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.

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)  
Tags: , , , ,

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.”

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)  
Tags: , , , ,

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?

Romantic Chess of the Victorian Era

photo of Adolf Anderssen  (July 6, 1818 – March 13, 1879)

During the 19th century (especially from 1851-1870), the style of chess was marked by tactical play and daring sacrifices.  Indeed, it was considered ungentlemanly to refuse a gambit.  One of the most popular opening moves was the King’s Gambit accepted.  In this, white offers a pawn in exchange for establishing  firmer control of the center of the board. 

Chessmasters often met in coffeehouses, where  their matches were not methodical and defensive, but fast-paced, filled with fearless, bold attacks.  Winning did not matter as much as winning with style.

Some of the leading Romantic chess players included such notables as Paul Murphy and Henry Blackburne.  But it was  Adolf Anderssen whose  “Evergreen Game” and “Immortal Game” have gone down in history as two of the most beautiful chess games ever seen.

The latter was played on June 21st, 1851 against Lionel Kieseritzky at the Simpson’s-in-the-Strand divan in London, England.   During the match, Anderssen sacrificed his queen, both rooks, and a bishop.  At the end, Kieseritzky was greatly ahead in both material and points-still possessing his queen, two rooks, and a bishop.  However, Anderssen’s seemingly insane gambits had forced his opponent into a corner unable to defend.   Thus, Anderssen declared, “checkmate” using  his three remaining, weaker pieces. 

The Romantic style of chess fell out of favor when Wilhelm Steinitz (the first Chess World Champion) embraced positional play over  tactical.

Yet, the exhilarating  rapid attacks and brash heroics of the Romantics remain forever in lore.

  Chess scene (inspired by the Immortal Game) in the film, Blade Runner

Plans for a Victorian in the New Year


So, it’s the new year.  A new decade, okay not technically a new decade, but it still begs the question:  what is a half-luddite, Victorian-obsessed gal doing in the year 2010?   Since I have lots of other things to do today, I won’t even attempt to try to answer that.

Regarding the new year, I’ve never been one for resolutions.   Kelly over at Mysterious Musings recently wrote about concentrating on progress rather than goals.   That is something I strongly agree with, as too many people who make firm goals tend to criticize themselves too harshly at the end of the year if they weren’t able to achieve said goal, rather than looking at how far they may have come.  This does not mean that I think having goals is a bad thing.  Certainly not.   Just don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t accomplish the goal in its entirety.   If you strove and made progress, that counts for a lot.

 So I’ve simply been musing on things I want to work on.  It comes down to continuing growing as a writer, and improving my German.

So, the plan is:

1. continue  daily writing on my WIP

2. Along with my normal studies, read twelve novels in German to increase my reading comprehension.  I’ll be making a page highlighting which books I’m reading in that language.   Surely of little interest to anyone else, but it will be there if you do happen to be curious, or well, just bored or procrastinating.

There it is.  Nothing fancy.  Really nothing I’m not already doing.  (except increasing the quantity of my German reading).   But it’s all about continued progress, learning, and growth.

And, lest I  forget:

3. Find Sput a hobby so she gets over this rather peculiar obsession with regaling me non-stop about the wonders of her city.  (not that it bothers me, I just worry about the poor dear)

Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 8:23 pm  Comments (19)  
Tags: , , , ,

The Victorian Female Passion for Botany

“Nature is a haunted house- but Art- is a house that tries to be haunted.”- Emily Dickinson

After Charles Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the Victorian public became fascinated with natural history.  Women, in particular, took up the hobby of collecting, preserving, and studying specimens from plants and birds, to butterflies and insects.  The pastime was considered both ladylike and educational (unlike fancywork which many women found tedious).  Poet Emily Dickinson started a herbarium when she was a teenager attending Amherst Academy.   Completed, her  sixty-six page herbarium contains 424 plant specimens that she labeled with the corresponding scientific name.

“My plants look finely now. I am going to send you a little geranium leaf, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.”- Emily Dickinson in a letter to her friend, Abiah Root, in May 1845.

In July 1841, Godey’s Lady’s Book stated, “If memoranda were made of the places where such wild flowers are found, the latitude, with the common name, and whether they grow singly or in groups, profusely or sparsely, with the time of flowering, ladies might add something to the history of our Flora worthy of remembrance, and particularly so, would they make themselves acquainted with, and note their botanical characteristics.”

While magazines were filled with articles by female botanists, other women preferred to pen tales about the flowers and wildlife about them. In 1838, New England- born Mary Peabody, wrote The Flower People,  a children’s guide to horticulture.   While Mary tutored both males and females in German, French, and Latin, and wrote textbooks on subjects ranging from grammar to geography in her spare time,  botany remained her greatest passion.   Within the book  she was able to share her passion and teach children as magically talking flowers converse with a young girl in her mother’s garden.

Lousia May Alcott’s first published book, Flower Fables, was dedicated to fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.  “Dear Nellie…..Give my love to the Concord Fairies if you chance to see them, though I believe they spend their winters in Italy on a count (sic) of our climate…” 

Along with studying and writing about botany, taxidermy, and horticulture, females also began creating bric-a-bracs for their houses made out of shells, cones, flowers, birds, and leaves.   Fern collecting (Pteridomania) was particularly popular as ferns were hardy enough to grow in the darkened drawing rooms of the 19th century, and because their sober color was deemed elegant in comparison to brightly colored flowers.   Along with collecting ferns, women also bred and cultivated them.  Some were dried, pressed, and framed.  Others were displayed in Wardian cases, which were airtight, enclosed glass cases.  More elaborate showcases included miniature gardens and aquariums.

“…At least you will confess that the abomination of ‘Fancy-work’… has all but vanished from your drawing-room since the Lady Ferns and Venus’s hair appeared; and that you could not help yourself looking now and then at the said Venus’s hair, and agreeing that Nature’s real beauties were somewhat superior to the ghastly woollen caricatures which they had succeeded.”-  from the novel, Glaucus by Charles  Kingsley.


– source:  “Inside the Victorian Home” – by Judith Flanders

– source:  “Peabody Sisters” by Megan Marshall


Various Facts of the Not-so-Pretty Victorian Age

1. On New York city streets, horses deposited 2.5 million pounds of manure daily.- source, “Victorian America” by Thomas J. Schlereth

2. “The Thames stank.  The main ingredient was human waste….Human excrement was sold as useful fertiliser to the nursery gardens and farms outside London, by the night-soil men who emptied the cesspits.  Sometimes chamber pots were upended out of windows on to luckless passers-by, or on to streets, their contents adding to the rich mix of dead dogs, horse and cattle manure, rotting vegetables.”- source, “Victorian London” by Liza Picard

3. Washing sheets:

 Water was heated in a copper in the scullery.  The linens (soaked from the night before) were rinsed in hot water and then placed in a washtub where they were beaten with a possing stick.   After the sheets were wrung out, a jelly (made by shaving a bar of soap and dissolving it in water) was rubbed into them.  More water and jelly was added for a second scrubbing.   Next, the sheets were placed in the copper for an hour and a half to remove all the soap.  Once that was completed, the sheets were removed and rinsed again in boiling water and then finally, rinsed in a tub filled with cold water.- source, “Inside the Victorian Home” by Judith Flanders

4. While the upper-classes had several servants to perform different tasks, the less well-off made do with one maid-of-all-work.

A typical day for this general servant was thus:

-rise at six a.m.

-open all curtains and shutters

-draw the fire in the breakfast room

-put the kettle on.

– polish boots and knives

-while waiting for the water to boil,  shake the hearth rug outside, and then clean the fireplace

-dust the furniture and sweep the floor of the breakfast room

-scrub the floor of the front hall

-whiten the front steps

– empty all the fireplaces of cinder

-draw the kitchen fire

– change clothes

– serve breakfast (and eat her own)

– air bedrooms and strip the beds

-empty slop buckets and clean the chamber pots

-clear breakfast table

-clean, dust, and sweep the rooms

– change clothes

-prepare dinner

-clean up after dinner

-eat her own dinner in the kitchen

-clean the kitchen and put the kettle on for tea

-serve tea

-clear up after tea

-Nighttime: put out the fires, turn off the gas, lock the doors, and shut the windows

…”The Mistress said she was very glad to be at home again, it’d been such a hard day for her.  She said that as I carried the umbrella over her from the front gate.”- Hannah Cullwick

source: “Inside the Victorian Home” by Judith Flanders

Of Writing and Swamps

My writing process is not pretty.  

 This current WIP is beginning the same way PORTRAITS  did.  In utter madness.   My stories begin with me diving into a mental swamp.  It’s dark and murky, but I know something is down there.  My first drafts are never really true drafts in the sense they aren’t a narrative at all.  Rather, they are pages and pages of discovery.  Random images, dialogue, scenes.  I write it all down as it comes, in all its nonsensical glory.

Seventy five pages in and I’m learning about my main character.   Her loves and fears.  Why she was placed in the asylum. . .

And then there’s the murder.  I’m combining my love of the Victorian era with my love of  Agatha Christie whodunnits.  I have my victim and the culprit.   The end scene is clear.

This swamp is fun to play in.

How is everyone else’s writing coming along?