The VV is an enormous fan of the artist and writer Charlotte Cory - particularly her 'carte de visites' made up of portraits of 'Visitorians' which subvert the original nineteenth photographic form by exchanging human heads with those of animals. The affects are quite startling, amusing and also disturbing. Enjoy!
Sunday, 19 May 2013
Wednesday, 15 May 2013
The VV's new novel, Elijah's Mermaid was published in paperback by Orion Books last Thursday. This is the first in what will be a series of short trailers.
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
In 2005 a mixed-race woman from Jamaica named Mary Seacole, who had died in obscurity in London in 1881, unexpectedly became the subject of widespread media attention in the year of the bi-centenary of her probable birth (we are yet to find definitive proof of the precise date). Having already won an online vote in 2004 as the Greatest Black Briton, for her humanitarian work nursing the sick and wounded during the Crimean War, in early 2005 the National Portrait Gallery unveiled her lost portrait that I had had the good fortune to discover. By year’s end Mary Seacole had been catapulted to a position of pre-eminence in Britain as an inspirational black female role model from the 19th century. From the start, however, her meteoric rise to fame sparked equal amounts of admiration and controversy.
Women’s historians and Victorianists had in fact been aware of Mary Seacole ever since Falling Wall Press, a small feminist publisher in Bristol, reprinted Mary’s gloriously idiosyncratic memoirs Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands in 1982. Barely half a dozen copies of the original cheap, cardboard-backed 1/6d edition had survived since first publication in 1857 but its republication made available a unique and valuable eye witness testimony of that terrible and futile conflict – the only account of war in the 19th century by a black woman – and one to equal the better-known memoir of the Crimean War by officer’s wife, Fanny Duberly.
But publication of Mary’s memoir also created problems of authenticity: the hagiographers, eager to rightfully promote her as an important black role model, proved a tad too accepting in their reading of the text. Mary’s book was written for a white, middle class Victorian audience and was, inevitably, economical with the truth about her own origins. She was the product of a common-law relationship between a Scottish soldier based in Kingston in the 1800s and a free, mixed-race woman, probably called Jane Grant (like many of the details in Mary’s story, we just don’t know for sure) but Mary of course drew a veil over this. She also failed to point out to her eminently shockable white Victorian readers that she herself married a white man (engaged in the West Indies sugar trade), and – as passing contemporary allusions and my own research later uncovered – that her liaison with a white English officer, Lieutenant General Thomas Bunbury while still married to the sickly Edwin Seacole, resulted in the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Sarah.
The total exclusion of Sarah, deliberately so, by her mother from The Wonderful Adventures (independent eye witnesses confirm her presence with Mary in the Crimea) is but one of several problems encountered in any attempt to verify Mary Seacole’s story; the public life of nurse, entrepreneur, cook and do-gooder is there for all to see, but the private life is almost entirely hidden from us. There is also the problem of Mary’s brush with British officialdom: she was of course refused, as a black woman, when she volunteered for Florence Nightingale’s official nursing contingent. But she was not the only black female applicant to be turned down – two or three other West Indian women also applied and were rejected, one of them on the grounds that her blackness ‘might frighten the patients’. Many in today’s vigorous pro-Seacole camp have been quick to accuse Florence Nightingale of rampant prejudice in not offering Mary a place at Scutari, but the fact is that by the time Mary Seacole got herself to the Black Sea under her own steam and at her own expense, she had already decided that her place was not nursing at Scutari, 300 miles away on the Bosphorus, but in the Crimea itself. Mary’s astonishing fearlessness, her will, tenacity and enterprise led her to take her own supplies out to the war zone, where she set up shop with the help of an elusive business partner, Thomas Day, (who never has any profile in Mary’s story – was there more to this relationship one wonders?)
A degree of wishful thinking about Mary’s true role in the Crimea has, since her rediscovery in the 1980s, resulted in an exaggeration of what she actually did out there. Her major occupation was running her rather grandly named ‘British Hotel’. It was not a hotel but an improvised general store cum doctor’s surgery, cum officer’s canteen and club – where she charged those who could afford it high prices for her hot dinners and plum puddings, in order to fund her care of the sick and wounded who had no money to pay her with her own naturopathic medicines, the recipes for which she had learned at her mother’s knee in Kingston as a child.
Contrary to some of the persisting mythology, Mary Seacole was not some kind of Victorian battlefield paramedic; she arrived in the Crimea after all the major battles were over. She never set up or ran her own hospital – the War Commissariat would never have allowed it, but she did run an informal daily clinic where those needing medical attention could go – be it for a dose of jollop for dystentery, to have a wound stitched or their frostbite treated – and where they would always find kindness, sympathy and the warm hearted welcome of a woman who offered a little piece of England in the midst of war. Such was the popularity of Mrs Seacole’s establishment and the tales of her kindnesses toward the sick and wounded that her name became legendary across the Crimea during 1855-6.
When Mary Seacole returned to Britain in July 1856 she found she was a household name, thanks to the letters home of soldieres who knew her in the Crimea and the reports of journalists such as W H Russell of The Times. One might equate the welcome she received, as a black woman, and the subsequent celebration of her achievements that followed, with the day another mixed-race British heroine – Kelly Holmes – came back from the Athens Olympics with two gold medals. For a brief while – a couple of years at most – Mary Seacole relished every single minute of her fame. Meanwhile, the woman perceived by some as her arch-enemy, Florence Nightingale, withdrew to her sickroom and refused all and any press attention.
In my years talking about these two very different women in the context of their contributions during the Crimean War, I have often heard Mary Seacole alluded to as the ‘Black Florence Nightingale’. She wasn’t. She was her own woman; a proud Creole, loyal to Queen and Country who went to the Crimea to be of service to her ‘sons’ – the men of the British Army and Navy whom she had come to know in her years running a boarding house in Kingston. Mary Seacole was a patriot through and through, in many ways, more British than the British but unlike Nightingale she left no post-war legacy aside from her one slim volume of memoirs. We have thousands of surviving letters written by Florence Nightingale; at present there is only one known manuscript letter by Mary Seacole. After the Crimean War there were no statues erected to her, no streets, institutions, pubs or other buildings given her name; as the old soldiers who had known her in the Crimea died, so did the oral history of her exploits there.
It is of course only right and proper that Florence Nightingale, not only the founder of women’s nursing in Britain but also an important and influential social reformer thereafter, should have received the lion’s share of the accolades; but Mary Seacole has her own place in our history too. The mistake made by some of her followers has been to denigrate Nightingale’s achievements in an attempt to raise the profile of Mary’s; this is as misguided as are attempts to dismiss Seacole’s contribution in the Crimea as little more than ‘selling tea and buns to the troops’. The campaign for a statue to her in London has, since its inception in 2005, been dogged bycontroversy but it grows apace, as too has been the teaching of Mary Seacole’s story in our schools. The recent suggestion by Michael Gove that she be removed from the national curriculum was fiercely and promptly fought off; 35,000 people signed a petition to ensure that our children continue to learn about Mary Seacole, not necessarily as a pioneer and innovator – she wasn’t – but as a distinguished black woman who bucked every convention in mid-Victorian Britain, to raise the profile of her sex, her skills as a nurse and woman of business, and her Creole nationhood in a history that is still largely dominated by white males.
Helen Rappaport and the portrait of Mary Seacole exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.
No Place for Ladies is by Helen Rappaport.
Thursday, 2 May 2013
Amanda McKittrick Ros 1860-1939
The worst novelist in history is how some have referred to an Irish Victorian writer by the name of Amanda McKittrick Ros. Of her contemporaries, Mark Twain was said to be a great fan - though whether he was a straight-faced admirer of McKittrick Ros's purple prose the VV cannot say. But she would be surprised if Mr Twain had not chuckled to himself when reading that eyes are 'piercing orbs', or that legs are 'bony supports', or that to blush is to be touched 'by the hot hand of bewilderment.'
One of her most outspoken critics was the poet Barry Pain who others assumed would be amused by McKittrick Ros's exuberance. However he was not to be charmed, writing this after reading her work -
“The book has not amused. It began by doing that. Then, as its enormities went on getting more and more enormous in every line, the book seemed something titanic, gigantic, awe-inspiring. The world was full of Irene Iddesleigh, by Mrs. Amanda McKittrick Ros, and I shrank before it in tears and in terror.”
One might be mistaken for thinking that he had just read her novel, Six Months in Hell.
However, McKittrick Ros could hold her own with any such critics, calling them the 'auctioneering agents of Satan' or 'bastard donkey-headed mites', or the 'clay crabs of corruption' and claiming that their venom was the result of jealousy - or of being secretly in love with her.
The VV thinks the reader may already be getting a sense of this reviled novelist's style - and also her personal faith in her talent, because she firmly believed that her work was as good as that of Defoe, or Eliot, or Dickens - and that it would be talked about for more than 1,000 years to come. Well, it may be - but not for the reasons that she might have expected! For when it came to the Nobel Prize for Literature she expressed her thoughts to her publisher in the following way, 'What think you of this prize... Do you think I should make a dart for it?'
She had no doubt whatsoever that everyone was clamouring to read her work because it was exceptional literature. It was certainly unique. In the novel, Helen Huddleson, most characters are named after fruits and vegetables - such as Lord Raspberry, Sir Christopher Currant, Madam Pear or Lily Lentil.
And these are the opening lines of the novel, Irene Iddesleigh - which, for those who are inspired, is available free on Kindle -
The VV is particularly fond of the mention of private parts as being the 'fleshy triangle' in this, the first occasion when the lovers Delina Delaney and Lord Gifford chance to meet -
"Could a king, a prince, a duke – nay, even one of those ubiquitous invisibles who, we are led to believe, accompanies us when thinking, speaking, or acting – could even this sinless atom refrain from tainting its spotless gear with the wish of a human heart, as those grey eyes looked in bashful tenderness into the glittering jet revolvers that reflected their sparkling lustre from nave to circumference, casting a deepened brightness over the whole features of an innocent girl, and expressing, in invisible silence, the thoughts, nay, even the wish, of a fleshy triangle whose base had been bitten by order of the Bodiless Thinker."
What more is there to say? Oh, has the VV mentioned that McKittrish Ros was a poet too? No? Well, perhaps that joy should be saved - and savoured - on another day.
Wednesday, 1 May 2013
IN 1881 the artist and critic Ruskin inaugurated the May Day ceremony at Whitelands College (a college that trained young women to teach for the most eminent society schools) where it was his wish that every year thereafter the students should elect 'the likeablest and loveablest' of their current number to become their Queen of the May.
The tradition continues to this very day when the May Monarch is voted in and installed by a visiting bishop, although these days when the college is co-educational, a May Queen or May King may be chosen.
This year the ceremony will take place on Saturday May 18th and for more information, please see here.
Tuesday, 30 April 2013
What the VV would have given to be able to read Capturing the Light when she was writing Elijah’s Mermaid in which a young man becomes obsessed with the Victorian art of photograpy. However, she did visit the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire – of whom Roger Watson, one of this book's authors, is the curator. The other is Helen Rappaport, an excellent writer and renowned historian, and together they have produced a vivid and stunning read which details the complexities of photography in a language that is clear and compelling.
They write about the very first idea of ‘light’ being captured when in the fifth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Mozi created an early version of the pinhole camera – also known as the camera obscura. Such a device was later used by Aristotle, and also by the artist Leonardo da Vinci as an aid to creating perspective.
But the real core of this story is that of two Victorian geniuses, both of whom played an enormous part in the modern invention of photography when they sought to solve the chemical problem of how to capture an image of light and then keep that image forever.
‘A person unacquainted with the process, if told that nothing of this was executed by hand, must imagine that one has at one’s call the Genius of Alladin’s lamp. And, indeed, it may almost be said, that this is something of the same kind. It is a little bit of magic realised.’ - Fox Talbot
Henry Fox Talbot was a quiet, solitary gentleman-amateur scientist, tinkering away on his grand estate in the English countryside. Of a scientific temperament, he left a huge amount of material in the form of notes and letters that can aid any present day investigation regarding his own development of the paper based calotype process of photography.
‘I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.’ Louis Dagguere
On the other hand, Louis Daguerre came from much humbler origins. Daguerre, who developed his process on glass, was a flamboyant and charismatic French scenery-painter – a showman and entrepreneur in search of fame and fortune. Little wonder that his self promotion led to great publicity and to many believing him to have been the father of photography.
But, during the 1830’s both men were working independently on the invention of photography - and Capturing the Light reveals which one of them actually 'got there' first, in developing the invention that would enable ordinary people, for the first time in history, to illustrate their own lives and leave something behind of their passing.
Photography would transform art, document times of both war and peace, and become so natural and widespread that now most every one of us carries a camera with us at all times, if only in the form of mobile phone. All too often we take this magical process for granted. But what a different world it would be without the 'gift' of photography and everything that has led to.
Today, we must be thankful to both of these men for their contributions to our lives. And should you have any interest at all in the subject of photography, the VV highly recommends this wonderful book.
For a related VV post: A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC REALISED
Wednesday, 24 April 2013
There's something about a fancy dress party - and welcome to the VV's tonight. Do come on in and meet the guests. No doubt more will be coming later...
Truly, the star of the evening is Prince Arthur - the height of royal elegance.
And, of course, any prince must have a princess...
And a guard to keep them safe. He only looks fuzzy because you've been drinking!
Whilst Brittania will rule the waves and lead the way to the water closets...
Where you might find these ladies powdering their noses...
And the always game Lady Paget will be on hand to swat the flies...
Though she doesn't take kindly to being double-booked.
And only the most eagle-eyed will know to tell the difference...
The same with these two ladies - truly the life and soul, come ready prepared to play dominoes...
And by the time the morning comes, we'll all have a bacon breakfast.
WITH THANKS TO THE RETRONAUT FOR THE PICTURE OF PRINCE ARTHUR WHICH INSPIRED THE PARTY.
Below, the latecomers will be added in order of arrival...
WITH THANKS TO THE RETRONAUT FOR THE PICTURE OF PRINCE ARTHUR WHICH INSPIRED THE PARTY.
Below, the latecomers will be added in order of arrival...
Tuesday, 23 April 2013
As this is the day of St George, the VV is posting this pencil drawing by Edward Burne-Jones, which was probably made around 1865 and which illustrates the saint conquering the dragon - perhaps a lesser dragon than we often tend to imagine, more of a rottwieler of a beast than anything more mythical.
However the form of this creature was derived from a sixteenth century German woodcut that Burne-Jones most probably found in the Prints and Drawings Collection of the British Museum. It is therefore fitting that this sketch was bequeathed to the Museum's collection by Cecil French.
The Fight: St George Kills the Dragon VI
The sketch is one of several made for a series of seven paintings which detailed the legend of St George. The works were originally commissioned for a private collection (in the home of Miles Birkett Foster) but the paintings have now been sold and dispersed. They are now in various locations, ranging from the Gallery of New South Wales in Australia (see above) to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Forbes Collection in New York - and also, somewhat nearer to home for the VV, in the Bristol Art Gallery.
Tuesday, 16 April 2013
At the moment the VV is immersed in writing her third Victorian novel, so it seemed an appropriate time to post the following article which was first published a few months ago in the pages of Writing Magazine. The VV hopes that it might be of use to any readers of this blog who also share an interest in writing about the Victorian era.
ON WRITING VICTORIAN FICTION - BY ESSIE FOX
The Time Machine - from a film of the book by H G Wells
“The past is foreign country: they do things differently there.” So read the opening lines of L.P Hartley’s The Go Between.
Any writer of historical fiction almost needs to become a time ‐ traveller, to ‘go native’ and familiarise themselves with the cultural workings of the place in which their story will be set – to draw their reader into that world without qualms as to authenticity regarding the characters, settings or themes that, if placed in a contemporary tale, might seem entirely alien.
A good starting point for this cultural immersion is to read the work of established authors; those from the nineteenth century, and the best of the Neo‐Victorians now. That way an author’s ear can attune to the nuances, rhythm and tone of the ‘foreign’ language that was used back then. My Victorian favourites are Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, and Thomas Hardy; each one offering a unique style to define the age they represent.
Charles Dickens at his desk
Of all the Victorian writers, Dickens is generally considered the master, his work rising above mere plot and offering social commentary on almost every aspect of the world that he inhabited. But here, a word of warning: attempts to emulate his work may result in clichéd parody in any but the most skillful hands. A writer should not be afraid to develop their own personal style, even when following the ‘rules’ or restrictions within the genre.
Gregory Peck as Ishmael in Moby Dick
But not all nineteenth century literature adhered to Dickens’ formal tone. Moby Dick, written in 1851, begins with these strikingly ‘modern’ lines – “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation...especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off...”
We still have the formal Victorian phrasing to anchor us in the era, as exhibited in the phrase: ‘requires a high moral principle’. But, at the same time, Melville creates a very strong vernacular; a tone entirely original; a real, living character’s voice which could belong to any age, which draws us straight into his world.
However, it must be admitted that Melville was American. Many writers prefer to emulate the more English tradition of ‘Victoriana’ – that which has been so well observed by the modern‐day author Charles Palliser whose The Quincunx, according to many reviews, ‘out-Dickensed’ Dickens himself.
Most ‘Sensation’ themes are covered, with lost or stolen inheritances, laudanum-addicted governesses, dens of thieves, and asylums, along with doomed affairs of the heart. The narrator is called John Huffam, the middle names of Charles Dickens. An audacious decision, but justified, because Palliser’s writing is superb.
A scene from the BBC adaptation of Fingersmith
Sarah Waters, who also excels in the genre, uses a spare and lyrical prose, rarely florid or overblown, as illustrated in these lines taken from the start of Fingersmith – “My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me.”
The reader is immediately told that the narrator has been orphaned – a common Victorian theme around which secrets and mysteries can be woven into complex plots.
Similarly, clues are laid in The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, another stunning ‘Victorian’ novel which begins – “After killing the red-‐haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper. It had been surprisingly – almost laughably – easy. I had followed him for some distance, after first observing him in Threadneedle-‐street. I cannot say why I decided it should be him, and not one of the others on whom my searching eye had alighted that evening.”
The novel is ‘placed’ immediately by the archaic use of ‘Threadneedle-‐street’ – and the fact of the oyster supper: a common meal in Victorian times and not the luxury food of today. The language has a formality with words such as ‘had alighted’, all of which leaves the reader in no doubt that the genre is Victorian.
The writer of historical fiction must ensure accurate scene descriptions - and inspiration is everywhere, with many of us surrounded still by Victorian architecture; all the houses, shops, the theatres and bars from which settings can be derived. And then there is the transport – the sounds of creaking carriages – the jangling of reins –the clopping of hooves – the rhythmic chugging of the trains, exuding clouds of cinder-flecked steam.
The expansion of the railways enabled, for the very first time, a mass population mobility, even though, as depicted in my own novel, The Somnambulist, many came to fear that “the motion and velocity might cause such a pressure inside our brains as to risk a fatal injury – a nose bleed at the very least.”
Still, many did travel to London which, to this very day, has a wealth of preserved Victorian settings.
Drawing room at 18 Stafford Terrace
18 Stafford Terrace in Kensington remains just as it would have been, with Chinese ceramics and Turkey rugs, Morris wallpapers and stained glass windows – not to mention the letters, the diaries and bills that provide an accurate insight into the running of the house. For those unable to visit, there are countless images in books, or via a search on the Internet.
The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the science of photography. Victorian scholars have a distinct advantage over those of earlier centuries, for what better way to get a sense of interior or exterior scenes, to study the fashions that were worn, or to catch the glint of life in an eye. I can only agree with Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of the art, who described the photographic art as ‘the genius of Alladin’s Lamp...a little bit of magic realised.’
As to the day to day running of any Victorian residence, the relentless slog of housework would have lacked any magic at all. But do not take my word for it. Why not read Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House, or go to an original source in Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. In fact, Mrs Beeton offers advice on almost any subject, from cooking, to fashion, to medicine. Her words occur in The Somnambulist; my fiction being melded with fact when the narrator quotes from that very book as a means of objecting to the clothes that her mother forces her to wear – “I was looking through Mrs Beeton’s book, and she wrote several chapter on fashion, and with regard to a young woman’s dress her advice is very specific indeed. She says that” – and I had this memorised for such a moment of revolt – “its colour harmonise with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure, that its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.”
Other contemporary factual works are still available today. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is surprisingly readable while giving a detailed insight into grim social realities. Very useful indeed when researching the Victorian demi-monde was My Secret Life by Walter. Walter was the most shocking libertine whose pursuit of physical gratification led to many a lurid and melodramatic encounter – the exploration of a world that could not be any more different to what is generally perceived as a moral, upstanding society-‐ and at its head the ‘mother queen’ who ruled with her royal sceptre of iron respectability.
Inside Wilton's music hall
Even so, I feel quite sure that Walter would have visited Wilton’s (a music hall setting in both of my novels) with all of its night-time clatter and bang, where prostitutes called from the balcony to those who sat at tables below, with the glisten of the lime lights glancing off the brass of the barley twists posts around. No doubt he would have loved Cremorne – the Chelsea pleasure gardens described in my second novel, Elijah’s Mermaid. However, those gardens were eventually closed for reasons of ‘lewd behaviour’ and nothing of them now remains but a pair of ornate iron gates.
Unable to visit the actual place I read articles in Victorian newspapers (the archives available online), and sites such as www.VictorianLondon.org. I looked at paintings and adverts to gradually built a vivid scene of lush lawns with statues and fountains, a banqueting hall, and a hot air balloon, and regular theatrical displays – such as the infamous Beckwith Frog who, along with several fish, performed in a great glass aquarium. Freak shows were a popular, if sordid, form of entertainment, though the mermaid display in my novel is purely the product of imagination. Even so, that image was inspired when reading about Feejee Mermaids; the hideous monstrosities so popular in Victorian travelling shows which were created by grafting a monkey’s remains onto the body of a fish.
A Feejee mermaid
Imagine the smell of that! And here is another writing prop to create a complete Victorian world, albeit one invisible. It may well be a cliché when describing nineteenth century scenes to allude to the stench of filthy streets. But it would be wrong to ignore the fact of the constant odour of rotting food, or the effluence from horses who drew the carriages and carts, or the noxious stink from factories exuding acrid yellow smoke – what were known as ‘London Particulars’.
A writer might also try to convey the intensity of common smells without a descent into parody; by thinking ‘outside the box’ and describing less obvious fragrances, which, in the case of The Somnambulist, happened to be a perfume that came to have great significance within the story’s plot. For this I employed the Internet, seeking out aromas that a Victorian gentleman might use. I found Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, first produced in 1872, and described by the manufacturers as ‘animalic and golden...warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk and powdery orris.’
Quite a vivid description, I’m sure you’ll agree. And quite a serendipity, because, after the book’s publication I realised that Hammam Bouquet is still being produced today. I couldn’t wait to buy some, to lift out the bottle’s stopper and breathe in the vivid scent that, until then, I had only imagined – to close my eyes and step right back into a lost Victorian world.