If The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley was brought so vividly to life by the artwork of Jessie Willcox Smith, then the same can be said for P J Lynch's illustrations of Oscar Wilde Stories for Children - a copy of which the VV cherishes.

P J Lynch lives and works and in Dublin. He studied at Brighton College of Art, since when he has won many awards, including the Mother Goose, the Christopher Medal, and the Kate Greenaway Medal. For over twenty years he has illustrated children’s books - many of them classic Victorian tales - as well as posters, Irish postal stamps and some truly stunning large-scale murals based on Gulliver’s Travels for the new Cavan County Library.

The VV thinks that his work is classic and will be loved for years to come – and as pictures often speak louder than words, here are some more examples – though these reproductions really don't do the artist justice -

A poster for The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Murals based on Gulliver's Travels

The cover of A Christmas Carol

This short film gives some insight into the artist and his inspiration, with more truly exceptional paintings - 

For more information, please see P J Lynch's website

For another post on Jessie Wilcox Smith:



Charles Kingsley 1819-1875

Educated at Kings College in London and Magdalene College, Cambridge, Charles Kingsley went on to enter the Church of England where he continued to study history and often published his sermons, as well as poems and novels.

His work was very influential. The novel Westward Ho! Inspired the name of a town – even containing the exclamation mark, as well as the Bedford, Westward Ho! And Appledore Railway.

Young People out gathering ferns - and what other nonsense is going on!

Kingsley also coined the term ‘Pteridomania’ – when he felt his daughters had gone mad, obsessed with the collection of ferns which became a national hobby in the nineteenth century, of which more can be read in this post.

Sympathetic to the work of Darwin, Kingsley was very interested in the concept of evolution. As a Christian Socialist, he had strong political views and campaigned against the unjust conditions under which many labourers were forced to work. Both issues are raised in his classic novel, a didactic moral fable entitled: The Water Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby which was written between 1862-3, serialised by Macmillan’s Magazine before going on to be published as a book. 

The story was an instant hit and became a mainstay of children’s literature in the 1920’s. However, it was many years after that when the VV also found herself entranced in the magical underwater tale when she went into a library and pulled Kingsley's book down from the shelves, at which point an obsession with water, mermaids and nymphs was born which is still very much in her mind today, forming one of the themes of a new novel on which she is currently working. But then, as many children before, the VV desperately wanted to believe that Water Babies really did exist, a need that Kingsley understood, explaining when asked about them:

 '...no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies.'

Linley Sambourne, the famous Punch cartoonist satirised the concept with an illustration which showed the scientists Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley viewing a Water Baby caught in a bottle. Somewhat ironically, when Huxley's five year old grandson saw the illustration, he wrote this letter -

Dear Grandpater – Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? – Your loving Julian

To which his grandpater wrote this reply:  

My dear Julian – I could never make sure about that Water Baby.

I have seen Babies in water and Babies in bottles; the Baby in the water was not in a bottle and the Baby in the bottle was not in water. My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did – There are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things.

When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.

How charming!

Nevertheless, now that she has grown up and is no longer quite so naive, the VV wonders if her fascination for Kingsley's tale may well have been due more to the lovely illustrations of Jessie Willcox Smith than what – on a re-reading – can often be a pompous, long-winded and bigoted story with pages of ranting sermons; literally long lists the ‘ills’ of the world, as perceived by the Reverend Kingsley. There are also many examples of prejudice against Americans (murderous crows), Jews (dishonest merchants who grow rich on the sale of false icons), Blacks (fat old greasy negros), and Catholics (Popes are listed as one of the great bogies, alongside Measles!) - all of which may explain why the story is no longer very popular!

It begins well enough, telling the tale of a young chimney sweep called Tom who is abused by Mr Grimes, his cruel employer. When working in a large country house, Tom climbs down into one of the hearths and sees Ellie, a lovely golden-haired girl in a room where everything is clean and white. Chased away by the child’s nurse, Tom escapes through the window and runs away, eventually coming to a river where he ‘falls asleep’ when trying to wash himself clean. Thereafter, Tom is transformed into a ‘water baby’ and goes on to have many ‘watery’ adventures whereby through a series of moral lessons he meets characters such as Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. His soul is eventually redeemed and returned to human form, becoming a man of science who works for the greater good of mankind.



Rachel Beer 1858-1927

Over a hundred years ago a journalist by the name of Rachel Beer controlled two influential newspapers. She entertained the great and the good, from Gladstone to the Prince of Wales – and all this twenty years before any women had the right to vote.

Rachel Beer was a Sephardic Jew whose father, David Sassoon, came to London after making his fortune in the export of Indian opium. His daughter was raised in luxury but when he died, even though Rachel was determined to be independent and train as a nurse, her mother was desperate to marry her off in the tradition of their faith. She had her daughter's portrait painted by the fashionable Henry Thaddeus, and when that failed to net a match Rachel's image was modelled in marble as well!

Doubtlessly, Rachel would have had many suiters. She was very beautiful. But, only at the age of 28 did she eventually fall in love. Frederick Beer was another Jew of German origins, though he had been baptised in the Church of England and when Rachel consented to be his wife and also took her husband's faith she was promptly disowned by her family. 

Frederick owned The Observer and in 1893 he also bought the Sunday Times, intending for his wife to edit it, a position she took very seriously – conducting painstaking investigative work and taking its stance from Conservative to independent while claiming that rather than support MP’s she preferred to observe their squabbles as ‘an entomologist observes the contest of rival tribes of ants.’

Working from her grand Mayfair home, Rachel wrote 3,000 words a week, and amongst other things she campaigned against the libel laws of the time which encouraged only timidity. She railed against wasteful public spending, while advocating pensions for all workers over 60 years.

When Frederick became ill with TB, she took over the running of the Observer too, achieving one of the century’s greatest exclusives when, by the means of cheque book journalism, Count Esterhazy admitted that he had been involved in the forging of letters that condemned an innocent Jewish officer to be condemned on Devil’s Island – a notorious French penal colony.

However, despite all her success, when Frederick died she became depressed and suffered a nervous breakdown, at which point her brother had her declared insane, and one of the country’s wealthiest and most influential women lost control of her entire fortune in one single stroke of a lawyer's pen. Her brother sold both of the papers and Rachel lived out the rest of her life in the care of three mental health nurses in a house in Tunbridge Wells. 

When she died at the age of 69, rather than being buried in her beloved husband’s Highgate mausoleum, Rachel was buried with the Sassoons in the family grave in Brighton. 

The Oberver briefly alluded to her death, but there was not one word written about the ten years she spent as its proprietor and editor.

For more information, this BBC World Service programme written and presented by Alan Johnston is very interesting, and First Lady of Fleet Street: A Biography of Rachel Beer is written by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren.



Moving on from Doctor Merryweather's unique use of the creatures as a means of 'prognosticating a tempest', during the Victorian era  leeches were somewhat more popular for their general use in medicine, being prescribed for most any ailment, ranging from headaches to hemorrhoids, from nervous fatigue to nymphomania – though sadly, they often succeeded in weakening the health of the patient yet more.

Nevertheless Sir William Harvey wrote that '...daily experience satisfies us that bloodletting has a most salutary effect in many diseases, and is indeed the foremost among all general remedial means...' Indeed, the employment of leeches became so common that their use very often out-stripped supply.

The animals were found in fresh water, mostly by women who paddled in rivers, allowing leeches to adhere to their feet before plucking them off to store in small cages or boxes, then sold on to doctors or pharmacists who kept them in jars - often very ornate - although in Bedale in Yorkshire there is a castellated 'leech house' constructed by the local apothecary.

A pewter leech box - image from the Science Museum

The creatures could survive unfed for anything up to a year. When then applied to the vein of a host, the starving leech, which may be up to three or four inches long, clung on by the use of the teeth in its anterior suckers from which it released anti-coagulating enzymes that not only numbed any swelling and pain but also prevented the sucked blood from clotting – until the leech became so swollen that it simply released its grip and ‘dropped’ off.

At that point the wound would be cleaned and bandaged, though it may continue to bleed for hours, and sometimes even days. There were occasions when patients were allergic to the treatment, feeling faint or dizzy, or having great difficulty in breathing, and some even died from loss of blood - such as in the case of Lord Byron, and also his daughter, Ada Lovelace .

A pewter bleeding bowl - image from the Science Museum

Today, leeches are still employed in surgical cases where skin grafts are used and there is a need for restoring the flow of blood.  However, the following scenes, discovered on a clip of 1950's film from the excellent Quack Doctor site are, thankfully, only fictional!



Mary Kingsley (1862 – 1900) English writer and Explorer

Mary Kingsley grew up in a home from which her father was often absent ~ leaving his daughter alone to care for her invalid mother. During thus time Mary busied herself with reading her father’s library of science, memoirs and travel books, including those notes that he brought home which detailed his scientific work – work which Mary would then annotate. 

At the age of thirty, when both of her parents had died, Mary travelled to Africa herself, collecting the material to complete her father’s unfinished book about the culture of the African people.

Thus, her own adventurous career was born. She wrote Travels in West Africa and West African Studies, both of which were bestsellers in England, garnering the widest respect from the scholarly community.

Isobel Dixon is a contemporary South African poet who has now travelled to England where many of her own observations are collected in wonderful poems, about which Clive James has said: 'Isobel Dixon was born with the gift of lyricism as natural speech. A measure of her accomplishment is that 
all the sense impressions of Africa, even if the reader has never actually been there, live naturally in her poetry as if it were the only landscape.'

Isobel's latest collection, published by Salt, is called The Tempus Prognosticator. Amongst many
others it contains this poem inspired by, and dedicated to, the work of Mary Kingsley –

Beetle, Fish & Fetish

‘Look, my mouth and it be sweet, and palaver done set.’

the dreary Forcados, the Bonny River
Sierra Leone, the white man’s grave
the Bights of Biafra and Benin, the Congo Français
how changing at Lagos Bar throws
changing at Clapham Junction into the shade

the all-asideways-tiptoe comic pomp of crabs
the Handel-Festival-sized choruses of frogs
the crocodiles’ strange whine and sighing cough
the parrots’ squark, the reeking, stinking swamp
(a thing the English seem to love)

the pretty M’Pongwe and Igalwa boat songs
with their elaborate tunes, in a minor key
how to be ready for submergencies
a damp, dilapidated Horace
with which to read yourself to sleep

crickets at their vesper-hour controversy
hornbills confabulating scandal all night long
a leopard swearing at the storm
tail whipping in the forest’s under-gloom
the thump, thump, thump of beaten manioc

how to cook a juicy hippo chop
how a snake is to be caught, with a well-cleft stick
how plantain leaves can render even boa
constrictor palatable,  but cannot remove
the musky taste of crocodile – how nothing will

Gray Shirt, Singlet, Silent, Pagan –
a strapping chap of wolf’s-mouth black –
your companions, paddling the Ogooué’s broad road
of burnished bronze, into the heart of the Gabon
blue serge skirt, hairpins and fetish charms

beware mosquito bites on feet, the rub of a boot
a sore when it comes in Gorilla country comes to stay
but you’re no more human than a gale of wind you say
duty’s daughter, in the ruck of life and war
bind up the jaws, bind up

the final bound, that first league out, last coast
your almost unsinkable boat
now anchored to a southern ocean floor

I wish you the lily of the spirit of the rapids
a gift of a Goliath beetle, an Ogooué canoe
and some distant river’s upper reaches
red sandbanks glowing like the Nibelungen gold
the forest Turneresque, owing to effects of sun and mist

and there is always this: Dr Günther has approved
one absolutely new snake, three absolutely new fish
and a lizard that the B.M. has been waiting for for years

For Mary Kingsley

 By Isobel Dixon, from her latest collection, The Tempest Prognosticator

A Tempest Prognosticator

ADDENDUM:  The Tempest Prognosticator or Leech barometer was 'invented' by George Merryweather in 1851. It was a contraption in which leeches were kept in small bottles. When a storm was approaching the leeches would become agitated, attempting to escape from the glass containers and setting off little bells - the greater the tinkling sounds, the greater the risk of a storm.




Essie Fox aka the Virtual Victorian at Bonhams with A Somnambulist by Millais

Today, along with her agent and publisher, the VV went to Bonhams auction house in London's  New Bond Street to view the Millais painting that inspired her novel's title. While there she was able to learn more about this wonderful work of art which was completed in 1871 when the artist was 41 years old.

Apart from the usual allusions to Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White, and the opera by Bellini which is called La Sonnambula, it seems that the painting was also inspired by Millais' admiration for Symphony in White No 1:  The White Girl by J. A. M. Whistler.

The model who posed as 'the white girl' once wrote of the work in a letter - 'Some stupid artists don't understand it at all while Millais for instance thinks it splendid more like Titian and those old swells than anything he has seen.'

In 1868 Millais responded with his first interpretation of a female in white when he painted the portrait shown above, which is of Nina Lehmann. But the magnificent, brooding A Somnambulist is something a great deal more powerful, and despite there being some prurient indignation regarding the fact that the woman was in her nightgown and may well be encouraging sexual advances, there were many favourable reviews when the painting was shown at the Royal Academy.

The Times said - 'The realism of the nightdress and the candlestick affords an easy theme for carping...it is impossible to contest the grace of the figure or the power with which the painter has given the effect of eyes still wide open, though not seeing, and the affect of moonlight and scattered coast lights.'

When viewed in 'the flesh' the eyes of this painting really are amazing. The VV is so glad that she went to look, and is also somewhat surprised that the painting only reached just above its lower guide price - auctioned for £74,400, inclusive of the buyer's premium.

However, the Bolton Museum which was selling the painting today must have been pleased with the profit made - having purchased A Somnambulist in the late sixties, for the price of £400.

The VV wonders who owns it now...



The Somnambulist by John Everett Millais

Just one day before the publication of Essie Fox’s debut novel The Somnambulist which is set in Victorian England, Bonhams auction house announced the sale of the Pre-Raphaelite painting that inspired the novel’s title.

Currently owned by the Bolton Museum and valued by Bonhams at between £70,000-£100,000, ‘The Somnambulist’ by Millais is the haunting portrait of a sleepwalking woman dressed in white. It is full of a brooding dark menace, and subtly conjures up themes of suppressed sexuality and the occult which also feature strongly in the novel where the painting is first described in the following way –

'That painting was called The Somnambulist, and it showed a young woman with flowing dark hair, wearing no more than a thin cotton gown as she walked at the perilous edge of a cliff. She carried a candle, but no flame had been lit, and I always feared she might slip to her death, dashed on the rocks in a cold grey sea...'

Some say the Millais painting was inspired by Wilkie Collins’ sensational novel The Woman in White – others that it was based upon La Sonnambula, a popular nineteenth century opera which played to packed houses all over Europe – much like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals today. And as Andrew Lloyd Webber has previously purchased many other Pre-Raphaelite paintings, perhaps he will be interested in this week’s sale of ‘The Somnambulist’. 

Essie Fox will certainly be going along, if only to view this wonderful painting (viewings can be made today, tomorrow,and on Wednesday morning between 9-11am) and the acution will take place on the afternoon of Wednesday July 13th at Bonhams in London’s New Bond Street. 



Constance Wilde (January 2 1859 – April 7, 1898) seen here with her son, Cyril

Constance Lloyd was no shy retiring flower. She had a good education, later writing children's stories, painting, and studying poetry. Her interests also extended to fashion, leading to an involvement in the Rational Dress movement. 

When she became engaged to Oscar Wilde she declared herself insanely happy, but little did she realise the heartbreak and shame he would bring to her. Even so, early on in their relationship there is every reason to believe that Oscar was equally entranced. He personally designed her engagement ring, and once wrote her a letter with these intensely romantic lines –

‘I felt your fingers in my hair and your cheeks brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled with some exquisite ecstasy with yours.’

Constance's 'beloved Oscar'.

But time was soon to take its toll. Following the birth of two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, Oscar became more interested in the company of younger men. He was intensely attracted to Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, a vain and selfish young aristocrat whose testimony about their affair would lead to the older married man facing social ruin, with a two-year term of imprisonment on the charge of ‘gross indecency’.

Oscar with Lord Alfred Douglas

Constance and Oscar never divorced, though she did change her name to Holland and spent a great deal of time abroad, insisting that her husband give up all of his parental rights, with the shame of his 'crimes' being almost too much for her to bear. However, it was Constance who visited Oscar in gaol to tell him of his mother’s death. And it was Constance who offered financial support after his eventual release, when he then left England to live in exile on the Continent. 

After a serious fall during time in their Chelsea home, Constance suffered a debilitating spinal injury, That, in conjunction with a probable cancer of the uterus, led to her travelling to Genoa in Italy where she underwent dangerous surgery. Genoa then went on to become Constance's final resting place, dying at the age of 39.

Oscar did not visit his dying wife.

If you would like to read more about Constance Wilde, a new book has recently come out – Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, written by Franny Moyle.

RELATED POST: JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS - with mentions of 'Desperate Romantics' which was also written by Franny Moyle.