Victorians and Their Not So Subtle Bustle

One of the things I enjoy doing is dispelling the myth that the Victorians were prudes. Oh, they might try to fool you with their dress rules (an ankle is showing! horrors!), but even there they often failed.

Let’s face it. The bustle was created for one reason, and one reason only.


Henrik Ibsen and the Real Lady of the Dollhouse

from A Doll’s House (original title: Et dukkehjem) by Henrik Ibsen:

“Nora [shaking her head]. You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.

Helmer. Nora, what do I hear you saying?

Nora. It is perfectly true, Torvald. When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you–

Helmer. What sort of an expression is that to use about our marriage?

Nora [undisturbed]. I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as your else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which–I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman–just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.

Helmer. How unreasonable and how ungrateful you are, Nora! Have you not been happy here?

Nora. No, I have never been happy. I thought I was, but it has never really been so.

Helmer. Not–not happy!

Nora. No, only merry. And you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.

Nora. I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are–or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.” Nora.

When Nora walked out of her house at the conclusion of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House it caused an uproar at its premiere at the Royal Theatre in Denmark. Depression due to the inequalites in marriage had long been a subject in literature, but the problem (except in rare cases such as Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall) had been “solved” by plunges off cliffs or glasses of arsonic.

One of the many things that stands out is that Ibsen has the guts to make Nora unsympathetic at times. This is most evident when she talks endlessly about herself to her friends, Mrs. Linde and Doctor Rank. (the former, a widow looking for employment at the bank. the latter, dying). It would have been all too easy to make Nora simply a poor, put-upon woman. Controversy remains to this day regarding the fact that she abandons her role as a mother. But as Nora makes clear, she is hardly suitable for that role, being nothing more than a child, or doll, herself.

It is this self-realization that sets Nora apart from the Madam Bovaries. She can acknowledge her flaws and she sees a way to solve them. Perhaps her solution is not ideal, but she is taking active measures. If she is given this chance to be by herself for the very first time in her life, then perhaps one day she can return home, “changed”. And if in the interim, her husband is able/willing to do the same, then perhaps, “the most wonderful thing of all could happen.”

Henrik Ibsen first saw his Nora coming to him in a blue woolen dress. He wrote on October 17, 1878 that, “A woman cannot be herself in modern society since it is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.”

It should be noted here that later on Ibsen declined an award from the Norwegian Women’s Rights League, claiming he had not consciously written the play thinking about women’s rights, but about all humanity.

Yet, the question remained, who was this woman who came to him in a blue woolen dress?

Laura Kieler was a friend of Ibsen’s. Their relationship had begun in 1870 when she’d sent him a novel she’d written entitled, Brand’s Daughters. Stricken, Ibsen nicknamed her, “lark”, as Helmer would later affectionately call Nora in the play.

In 1876, after discovering that Laura had secretly taken out a loan, her husband demanded a separation and had her committed to an asylum. Shaken by his friend’s ordeal and feeling powerless to help- Ibsen poured his frustrastions onto paper. His woman could and would, choose life and freedom.

Laura was released after a month and returned to her husband. She resumed her writing career and tried (unsuccessfully) to distance herself from being associated as the model for Ibsen’s, “Doll”.

The fate of Nora resides in readers’ imaginations.

Published in: on August 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm  Comments (22)  
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The First Victorian Silent Horror Film

Christmas Eve. Paris. 1896.

The French filmmaker, Georges Melies, premiered, Le Manoir Du Diable ( The House of the Devil) The three-minute long film which depicts a demon conjuring up ghosts and witches is now considered to be the very first horror film ever made.

Previously having worked as a stage magician, Melies was an innovative director who invented the stop trick, a special effect in which an object is captured on film, then moved, so when the camera pans back, it appears that the object has vanished. Nicknamed the “cinemagician”, he also used time-lapses, multiple exposures, and dissolves to great affect.

There is nothing in the short piece to frighten anyone today, and even back then Melies said he had made the picture more to amuse the audience, than to frighten.

Nevertheless, step back into time, and watch it through the eyes of those who first viewed it over a hundred years ago at the Theatre Robert Houdin.

Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 10:24 am  Comments (15)  
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Famous Victorian Obituaries

I thought the following obituaries of famous persons from the Regency and later Victorian era would be historically interesting as a demonstration of just how cruel Victorian society could be.

Of Mary Wollstonecraft, (1759-1797) author of  AVindication of the Rights of Woman, and A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution,  who died a few days after giving birth, the anti-Jacoban Review mocked,  “She died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women.”

On William Godwin (Wollstonecraft’s husband, most famous for his book, Political Justice which called for the end of marriage in its then current form which he denounced as slavery for  women as they lost all bodily and monetary rights to their spouse; as well as calling for an end to government, and instead envisioned an ideal society where reasonable people would act for the good of all:

“In weighing well his merits with his moral imperfections, it is melancholy to discover how far the latter preponderated, and we are led to the very painful though certain conclusion, that it might have been better for mankind had he never existed.”- The Gentleman’s Magazine

John Bull magazine wrote upon the news of poet Percy Shelley’s death,  “The author of that abominable and blasphemous book called Queen Mab  was lately drowned.”

And here are snippets from The Death of Edgar Allen Poe from the New York Tribune in 1849:   “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it…..

Passion, in him, comprehended many of the worst emotions, which militate against human happiness. You could not contradict him, but you raised quick choler. You could not speak of wealth, but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing natural advantage of this poor boy, his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere, had raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that turned his very claims to admiration into prejudice against him. Irascible, envious, bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold repellant cynicism while his passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to him no moral susceptibility. And what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor. He had, to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species, only the hard wish to succeed, not shine, not serve, but succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.”

The  New York Tribune did, however at least go on to praise his work and declare of the Raven,  “”it is the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and is unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conceptions, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift.”

Of The Rabbit Year and Walt Whitman

 

Come February 3rd, according to Chinese astrology, we enter the year of the rabbit.   According to belief,   during rabbit years, people tend to concentrate much on family and loved ones.  There is a renewed desire to slow down and enjoy the little things in life.  And yes, there is often much passion and sex.  Rabbit nature being as it is.

Rabbits are the 4th sign in the Chinese zodiac and are noted for being  happy-go-lucky, sensual, refined,  loyal, and very serene.  They tend to hate discord of any kind and will go out of their way to avoid rows.  It is not that they are timid, so much as they just wish to be left alone and live in harmonious environments.

On the negative side, rabbits may be moody, overly sensitive, and aloof.

To ensure good fortune during their special year, those born under the sign of Rabbit should wear red on the New Year, and avoid washing their hair.  (don’t want to wash away any good luck!)

And now a poem from that Rabbit Victorian, Walt Whitman:

To A STRANGER

by: Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

  •  
      ASSING stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
      You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,)
      I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
      All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
      You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
      I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body mine only,
      You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
      I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
      I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
      I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 8:46 pm  Comments (23)  
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1860s: The Decade Hats Went To The Birds

 

Ever since man and woman decided to opt for something more sophisticated than fig leaves, once popular fashions have often caused later generations to raise their eyebrows.  “Men really thought that wearing powered wigs was…well, manly?  Women thought that extending the diameter of their skirt to six feet was a good idea?”

Recent decades has brought bellbottoms, parachute pants, and well…too many oddities to name.

But perhaps the weirdest fashion, the one that really brings to mind,  “What the hell were they thinking?”- is the fad which began in the 1860s.

Yes, this was the year that some Victorian women decided bows and lace and frill were simply not decorative enough for their hats.

And so came the birds.

*In 1864, the London Saturday Review noted that Parisians were wearing exotic butterflies and real hummingbirds in their hair.

In 1875,  Harper’s Bazaar noted,  “The entire bird is used, and is mounted on wires and springs that permit the head and wings to be moved about in the most natural manner.”  They went on to mention that while blackbirds were the most popular, swallows were stuffed, as well as heads of pigeons.

Birds as hat-wear, not surprisingly, was not without its objectors.

*By 1877 Mrs. Haweis (English artist and writer) lamented, “A wired edifice of tulle and velvet, trimmed with a mass of valueless blond (lace), a spray of tinsel, and perhaps a bird’s nest or something else equally bad in taste- e.g. moths, beetles, lizards, mice &c.- can never be a beautiful object.  At present the bonnets and the brains they cover are too often not unfit combinations.”

In 1886, Ornithologist Frank Chapman penned a letter to the editors of Forest and Stream: A Journal of Outdoor Life, Travel, Nature Study, Shooting in which he detailed the number of birds he’d seen upon the women passing him on the street. 

“Editor Forest and Stream:

In view of the fact that the destruction of birds for millin­ery purposes is at present attracting general attention, the appended list of native birds seen on hats worn by ladies in the streets of New York, may be of interest. It is chiefly the result of two late afternoon walks through the uptown shopping districts, and, while very incomplete, still gives an idea of the species destroyed and the relative numbers of each.

Robin, four.
Brown thrush, one.
Bluebird, three.
Blackburnion warbler, one.
Blackpoll warbler, three.
Wilson’s black-capped flycatcher, three.
Scarlet tanager, three.
White-bellied swallow, one.
Bohemian waxwing, one.
Waxwing, twenty-three. 
Great northern shrike, one.
Pine grosbeak, one.
Snow bunting, fifteen.
Tree sparrow, two.
White-throated sparrow, one.
Bobolink, one.
Meadow lurk, two.
Baltimore oriole, nine.
Purple grackle, five.
Bluejay, five.
Swallow-tailed flycatcher, one.
Kingbird, one.
Kingfisher, one.
Pileated woodpecker, one.
Red-headed woodpecker, two.
Golden-winged woodpecker, twenty-one.
Acadian owl, one.
Carolina dove, one.
Pinnated grouse, one.
Ruffed grouse, two.
Quail, sixteen.
Helmet quail, two.
Sanderling, five
Big yellowlegs, one.
Green heron, one.
Virginia rail one.
Laughing gull, one.
Common tern, twenty-one.
Black tern. one.
Grebe, seven.

It is evident that, in proportion to the number of hats seen, the list of birds given is very small; but in most cases mutilation rendered identification impossible.  Thus, while one afternoon 700 hats were counted and on them but 20 birds recognized, 543 were decorated (?) with feathers of some kind. Of the 158 remaining, 72 were worn by young or middle aged ladies and 86 by ladies in mourn­ing or elderly ladies, or—

Percentage of hats with feathers…………………..77
Without feathers……………………………….10
Without feathers, worn by ladies in mourning or elderly ladies……………………………………..12”
 

*from “Victorian and Edwardian Fashion:  A Photographic Survey” – by Alison Gernsheim

Published in: on January 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm  Comments (41)  
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William Butler Yeats and the Golden Dawn

“A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstinting has been naught. “-  Yeats

“Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world, for I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame! “- Yeats

Born with both his Ascendant and Moon in  Aquarius, it is little wonder that William Butler Yeats grew up with both a love for words and a desire to transform  Irish theater and poetry.

As a child he’d been attracted to ghost tales and  fairy myths which led him into the esoteric works of Swedenborg, Blake, and Jacob Boehme.  At the age of twenty-two, while living in London, he became acquainted with Madame Blavatsky, author of The Secret Doctrine, and founder off the Theosophical Society.  While enchanted with the ideas she brought forth, he was disillusioned by the society’s resistance to attempting magic, and quickly withdrew his membership.

In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, a fiery Irish revolutionary worker and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.   While disturbed by her belief that the means justified the end, he was so otherwise taken by her  that  he declared, “If she she said the world was flat…I would be proud to be of her party.”

Soon thereafter, she introduced him to Moina Bergson Mathers and MacGregor Mathers, the celibate husband and wife who worked together as Priest and Priestess of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Yeats not only valued their intellectual pursuits, but their willingness to put what they learned to practical use.  He said that after attending their rituals, he “formed plans for deeds of all kinds”.  Whereas after attending Theosophical meetings, he “had no desire but for more thought, more discussion.”   Furthermore, he discovered that the concentration needed for lengthy rituals and prayers influenced his writings, “making it more sensuous and more vivid.”

On March 7, 1890 he became an initiate of the Golden Dawn, assuming the magical name, Demon Est Deus Inversus.  Which, although literally meaning, “The Devil is in the inverse of God”, might have been in reference to his personal daimon.

I DREAMED that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
i{She was more beautiful than thy first love,}
i{But now lies under boards.}

-poem written by Yeats for Maud after dreaming of her death

A CRAZED GIRL

THAT crazed girl improvising her music.
Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,

Her soul in division from itself
Climbing, falling She knew not where,
Hiding amid the cargo of a steamship,
Her knee-cap broken, that girl I declare
A beautiful lofty thing, or a thing
Heroically lost, heroically found.

No matter what disaster occurred
She stood in desperate music wound,
Wound, wound, and she made in her triumph
Where the bales and the baskets lay
No common intelligible sound
But sang, ‘O sea-starved, hungry sea.’

-poem by Yeats

*article source and for further reading:  Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses by Mary K. Greer

Writing Meme: day 13- Favorite Cultures and Times

*Skipping question 12 of this neverending meme since it doesn’t pertain to my works (least not thus far)

13. What’s your favorite culture to write, fictional or not?

Well, it’s not a culture per se, but obviously my favorite time period to write about is the 19th century.    Just an amazing, vital time: the Romantics, The Free Love Movement (yes, that was around way before the hippies!), Spiritualism,  The Transcendentalists, the birth of the telegraph (the internet of its day) art movements from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Hudson River School, to all the vast political and religious movements…

But, being the history buff that I am, I also have a great desire to explore characters in ancient civilizations and see how their stories unfold under my pen.

What about you?

From the Diary of Caroline Dall: On Writing

After my last post in which I included snippets from Caroline Healey Dall’s diary, I thought I would post a few of her diary entries in their entirety.

The first, posted here, is from near the beginning of her diary.  She was fifteen-years-old and living on Beacon Hill in Boston, MA.

excerpt is from “Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-century Woman”  edited by Helen R. Reese

Sept. 2nd 1838-

“I have been wondering what it is that raises my spirits, and encourages me in the task which I have undertaken?  Certainly neither father nor mother, brother nor sister, have ever expressed any interest in what I have  written, or ever desired to read anything I have published, – It is strange, I think I should take pride & pleasure in the virtuous endeavors of a child of mine- and this apathy , this indifference breeds coldness- on my side, and there is no sympathy between me and my parents. 

My mother oftentimes expresses harsh, disapproval of my love of study, and her daily life seems to express but one wish- that I were as fond of housewifery as my sister Ellen.  She knows  not the depth of wound she probes, and the unbidden tears, which often spring to my eyes, are imputed childish weakness- Why then should I persevere, if those whom I wish to honor, seem insensible to my truly filial feelings?  Because, in my father’s anxiety to procure me every literary advantage, in his kind smile, and gentle voice, I find at least one assurrance that he will joy in his child’s success, and grieve for her disappointment. 

People talk of literary struggles, and of the trials which a man who chooses this department of life, has to endure.  These do not spring from the nature of literature, but from the interference of friends, the obstacles raised by the envious, and the discouragements, the cold indifference, with which his labors are regarded by the very ones who should be the first to support and aid him. 

Nothing is easier, than this, if he be a man of talent, he forgets in the inspiration of his genius, the disagreeable manual labor, to which his inclination subjects him.  This is a pleasure & not a task.”

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 9:32 pm  Comments (17)  
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Victorian Diaries

In modern times, diaries are private affairs, often guarded with lock and key.  During the  nineteenth century,  diaries mostly served two purposes.   First, as part of one’s religious practice.   The daily habit of writing was seen as a way to both develop methodical habits and of keeping check on one’s virtues.  The second, was to share observations on the outer world with family and friends.    It was not until the 1930s that memoirs began to emphasize the personal. 

Sharon Marcus writes in Between Women, “Victorian lifewriters who published diary excerpts valued their very failure to unveil mysteries, often praising the diarists ‘reserve’ and hastening to explain that the diaries cited did ‘not pretend to reveal personal secrets’.

    Caroline Healey Dall’s forty-five volumes of journals ( kept from 1838-1911) cover  her involvement with Transcendentalism, and both the Suffrage and Abolitionist Movements.   Helen Reese states, “While it is clear that Dall sometimes composed with future generations in mind, she also seems to have forgotten this audience frequently, writing entries that bare her soul utterly.”

*Sunday Dec 31, 1848-

“Five of us went to this lecture (Higginson’s on American Slavery at Lyceum Hall)…A terrible explosion followed our return.  I cannot to this hour imagine how father could have found the heart to make us all so miserable.  He was very angry and told me that if I continue my anti slavery efforts that I should do it at the risk of losing his affection forever.”

Tuesday May 31, 1849-

“I sewed and taught Willie until it was time to attend the Anti Slavery meeting.  It was intensely exciting…because after Stephen Foster had made one of his most disagreeable and repulsive speeches, Douglas rose, and vindicated his own Christianity, and that of true reform, in one of the finest that ever fell from the lips of man.”

Sunday Dec 9, 1849-

“On Monday, I went into Boston, and had my tooth filled.  The whole city was full of excitement about the Webster and Parkman case.  My own suspicions fixed on Littlefield from the beginning and I was glad to hear from Uncle W. before I left that he was arrested…I have been reading Ruskin’s ‘Seven Lamps’ and find it a most delicious and refreshing book…”

Tuesday July 23, 1850-

“I spent this morning sadly in a long talk with Ellen (her sister), in which she told me what she thought of my faults- of my bluntness etc, etc. and in which she undertook to tell me that father was on the eve of disinheriting me, on account of my reform notions….I despair of  ever being understood rightly in my own family…I had no comfort that afternoon- save in resting my aching head & eyes on  my husband’s busom- as I wept.  I began to read ‘Jane Eyre’ over- for comfort.”

W. Newton Mass.  Boston-Convention Wednesday Sept 19, 1855-

“…  Miss Hunt welcomed the people, Mrs Davis read her address, and then I followed with my own report (a survey of the laws of Massachusetts regarding married women) – which had a most unmerited success.  E.P. Whipple said it was the ablest thing done in the Convention, some stupid person said that it would have done Dan. Webster credit!”

Tuesday Nov 30, 1858-

“Had a pleasant interview with Mr. Browne, and a talk with him about Margaret Fuller.  He said that she was an inspired Bacante and that it was in that style that she sought influence- therefore Emerson retired and so forth. Browne so out Emersons, Emerson, that I could not ask him if he meant her influence was sexual- yet surely that is the English of that phrase?…Certainly her vigor lay partly  in the hot current of her blood- but so does that of all women to a degree seldom understood by men…”

* diary excerpts from Daughter of Boston, The Extraordinary Diary of a 19th Century Woman by Caroline Healey Dall.  Edited by Helen Reese

other source and suggested reading: Between Women by Sharon Marcus