Steampunk and the Nostalgic Blinkers of Victorian London

'Steampunk Lab: Lightbulb on Sears Catalog' photo (c) 2009, Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis - license:

of the genres we are always quick to jump to read is Steampunk. It’s
an excellent and relatively recent addition to the popular speculative
fiction genres and it’s a lot of fun. The aesthetic of it is amazing,
with it’s brass and cogs, steam and corsets, pageantry and frock coats.
It has a cadence of language to it that is musical and open to a great
deal of amazing humour, with the elaborate, formal speech and the
careful protocols of etiquette. And it’s a time that is, in is many
ways, so different from our own that it adds a level of the alien
fantasy to the setting that goes far beyond simple Urban Fantasy, while
still being grounded in our world, preventing it from being too alien.

we often seem to forget that the Victorian Era was a real time, and
Victorian England (where most of these stories are set) was a real
place. And it wasn’t pretty. While the rich could indulge in their
protocol, elaborate ritual, scientific progress and social tapdancing of
high society; the poor lived in abject squalor. Disease was rife,
exploitation by the rich – including child prostitution (indeed, it was
during the Victorian period the age of consent in the UK was raised
from 13 to 16 and only then after a reporter exposed how easy it was
for a man of means to buy a child virgin – much in demand because of
the high rates of STDs),. The poor lived in the most crammed slums
imaginable, often working horrendously long hours in obscenely
dangerous factories for little pay, again, including the children. It
was bleak, it was harsh, it was horrific and far too many of those with
wealth and power considered the poor to be fully deserving of their
fates: desperate, starving thieves, even children (indeed the urchins
of the streets were not considered children to be pitied by many, but a
menace or pest to be removed) could and did face long prison sentences
and even transportation.

wealth of the time was, of course, based on Britain’s sprawling
empire. An empire based on severe exploitation and oppression of
colonialism, with POC across the globe being persecuted and controlled
to further enrich the coffers. Slavery was only banned across the
empire a scant 4 years before Victoria’s reign began.

terms of sexuality, being gay remained a capital offence until 1861
(and one that was enforced in the 19th century – and men were hanged for
it), after which it was replaced by “mere” imprisonment and hard

romanticises this genre in that it creates an alternate world simply
through ignoring historical fact. Most writers seem willing to deal with
suffrage but this is probably because many of the protagonist
themselves are women. Beyond equality for women, however, few seem to
want to acknowledge that despite the gadgets and the pageantry,
Victorian England was not necessarily a pleasant time for many people.
Part of the impetus for this erasure is based in the fact that
privileged people have the ability of nostalgia that marginalised people
will simply do not. Those who are gay, of colour, disabled or poor
certainly have no reason to celebrate this time period.

Of course the easiest way to do this is to put on the blinkers and simply pretend it never happened.

of the protagonists in Steampunk are at the very least middle class.
They almost all have servants and have been educated and, for many, the
poor simply do not make a meaningful appearance in the books:
A Conspiracy of Alchemists, Pilgrim of the Sky, Infernal Devices (Tessa is almost instantly taken in by the wealthy Clave)

the poor do appear, they seem to exist solely to be saved from the
wretchedness of their poor lives through the charity of the rich. An
example of this is
Steam & Sorcery
by Cindy Spencer Pape, Sir Merrick Hadrian ends up adopting several
homeless children and then covering up their backgrounds. His title and
long history of wealth certainly play a role in the continued
impoverishment of the lower classes but the reader is not expected to
acknowledge this in order to focus on his act of generosity. Or Shelly
Adina’s massively fun
Lady of Devices Series
which, again, sees a select group of the poor benefit from the
generous instruction of their social betters (which is rather
exacerbated by the ease with which she overcomes the bonds of poverty).
Or we get the poor who don’t need to be saved, like Ivy Tunstill from
Parasol Protectorate series who aren’t really that suffering the privations of real poverty, they simply aren’t as well off as the rich characters.  

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