Last week I read Ivanhoe (on the iBooks reader! Free download!), because it is a story that had extensive influence on people in the Victorian era and I had never read it. I wanted to know how my characters imagined romance and heroism, and Sir Walter Scott was a major source for those imaginings in that time.
As I was reading along, I thought, as I often do, about how funny it is that people romanticize periods in the past when the majority of the human race lived in the direst misery. When thinking about the past, it seems we are most likely to imaginatively cast ourselves into the roles of the highest end of whatever society we’re considering. Ivanhoe invited Victorian girls to imagine themselves as Rowena the last of the line of King Alfred the Great, or Rebecca, who, though a “Jewess” and thus deprived of all kinds of rights and opportunities, was nonetheless excessively wealthy (like any good fictional Jew of the 19th Century) and beautiful. Victorian girls looked for Ivanhoes in imaginary husbands–alpha males with wealth and property who would literally sweep them off their feet.
We have our own versions of these fantasies today, of course (some of them even the very same ones, for some people) but my interest is mostly in the way we imagine the past as a good place to be–especially if one was noble, wealthy, even a member of royalty.
The fact is, middle-class first worlders live far better than Rowena could have dreamed, and of course, it’s much better to be Jewish in the 21st century anywhere than it was to be richer than the king, but Jewish in the 12th (or 13th, 14th, 15th, etc, right up to the 20th).
So thinking these thoughts, (while also completely and contradictorily interpellated by Scott and swooning with worry for Rebecca at the witch trial), I came across a tweeted link to this site (thanks to blogger Christine Moers), where I learned (or was reminded, I suppose), that I am in the richest 5% of the current human population.
I have fantastic clothes, healthy food, as many clean gallons of water as I care to pour, unused down my sink 24/7, hundreds of square feet of private (and privately owned) space, an array of choices as to my children’s education, an outstanding education of my own and the ability to live, if not in perfect equality with everyone else in the top 5%, still, in great privilege with the partner of my choice–another woman–without having to dodge the marriage plans my father has made for me.
It isn’t that I don’t know all this, but it is good to be reminded now and then.