Disappointed Vacationing Neo-Victorians Demand Their Money Back, Teach Us A Thing Or Two

Turns out the Chrismans have very modern notions about social media, Internet shaming, and brands

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Remember the Neo-Victorians, Sarah Chrisman and her husband Gabriel, who liked the late 19th century so much better than the present that they elected to try to live in it?

Five years ago we bought a house built in 1888 in Port Townsend, Washington State — a town that prides itself on being a Victorian seaport. When we moved in, there was an electric fridge in the kitchen: We sold that as soon as we could. Now we have a period-appropriate icebox that we stock with block ice. Every evening, and sometimes twice a day during summer, I empty the melt water from the drip tray beneath its base.
Every morning I wind the mechanical clock in our parlor. Each day I write in my diary with an antique fountain pen that I fill with liquid ink using an eyedropper. My inkwell and the blotter I use to dry the ink on each page before I turn it are antiques from the 1890s; I buy my ink from a company founded in 1670. My sealing wax for personal letters comes from the same company, and my letter opener was made sometime in the late Victorian era from a taxidermied deer foot.

Yeah, that’s right: taxidermied deer foot. They also use boar bristle toothbrushes and get around on bikes. His is a high-wheeler; hers, no fooling, is a fancy tricycle. She doesn’t have a driver’s license. In fact, she infantilizes herself in several different ways, even going so far as to happily imagine being rocked in a cradle, which makes my feminist third-eye go all twitchy. Who cares? This is their fantasy, these are their choices, and these people are COMMITTED.

But commitment doesn’t protect them from scorn, or from consequences. This summer, when Sarah and Gabriel tried to venture out into the real world for some celebratory R&R at a famous garden, they were foiled, as Sarah recounts with lip-quivering indignation on a blog entry with the Dickensian title, “Victoria, B.C., Canada: Downs and ups on an anniversary trip —or, How we were denied entrance to Victoria's most famous garden for dressing too decently, yet still managed to find many lovely flowers in much better places.”

Here’s the set up:

We bought our admission tickets to the garden over a month in advance, and likewise paid in advance for a meal at the tea-house there — the only option for lunch, since the garden is so far out of town. We wouldn’t be bringing our bicycles this trip, specifically because we’d done our research and knew that there are no bikes allowed on the grounds and nowhere outside to secure a high wheel. This meant that our only option for getting out to the garden was the large tour bus which shuttles visitors from Butchart to downtown Victoria several times a day. The bus company operates in partnership with the gardens, and since they have a monopoly on transportation, the fee to ride this bus is accordingly expensive. Between the high cost of admission, lunch, and the bus, all the fees we paid in advance for just the two of us came to more than the cost of an entire week’s worth of groceries. When we planned and saved for our trip we knew our budget was tight, but I told Gabriel (and I worked hard to convince myself) that the sacrifice would be worth it to spend a day together in a flower garden. It was for our anniversary, after all.

She lays it on thick: anticipation! sacrifice! groceries! (She’ll mention the groceries again, too, lest you forget.) She was so excited, she writes, that the night before she couldn’t even sleep. It doesn’t take a narrative genius to understand that something is going to go seriously wrong. And in due course, it does. They are turned away at the gate by a “sneering” man for wearing “costumes.”

Already, after less than one minute since we’d entered the visitor’s center and less than three minutes since we’d walked through the gate of the Butchart Gardens, I didn’t want to be there. Despite all our anticipation, despite all our excitement. After this reception, I knew already: This was not what we had dreamed of; this was not what we had come for; and this certainly was not what I had been willing to spend the equivalent of a week’s worth of grocery money on. [editor’s note: told you so]
 “Then you have to give us our money back,” I told Bryan logically.
 Bryan scowled. “I can see if there are some old staff uniforms you could put on.”
 “No!” Gabriel and I both instantly responded, affronted. 
 Our clothes are wrapped up in the most intimate way possible with our own identities. (I’ve written an entire book on the subject, for goodness’ sakes.) This man was telling us that to enter this place we had paid an inordinate amount of money to visit, we would first have to strip off our very identities. No. 
 “If you won’t let us be here in our own clothes, then give us our money back,” I repeated.

It’s hard to read her account with a straight face because all the melodrama — however appropriate it might be, period-wise—can be so off-putting. The blog entry reads like one long, incensed, self-righteous Yelp review, only with a higher-than-average number of Kipling references.

John Tomlinson made a face. “Well, historical dress​ if that’s what you want to call it. Whatever you call it, we don’t allow people to dress the way you are here. And take off your hats when you talk to me!”
 Take off our hats? He is commanding a lady to take off her hat? I wondered if he even realized the profound level of insult in that command. To remove one’s hat in the presence of superiors has been a social gesture of inferiority since the days of medieval feudalism. He was demanding that we recognize his superiority to us.
 “No, we will not take off our hats,” I told him, incensed by the demand of physical submission. “That is an insulting request.”
 “You can’t wear costumes here!” He repeated.
 “This is the way we dress every day,” we repeated yet again.

But the thing is, like so many long, incensed, self-righteous Yelp reviews, they have a point. There’s nothing offensive about their get ups, no clear reason given to them that they have to change. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t seem like the Gardens makes any kind of dress code clear on their website. An employee on the site’s TripAdvisor page notes that “there’s no dress code” for the Gardens’ fancy-ish restaurant, adding, “we realise that people are here to enjoy the flowers in comfortable, casual clothing.” The Chrismans seem to meet that standard.

John Tomlinson may not like hats and hoop skirts any more than the mayor of Corsica likes burkinis; but full-coverage clothes aren’t hurting anyone. Where do blustery authority figures get off banning them? What purpose does it serve? Granted, we’re only hearing one side of the story. From what I can tell, though, Sarah and Gabriel might be self-aggrandizing and tone-deaf, but they’re not wrong.

They’re also very canny when it comes to wringing every last possible cent out of their misfortune.

“I suppose we can refund your admissions fee,” John Tomlinson said grudgingly.
 “And the cost of the high tea!” I insisted. 
 “What?”
 “We paid in advance to have lunch here at your tea room.” 
 “That’s non-refundable — “
 “If you’re kicking us out, you have to refund it!” …
I raised my voice so the other visitors in the center could hear the situation. “If you’re kicking us out, you have to refund all our money,” I insisted, and proceeded to list the various fees, touching one of my fingers after another as I did so:. First, I held out my thumb: “Our admissions fees — “ I added my forefinger. “The cost of the tea which we paid for in advance and now aren’t going to get to eat — “ Finally, I was holding up three fingers. “And the cost of the bus we took out here.” I let my hand drop, then another thought occurred to me. I added, “ — And I think you should pay for a cab ride back to Victoria for us, too!”

They make enough of a fuss that they get everything they ask for and they use that money to have a grand old time elsewhere in Victoria: dining out, visiting other sites, enjoying other gardens. I can’t even with how they treat every POC they encounter, so if you get triggered by stories of white people exoticizing and patronizing people of color, don’t click through. (I guess at least they’re being period-appropriate!) But even though they thoroughly enjoy this amended version of their vacation, they don’t lose sight of the original injustice, and Sarah makes sure to encourage readers to use the Internet to protest on their behalf: “N.B. If, after reading this piece, you would like to speak up against the way Butchart Gardens treated us, their public relations contact is: pr@butchartgardens.com.” Man! She just does not let things go.

There’s a real lesson here, at least for those of us who are worried about seen as shameless. I am often too quick to choose avoidance over causing a fuss. I’ve eaten the cost of a salad dotted with rotten tomatoes, instead of the salad itself, rather than tell a snooty waiter that I want a replacement or I won’t pay. One time I even threw away a $6 Pinkberry smoothie I was really excited about, rather than take it back, when I discovered that the person behind the counter had somehow blended plastic into it. But if this tricycle-riding 1890s-romanticizing woman-child can stand up for herself as needed and demand to either get what she paid for or get her money back, and then some, well, then, dammit, I can too! Indeed, so can we all.