The New Victorians

The New Victorians


Published : July 15, 2007 / The New York Observer

On a balmy morning in June, Rebecca Miller, a petite 26-year-old actress and Brown University graduate, was perched on a wooden bench in the East Village, just a block from the apartment she shares with her fiancé, a theater director, and two cats. By the looks of her outfit, she was firmly grounded in the 21st century, just another hip lass with loose curls, a scoop-necked top and denim skirt with naughty front slits.

Then she opened her mouth, and it was if one had been transported back—oh, 150 years or so. “We had been talking about getting married since we got together,” Ms.—or perhaps we should write Miss—Miller said, describing how her friend Noelle had, early on, asked her beloved his “intentions”; how he had proposed last autumn, presenting the diamond ring that now glittered in the cloud-light on her left hand. “Ever since I met him, I felt like we’re a strong unit that would be a great foundation for a family,” she said demurely. “We’re very settled in and cozy; we’re like Hobbits in our little place.”

There was a time, not too long ago, when the young and the aimless hightailed it to New York City in pursuit of an altogether different urban experience than the domestic bliss enjoyed by Miss Miller and many of her bosom companions. High on a cocktail of recklessness and abandon, they came here to find their id, lose their superego, shake up the world, or simply shake their thang. Then they promptly chronicled these exploits in confessional sex columns.

But recent years have seen a breed of ambitious, twentysomething nesters settling in the city, embracing the comforts of hearth and home with all the fervor of characters in Middlemarch. This prudish pack—call them the New Victorians—appears to have little interest in the prolonged puberty of earlier generations. While their forbears flitted away their 20’s in a haze of booze, Bolivian marching powder, and bed-hopping, New Vics throw dinner parties, tend to pedigreed pets, practice earnest monogamy, and affect an air of complacent careerism. Indeed, at the tender age of 28, 26, even 24, the New Vics have developed such fierce commitments, be they romantic or professional, that angst-ridden cultural productions like the 1994 movie Reality Bites, or Benjamin Kunkel’s 2005 novel Indecision, simply wouldn’t make sense to them.

As one soon-to-be-married, female 26-year-old online editor who lives in Williamsburg put it: “It’s no longer cool to be a slacker and be living in your basement.”

“There isn’t a lot of … discussing ourselves,” added her friend, a 25-year-old Mount Sinai medical student (many New Vics asked not to be identified, befitting their ethos of propriety, modesty and caution). “In this particular cohort there’s not a lot of despair. I don’t have any friends who think they’re a cog in a wheel or are going to work at the Gap.” Heaven forfend!

‘Home and Hearth and Eating’

Eminent New Victorian couples can be found all over New York these days, puttering about their brownstones (original detail carefully restored), or pushing babies with names like Beatrice, Charlotte, Theodore and Henry in gigantic prams to the local playground. Some of them are famous. Actors Michelle Williams, 26, and Heath Ledger, 28 (himself named for Emily Brontë’s brooding hero!), swan about Boerum Hill with daughter Matilda; authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, both kissing 30, snuggle in Park Slope with son Sasha (with its turrets and trimmings, the Slope is a New Vic neighborhood preserved in aspic). Down in the West Village, we have Liv Tyler, barely 30, the daughter of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and legendary rock-star muse Bebe Buell, who’s now contented wife to Royston Langdon and mother of 2-year-old Milo. “I’ve always been super-responsible and hardworking and kind of a worrier,” she recently told Allure. Even former rebel Angelina Jolie has turned somewhat New Vic on us, what with her adopted brood and her causes and empathetic emaciation. Yes, the wasting disease!

Then there are the models. In the 1980’s, we had brash, muscular super-mannequins like Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, who boasted that they wouldn’t get out of bed for $10,000 a day and pelted the help with cell phones; in the 1990s we had vacant-looking, heroin-snorting waifs. Now we have wide-eyed pragmatics like Calvin Klein “face” Natalia Vodianova, 25, from whose loins two children have already sprung, with a third on the way. Her husband, a British aristocrat named Justin Portman, is the Victorian definition of a “good match,” even appearing with her in her magazine spreads, as he did in the July Vogue, clutching a litter of white poodles. (The couple have just put their Tribeca townhouse on the market—Tribeca is not very New Vic—and are moving to London for the remainder of her confinement).

“I have a young group of models who come in here and they really know what they want, and they don’t go out and go crazy,” said Ivan Bart, senior vice president of IMG, which represents Estée Lauder mannequin Liya Kebede. (“Her career actually took off after her first child,” he noted, with the air of a proud godparent. “And after several years of modeling and being successful she had her second child.”)

In the business for over two decades, Mr. Bart has also sensed a change in the fashion industry’s party landscape. “It’s about home and hearth and eating, versus dancing all night,” he said. “A lot of people like to go out to a mid-evening dinner and then the evening’s over at 11 or 12 and then they’re home.”

Back among more mortal New Vics, life may be less glamorous, but it is no less charmed or precious. To clock the type, one need only visit the aisles of the now ubiquitous cookery store Williams-Sonoma. At the Time Warner Center branch on a recent evening, the male half of one young couple examined a stainless steel asparagus steamer only to declare that he preferred his asparagus prepared “the old-fashioned way.”

The current obsession with food preparation—I absolutely must have that Le Creuset casserole!—is totally New Victorian. So, too, the current rage for blousy, maternity-style tops, mutual funds and bathroom renovation. “One of the biggest things I talk about with my friends is home improvements, how best to invest your money, and family planning,” said Jerilyn Dressler, a 28-year-old native New Yorker and account manager for Ernst and Young who recently moved to Philadelphia—how much more New Vic can you get?—with her husband of two years, a professor at Villanova, where they acquired a two-story rowhouse. “We’ve saved some, so we’re thinking of home renovation,” she said.

And then there is gardening—or, at least, joining a community-supported agriculture collective; in New York City, the first indelible step, perhaps, toward becoming landed gentry. “I was at brunch with another couple the other day where all we talked about was farm shares,” said the Williamsburg editor.

Such concerns tend to occupy a good plot of space in the New Victorian mind, crowding out more troublesome notions like “Why are we in Iraq?” or even “Why I am attracted to my best friend’s husband?” (The adultery-filled pages of John Updike’s best novels now seem like dispatches from a foreign land. One need only mention the word “affair” in the chatroom pages of to get quickly excoriated as a “slut” and a “home wrecker”; the New Victorian morality is not one that permits nuance or discretion.) Single people are to be pitied—that is, if their existence is even acknowledged. “My wife said she doesn’t really know many people who are single anymore,” declared John Gannon, 29, a Columbia business school student who has been married to Holly, an art therapist who is also 29, for a year (they began dating seven years ago) .

In the bustling age of the New Victorians, there just isn’t much time for messing around, personally or professionally. “Everyone’s very focused,” said Ms. Dressler (nee Keit) of her close-knit coterie of friends. “We’re all kind of heading in the same direction …. We own houses, we own cars, and probably starting within the next year, some of them will start having kids.”

Ms. Dressler, a model New Victorian specimen, said that she and her husband plan to delay child-rearing for at least a few more years, to give them time to travel (most recently to Greece) and enjoy their time barbecuing at friends’ houses and watching Lost. But, no doubt, when they time comes they will be prepared. Before getting off the phone with The Observer, she announced that her next call was going to be to her lawyer for the purpose of finalizing her will, power of attorney, and health care proxy.

Blaming the Boomers

“There is definitely this return to tradition,” said a 27-year-old Upper West Sider named Olivia, who works for a theater nonprofit and, while not one herself, has many friends who fit the New Victorian description. “My sense of things is that the marriage phenomenon is part and parcel of a larger phenomenon, which is that young people are trying to grow up faster …. We’re trying to figure out what success means and achieve it.”

Olivia has had ample time to study this phenomenon. In the past two years, from the ages of 24 to 26, Olivia and her beau, an MBA candidate, have attended some 10 weddings—grand, traditional affairs with blushing brides and small armies of froth-draped bridesmaids. This was hardly the kind of 20’s she had imagined as a young graduate of Dalton and Skidmore, but somehow, her life has become dominated by invitations to dinner parties, kibitzing about careers (“people are really driven,” she said), discussions of real estate, and visiting the occasional friend’s country manse in the Hudson Valley or the Hamptons. Along the way, she has come to the realization that for a certain tribe of New Yorker, the whole “rebellious 20’s” phase experienced by the baby boomers (for some, well into their 50’s) is simply not part of the Plan anymore: Sure, a New Vic can be a feminist and even a committed world-changer, but she also has to have a great job, superior husband, kids, and try to save society all at once.

“We came from these boomer parents who were very free love and change-the-world and made a lot of difference, but, in order to give us the opportunities they wanted us to have, became very traditional,” said Olivia. “And because the world has changed, we’ve tried to leap to our parents’ level of success right after school, rather than trying to figure out who we are and make mistakes.”

The question of how this generation of Alex and Alexis P. Keatons came to be is a source of rich speculation among some of their perplexed generational elders. “They are trying to push the culture away from the Gen-X direction,” said William Strauss, a generation historian who has written three books on the “millennials,” people who were born in 1982 or afterwards. “There’s a push away from the edge.”

“There are some economic conditions that are driving this. These young people are confronting extraordinary college bills,” said Mr. Strauss. “So they come out of college and, they may want to do these other things, but they feel this pressure to earn and to avoid taking chances.”

For Penny Arcade, the iconic Lower East Side performance diva, however, the New Victorian is less an economic phenomenon, born of the ravages of capital, than a cultural one. It’s about the new ethos of striving and success and the cult of dining at expensive restaurants. “New York used to be filled with people who, if you got all of their collective report cards, [they’d] say, ‘Suzy or Johnny is working below their level.’ That’s who used to come to New York, because they didn’t fit into the status quo,” she said. “Now it’s only the people who fit in.”

Ms. Arcade doesn’t dither with her words. But whether this judgment is too harsh or not, there is certainly an argument to be made that the New Vics are a particularly driven breed.

From the time they were tykes, New Victorians have been bred to ace exams, master extracurricular activities, land a coveted spot at a prestigious college, and then go forth into the world, ready to achieve. “This generation has been more strategically educated than any other generation,” said Mike Sciola, the Director of the Career Resource Center at Wesleyan University.

And after all those years of rigid programming, during which they hopped from one Great Expectation to the next, these latter-day Pips apparently just can’t stop striving. “I don’t think anyone drifts for the sake of drifting anymore,” said Anya Kamenetz, 26, the Yale-educated author of Generation Debt—and grower of her own lettuce—who recently married her longtime boyfriend. “There’s much more of a purposeful zigzagging. It’s very much like, ‘I’m going to check off this list of things.’ And it might be the same things that my older brother and sister did when they were out of college, but they did it with this aimlessness and relaxation, while we do it with a sense of the life course and ‘what are you going to accomplish?’”

Another 26-year-old Brooklynite and New Vic, named Christine, is hardly “drifting”—she’s also an editor, a literary one—but she is more introspective than many of her contented brethren and sistren. “Maybe this is also fallout from the sort of these boomer ideas about what sexual freedom is,” she suggested. This theory is a popular one among New Vic observers, just as it was popular to blame the priggishness and probity of the Old Victorians on the ill example of their Georgian predecessors. In this case, the reaction isn’t against specific syphilitic laxity and moral decay, but is rather a vague fear of too much sex (hello, STDs!) as well as the pressure for procreative sex (even men have biological clocks these days!) and the attendant nightmare of becoming—pardon the phrase—an aging spinster, lurching around New York sloshing cosmos and wearing age-inappropriate Capri pants, as in the TV version of Sex and the City and its many spinoffs.

“Don’t people in New York always talk about how it’s hard to find men?” Christine asked rhetorically. She has already received a lifetime’s worth of warnings from elder “singletons”—that overly chirpy, Brit-inflected term. Time and again she has been lectured on the scarcity of men, the sorrows of solitude, and the Clomid-chomping horror of post-35 pregnancy attempts.

In fact, just a few months ago, Christine was out with friends when a pair of slightly older women launched into a jeremiad of dating and despair, imploring her to hold tight to her boyfriend, lest she wind up single and, gasp, 30-something, just like them. “It’s like I was being terrorized by these older women who were like, ‘Don’t let him go, there’s nobody out there!’” she recalled with an alarmed laugh. “I was really scared.”

And then there are the moments of revelation, the ones when a New Victorian stumbles, say, into a book party at a bar celebrating a gay-interest anthology, as Christine recently did. “I felt really, really straight, and really, really normative,” she said. “Because there were all these gay men who were obviously trying to get with each other, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is New York, and I’m living some weird other place that’s not New York, but I don’t know what that place is!

“You have to confront this question of, ‘Am I a deeply conventional person?’ she said. “It kind of throws the idea of who you thought you would be into question.”