Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dancing Through Literature in the 1890s

I’ve spent the past week struggling to write a scene in which my characters are dancing at a ball in 1890. Invariably, it comes off sounding like the script of a corny romantic comedy from the 1950s, which conveys none of the feelings I want to get across.

Next, it occurred to me that writers don’t often put dance scenes into literature. Dance is, in many respects, a visual art that best suited to film. That’s why it sounded like I was writing a script, surely! But movies didn’t have dance scenes or plots in the 1890s, so I dug deeper to find out more about how my writers (the characters in my novel) felt about dancing in the 1890s.

What I found surprised me.

First, the verb ‘to dance’ is most commonly used in English fin-de-sciélé literature in descriptive passages to describe things, not people: the leaves dance on the trees, the flames dance on a log, and so on.

Second, when men write about people dancing, during this period, they write about the indigenous peoples of North America more often than they write about the kind of ball room dancing that I was looking for.
With yells of triumph the Indians came flocking down from their caves and danced a frenzied dance of victory round the dead bodies, in mad joy that two more of the most dangerous of all their enemies had been slain. - The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle
In his only novel, Oscar Wilde includes a scene about dancing, but it’s not in a ball room and it is used to make the woman dancing look less appealing.
The scene was the hall of Capulet's house, and Romeo in his pilgrim's dress had entered with Mercutio and his other friends. The band, such as it was, struck up a few bars of music, and the dance began. Through the crowd of ungainly, shabbily dressed actors, Sibyl Vane moved like a creature from a finer world. Her body swayed, while she danced, as a plant sways in the water. The curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily. Her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory.
Yet she was curiously listless. She showed no sign of joy when her eyes rested on Romeo. The few words she had to speak--
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss--
 with the brief dialogue that follows, were spoken in a thoroughly artificial manner. The voice was exquisite, but from the point of view of tone it was absolutely false. It was wrong in colour. It took away all the life from the verse. It made the passion unreal.
Basically, Wilde is using dance to give us an example of bad acting. Sure, Sybil Vane is beautiful, but, now that she is in love with Dorian Gray, she can’t act.

As I scanned the literature of the 1890s, I found love and bad acting to be recurring themes in literary scenes of ballroom dancing. In Violet Hunt’s The Maiden’s Progress, while Moderna is getting ready for a ball, Peggy says: “I wonder who you'll dance with? Perhaps you'll meet your Fate?” And Verona adds, pensively: “The ‘Unknown God.’ Father says every young girl raises altars to the ‘Unknown God.’ I wonder.” When Moderna returns from the ball, they both say at once: “Was it nice? Who did you dance with? Are you engaged? Did you get many compliments?” When Moderna gets rid of those meddlers, she writes in her diary:
My first ball. It is 4 A.M. Minching and Peggy and Verona have just left me. I must try and recall the events of the evening. I had a white dress trimmed with lilies of the valley rather pretty. Cecilia Riddell had daisies. Aunt Riddell had diamonds. What waste ! I danced twenty-one times twice with the son of the house. I danced three times with a Mr. Donkin. I can't remember whether it was twice or three times with Mr. Deverel. I danced the Lancers with Edward; and I went in to supper once with Mr. Vere and once with Edward. That is all I can remember. I was decidedly nervous at first. I don't think people thought me pretty there were such lots of awfully pretty girls there. They seemed to know everybody so well, and they all looked older than I. I look too dreadfully young. Cissy Riddell looked a perfect infant in her rational Liberty frock, that's one consolation. Mrs. Mortimer was kind. She said, "Who did your hair, child?" and gave it three pats that quite altered it.
So, that’s one example of how a woman might feel about dancing in the 1890s. What about her love interest? Why does he go to balls?
I suppose in the vague hope of meeting some day with a real woman, and talking to her. It is one of the very few social opportunities one has of doing so. A dinner party is complicated with eating how can two immortal souls communicate with each other through a medium of 'steaming soup, or the fumes of the roast, or at a musicale where one is constantly " hushed," until one's blood boils? But at a dance, social convention has decreed that one should have a woman to oneself for a quarter of an hour at least. I singled you out at once, and hoped that you would let me speak to you I was introduced, wasn't I?

Much as it continues to be today, dancing in the 1890s, was a mating ritual. Hunt writes hilariously in A Hard Woman that: "I don't think married women have any business to dance at all. [...] Dances aren't intended for them." But married women do go to dances. And, at a time when women really couldn’t just say what they thought or ask for what they wanted, dancing at a ball could be an effective weapon, as in Lady Windermere’s Fan.
I feel that every woman here sneers at me as she dances by with my husband. What have I done to deserve this?
But, I found that dancing didn’t just happen at balls or in North America when the indigenous people were attacking. In Paris, Marie Corelli describes the can-can, like it is going to destroy society!
...while I tried to urge my muddled intelligence into a clearer comprehension of all that was going on, the crowd suddenly parted asunder with laughter and shouts of applause, and standing back in closely pressed ranks made an open space in their centre for the approach of two women discreetly masked, — one arranged in very short black gauze skirts, the other in blood-red. Attitudinizing for a moment in that theatrical pose which all dancers assume before commencing the revolutions, they uttered a peculiar shout, half savage, half mirthful, — a noisy burst of music answered them, — and then, with an indescribable slide forward and an impudent bracing of the arms akimbo, they started the "can-can,” — which though immodest, vile, vulgar, and licentious, has perhaps more power to inflame the passions of a Paris mob than the chanting of the 'Marseillaise.' It can be danced in various ways, this curious fandango of threatening gesture and amorous invitation,— and if the dancers be a couple of heavy Paris laundresses or perilously it will probably be rendered so ridiculously as to be harmless. But, danced by women with lithe, strong, sinuous limbs — with arms that twist like the bodies of snakes, — with bosoms that seem to heave with suppressed rage and ferocity, — with eyes that flash hell-fire through the black eye-holes of a conspirator-like mask, — and with utter, reckless, audacious disregard of all pretense at modesty, — its effect is terrible, enraging!— inciting to deeds of rapine, pillage, and slaughter! And why ? Why, in Heaven's name, should a mere dance make men mad? Why ? — Mild questioner, whoever you are, I cannot answer you! Why are men made as they are? — will you tell me that? Why does an English Earl marry a music-hall singer ? He has seen her in tights, — he has heard her roar forth vulgar ditties to the lowest classes of the public, — and yet he has been known to marry her, and make her ^^ ray lady " — and a peeress of the realm ! Explain to me this incongruity, — and I will explain to you then why it is that the sight of the " can-can " danced in all its frankness, turns Parisian men for the time being into screeching, stamping maniacs, whom to see, to hear, to realize the existence of, is to feel that with all our ^ culture,' we are removed only half a step away from absolute barbarism!
All of this makes me think that I should save the dancing for more dramatic moments in my story, if I include any at all. Even W.B. Yeats identified the love of a dancer as brief.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Meet Marie Corelli

This blog has hitherto been incomplete without the inclusion of she, who outsold all of her contemporaries combined, Marie Corelli.

Born Mary Mackay, Corelli was the love child of a Scottish poet/songwriter, called Dr. Charles Mackay, and his servant, Elizabeth Mills. After receiving her education in a Parisian convent, Corelli returned to Britain at age 15 and followed in her father’s footsteps by beginning her career in music.

She took the name Corelli for the stage and used it as her nom de plume, beginning with her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds (1886). It quickly became a household name, as she grew to be the most widely-read author of fiction, counting Winston Churchill and members of the Royal Family, as avid collectors of her work.

Of course, her contemporaries criticized her work the way that we criticize most popular fiction today. Mark Twain notoriously despised her, until they met. Basically, if everyone wants to read it, it must be trash. But her plots and themes explored topics that fascinated the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reading public.

Possibly because of its sentimentality and rootedness in its own time and place, Corelli’s work isn’t as widely studied as the literati, who snubbed her. Biographers speculate about Corelli’s sexuality because she never married, but lived for over 40 years with a female companion, and descriptions of female beauty in her work border on the erotic. However, Corelli was also somewhat infatuated with the artist, Arthur Severn.

Use the links below to download her work for free and learn what all of the fuss was about.

A Romance of Two Worlds (1886)
Vendetta!; or, The Story of One Forgotten (1886)
Thelma (1887)
Ardath (1889)
Wormwood: A Drama of Paris (1890)
The Soul of Lilith (1892)
Barabbas, A Dream of the Word's Tragedy (1893)
The Sorrows of Satan (1895)
The Mighty Atom (1896)
The Murder of Delicia (1896)
Ziska (1897)
Boy (1900)
Jane (1900)
The Master-Christian (1900)
Temporal Power: a Study in Supremacy (1902)
God's Good Man (1904)
Treasure of Heaven (1906)
Holy Orders, The Tragedy of a Quiet Life (1908)
Life Everlasting (1911)
Innocent, Her Fancy and His Fact (1914)
The Young Diana (1918)
The Secret Power (1921)

This is by no means a complete list of her works, just the novels that I could find links to free eBooks for.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

100 Random Things about Oscar Wilde

In honour of this being my 100th post, I’m sharing 100 things you probably didn’t know about Oscar Wilde. If you knew any of this stuff keep track of how many points you get. Your score should be out of 100. Leave your result as a comment. If you have more Wildean wits about you than I did when I started this list, I’ll have your email address and can contact you in the future, if I have any questions! (Just kidding, sort of.)

1. “The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole.” At different points in his life, Wilde comes across as pessimistic and optimistic. His writing style, his critique of his contemporaries, and his ability to laugh at the world around him combine to indicate that he was a realist.

2. One of his greatest gifts was the ability to smile at his own misfortune.

3. Wilde was raised Anglican and Catholic. In college, he became infatuated with the Catholic Church, but did not become a convert until the end of his life. I found an interesting Catholic interpretation of his life on CatholicEducation.org

4. “I never change, except in my affections.” Wilde only dreamt of being able to live this way. His writing sympathized with a common longing for eternal youth and the ability to always remain the same. In practice, once you had Wilde's affection, you always had his sympathy. He had many life-long friendships.

5. Wilde lacked musical talent and never appreciated music, even during his Aesthetic period.

6. Wilde once claimed to never travel anywhere without his copy of Studies in the History of the Renaissance by Walter Pater.

7. Wilde visited Egypt, as a child, and was always fascinated by sphinxes.

8. Although the New York Tribune claimed Wilde’s teeth were “superlatively white,” he was embarrassed by his teeth, often spoke with his hand in front of his mouth to cover them, and eventually got dentures.

9. Wilde disliked idle conversation. “Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

10. Wilde was a tremendously sensitive man, quite capable of indulging in self-pity, but usually only when he had genuine reasons to feel bad for himself. Moreover, he was just as affected by the hardships of others.

11. Wilde was clearly outgoing, but enjoyed privacy and was most productive as a writer when he was alone. Wilde got restless quickly, but always seemed to find himself quite entertaining.

12. Wilde’s ability to speed read and remember long passages has been attributed to an eidetic memory.

13. Wilde’s brother was a newspaper writer, so he often pokes fun at them.

14. Wilde was a very superstitious child, whose mother told him stories about macabre beasts. In the children’s books he wrote, as a father, his antagonists were generally friendly.

15. Wilde met Pope Piux IX, as an undergraduate in 1877.

16. Wilde became famous for his personality. After meeting Wilde at the Royal Court Theatre, Helena Modjeska once said, “What has he done, this young man, that one meets him everywhere? Oh yes he talks well, but what has he done? He has written nothing, he does not sing or paint or act - he does nothing but talk. I do not understand.”

17. In an unguarded moment, Wilde once told the 15 year-old daughter of a friend that if she were a boy, he would adore her. Her name was Aimée Lowther.

18. Wilde travelled extensively throughout Africa, Europe, and the United States.

19. Sex tourism was the most likely reason for Wilde's travel to Africa in adulthood.

20. Wilde's plays got mixed reviews from London theatre critics. One of his worst most vocal critics was his own brother.

21. Wilde feared nothing more than he feared God. The thought of eternal punishment was the one thing that prevented him from committing suicide, during his darkest moments, he told Vincent O’Sullivan.

22. The last gift Wilde gave to his two sons was a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

23. Biographer, Neil McKenna says that Wilde wasn’t good at making a first impression and quotes Bosie, in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde:
There is no charm in his elephantine body, tightly stuffed into his clothes - no charm in his great face and head of unselect Bohemian cast - save the urbanity he can adopt or the intelligence with which he can vitalise his ponderousness.
24. On holiday, Wilde enjoyed days spent paddling about in a “Canadian canoe.”

25. Wilde wasn’t good at horseback riding.

26. Wilde loved dirty French novels. His love of them almost ruined a British publication.

27. Some say Wilde is the most quotable author of all time, but he once drew a blank when someone asked him what his motto was.

28. Wilde kept a vase of flowers on his writing desk to neutralize the smell of his ashtray.

29. The only time Wilde wasn’t self-conscious about his appearance was when he was playing with his children.

30. Wilde was born at 21 Westland Row, Dublin, which is now the home of the Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College.

31. When Wilde published the Happy Prince and Other Tales in May 1888, the Anthaeum compared him to Hans Christian Anderson, which was a far cry from the reputation he had carefully crafted for himself.

32. If you met him and he liked you, Wilde would probably give you a cigarette case.

33. Growing up, Wilde had three pet names: “Ossie” with his family, “Grey Crow” at school, and “Hosky” at Oxford.

34. Wilde had a hard time saying no when asked for money.

35. Wilde’s favourite drinks were brandy and absinthe.

36. The Wildes had servants to cook and clean, but usually ate meals on credit at the hotel.

37. Wilde had five siblings: William 'Willie' Charles Kingsbury Wilde; Isola Francesca Emily Wilde, who died as a child and broke Wilde’s heart; his half-sisters - Emily and Mary Wilde; and his half-brother, Henry Wilson.

38. Early biographers look at the above childhood photo of Wilde dressed in frills and suggest that his mother wanted him to be a girl, thus arousing Wilde’s interest in men, but this was not true in anyway. In mid-nineteenth century Ireland, boys were traditionally dressed as girls to protect them from the dred due, a kind of blood-thirsty fairy, who abducted little boys, but ignored little girls. Wilde’s mother adored old Irish myths and legends, almost as much as she adored her little boys.

39. Wilde had as many female friends as he did male friends and, in fact, was an important contact for female writers in the 1880s.

40. For Christmas 1877, Wilde gave his girlfriend, Florence Balcombe, a small gold cross.

41. The executor for the estate of Oscar Wilde was a Canadian, Robert Ross.

42. Ross is also responsible for bring Wilde back into popularity with his 1908 edition of Wilde’s collected works.

43. Ross worked tirelessly to protect Wilde’s work, after Wilde was gone. This included fighting the rampant black market trade in erotica that was published falsely under Wilde’s name.

44. Wilde often claimed to be two years younger than he was and even lied about his age on his marriage certificate.

45. Wilde never enjoyed competitive sports, but he liked athletes.

46. Wilde tested out his clever maxims in conversations before putting them in his writing.

47. Wilde frequently suffered from writer’s block.

48. Wilde enjoyed sentimental friendships more than romances.

49. After he finished school, Wilde made money lecturing on aesthetics.

50. Wilde’s American tour was funded by Gilbert and Sullivan.

51. One of Wilde’s first impressions of America was that American men “seem to get a hold on life much ealier than we do.”

52. The hardest decision Wilde ever made was probably the decision not to flee to Paris before his trials were over. Even the judge expected him to do it. His family talked him out of it, specifically his mother and brother.

53. Wilde began writing the Sphinx in 1874 and spent many years working on it. He finally published it in 1894.

54. In the beginning, Wilde was uncertain how to go about publishing his poetry, so he wrote to the PM and asked for help, assuming, correctly, that an Oxford boy would not be ignored. “I am little more than a boy,” Wilde wrote and Gladstone wrote back, suggesting his send his poetry to the Spectator. Wilde followed this advice and was met with success!

55. Wilde’s father was a polymath.

56. Wilde spent money as fast as he got it.

57. Before and after they were married, Wilde borrowed money from his wife’s brother.

58. Wilde’s wife, Constance was a writer in her own right and had her own income.

59. In the 1880s, Wilde and Constance held seances at their house on Tite Street.

60. Their home on Tite Street was called “House Beautiful.”

61. After Wilde’s release from prison, when he had moved to Paris, his wife wrote to him that, if she ever saw him again, she would forgive anything.

62. In the Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde based the character, Algernon, on his brother, during a time when they were trying to get along better.

63. Wilde hated his brother, Willie, but often gave him money.

64. While he was in jail, Wilde’s brother pawned or sold most of his favourite things, including his famous fur coat.

65. His parents probably met through a book review. His mother wrote one for his father’s book, The Beauties of Boyne and Blackwater.

66. Wilde wrote reviews for books by lesser known authors. These were published in the Gazette.

67. Wilde’s favourite occupation was reading his own sonnets.

68. They say that people often criticize the character traits that they see as most problematic in themselves. Wilde despised “Vanity, self-esteem, [and] conceit,” but admired the “Power of attracting friends.”

69. Wilde enjoyed writing letters to the editor.

70. Wilde’s favourite actor was Henry Irving.

71. “Ivory” was one of Wilde’s favourite words.

72. “Quite charming” was one of his favourite phrases.

73. Bathing was Wilde’s favourite ritual.

74. If you made it this far, you probably know that Wilde’s favourite colour was green, but might not know that he hated mauve and magenta.

75.. In the Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde bases the character of Basil on his real-life artist friend and rival, James Whistler.

76. Max Beerbohm characterized Wilde with this list of words:
Luxury - gold-tipped matches - hair curled - Assyrian-wax statue - huge rings - fat white hands - not soignée - feather bed - pointed fingers - ample scarf - Louis Quinze cane - vast Malmaison - cat-like tread - heavy shoulders - enormous dowager - or schoolboy - way of laughing with hand over mouth - stroking chin - looking up sideways - jollity overdone - But real vitality…Effeminate, but vitality of twenty men, magnetism - authority. Deeper than repute or wit, Hypnotic.
77. Wilde probably had sex with Walt Whitman once, but preferred beardless men.

78. Wilde was bisexual.

79. With men, Wilde was a top.

80. Not only did Wilde love women, he liked women too. He enjoyed them socially and found them both attractive and intelligent.

81. Wilde adopted the name Sebastion Melmoth, after prison. Sebation was a martyr. Melmoth is from Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), a novel by his great-uncle that bears some similarities to the Picture of Dorian Gray.

82. Wilde often ate seafood for breakfast, but that was a common upper-class Victorian habit. Victorians were weird.

83. Wilde was 6’3” and got his height from his mother, who was approximately six feet tall.

84. A lot of people considered him fat. Laura Troubridge wrote in her diary in 1883: “Went to a tea party at Cressie's to meet the great Oscar Wilde. He is grown enormously fat with a huge face and tight curls all over his head - not at all the aesthetic he used to look.” And Adrian Hope wrote in 1887: “O.W. was at the Lyric Club, fat and greasy as ever and looking particularly revolting in huge white kid gloves.”

85. Later in life, Wilde considered his aestheticism to have been something of a phase.

86. He spoke the way he wrote. William Butler Yeats couldn’t believe it: “My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labor and yet all spontaneous.”

87. When the Savoy Hotel introduced hot and cold running water, Wilde wasn’t pleased. He was happier having someone bring him his water.

88. Wilde called white wine yellow because his friend Robert Sherard once pointed out to him that white wine really isn’t white at all.

89. Wilde was once infatuated with the actress Lillie Langtry, but denied buying a lily daily and walking it over to her home as a gift.

90. Much like the contemporary sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, Wilde thought that jealousy in a marriage was “closely bound up with our conceptions of property” and “an extraordinary source of crime in modern life.”

91. In 1880, Wilde proposed to Charlotte Montefiore. When she refused, he wrote: “Charlotte, I am so sorry about your decision. With your money and my brain we could have gone far.”

92. Wilde slept with a female prostitute in Paris in 1883. His friend, Robert Sherard wrote about it. Afterwards, Wilde remarked: “What animals we are, Robert!”

93. Wilde almost certainly never had syphilis.

94. Wilde’s first kiss was from a boy he went to school with at Portura. They were saying good-bye at a railway station. He was sixteen years-old.

95. Wilde lied about his early school years in an interview with a journal called Biograph, when he was 26 years old. Nobody is sure why. Portura was a good school.

96. Wilde first described his future wife in a letter to Waldo Story as “quite young, very grave and mystical, with wonderful eyes, and dark brown coils of hair.... We are, of course, desperately in love.” Proof that at least one British postman was able to find Waldo!

97. Though Wilde didn’t see his wife again, after he left prison, they never got divorced.

98. Fatherhood inspired much of Wilde’s work. He took the job as editor of Woman’s World because he had a family to support. He wrote children’s stories because he had children to tell them to. Wilde loved being a father.

99. Wilde wrote in ink and edited in pencil.

100. There’s no evidence that Oscar Wilde ever said: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

An 1890s Christmas Spectacular

In the 1890s, the Illustrated London News' Christmas Supplement should have been called a Christmas Spectacular because it offered a range of spectacular stories from the outstanding writers of its day. Because it's almost Christmas, I'm including online links to the best of these stories throughout my post, just for you!

Established in 1842, the Illustrated London News was the world's first illustrated weekly news magazine. Sadly, it surrendered to online media in 2003. Most British histories of Christmas rely on the early Christmas Supplements for information about Victorian Christmas. After looking over them myself, I've found that the Christmas Supplement was overly concerned with how many "Englishmen" were spending the holidays abroad, though that mingled well with Empire, another popular theme.

The covers on their own attest to Victorian ideas of Christmas. Most of them feature women, who represent family and home life. Most of these women look like they are just freezing cold, but the stories, oh the stories, you could warm up reading those by a fire!

She doesn't look very happy about Christmas, but she is holding mistletoe. Maybe that's her sexy face?

One of the features that year was "Mrs Hauksbee Sits Out: An Unhistorical Extravaganza" by Rudyard Kipling.

The 1891 Christmas Supplement brought us Thomas Hardy's "The son's Veto" and J.M. Barries's " The Inconsiderate Waiter."

I can only say that with stories like these, the production value should go up, and it does in 1892. They also changes illustrators for the cover art.

Kipling published "The Bridge Builder" in the 1893 Christmas Supplement.

The cover girl of number 1894 looks like she's been drinking Coca-Cola!

The Christmas Supplement of 1895 presented Robert Louis Stevenson's The Great North Road.

Number 1896 saw a return of Thomas Hardy with A Committee-Man of 'The Terror'. The Victorian Web has more on this story and this edition here.

Walter Besant, the author responsible for putting Edmund Gosse in charge of seating at a dinner party, published in the 1897 Christmas Supplement.

In 1898, Im beginning to resent all of these outdoor images of Victorian Christmases. My favourite Christmas memories are all about being warm and toasty inside!

Which brings us to the end of the 1890s. This English cover girl is bundled up like a snow angel, reminding readers that snow is an essential part of an English Christmas. Without snow, what reason was there to bundle up by a fire? Without a fire, how could you roast chestnuts? In the 1890, an editor mourned for those poor people in the colonies: "I can't for the life of me conceive how our Australian kinsmen can contrive to keep Christmas under a sultry sky, which renders such a fire a physical impossibility."

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Never Let Edmund Gosse Arrange the Seating Plan for Dinner!

I found these two accounts of a dinner party, here, and just had to share because I don’t want to forget about them. The dinner party took place on 25 July 1888 at the Criterion, when the Society of Authors held a dinner for some American writers, including Henry James. Some of the British writers in attendance included Wilkie Collins, Walter Besant, Oscar Wilde, and Edmund Gosse.

With all of these important people present, Gosse was in charge of the seating arrangement.

In his writing, Wilde made some dinner parties seem like adventures. According to this account, by the secretary of the society, James Stanley Little, Wilde had a knack for doing that in real life too (though not all adventures are entirely pleasant)!
When I arrived at the Criterion another difficulty presented itself. I was immediately confronted by Oscar Wilde who, in his inimitable manner, upbraided me for having seated him at the table next to Lady Colin Campbell [who had recently referred to Wilde as ‘the great white slug’]. As I turned away with the assurance I would see if I could re-shuffle the name tickets, Lady Colin approached me with bitter reproaches on her lips, she being no less dissatisfied with her neighbour. Both being Irish, it may be imagined that their descriptions one of the other did not lack picturesque vividness. I had no previous knowledge, of course, that there was an old-standing war to the knife between these two. Well I had to keep smiling, welcoming guests, introducing, etc., though I was suffering the tortures of the damned, and how I got through that dinner without collapsing is a mystery to me to this day.
Like all good adventures, I’m sure Little looked forward to the dinner; he clearly regretted it, while it was happening; and thought fondly of it after the fact. The next day, he wrote to Besant:
We scored a brilliant success last night. The reports and leaders in this morning's papers are, I think, all that could be desired. The various American guests expressed to me their feeling of satisfaction and I believe the evening went off without a hitch ... I don't know how far the dinner was successful from a culinary standpoint, as I was only able to eat the devilled lobster which was certainly admirable.
However, Wilde would later recommend to Little:

I can only hope that if the Society gives another banquet the arrangement of the guests will not be left to a person like Gosse.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Spiritualist Frauds and the Writers Who Loved Them

I suppose now you do not believe in corporeal transference. No? Nor in materialisation. No? Nor in astral bodies. No? Nor in the reading of thought. No? Nor in hypnotism——”
Said Van Helsing, in Dracula (1897).

In my writing, I’ve been thinking a lot about that passage. Materialization is, basically, the manifestation of visions, if not actual solid objects, out of unknown matter. In Victorian occult practice, one might materialize spirits, during a seance. Indeed, seances were the conventional method of materializing things, spirits, or whatever they thought was special.

Bram Stoker’s participation in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn leaves the impression that Stoker either believed in the paranormal or had a keen interest in those, who did, not just through his writing and research for Dracula, but also in his personal life. Certainly, Jonathan Harker experiences materialization first-hand in Dracula’s castle:
I was becoming hypnotised! Quicker and quicker danced the dust; the moonbeams seemed to quiver as they went by me into the mass of gloom beyond. More and more they gathered till they seemed to take dim phantom shapes. And then I started, broad awake and in full possession of my senses, and ran screaming from the place. The phantom shapes, which were becoming gradually materialised from the moonbeams, were those of the three ghostly women to whom I was doomed. I fled, and felt somewhat safer in my own room, where there was no moonlight and where the lamp was burning brightly.

Belief in materialization rose throughout the Victorian era and I'll venture to say, though it is only an educated guess, that belief in materialization was near its peak in the 1890s because vigourous debunking was beginning to take place and would carry on through the 1900s.

One of the most successful frauds of the 1890s was praised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even after she had been caught faking it in almost every country she visited. Her name was Eusapia Paladino.

Palandino used illusions and dark rooms to make it appear that she had the power of levitation ; that she could warp her body, by making it longer; and that she could materialize a number of things, including pots of flowers, the dead, spirit hands and wet faces in clay. In Warsaw, she inspired several colourful scenes in Boeslaw Prus’s novel Pharaoh (1894-95).

In 1895, Palandino visited London. The founder of the Society for Physical Research, Frederic William Henry Myers invited her to his home, in Cambridge, for a series of investigations (note: when Victorians use the word “physical” in this context, they mean paranormal). Along with the physicist/writer/inventor Oliver Lodge and other “scientists,” Myers found Palandino to be nothing, but a trickster. Consequently, she was banned, by the Society, from participating in any further experiments (or seances) in Britain.

Unfortunately for Myers, the investigation generated bad press for the Society, when the British Medical Journal published an article (9 November 1895) that called into question the scientific legitimacy of the the Society for having conducted the experiments in the first place.
It would be comic if it were not deplorable to picture this sorry Egeria surrounded by men like Professor Sidgwick, Professor Lodge, Mr. F. H. Myers, Dr. Schiaparelli, and Professor Richet, solemnly receiving her pinches and kicks, her finger skiddings, her sleight of hand with various articles of furniture as phenomena calling for serious study.
Three years later, in Paris, when Myers thought he had seen a real medium, he was reminded of his skepticism about Palandino, but refused to change his mind about her and faced further ridicule.

Palandino practiced for the rest of her life and her fans ignored the fact that people called her a fraud, everywhere she went! In spite of all the hype about what a fraud she was, people, like Doyle and Myer’s friend in Paris, deeply believed in her abilities. It simply did not matter how many times she was photographed holding up a levitating table.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How to Flirt Like a Victorian

Strict codes of etiquette, in the late nineteenth century, meant there were lots of ways to say I love you, without actually saying it. Because marriage was so important, saying it to the wrong person could ruin a woman’s life. The process of courting was a complex risky business and these guidebooks, from the late nineteenth century, must have only made things harder.

By nonchalantly carrying your hat in your left hand, you could accidently tell a potential suitor that you hated him. If you put your gloves away, he might think you are mad! Twirl your fan in your left hand and he’ll think you want to get rid of him. The handbook on fan flirtation was originally created by a Parisian fan shop. I suspect the others have similar origins. Here's one if you're curious!

Of course, I also have to wonder about the effectiveness of these tactics. If you are trying to send the message on purpose, wouldn’t your suitor have had to memorized the same instructions as you?

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

London Fog

It was by this time about nine in the morning, and the first fog of the season. A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. - Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Fog, fog, fog! All through Victorian literature, we have fog. It can be creepy, romantic, foreboding, a plot device, but it was also a deadly. In the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson beautifully describes the fog in London in the 1880s, which was really the toxic mixture of fumes that comprised the early stages of the Great Smog that would lead to the Clean Air Act (1956).

Even Punch took on the terror of the fog!

The fog, which was more like smog, got worse in December. It was bad all winter because, combined with the toxic clouds from the city’s factories, people used coal in their fires to keep warm. Together, they created a toxic mix of sulphur dioxide and combustion particles.

Reeking of coal tar, a fog filled parts of London in 1873, raising the death rate by 40%. The fog most commonly claimed the lives of people with respiratory ailments, the young, and the old, but it was also especially hard in poor neighbourhoods, where the wind brought smoke from factories in addition to what came out of people’s fireplaces. Mix that smoky death with the icy weather and improper clothing/nutrition... well, you get the point.

In December 1891 and December 1892, it felt like the sun never rose in certain parts of the city. Thousands died. People were horrified. Yet, no one did anything about it. It was as if it were an accepted part of London life. Londoners were called “Pea-Soupers” and London was called “the Smoke,” like this was just something you could expect from the city.

Of course, Oscar Wilde hides Dorian Gray in the fog:
He was walking home about eleven o'clock from Lord Henry's, where he had been dining, and was wrapped in heavy furs, as the night was cold and foggy. At the corner of Grosvenor Square and South Audley Street, a man passed him in the mist, walking very fast and with the collar of his grey ulster turned up. He had a bag in his hand. Dorian recognized him. It was Basil Hallward. A strange sense of fear, for which he could not account, came over him. He made no sign of recognition and went on quickly in the direction of his own house.
But Hallward had seen him. Dorian heard him first stopping on the pavement and then hurrying after him. In a few moments, his hand was on his arm.
"Dorian! What an extraordinary piece of luck! I have been waiting for you in your library ever since nine o'clock. Finally I took pity on your tired servant and told him to go to bed, as he let me out. I am off to Paris by the midnight train, and I particularly wanted to see you before I left. I thought it was you, or rather your fur coat, as you passed me. But I wasn't quite sure. Didn't you recognize me?"
"In this fog, my dear Basil? Why, I can't even recognize Grosvenor Square. I believe my house is somewhere about here, but I don't feel at all certain about it."
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Friday, December 6, 2013

Starvation at Christmas 1891

The Daily Post published this piece on 30 December 1891, so the incident had already passed and New Year's Eve was approaching.
Starvation At Christmas

On Monday night Mr. Wayne E. Barter held an enquiry at the Whitechapel infirmary into the circumstances attending the death of a man unknown, who was found by Police-constable Hudson dead from starvation on the pavement in George Street, Spitalfields, at a quarter past six on Saturday morning. - William Andrews stated that he was engaged as watchman at some buildings that were being pulled down in Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields. On Saturday morning the witness went across to him and said, "Aren't you cold, old man, sitting here all night?" and he replied, "Yess, sir, I am. I suppose you have not a halfpenny you could give me to get a cup of coffee with?" The witness, who had only 3d., his railway fare home, said, "I have only three pennies, but you can have one of them, and I'll walk part of my journey." - (A Juror: Good of you, my man.) - The deceased, when he got the penny, said, "Thank you," and walked away. He appeared very weak, and stumbled a little as he crossed the road. A little after six o'clock the witness was going home, when he met an inspector of police, who told him there was a man lying dead in the next street. The witness went there, and identified the deceased as the man he had given the penny to. - The Coroner: Have you ever seen people sitting there all night before this man? Witness: Oh yes, sir, lots more especially women, and in the warm nights. - The Corner then asked: Are you going to stay at your place any longer? The Witness: Yes, sir, when I'm on duty. - The Corner: Would you mind taking charge of this(handing the witness 5s.), and giving 1s. to each person you see there? You know what I mean - anyone who looks as if he had nowhere to go. I shall be very much obliged if you would do so. ("Hear, hea," from the jury.) - A Juror: No one need starve to death in this country while there are shelters for them to go to. - Another Juror: Shelter do you call them: It's a libel on the name. (Hear-hear.) Mr. Percy John Clarke, assistant divisional surgeon, stated that the cause of death was pneumonia, accelerated by want. (Sensation.) - The jury ventured a verdict that the deceased died from pneumonia and starvation.

Though these kinds of things happen all year, it seems more tragic at Christmas, while people celebrate the illusion of plenty. The cartoon illustrates the juror's contempt for London's night shelters for the homeless, as well as demonstrating why many homeless people might prefer to sleep on the street.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Top 10 Weird Ads/Products of the 1890s

Hindsight makes aspects of the past comical. Looking back on the 1890s, we also have roughly 120 years of new information, information that was gathered through trial and error. Looking back to when we started getting excited about personal computers, we can already see terrible product ideas, like Digiscent iSmell. In the 1890s, people were excited about lots of new things and the ephemera reflects that spirit, as well as its comic failures. From medicines to gadgets, here are the oddest ads of the 1890s.

10. Many of the dangerous drugs that are illegal today were still legal in the 1890s and being used as medicine, hence we have this lovely ad for Cocaine Toothache Drops.

By the picture, it looks like they’d be perfect for a teething baby. Don’t believe me? Look at the recommended dosage on the back of this bottle of Stickney and Poor’s Pure Paregoric (opium).

If that doesn’t work, mommy can get you some heroin.

Modern illegal drugs in 1890s ads, brings us to:

9. Coca-Cola

Before the cola wars were a twinkle in your glass of coke, Coca-Cola was marketed as a “temperance drink,” “a valuable tonic and nerve stimulant.”

Even though Coca-Cola started going easy on the amount of cocaine that went into their soft drinks, during the 1890s, Coca-Cola was still advertising in pharmaceutical publications as late as 1899.

To be fair, as soon as it became clear that cocaine was bad for you, Coca-Cola’s chemists removed every trace of the drug from the beverage.

8. Want to lose weight? How about a tapeworm?

This ad boasts of “no ill effects.” Having a tapeworm can cause loss of appetite, mild pain, and diarrhea, but not of that means to host will lose any weight. Besides, it’s unlikely that eating these pills would give the consumer a tapeworm because it would be so difficult for the manufacturer to collect the tapeworm cysts.

If the consumer did get a tapeworm, they were stuck with the problem of getting it out. Victorians, clearly, had no idea how tapeworms worked, as is evidenced by the ads above, the simple fact that so many thought having one was a good idea, and the persistent belief that they could lure them out by holding a warm bowl of milk and cookies near their lips.

7. Maybe, you want to be fat!

From what I can gather, this product was primarily marketed in the United States (imagine that?). But while obsessing over the shapes of their bodies, Victorians mostly wanted to look younger.

6. Curves of Youth

Remember all that stuff I said at the beginning about hindsight? At first I saw Prof. Eugene Mack’s “Curves of Youth” ad and I thought: “silly Victorians,” but then I saw this:

Some people never learn!

The Victorians were trying to learn about and understand new things, but they really liked applying new technologies to their bodies, which brings us to:

5. The Electric Corset

Dr. Scott didn’t forget about men either. His corsets were for ladies and his genuine electric belts were designed specifically for men.

One company in Ontario even tried to apply electricity to hair loss.

4. Arsenic Wafers

The desire to look young was not an exclusively female concern, as we know, through the Picture of Dorian Gray. Arsenic wafers were widely promoted for both men and women to keep up youthful appearances.

3. Electric Oil

I couldn’t, in good conscience, keep this ad grouped with the other electric products because it isn’t really electric and it is using a cat to sell a product. A mixture of chloroform, opium, hemlock and turpentine, electric oil went by various brands and was used to treat: coughs, colds & croup; catarrh; asthma and dyphtheria; burns, bruises, cuts & sprains; and lots more. It was even recommended for pets!

2. Warner Brother’s Corsets

This is one of those ads that is only comical through hindsight, especially if you don’t know the story of the Warner Bros Corset Company.

1. The Expanding Mustache

The Expanding Moustache is a Victorian novelty product, like a gag gift. Hair pieces were still popular in the 1890s (bunch of hairy men) and it’s fun to see that Victorians had a sense of humour about them too.

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