I Blame Walt Disney for My Love of the Past

This week we’re chatting about our favorite time periods. Without a doubt I’d say the late-Victorian era and the first three decades of the early 1900s are my top picks.

I’ll start by telling you the impressive, literary reason why I love these historical periods: Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I remember the day my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Jones, wrote Burnett’s name on the chalkboard and said we would get extra credit if we read any of her books. I started with A Little Princess (1905) and moved to The Secret Garden (1911), and I was enthralled by Burnett’s early-twentieth-century characters. I learned about class struggles of the era, gender roles, and the contrasts between the time period’s grand beauty and unbearable ugliness. The books felt like both fantasy and realism, which was a fascinating combination.

Now I’ll tell you the not-so-studious reason I love these periods: Disneyland.

I grew up in sunny Orange County, California, in a suburb that sprang up around the same time I entered the world. Aside from the mysterious, musty-smelling San Juan Capistrano mission over the hill from my neighborhood, everything was new and boxy and covered in stucco.

Me (the blonde with pigtails in front), my mom, and my younger sister, Carrie. Note the expression of Disneyland-induced bliss upon my face.

However, just a short drive down the freeway from my house, Fantasyland awaited. Literally. I grew up near Disneyland, and every time I left my modern suburb behind and strolled down Disney’s Main Street, I fell madly in love with the past. I listened to ragtime music and barbershop quartets, sampled sugary old-fashioned candy sticks, and visited Victorian ghosts in a brooding New Orleans mansion. I rode through an early-twentieth-century nursery on a flying pirate ship and visited Alice at her tea party. My dad’s work hosted an employee discount night every year, so I stepped inside this magical world all the time. One of my earliest memories in life involves plunging down a waterfall in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Disney’s version of the past is far from perfect. It’s been tidied up and repackaged in pretty costumes and catchy lyrics, and terrible racial stereotypes abound. Occasionally, Disney lifted the rose-colored lenses and allowed us peeks at the darkness, as during the poignant “Feed the Birds” scene in Mary Poppins (I still can’t watch that scene without getting teary-eyed). But for the most part, it’s an altered view of history that reflects the years in which the entertainment was created more than the actual historical eras.

Yet I can’t deny the influence Disneyland had on me as a writer. I dipped my toes into those imaginative waters and grew up wanting to tell historical stories of my own—stories that tapped deeper into the emotions that songs like “Feed the Birds” stirred up inside me. So, I suppose I blame Walt Disney for my love of the 1800s and early 1900s. I also blame Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Gilbert & Sullivan, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and everything else that seeped inside my imagination during my formative years. And I’m grateful for all of them.
Cat Winters is the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a WWI-era ghost tale coming April 1, 2013, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS. Visit her online at www.catwinters.com.

About Cat Winters

Cat Winters’s critically acclaimed debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, a 2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee, and a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Her second novel, THE CURE FOR DREAMING, is a 2015 Amelia Bloomer Project Nominee and a 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults Nominee. Her upcoming books include THE UNINVITED (William Morrow/2015) and THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY (Amulet Books/2016), and she’s a contributor to the 2015 YA horror anthology SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS. Cat lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids. Visit her online at http://www.catwinters.com.

10 thoughts on “I Blame Walt Disney for My Love of the Past

  1. Fabulous! I never would have guessed that Fantasyland could have brought you to Dickens and Bram Stoker, but hearing you tell it, it all makes sense. Chim-chim-in-in-ney… 🙂

  2. I’ve long suspected the root of my interest in the middle ages came from fairy tales. I devoured them as a kid, and my grandmother had the *good* versions too, with Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off their toes to fit in the glass slipper and stuff like that.

    • catwinters says:

      Those original versions of fairy tales are wonderfully dark and twisted. I took a course on fairy tales in college, and it was one of my absolute favorite classes. I don’t blame you for being inspired by those stories.

  3. I have that same copy of A Little Princess! My mother bought it for me when I was a little girl and I still have it. The book Heidi was one of my favorites too.

    • catwinters says:

      I still have my copy of A LITTLE PRINCESS with the same cover, too! I also have my old copy of THE SECRET GARDEN.

      I almost forgot about HEIDI! That was one of my favorites from a very early age.

  4. I’m another writer with the same copy of A LITTLE PRINCESS! I saw it at a school book fair, and it was love at first sight. I blush to admit I can still quote lines from memory.

    What a fun post!

    • catwinters says:

      I’m thrilled to hear others enjoyed that same copy with the pretty pink cover. I’m a little envious you can still quote lines from memory. It’s been a while since I’ve read it.

  5. […] and I are in agreement this week; my favourite time in history is also the late Victorian era — circa 1870-1900. […]

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