls posing with flowers.

Joanna: Wonderful book. I wish more people would discover it.

Chris Wild: Chris, I am so honored that you made it here! Seriously, your blog is like crawling into a wormhole into the past. I think it actually has the power to redefine history for people by bringing it to them in such a colorful, vivid and visceral way. I can't wait to see what the future (errr...past?) holds...and I hope you never run out of material!

Lisa: "Those who cannnot remember the past are doomed to repeat it", right? So glad you enjoyed the post! xx

Kathy G: Did you spot the zeppelin passing overhead in the little girl footage? I think that's pretty amazing.

Terra said...

I am happy to have found your blog, as I am fond of history, near and far. I read a book last week titled "Victoria: An Intimate Biography" and enjoyed soaking up the ambiance.
I wrote an article about Victorian roses for Victorian Homes Magazine, and found out fabulous facts about roses in that era.
So, hello to you, and I will come back to visit and watch the videos you link to.

Anonymous said...

Be sure to track down "Lumiere Brothers' First Films." It's eight-five 50 second silent movies from the 1890s. The original Lumiere Brothers machines were both camera and projector, so as they were demonstrated around the world, films were made of the local scenes. It includes Russia, Vietnam, Chicago,.... And Bertrand Tavernier narrates.

Angie Muresan said...

What a treasure, Lisa! I need to go check out his site. As far as reading the classics, I always preferred them over contemporary literature.

Sneaky Magpie said...

what a great blog.

I absolutely adore novels from XIX and XX centuries. Latest loves are Elizabeth Gaskell and Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody.

Dash said...

Wow, have just checked out his site, it is just up my street, so thank you for that. A book came into my possession last year and I think you would love it: (If you have not already got it) "There's Rosemary There's Rue" by Lady Fortescue.

Emily said...

Have I told you how much I adore you? I have tried to tell both my local friends and virtual friends how much I love period pieces and historical fiction. They do not understand it! In fact, it is my goal to go back and read some classics I missed in high school and college. The classics hold universal truths! When you you break it all down, life is still life and people are still people no matter what century!

Gaby said...

Lisa -Thank you for pointing out this post ( to me! I studied abroad at Oxford in 2007, so these autochromes are definitely close to my heart. My favorite is the one of Janet perched on the balcony ledge -she looks so solemn and pensive!

Mary said...

I am totally amazed by the retronaut site. It is really a time machine for my mind.I am very grateful to you for bringing it to my attention. Your site, too, is a delight.

Lucindaville said...

A woman who reads George Gissing! You are indeed an odd woman and we love that about you.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Terra: So happy that you stopped by!

Anonymous: Those Lumiére videos are close to my magnaverde so brilliantly commented, they are "flickering lost Edens."

Angie: You will LOVE this site, I promise.

Sneaky Magpie: Are you my twin? I love Gaskell and am doing a post on "Diary of a Nobody" v. soon! xx

Dash: Thanks for the book rec. Will have to check that one out...

Emily: Well said!

Gaby: I know. I KNOW. The summer of 1910 in color and those beautiful girls posing for their mother. Did you see the ones where they're dressed in kimonos with their hair in a loose bun? Insane. It's kind of like time travel, isn't it? Because it's so jarring to see such old photos in color that your mind can't quite reconcile it at first...

Mary: So glad you liked that site. It's so magical, I think!

Lucindaville: Apparently, you're an "odd woman" too! Did you know you can read ALL of Gissing's works (most are out of print) for FREE on Project Gutenberg:

It kind of makes me want to get one of those iPads because I want to read them but don't want to spend even more time at my computer than I already am! :)

Joanna said...

I loved this post. I loved seeing Edwardian London. I got a kick out of seeing the advertisments (Nestles Milk, Lipton Tea)on the ominibuses. Thanks for letting us know about Chris Wild's site.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Lucindaville: My Project Gutenberg link got cut off. Hate when it does that. Just google "Project Gutenberg" and then do a search for Gissing.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Joanna: I wouldn't have thought that Edwardian London was so inundated with advertising, would you?

Vava (aka Virginia) said...

And, THIS is what Blog Land should be. Lisa, I always leave your blog feeling a tad more educated. I love attending "A Bloomsbury Life's" classes. I wait with bated breath for your every post...and now shall run to Chris Wild!

24 Corners said...

How wonderful...thank you so much for sending me to Edwardian London for a brief moment, what a lovely place to take lunch, a bit dusty though.

I am forever trying to get my friends and family to appreciate the joys of the past. Once they get the sarcasm out of their systems, they find how surprised they are to actually be enjoying the stories, characters and beautiful scenery (whether on paper or film).

Jane and Charlotte are my two favorites, never can get enough of visiting their wonderful worlds.

Beautiful Things - Cathy said...

I've just found your great blog! I loved the London street scenes clip. I live in London & I recognized every single location! The streets may be more congested, the clothes and the mode of transport are different but that's all! What I love is that even back then people had that take-no-prisoners-London-pedestrian attitude! Good stuff.

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Unknown said...

Thank you, Lisa for passing that on. What a treasure.

I thought of a couple of books while reading this fabulous post and the comments it has received thus far. I don't know what a "good" book is, but I remember enjoying Jack Finney's Time and Again, in which our protagonist is able to travel from 1969 to 1882 New York City. The author takes delightful time describing the sights and sounds.

And, boy, I don't know why, as they are set in present-day Botswana, but Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies' Detective Agency books popped into my mind. They are really such a joy. Such a joy.

Keep doing what you do!

Love, Hallie.

MissFifi said...

Thanks so much for this! Reading the classics are a pleasure for me and I too am always amazed when someone does not derive pleasure from any classic novel.
As a woman who loves all thing Edwardian and Victorian, Auntie Mame and clothes from the 1930's, this post is right up my alley. Going to revel in all of it.

Helen James said...

Sorry it has taken so long for me to return but I was lost in Victorian London, taking in my Own city of Dublin in times gone by, In awe of sculptures of heads made in the 1700's (which are remarkably like my friends work, I wonder if she has seen them?), ...............what a wonderful site I will be going back often, Thanks for the tip x

Unknown said...

Oh Lisa!!! How wonderful-I immediately had to call all the children in to see Alice in Wonderland as well as the little cherub baby waddling around.

Hamptontoes said...

Thanks for the information...what a well written post. I'm off to discover.

lola said...

a very, very nice find.

Linda said...

I think there are more of us unreconstructed English-major types out here than you might think. Lisa, have you found Judith Flanders' "Inside the Victorian Home" ("The Victorian House" in the UK) and "Consuming Passions"? Here is a true window on the 19th century for those who care about such things. The woman is a brilliant writer and researcher.

We were writing about the upcoming Liberty of London stuff at Target and I thought that what I have seen looks very 1960s flower-power rather than Liberty. Here is what "Consuming Passions" says about Liberty in the late 19th century on page 115:

"Soon he (Arthur Liberty) was arranging for manufacturers to print English fabrics using Japanese techniques and Janpanese-y colours, which he dubbed 'Art Colours', bu which quickly became known to everyone else as 'Liberty Colours'. Queen's Magazine had earlier described them: 'There are tints that call to mind French and English mustards, sage-greens, willow-greens, greens that look like curry, and greens that are remarkable on lichen-coloured walls, and also among marshy vegetation.'"

That's what I think of as Liberty even today.

Unknown said...

Gosh, I am in love already! Gives me goosebumps.
And the name: Retronaut! I am off to explore...

Thank you for finding it!
You are so good at it! :)))

Retronauts of the world unite!


Liz.Blog said...

love this post...I have the same problem! A perect cup of tea and a classic from another century sounds like Heaven to me. Love the images you've posted also.

Marti said...

Glorious...thank you!

Marti said...

There is a primitive nuance that's evoked by the pink cheeks in a photograph of someone long dead. How immediately relevant they can become! Black and white photography is elegant, full of mystery, and terrifically moody, but color photography connects us so quickly with its subjects. I never realized this until I visited the Retronaut site. Thank you for the portal!

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