Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Isn't That Dandy?

I've already written a bit about what women were wearing, but haven't really touched on what men were wearing, except when I touched on a possible misrepresentation of what Oscar Wilde would wear. Some people say that women dress to impress each other, which probably explains why I'm far more interested in women's clothes, but I think the same must also apply to men. This was certainly true in the 1890s, when hedonism and Dandyism reached a height in the fin de siècle.

When I think of Victorian Dandies, I always think of Oscar Wilde, but Dandyism started with George Bryan "Beau" Brummell (1778-1840). Beau befriended the Prince Regent and became one of the most powerful men in England, not through birth, intelligence, or through military or academic achievements, but by simply being well dressed.

In this sense, Beau really paved the way for Oscar Wilde's future success, as Wilde became a celebrity before he became an accomplished writer.

In Beau's day, dressing well meant a top hat and tails, which is how he is invariably pictures. By the 1890s, lots of colours and styles were embraced by the fashionable gentleman. Kieran Jones explains that:
In the Victorian era, daily dress was much more formal than it is today. Unless they were a workman or a labourer, every gentleman was expected to wear a coat, vest and hat. To walk around in shirtsleeves without a vest or coat was like the modern day equivalent of walking around in your underwear. It was seen as very ungentlemanly and unseemly.
By the 1890s, Wilde and his friends wore fur coats and a variety of hats. Derbies and bowlers came into popularity by this time, though, of course, for a very fancy affair, who wouldn't wear a proper top hat?

The Dandy might also change his clothes several times a day, wearing different outfits for different meals and activities. Just as women wore different style clothing for walking, visiting, having tea, different jackets and styles of clothes became popular for men doing the same thing.

Because of Oscar Wilde's link with Dandyism, the contemporary imagination links the Dandy with homosexuality, just as modern Dandies or metrosexuals are linked to homosexual culture and seen as queer-positive. For the Victorian Dandy, at least before Oscar Wilde's trial, this was simply not the case. Before Oscar Wilde's trial, homosexuality as a cultural concept or a lifestyle simply did not exist. Of course, people engaged in homosexual acts, but a sexual act, homosexual or otherwise, did not change a person's social identity. Consequently, a Victorian Dandy was as likely to be repulsed (or aroused) as anybody else.

When I think of men's fashion (for the class of men who could be Dandies) in the 1890s, I see it going two ways. On the one hand, the Victorian era gave rise to the formal black suit that is still popular today. This was because Queen Victoria went into mourning for so long that the upper classes, who participated in her ritual of mourning wore black in solidarity when performing work or rituals related to the government. On the other hand, Victorian Dandies, like Oscar Wilde, embraced colour as a way of dressing up.

For these more colourful Dandies, as one blog on the subject of Oscar Wilde's clothes puts it:
Oscar Wilde wasn’t only a great writer, he was also a really cool fashion icon, not just for men, but also for women. He was an avid supporter of the Dress Reform Movement in the 19th century which broadened a woman’s closet with pants ( Say ‘thank you Oscar Wilde’, next time you wear those comfy boyfriend jeans). The dress Reform also worked the other way around for Oscar, clothes weren’t gender biased. Everyone should be able to wear anything they like. If you take a closer look at old portraits of Oscar Wilde, you’ll see that that is exactly what he did. Wearing a lot of velvet and silk in nice colors, he looked great, but kind of strange for his time.
In this sense, I think Oscar Wilde would have been very proud of his niece, Dolly, who was said to take very much after her uncle.

It's stranger that of all the great works that Oscar Wilde wrote, his essay Philosophy of Dress (1885) has almost been forgotten. The Philosophy of Dress was almost unknown to Wildean scholars and enthusiasts, until last year when it was rediscovered and published for the first time by author John Cooper in Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

At $125, the limited first book is a little out of my price range (but the trade edition and ebook will follow soon). One of the many forgotten treasures this book contains is an earlier use of one of my favorite Wildisms. Oscar Wilde was known for testing and retesting his most wonderful expressions, the Philosophy of Dress is the first known occurrence of the Wildism in print:
Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
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Monday, July 29, 2013

The Adventure of the Two Collaborators

Victorians loved a good parody, as is evidenced by the success of Punch, which ridiculed just about everything that became popular or successful. Sherlock Holmes was both popular and successful in the 1890s, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was growing weary of his character and even tried to kill him off. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the best parody of Sherlock Holmes won Doyle's approval.

The story is called "The Adventure of the Two Collaborators" (1893) and what surprised me is that it was written by J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan (1909)! The origin of the story is rooted in a history of collaboration between the two authors. 

In 1892, Barrie suffered from a nervous breakdown, while working on his play, Jane Annie, and turned to his friend, Doyle for support. At this time, Doyle was a new father and he was considering killing off Sherlock Holmes, so that he might pursue a more serious form of writing. Writing for the theatre seemed like just the thing.

If you were wondering why you never heard of Barrie's play, Jane Annie, it wasn't much of a success and got pulled from the theatre in March 1893 after only fifty performances. Doyle tried working from Barrie's notes, but with an obvious lack of success. 

Sometime soon after the play closed, Barrie presented Doyle with a copy of his collection of short stories, A Window in Thrums. Inside the book jacket, Barrie had written "The Adventure of the Two Collaborators" for Doyle. Doyle loved it, though it remained unpublished until 1924, but is presented here for your enjoyment!

The Adventure of the Two Collaborators

Sir James Matthew Barrie 
Written on the flyleaf of a book 
given to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 
commemorating their failed opera, 
Jane Annie; Or The Good Conduct Prize 

In bringing to a close the adventures of my frined Sherlock Holmes, I am perforce reminded that he never, save on the occasion which, as you will now hear, brought his singular career to an end, consented to act in any mystery which was concerned with persons who made a livelihood by their pen. "I am not particular about the people I mix among for business purposes," he would say, "but at literary characters I draw the line."
We were in our rooms in Baker Street one evening. I was (I remember) by the centre table writing out "The Adventure of the Man Without a Cork Leg" (which had so puzzled the Royal Society and all the other scientific bodies of Europe), and Holmes was amusing himself with a little revolver practice. It was his custom of a summer evening to fire round my head, just shaving my face, until he had made a photograph of me on the opposite wall, and it is a slight proof of his skill that many of these portraits in pistol shots are considered admirable likenesses.
I happened to look out of the window, and perceiving two gentlemen advancing rapidly along Baker Street asked him who they were. He immediately lit his pipe, and, twisting himself on a chair into the figure 8, replied:
"They are two collaborators in comic opera, and their play has not been a triumph."
I sprang from my chair to the ceiling in amazement, and he then explained:
"My dear Watson, they are obviously men who follow some low calling. That much even you should be able to read in their faces. Those little pieces of blue paper which they fling angrily from them are Durrant's Press Notices. Of these they have obviously hundreds about their person (see how their pockets bulge). They would not dance on them if they were pleasant reading."
I again sprang to the ceiling (which is much dented), and shouted: "Amazing! But they may be mere authors."
"No," said Holmes, "for mere authors only get one press notice a week. Only criminals, dramatists and actors get them by the hundred."
"Then they may be actors."
"No, actors would come in a carriage."
"Can you tell me anything else about them?"
"A great deal. From the mud on the boots of the tall one I perceive that he comes from South Norwood. The other is as obviously a Scotch author."
"How can you tell that?
"He is carrying in his pocket a book called (I clearly see) 'Auld Licht Something.' Would any one but the author be likely to carry about a book with such a title?"
I had to confess that this was improbable.
It was now evident that the two men (if such they can be called) were seeking our lodgings. I have said (often) that my friend Holmes seldom gave way to emotion of any kind, buy he now turned livid with passion. Presently this gave place to a strange look of triumph.
"Watson," he said, "that big fellow has for years taken the credit for my most remarkable doings, but at last I have him - at last!"
Up I went to the ceiling, and when I returned the strangers were in the room.
"I perceive, gentlemen," said Mr. Sherlock Holmes, "that you are at present afflicted by an extraordinary novelty."
The handsomer of our visitors asked in amazement how he knew this, but the big one only scowled.
"You forget that you wear a ring on your fourth finger," replied Mr. Holmes calmly.
I was about to jump to the ceiling when the big brute interposed.
"That Tommy-rot is all very well for the public, Holmes," said he, "but you can drop it before me. And, Watson, if you go up to the ceiling again I shall make you stay there."
Here I observed a curious phenomenon. My friend Sherlock Holmes shrank. He became small before my eyes. I looked longingly at the ceiling, but dared not.
"Let us cut the first four pages," said the big man, "and proceed to business. I want to know why -"
"Allow me," said Mr. Holmes, with some of his old courage. "You want to know why the public does not go to your opera."
"Exactly," said the other ironically, "as you perceive by my shirt stud." He added more gravely, "And as you can only find out in one way I must insist on your witnessing an entire performance of the piece."
It was an anxious moment for me. I shuddered, for I knew that if Holmes went I should have to go with him. But my friend had a heart of gold. "Never," he cried fiercely, "I will do anything for you save that."
"Your contined existence depends on it," said the big man menacingly.
"I would rather melt into air," replied Holmes, proudly taking another chair, "But I can tell you why the public don't go to your piece without sitting the thing out myself."
"Because," replied Holmes calmly, "they prefer to stay away."
A dead silence followed that extraordinary remark. For a moment the two intruders gazed with awe upon the man who had unravelled their mystery so wonderfully. Then drawing their knives --
Holmes grew less and less, until nothing was left save a ring of smoke which slowly circled to the ceiling.
The last words of great men are often noteworthy. These were the last words of Sherlock Holmes: "Fool, fool! I have kept you in luxury for years. By my help you have ridden extensively in cabs, where no author was ever seen before. Henceforth you will ride in buses!"
The brute sunk into a chair aghast.
The other author did not turn a hair.
To A. Conan Doyle, 
From his friend 
J. M. Barrie

The last image was an illustration for the story, created by my daughter.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Irish Legends and a Polish Vampire Graveyard

Today, I'm using a story about a vampire graveyard to talk about a book by Oscar Wilde's mother. The connections between the story and the Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland is tenuous at best, but I believe that Oscar Wilde's mother was a help to Bram Stoker when he was researching Dracula.

Here's the story: road workers in southern Poland recently found a total of seventeen oddly-buried skeletons. The heads were cut off and lay between the hands or knees of the deceased. The bodies date back to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, to when fear of vampires was common in the area. Lukasz Obtulowicz, a supervising archaeologist, recognized clear indications that this was a vampire burial site and he noted that stones were placed on the skulls “to prevent the vampires from returning to life.” (Read the full story here.)
"I shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body."- Van Helsing in Dracula
Clearly, this is the stuff of the legends that Bram Stoker built his vampire story, Dracula, upon, but Bram Stoker never traveled to eastern Europe. His brother, Dr. George Stoker did and may have told him some of these stories about vampires. Bram Stoker first learned about vampires, however, from his mother as a child. Stoker grew up near the Wilde family in Dublin. Oscar Wilde's mother, Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde concedes near the beginning of her book, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (1887), that:
Greek, Slav,Teuton, Gypsy— many of their superstitions are dark and gloomy, especially those relating to vampires, wolves, andterrible demons, evil spirits, and fearful witches. The Irish legends rarely deal with anything terrible or revolting.
But Speranza shares a few disturbing Irish legends.
This story of Kern of Querin still lingers in the faithful, vivid Irish memory, and is often told by the peasants of Clare when they gather round the fire on the awful festival of Samhain or November Eve, when the dead walk, and the spirits of earth and air have power over mortals, whether for good or evil.
[...] for the souls of the dead have power over all things on that one night of the year; and they hold a festival with the fairies, and drink red wine from thefairy cups, and dance to fairy music till the moon goes down. 
And a story that goes a small distance toward helping me understand why my daughter is terrified of moths!
At last the agony seemed to cease, and the stillness of death settled on his face. Then the child, who was watching, saw a beautiful living creature, with four snow white wings, mount from the dead man's body into the air and go fluttering round his head. 
So he ran to bring the scholars ; and when they saw it they all knew it was the soul of their master, and they watched with wonder and awe until it passed from sight into the clouds.
And this was the first butterfly that was ever seen in Ireland; and now all men know that the butterflies are the souls of the dead waiting for the moment when they may enter Purgatory, and so pass through torture to purification and peace.
Speranza's Irish fairies steal beautiful healthy children and put dead ones in their place.
Sometimes when the fishermen are out they meet a strange boat filled with people; and when they look onthem they know that they are the dead who have beencarried off by the fairies with their wiles and enchantmentsto dwell in the fairy palaces.
And to be certain, the first vampire that Dracula makes when he gets to Whitby looks more like one of Speranza's Irish fairies than she does a Nosferatu.

There's even part in Speranza's Ancient Legends that reminds me of the scene in Dracula, where Jonathon Harker faces the three brides of Dracula.
And when Hugh looked he saw a girl that had died the year before, then another and another of his friends that he knew had died long ago; and then he saw that all the dancers, men, women, and girls, were the dead in their long, white shrouds. And he tried to escape from them, but could not, for they coiled round him, and danced and laughed and seized his arms, and tried to draw him into the dance, and their laugh seemed to pierce through his brainand kill him. And he fell down before them there, like one faint from sleep, and knew no more till he found himself next morning lying within the old stone circle by the fairy rath on the hill.
What really made me connect the Polish Vampire Graveyard with Speranza's Ancient Legend was superstition about burying the (un)dead. The full-text of Speranza's book is here and it's full of these kinds of superstitions, like if a suicide is buried in a normal cemetery all the other corpses will turn over on their faces.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Oscar Wilde's Teeth

If I could talk to any one person in the world as I conduct my research, it would be Oscar Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland. Consequently, it brightened my day to find an article about Wilde's Last Shirt today, penned by no other than Holland, who has been studying his grandfather's history for thirty years.

I so wish I knew some of the finer details about Wilde's life, like those which Holland shares with us:
Oscar Wilde’s last shirt owes its survival to being in the wash when he died in Paris on November 30, 1900. Had it not been, his close friend and literary executor, Robert Ross, would almost certainly have disposed of it, as he did Oscar’s other personal possessions of no monetary or sentimental value. It survived thanks to the Dupoirier family, who owned the Hôtel d’Alsace, where Wilde was a long-term resident. A few items that had belonged to Oscar surfaced later, and Jean Dupoirier kept them as mementos. There were the shirt, two trunks of books and magazines, a pile of rough jottings that Dupoirier burned, an umbrella that he subsequently lost, and finally, a set of false teeth.
When did Wilde get false teeth? I know that he was embarrassed by the teeth that he had and would often hold his hand in front of his mouth as he spoke, but this is the first I've heard of false teeth! The quiz show, QI asserts that Wilde's teeth were green right up until his trial, due to a treatment for syphilis, and that his practice of holding his hand in front of them counted against him because it was seen as effeminate.

The syphilis rumour is just that, a rumour, originating (more or less from a 1912 biography), and is grounded in the mercury treatment for syphilis, which turned the patient's teeth green or even black.

Other descriptions of Wilde's teeth go as follows:
His face was so colourless that a few pale freckles of good size were oddly conspicuous. He had a well-shaped mouth, with somewhat coarse lips and greenish-hued teeth. The plainness of his face, however, was redeemed by the splendour of his great, eager eyes.
He had one of the most alluring voices that I have ever listened to, round and soft, and full of variety of expression. - Lillie Langtry

A big man, with a large pasty face, red cheeks, an ironic eye, bad and protrusive teeth, a vicious childlike mouth with lips soft with milk ready to suck some more. While he ate - and he ate little - he never stopped smoking opium-tainted Egyptian cigarettes. A terrible absinthe-drinker, through which he got his visions and desires. - Marcel Schwob (1891)

Oscar Wilde had luncheon next to me, he does not offer you a cigarette, he chooses one for you himself. He does not go round the table, he disarranges the table. His face is covered with broken veins, he has long decayed teeth. He is very large and carries an enormous walking stick. - Jules Renard (1892)
Apparently, his teeth were getting worse in the 1890s, but I still don't know when he got dentures. Wilde had embarrassing teeth going into prison; he was broke, when he got out of prison; but he owned a set of false teeth when he died, which likely would have cost him about 25 guineas... to me, this doesn't add up and I so wish that I had Merlin Holland's help with things like this.

What I have learned, through my investigations today is that false teeth were fairly common in Victorian times. An advertisement in the Daily News, on 3 April 1951, claimed that:
LOSS of TEETH. - A new and very curious invention connected with Dental Surgery has been introduced by Mr. HOWARD, of 17 George Street, Hanover Square. It is the production of an entirely NEW DESCRIPTION of ARTIFICIAL TEETH, fixed without springs, wires or ligatures. They so perfectly resemble natural teeth, as not to be distinguished from the originals by the closest observer. They will never change colour or decay, and will be found very superior to any teeth ever before used. This method does not require the extraction of any teeth or roots, or any painful operation, and will support and preserve the teeth that are loose, and is guaranteed to restore articulation and mastication. - The invention is of importance to many persons, and those who are interested in it should avail themselves of Mr. Howard's New Discovery.
This would be a very new discovery indeed because in 1846 Horatio Pass, wrote that:
That it is a much easier task to make artificial teeth ornamental than useful, may be inferred from the fact that in by far the greater number of cases, they are much too insecure in the mouth to admit of any attempt at complete mastication of the food without displacement.
Which in turn led to the Victorian practice of eating in bedrooms before sitting down at the table for dinner in order to avoid embarrassment. Victorians did not find it funny when grandpa took his teeth out at the dinner table!

For anyone interested in more about Victorian false teeth: And if Merlin Holland or anyone else can answer any of my questions, find me here!

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Savoy Hotel

Though many writers in the 1890s were starving artists to be sure, some writers grew very wealthy. Oscar Wilde is certainly an example of that kind of success and the lifestyle that went with it, though, to some degree, that was by design when it came to the Savoy Hotel in London.

Not only is the Savoy Hotel a landmark in the history of writers in London in the 1890s, it is also an important place in the history of luxury hotels. In the hotel industry, "everything that’s happened in high-end hotels since the 1890s is arguably just a variation on a theme introduced by César Ritz, the Savoy’s original general manager, who counts electric lights and en-suite bathrooms among his hospitality innovations." I call that putting on the ritz!

Ritz's innovations attracted the rich and famous, which, despite the myth of the starving artist, included many members of the arts communities.

Claud Monet's Waterloo Bridge series was painted in room 618 in 1901.

This lithograph by James Whistler represents the view from his room at the Sovoy Hotel in 1896.

Sarah Bernhardt, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and future Kind Edward V11 were also early guests, after the hotel opened in 1889. Though due the scandalous trial, Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde are arguably the most well-known occupants of this period.

Ever the critic, Wilde wasn't as awe-struck or impressed with the hotel, in spite of how hard Ritz and his staff worked to accommodate its influential and often choosy guests. The Savoy Hotel kept records of guests’ particular preferences in order to provide them in advance. The staff made hospitality history as the first to photograph a guest's toiletries so they might arrange them accordingly in his washroom. The staff provided a fireproof eiderdown to another guest, who liked to smoke in bed. Wilde, however, scoffed at the very idea cold and hot indoor plumbing at the Savoy:
What is it good for? If I want hot water, I call for it.
The grounds of the Savoy Hotel have a long history of decadence, dating back to 1126 when Peter, Count of Savoy, built his palace there (also called Savoy). The Savoy Palace became the greatest house in England, during medieval times, known as a centre for art and culture. Geoffrey Chaucer began writing his Canterbury Tales, while in residence there. During its lifetime, the Savoy Palace housed the Dukes of Lancaster. The youngest son of King Edward III was living there, when it was destroyed in the peasants revolt of 1381.

Six-hundred years later, Richard D’oyly Carte opened the Savoy theatre on the site, as a showcase for the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan's operas proved to be such a success, that D'oyly Carte built the Savoy Hotel next door in 1889 - enter our writers!

Wilde's connections to Gilbert and Sullivan were numerous and D'oyly Carte had organized his 1881 American Tour. They all wanted Wilde, the celebrity aesthete and socialite, as a patron at the Savoy and an all-purpose party guest. Sadly, we know so much about Wilde's days at the Savoy Hotel because they were recounted for his damning trials.

His homosexual affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas brought his flamboyant lifestyle at The Savoy to a bitter end. He had taken adjoining rooms on the third floor for himself and Lord Douglas. After a ‘wilde’ time, Douglas left the hotel and Wilde moved into a suite overlooking the river. He then wrote to Douglas: ‘Dearest of Boys, Your letter was delightful, red and yellow wine to me; but I am sad and out of sorts. I must see you soon. You are the divine thing I want, the thing of grace and beauty. My bill here is £49 for a week. I fear I must leave—no money, no credit, and a heart of lead.’
Bosie’s father took his son’s homosexual relations with Wilde as a personal affront and instituted legal proceedings. In one of the most sensational trials of the 19 century, Oscar Wilde was charged in 1895 with committing acts of ‘gross indecency’ with a string of young men. A handful of Savoy employees were among the key witnesses for the prosecution.
Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Thus, the hotel lost one of its most flamboyant guests. After his release from prison, Wilde left England and wandered around Europe for what were to be the last three years of his life. He died in 1900, at another hotel, the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris.
This - his last - hotel stay brought us his famous comment: “This wallpaper will be the death of me: one of us will have to go.”

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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Real Basil Hallward

The idea of a rivalry sounds juvenile. When contemporary celebrities do it, it promotes a culture of bullying. And yet, like a big old nostalgic hypocrite, I think everything seemed better in the 1890s, when celebrity rivalries resulted in fine works of literature and were based on a misunderstanding. James Whistler, most famous for his painting: "Whistler's Mother," found his way through a very public rivalry with Oscar Wilde into The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Whistler and Wilde were both aesthetes, though they differed on the finer points of their personal philosophies, such a whether painting or poetry were the higher form of art. Nevertheless, Wilde intended to praise Whistler when he said Whistler's first book was a masterpiece in 1885:
...not merely for its clever satire and amusing jests…but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages . . . for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs.
I can hear the drumroll at the end of that!

Whistler, however, was offended and the two began verbally sparring in the press. Antics ensued, such as the famous exchange:
Oscar Wilde: "I wish I had said that"
Whistler: "You will, Oscar, you will."
This, of course, was a jab at Wilde's reputation for trying out all of his witticisms verbally and borrowing some from others. Wilde thought he was getting back at Whistler when he modeled Basil Hallward, the murdered artist in the Picture of Dorian Gray, after his one time friend. I'm not sure I get the joke because I really like that character and think it's terrible when he dies.

I wonder if other aesthetes recognized Whistler in the character of Basil Hallward. If you have more insights, feel free to comment or message me!

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Real Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was never secretive about his inspiration in writing the character of Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle openly stated that he was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, surgeon at Edinburgh Infirmary, and one of the professors at Edinburgh University, for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk when he was a medical student.

According to Julian Symons, Dr. Bell modestly said that Conan Doyle had exaggerated his powers, but he was overall happy with the character and took it as a compliment (even signed his name "sherlock Holmes" a couple times). I would be happy too. Dr. Bell and Sherlock Holmes had some things in common for sure.

  1. As an instructor, Dr. Bell advocated the use of close observation to make a diagnosis. He would often use a stranger to demonstrate and, through the powers of observation, deduce details about the stranger's life. Because of his great powers of deduction Dr. Bell was considered a pioneer of forensic science, particularly forensic pathology, long before science was used regularly in criminal investigations.
  2. Dr. Bell was also involved in many police investigations, involving Scotland Yard, including the Ardlamont Mystery of 1893. On these occasions Dr. Bell was usually accompanied by forensics specialist Professor Henry Littlejohn (Dr. Watson, I presume?). 
  3. Dr. Bell Also wore the classic hat and cloak we've so come to associate with the detective.

I like finding the real inspiration for characters and am not alone in this. Journals that operate under the presumption that Holmes and Watson were real publish speculative articles on the subject. Whole societies of Sherlockiana are still active today, such as the Baker Street Irregulars (named after the gang of street urchins that Holmes employed for reconnaissance).
The Baker Street Journal continues to be the leading Sherlockian publication since its founding in 1946 by Edgar W. Smith. With both serious scholarship and articles that "play the game," the Journal is essential reading for anyone interested in Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a world where it is always 1895.
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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Egypt in London in the 1890s

In 1891, Marcel Schwob described Oascar Wilde as:
A big man, with a large pasty face, red cheeks, an ironic eye, bad and protrusive teeth, a vicious childlike mouth with lips soft with milk ready to suck some more. While he ate - and he ate little - he never stopped smoking opium-tainted Egyptian cigarettes. A terrible absinthe-drinker, through which he got his visions and desires.
Wilde himself at least once described cigarettes according to their nationality in expressing his disdain for American cigarettes. I wonder if Schwob called Wilde's cigarettes Egyptian because they were or if this was some Victorian way for describing drugs. Wilde most certainly had a substance abuse problem and alcoholism ran in his family. Egyptology also ran in the Wilde family, so smoking real Egyptian cigarettes is something Wilde might have shown off.

William Wilde, Oscar Wilide's father collected artifacts of Egypt and Greece, then referred to as antiquities. At age 24, William Wilde was elected to membership in the Royal Irish Academy and many of the antiquities in the house where Oscar grew up were gathered with his father's own hands in Egypt, "before all the archeology happened," as his mother would say.

The Wildes were not alone. Victorians were crazy for Egypt.
“Every one, high and low, has heard of Egypt and its primeval wonders,” declares Georg Ebers with confidence in his two-volume Egypt: Descriptive, Historical, and Picturesque, published in 1878. “The child knows the names of the good and the wicked pharaohs before it has learned those of the princes of its own country.” Ebers is at a loss to explain this phenomenon, however; he can merely query the reader: “Why is it that its [Egypt’s] name, its history, its natural peculiarities and its monuments, affect and interest us in quite a different manner from those of the other nations of antiquity?” - Victorian Web
My best explanation for their fascination with Egyptology rests in Victorian ideas about empire. Victorians didn't view empire as just good for England; metaphors about England as the mother of her empire are still traced through colonial history worldwide. When Victorians, like William Wilde, brought antiquities into their homes, they actually believed they were doing something to help preserve Egyptian culture.

Preserving antiquities at home also served as an important class symbol: knowledge of Egyptian history; experience travelling through Egypt; the means and ability to collect and preserve antiquities; all attested to the value and status of one's household in Victorian Society.

With all of this in his background, Oscar Wilde dedicated his poem, "The Sphinx," to the observant Marcel Schwob, though I don't know what he was smoking. Having opened with words from Schwob about Wilde, I leave you with Wilde's poem to Schwob.

The Sphinx

(To Marcel Schwob in friendship and in admiration)
In a dim corner of my room for longer than
my fancy thinks

A beautiful and silent Sphinx has watched me
through the shifting gloom.

Inviolate and immobile she does not rise she

does not stir

For silver moons are naught to her and naught
to her the suns that reel.

Red follows grey across the air, the waves of
moonlight ebb and flow

But with the Dawn she does not go and in the
night-time she is there.

Dawn follows Dawn and Nights grow old and
all the while this curious cat

Lies couching on the Chinese mat with eyes of
satin rimmed with gold.

Upon the mat she lies and leers and on the
tawny throat of her

Flutters the soft and silky fur or ripples to her
pointed ears.

Come forth, my lovely seneschal! so somnolent,
so statuesque!

Come forth you exquisite grotesque! half woman
and half animal!

Come forth my lovely languorous Sphinx! and
put your head upon my knee!

And let me stroke your throat and see your
body spotted like the Lynx!

And let me touch those curving claws of yellow
ivory and grasp

The tail that like a monstrous Asp coils round
your heavy velvet paws!

A thousand weary centuries are thine
while I have hardly seen

Some twenty summers cast their green for
Autumn's gaudy liveries.

But you can read the Hieroglyphs on the
great sandstone obelisks,

And you have talked with Basilisks, and you
have looked on Hippogriffs.

O tell me, were you standing by when Isis to
Osiris knelt?

And did you watch the Egyptian melt her union
for Antony

And drink the jewel-drunken wine and bend
her head in mimic awe

To see the huge proconsul draw the salted tunny
from the brine?

And did you mark the Cyprian kiss white Adon
on his catafalque?

And did you follow Amenalk, the God of

And did you talk with Thoth, and did you hear
the moon-horned Io weep?

And know the painted kings who sleep beneath
the wedge-shaped Pyramid?

Lift up your large black satin eyes which are
like cushions where one sinks!

Fawn at my feet, fantastic Sphinx! and sing mev all your memories!
Sing to me of the Jewish maid who wandered
with the Holy Child,

And how you led them through the wild, and
how they slept beneath your shade.

Sing to me of that odorous green eve when
crouching by the marge

You heard from Adrian's gilded barge the
laughter of Antinous

And lapped the stream and fed your drouth and
watched with hot and hungry stare

The ivory body of that rare young slave with
his pomegranate mouth!

Sing to me of the Labyrinth in which the twi-
formed bull was stalled!

Sing to me of the night you crawled across the
temple's granite plinth

When through the purple corridors the screaming
scarlet Ibis flew

In terror, and a horrid dew dripped from the
moaning Mandragores,

And the great torpid crocodile within the tank
shed slimy tears,

And tare the jewels from his ears and staggered
back into the Nile,

And the priests cursed you with shrill psalms as
in your claws you seized their snake

And crept away with it to slake your passion by
the shuddering palms.

Who were your lovers? who were they
who wrestled for you in the dust?

Which was the vessel of your Lust? What
Leman had you, every day?

Did giant Lizards come and crouch before you
on the reedy banks?

Did Gryphons with great metal flanks leap on
you in your trampled couch?

Did monstrous hippopotami come sidling toward
you in the mist?

Did gilt-scaled dragons writhe and twist with
passion as you passed them by?

And from the brick-built Lycian tomb what
horrible Chimera came

With fearful heads and fearful flame to breed
new wonders from your womb?

Or had you shameful secret quests and did
you harry to your home

Some Nereid coiled in amber foam with curious
rock crystal breasts?

Or did you treading through the froth call to
the brown Sidonian

For tidings of Leviathan, Leviathan or

Or did you when the sun was set climb up the
cactus-covered slope

To meet your swarthy Ethiop whose body was
of polished jet?

Or did you while the earthen skiffs dropped
down the grey Nilotic flats

At twilight and the flickering bats flew round
the temple's triple glyphs

Steal to the border of the bar and swim across
the silent lake

And slink into the vault and make the Pyramid
your lupanar

Till from each black sarcophagus rose up the
painted swathed dead?

Or did you lure unto your bed the ivory-horned

Or did you love the god of flies who plagued
the Hebrews and was splashed

With wine unto the waist? or Pasht, who had
green beryls for her eyes?

Or that young god, the Tyrian, who was more
amorous than the dove

Of Ashtaroth? or did you love the god of the

Whose wings, like strange transparent talc, rose
high above his hawk-faced head,

Painted with silver and with red and ribbed with
rods of Oreichalch?

Or did huge Apis from his car leap down and
lay before your feet

Big blossoms of the honey-sweet and honey-
coloured nenuphar?

How subtle-secret is your smile! Did you
love none then? Nay, I know

Great Ammon was your bedfellow! He lay with
you beside the Nile!

The river-horses in the slime trumpeted when
they saw him come

Odorous with Syrian galbanum and smeared with
spikenard and with thyme.

He came along the river bank like some tall
galley argent-sailed,

He strode across the waters, mailed in beauty,
and the waters sank.

He strode across the desert sand: he reached
the valley where you lay:

He waited till the dawn of day: then touched
your black breasts with his hand.

You kissed his mouth with mouths of flame:
you made the horned god your own:

You stood behind him on his throne: you called
him by his secret name.

You whispered monstrous oracles into the
caverns of his ears:

With blood of goats and blood of steers you
taught him monstrous miracles.

White Ammon was your bedfellow! Your
chamber was the steaming Nile!

And with your curved archaic smile you watched
his passion come and go.

With Syrian oils his brows were bright:
and wide-spread as a tent at noon

His marble limbs made pale the moon and lent
the day a larger light.

His long hair was nine cubits' span and coloured
like that yellow gem

Which hidden in their garment's hem the
merchants bring from Kurdistan.

His face was as the must that lies upon a vat of
new-made wine:

The seas could not insapphirine the perfect azure
of his eyes.

His thick soft throat was white as milk and
threaded with thin veins of blue:

And curious pearls like frozen dew were
broidered on his flowing silk.

On pearl and porphyry pedestalled he was
too bright to look upon:

For on his ivory breast there shone the wondrous

That mystic moonlit jewel which some diver of
the Colchian caves

Had found beneath the blackening waves and
carried to the Colchian witch.

Before his gilded galiot ran naked vine-wreathed

And lines of swaying elephants knelt down to
draw his chariot,

And lines of swarthy Nubians bare up his litter
as he rode

Down the great granite-paven road between the
nodding peacock-fans.

The merchants brought him steatite from Sidon
in their painted ships:

The meanest cup that touched his lips was
fashioned from a chrysolite.

The merchants brought him cedar chests of rich
apparel bound with cords:

His train was borne by Memphian lords: young
kings were glad to be his guests.

Ten hundred shaven priests did bow to Ammon's
altar day and night,

Ten hundred lamps did wave their light through
Ammon's carven house--and now

Foul snake and speckled adder with their young
ones crawl from stone to stone

For ruined is the house and prone the great
rose-marble monolith!

Wild ass or trotting jackal comes and couches
in the mouldering gates:

Wild satyrs call unto their mates across the
fallen fluted drums.

And on the summit of the pile the blue-faced
ape of Horus sits

And gibbers while the fig-tree splits the pillars
of the peristyle

The god is scattered here and there: deep
hidden in the windy sand

I saw his giant granite hand still clenched in
impotent despair.

And many a wandering caravan of stately
negroes silken-shawled,

Crossing the desert, halts appalled before the
neck that none can span.

And many a bearded Bedouin draws back his
yellow-striped burnous

To gaze upon the Titan thews of him who was
thy paladin.

Go, seek his fragments on the moor and
wash them in the evening dew,

And from their pieces make anew thy mutilated

Go, seek them where they lie alone and from
their broken pieces make

Thy bruised bedfellow! And wake mad passions
in the senseless stone!

Charm his dull ear with Syrian hymns! he loved
your body! oh, be kind,

Pour spikenard on his hair, and wind soft rolls
of linen round his limbs!

Wind round his head the figured coins! stain
with red fruits those pallid lips!

Weave purple for his shrunken hips! and purple
for his barren loins!

Away to Egypt! Have no fear. Only one
God has ever died.

Only one God has let His side be wounded by a
soldier's spear.

But these, thy lovers, are not dead. Still by the
hundred-cubit gate

Dog-faced Anubis sits in state with lotus-lilies
for thy head.

Still from his chair of porphyry gaunt Memnon
strains his lidless eyes

Across the empty land, and cries each yellow
morning unto thee.

And Nilus with his broken horn lies in his black
and oozy bed

And till thy coming will not spread his waters on
the withering corn.

Your lovers are not dead, I know. They will
rise up and hear your voice

And clash their cymbals and rejoice and run to
kiss your mouth! And so,

Set wings upon your argosies! Set horses to
your ebon car!

Back to your Nile! Or if you are grown sick of
dead divinities

Follow some roving lion's spoor across the copper-
coloured plain,

Reach out and hale him by the mane and bid
him be your paramour!

Couch by his side upon the grass and set your
white teeth in his throat

And when you hear his dying note lash your
long flanks of polished brass

And take a tiger for your mate, whose amber
sides are flecked with black,

And ride upon his gilded back in triumph
through the Theban gate,

And toy with him in amorous jests, and when
he turns, and snarls, and gnaws,

O smite him with your jasper claws! and bruise
him with your agate breasts!

Why are you tarrying? Get hence! I
weary of your sullen ways,

I weary of your steadfast gaze, your somnolent

Your horrible and heavy breath makes the light
flicker in the lamp,

And on my brow I feel the damp and dreadful
dews of night and death.

Your eyes are like fantastic moons that shiver
in some stagnant lake,

Your tongue is like a scarlet snake that dances
to fantastic tunes,

Your pulse makes poisonous melodies, and your
black throat is like the hole

Left by some torch or burning coal on Saracenic

Away! The sulphur-coloured stars are hurrying
through the Western gate!

Away! Or it may be too late to climb their silent
silver cars!

See, the dawn shivers round the grey gilt-dialled
towers, and the rain

Streams down each diamonded pane and blurs
with tears the wannish day.

What snake-tressed fury fresh from Hell, with
uncouth gestures and unclean,

Stole from the poppy-drowsy queen and led you
to a student's cell?

What songless tongueless ghost of sin crept
through the curtains of the night,

And saw my taper burning bright, and knocked,
and bade you enter in?

Are there not others more accursed, whiter with
leprosies than I?

Are Abana and Pharphar dry that you come here
to slake your thirst?

Get hence, you loathsome mystery! Hideous
animal, get hence!

You wake in me each bestial sense, you make me
what I would not be.

You make my creed a barren sham, you wake
foul dreams of sensual life,

And Atys with his blood-stained knife were
better than the thing I am.

False Sphinx! False Sphinx! By reedy Styx
old Charon, leaning on his oar,

Waits for my coin. Go thou before, and leave
me to my crucifix,

Whose pallid burden, sick with pain, watches
the world with wearied eyes,

And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps
for every soul in vain.

Oscar Wilde (1894)
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