Terror & Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library

gothbl I’d like to be able to write coherently about the British Library’s Gothic exhibition, but because I’m an inveterate goth, I’m at risk of listing my moments of “Oh God, I can’t believe they’ve got the actual original [insert artefact here]”, hand to pale brow. Bear me for a moment, because–

Mervyn Peake’s handwritten Gormenghast!

Doctor Dee’s Elizabethan scrying mirror!

Thomas Chatterton’s medieval forgeries!

Letters by John Polidori!

Not since 2012’s Pre-Raphaelites at The Tate have there been so many of my favourite things in a single room. Anyone who loves Gothic will lick their chops at The British Library. From the genre’s florid beginnings with The Castle of Otranto to The Sisters of Mercy crooning at girls who wander by mistake, the exhibition is a celebration of the pleasure Gothic’s many incarnations have brought people down the centuries – and how Gothic manages never to die.

Crumbling ramparts, impenetrable forests, double lives, and lashings of gore. Gothic has always toyed with what disturbs us – the secret lives of respectable personages in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, female sexuality in Carmilla, foreign invasion in Dracula. No wonder there was pearl-clutching at the thought of sensible Victorian girls devouring Gothic novels, letting their darkest desires run free. This breathless consumption of all things dreadful left early Gothic fans open to ridicule (try reading The Castle of Otranto without laughing), but the exhibition manages to convey Gothic’s steady evolution into a self-aware, perhaps even post-modern genre, taking us through to Edward Gorey’s playful macabre and the androgynous world of post-punk goth.

gothicnovels

The hysterical quality of Gothic is where the fun lies. Because there’s that veneer of ‘wink-wink, we know this is daft’, the genre has the opportunity to introduce genuinely scary ideas in a setting we’re already comfortable with. We sign up to the horror of Gothic while we may shy away from brutal realism. Take the alcoholism and child abuse in The Shining. We talk about the bathtub woman or the bloody lift, but what’s really chilling is Jack’s likability while he terrorises his wife and child with a croquet mallet. Gothic is something that lurks beneath the ordinary; a sense of heightened, oversaturated reality where the family secrets are literally locked in the attic, scratching with broken fingernails at all that floral Victorian wallpaper.

Terror & Wonder is on at the British Library until January 2015.

Share Button

Cake or Death? Sin-eating and other morbid confectionary

My short story, Cremating Imelda, is published in Animal Literary Magazine this month. Imelda, a modern hermit in an abandoned village on the Norfolk coast, is a woman with a morbid talent concerning food – and mortal sin.

This is an old fascination of mine: the links between death, what we eat, and why.

For centuries, sin-eating was a funerary tradition grudgingly tolerated by The Church. Usually a reviled individual on the edge of society, the sin-eater went to funerals and ate bread or cake off the coffin, absorbing the deceased’s sins and thus allowing them to speed through purgatory. Presumably, they hoped someone would do the same for them, when the time came.

sin-eater

Sin-eating has long fallen out of favour. But there are more recent funerary traditions involving food that still manage to make us uncomfortable. A childhood memory: a Greek holiday. I was permitted one treat; anything I chose from the bakery. This bakery was nothing like the ones in England. There wasn’t a single stodgy pink bun or unhappy gingerbread man. Every confection was a miniature ornament sprinkled with green pistachio, or shining with honey. But what I wanted was inside a glass cabinet. A dish piled with plain brown biscuits. Just flat brown rounds of dough – nothing to excite a child. Perhaps it was because they were behind glass and therefore forbidden. I knew what I wanted, and I asked for it.

“Those are not for little girls. Those are for… for…” The baker wheeled her hands, searching for the English. “The funeral.”

funeralbiscuit

Get the child away from the death biscuits. This was a Greek custom, the baker told us. Sweets to eat in the presence of the dead. Looking at the mountain of biscuits, I remember thinking the locals must have been dropping like flies. I ended up with some unmemorable cake or other, and the episode went down as further proof that Verity always was ‘a grimly kid’ (to borrow Rossetti’s phrase). But the idea of funeral biscuits fascinated me. Why didn’t we do this in England?

Food has become the awkward aftermath of the funeral service. I find myself in church hall kitchenettes, spending a great deal of time nibbling dismal supermarket own-brand Jammie Dodgers because it gets me out of talking to anyone. I’ve already stipulated I want gin served at my funeral, partly because everyone secretly hates those undersized cafeteria cups of tea, and also because I think a funeral is a place for a sort of human communion. “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”

Trade card for Smith, Wholesale and Retail Confectioner

The Nourishing Death blog is a brilliant resource for anyone interested in the ways people all over the world honour their dead with food. Because food, in a ritual setting, is communication. In Funeral Festivals in America, Jacqueline S. Thursby writes of the funeral biscuit’s role in the Victorian way of death in the USA’s Pennsylvania:

…a prevailing funeral custom was that a young man and young woman would stand on either side of a path that led from the church house to the cemetery. The young woman held a tray of funeral biscuits and sweet cakes; the young man carried a tray of spirits and a cup. As mourners passed by, they received a sweet from the maiden and a sip of spirits from the cup furnished by the young man. A secular communion of sorts, these were ritual behaviors that transcended countries of origin and melded a diverse young nation with the common cords of death, mourning, and tradition. The funeral biscuit served as part of a code representing understood messages of mourning, honor, and remembrance.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 13.25.49In England, packaged up in paper and sealed with a blob of black wax, funeral biscuits came in many different flavours and shapes. Sometimes the packages bore morbid little poems, practically gallows ballads. One of these is in the Pitt Rivers museum. Biscuits for the funeral of Mrs Oliver, died November 7th 1828, aged 52:

Thee we adore, eternal Name,
And humbly own to thee,
How feeble is our mortal frame!
What dying worms we be.

All flesh is grass. Enjoy your biscuit.

It’s little wonder such unflinching morbidity is unwelcome in the sanitised funerals of the modern world. But many European cultures still hold on to the funeral biscuit. In 2011, a Greek family were accidentally fed cocaine-sprinkled funeral biscuits, leading to what sounds like a lovely service:

The elderly bystanders, instead of mourning, began to dance around the dead, and the tears turned to nervous laughter. The cognac was consumed in shots accompanied by the sound of happy toasts, and there were some who started ordering mojito cocktails.

giftformourners

So what do you have planned for your send-off? If you could have a sin-eater come to wipe away your deeds, would you?

Share Button

Review: The Sick Rose – Disease and The Art of Medical Illustration

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 19.56.09The Sick Rose: Or; Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration

O Rose thou art sick. 
The invisible worm, 
That flies in the night 
In the howling storm: 
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

– William Blake

In a pub a few weeks ago, a doctor friend was telling me about his first autopsy. What stayed with him, he said, was how the surface brutality of the act was accompanied by a strange, palpable tenderness as the assembled students protected the face of the deceased, keeping it clean and untouched. I thought of this when reading Dr Richard Barnett’s new book, The Sick Rose, ‘a visual tour through disease in an age before colour photography’. These painstakingly detailed images, so much more intimate than a quick photo session for The Lancet, take on the task of showing human bodies at their most vulnerable while also communicating something of the subject’s soul. Even affirming it, in the face of what was – at least then – helpless suffering.

In case it comes as a shock, I love the history of medicine. Being a) a medical oddity myself, and b) from a family of doctors who refused to censor their conversation at the dinner table, I’m always up for a chat about the experimental origins of rhinoplasty or how best to suspend a foetus in lucite. I’ve been looking forward to this book for months, especially as I went on a London gin tour with Dr Barnett a couple of years ago, and if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have known about the 18th century gin-dispensing cat. That’s the kind of thing I need to know.

And have I mentioned the contents of my living room?

IMG_1992IMG_1991

I was always going to love The Sick Rose. Physically, it’s gorgeous. A heavy, tactile hardback. Even the endpapers are smallpox, and the clinical, geometric cover design contrasts sharply with a portrait of a wasted young Veronese woman, blue with cholera. Thought has gone into the aesthetic, and it doesn’t go down any of the obvious ghoulish routes, making the reader uneasy from the off. Is this art or science? Is there a line dividing the two?

That’s what I like about the book. It’s unflinching but compassionate. The images of sores, growths, pestilence, and dissection are shocking without being childish. You’re invited to look into these faces and wonder who they belonged to. One particularly moving page features a baby wizened with syphilis, staring past the reader with ancient eyes.

Artificial nose, 17th-18th century.And then there’s the human ingenuity. Silver noses for patients disfigured by venereal disease, or beautiful art nouveau posters warning against ‘the white death’, a poetic and oddly desirable pseudonym for TB. Even my Uncle Thomas Holloway makes an appearance, with his delicate ceramic pots of useless ointment, bearing the image of Britannia and her shield. Disease and death are inseparable from the human condition, so it’s natural we should turn to art for expression and protection.

These symbolic gestures are not always comforting. For medieval physicians, leprosy was a sign of moral degradation, and the rituals that followed are disturbing. Barnett writes: “[Leprosy was] not only a disease but also a metaphor for the frail state of the human soul, portending the foulness of the grave and the agonies of purgatory. Some Catholic communities developed ceremonies in which lepers were declared symbolically dead, excluded from communal Christian life, even made to lie in a grave while a priest recited a burial mass”.

Compassionate. One can’t help but look at the recent cultural resurgence of zombies and feel queasy. Can such things only appeal to us when we’re comfortably removed from the possibility of actual living death? And what does it say about us?

L0073310 A girl with tuberculosis appealing for funds for a sanatorium

Philosophical reflections aside, the most unsettling thing I learned while researching The Sick Rose was that the makers of the game series BioShock based the faces of the splicers (drug-crazed mindless killers, if you haven’t played) directly on those of disfigured WW1 servicemen. There’s an essay on it here by Suzannah Biernoff – upsetting reading, and something I’m astonished isn’t more widely known. BioShock is one of my favourite shoot-em-ups, but I’d never made the mental link until Biernoff pointed it out. These ‘points of contact and dissonance’ between art, entertainment, and anatomy too often tread the problematic line of appropriation. It needs examining, and The Sick Rose is refreshingly mindful of this.

In short, I’m recommending the book to everyone. It’s beautiful and emotionally-engaging. All the while the ravages of disease and cultural ideas of monstrosity go hand in hand, thoughtful books like The Sick Rose are still very much needed. It’s natural to be fascinated by the blood and horror of the past, but it’s important to temper that fascination with the humanity of the subject. We mustn’t forget how relatively fortunate we are today.

sickrose4

Share Button

Review: Vikings at The British Museum

Athelstan is a delicate woodland faun, and I won't hear otherwise.

Athelstan is a delicate woodland faun, and I won’t hear otherwise.

I’m obsessed with History’s drama series, Vikings. I only started watching because I enjoy a bit of the old ultraviolence, but now I’m emotionally involved to an embarrassing degree and spend my time praying for Athelstan’s safety. That poor child has been through enough. All the hacking and slashing has piqued my interest, but, as fans of the show have pointed out, Vikings is only tenuously based on real events. We visited The British Museum’s wildly popular new exhibit – Vikings: Life and Legend – to learn more.

Were the Vikings one gigantic black metal band, or a culture as nuanced and refined as any other? Life and Legend doesn’t try to force you into either camp. What it does do is present the way the Northmen interacted with the cultures they encountered – the Franks, the Slavs, the Anglo-Saxons and beyond – and the evidence isn’t always what most visitors are expecting. Surviving poems prove it wasn’t all about violent conquest:

What’s this talk of going home?
My heart is in Dublin,
And the women of Trondheim won’t see me this autumn.
The girl has not denied me pleasure-visits, I’m glad;
I love the Irish lady as well as my young self.
– Magnus ‘Barelegs’ Olafsson, king of Norway (11th century)

These and other fragments challenge the image of the Viking people as marauding beasts. Sometimes they feel strangely familiar. Take, for instance, this public health announcement:

A man shouldn’t clutch at his cup, but moderately drink his mead.

A thousand years on, and Europe still isn’t listening.

vikingscomp

However, if it’s indiscriminate bloodshed you’re after, there’s a lot to take in. We handled a 10th century axe-head, which the attendant helpfully informed us “was for killing people”. Then there was the absolute cutting-edge of weapon technology: Ulfberht swords. So powerfully made and sought-after were Ulfberhts, counterfeits were churned out like dubious Rolexes. There’s a documentary on Youtube about the staggering amount of effort put into making these swords, topped by a striking signature hammered into the blade – one slip and the sword was ruined. However, if you didn’t fork out for the British Museum’s £4.50 audio guide, you’d have walked past the swords without the slightest idea what they were.

vikinghelmet

This Viking filed his teeth down to fangs.

It’s always good to see the lives of women represented, especially when it’s not limited to the domestic. We loved the section on sorceresses. These women possessed the gift of prophecy and were feared and respected in equal measure, making their grave goods particularly fascinating. Although the spiritual practices of different Viking settlements varied, there was a widespread belief in shapeshifting. Men turned into bears and wolves, but women’s spirits were allied to more furtive creatures like birds and fish, offering an interesting window into the Viking gender divide.

Near the sorceresses’ wands and finery, there was a tiny statue of a figure wearing female clothing, but labelled as ‘probably’ Odin nonetheless. This made us wonder if (much like female skeletons found buried with weaponry and consequently classified as male) we’re projecting our own gender theory onto history for want of further context. As the Vikings were a largely oral culture, we’ll probably never know.

The Cuerdale Hoard, c 905-910

The Cuerdale Hoard, c 905-910.

Speaking of skeletons, bones were displayed sparingly and to great effect. Turning a corner, visitors come across a pile of skeletons divested of their heads – an entire Viking ship’s crew, dumped in a mass grave in Weymouth. The bodies were laid out as they were found, sprawled, face-down, fingers missing, suggesting their hands weren’t tied before execution. We’ve all seen human remains in museums, but this was unusually visceral.

viking-mass-grave-weymouth

All this was fascinating – if you got close enough. Our major criticism was echoed by everyone we know who’s been to the exhibition: the overcrowding. Many of the smallest and most delicate pieces were by the entrance, creating a bottleneck of bodies. At times it was impossible to see exhibits, and most of the labels were placed below the cases, meaning only the visitors with the sharpest elbows could read them. I’m 6’1″, and I struggled. By the time the room opened up to reveal the breathtakingly gigantic Roskilde 6 ship, most visitors were too stressed to enjoy it.

I love The British Museum, but they should have known better than to cram people in like that. However, if you’re tall or determined, Vikings: Life and Legend is still on until the 22nd of June 2014.

Share Button

How To Be A Victorian


howtobeavictorian
How To Be a Victorian

Ruth Goodman is one of those historians I want to turn up on my doorstep with adoption papers. Brits will know her from her hugely popular television series, Tudor Monastery Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Victorian Pharmacy, where she physically lives the history, coping without heat, going without baths, and stooping for backbreaking farm labour in corset and bonnet.

Her enthusiasm for the daily grind of our ancestors shines through everything she does, from sealing jars with pig’s bladders to grinding up beetles for cure-all pills. Ruth shies away from nothing and reports back with glee. So it’s no surprise that her new book, How To Become a Victorian, stands out among its contemporaries for its sheer physicality and empathy.

My hero

My hero

The book takes us through an average Victorian day, from the moment your feet touch the bedroom floor to collapsing in bed after a brutal working day. Or, in the case of the privileged few, dozing off after a 12-course dinner.

Drawing from a wealth of primary material – maids’ diaries, middle class memoirs, and plain old household paperwork – Goodman brings to light some surprising details rarely featured in costume dramas.

For example, would your bedroom kill a canary? Dr Arnott of the Royal Institution thought so.

Ventilation was a big deal to the Victorians. One dubious study stated that a canary, kept in a cage close to the ceiling of the average Victorian bedroom, would die of carbon dioxide poisoning before the night was through. Another claimed it was “madness to sleep in a room without ventilation – it is inhaling poison […] deadly”.

So pervasive was this myth, impoverished parents, wanting the best for their children,  would keep the bedroom window open in all weathers, even when blankets were in short supply. It makes you wonder what barmy customs we’re following today for no good reason.

undiesCompare this with the practise of woollen underwear in all weathers. Porous in humidity, insulating in deep cold, a woollen vest and drawers would guard a body from the sudden changes in temperature believed to wreck the constitution. In 1823, Captain Murray of the HMS Valorous returned to Britain after a two-year tour of duty along the freezing Labradorean coast. Each man aboard was given two sets of woollen undies and commanded to keep them on. On his return, Captain Murray was pleased to report he had not lost a single man despite great changes in temperature – this was a record, and one he attributed to wool. For the rest of the nineteenth century, a good set of woollen undies would become recommended by doctors all over the British Empire, even in the Tropics.

illustrated-police-news-june-25-1870Naturally, Goodman has tested this advice, along with the long-term use of tight corsets. Lovely to look at, and surprisingly practical for work involving constant bending, Goodman experienced two unpleasant side effects of a tiny waist: 1) Corset rash is worse than chickenpox, and 2) after a time, her core muscles wasted away, giving her a high, breathy voice a Victorian may well have termed feminine and pleasing. She had to retrain her diaphragm with rigorous singing exercises.

Goodman’s other Victorian adventures included setting her petticoats on fire, narrowly avoiding being crushed beneath a startled carthorse, and going without washing her hair for four months. By far my favourite detail was that vodka makes a suitable substitute for laudanum when a recipe calls for it. I think they call that a life-hack.

Unsurprisingly, I loved the book. It’s an invaluable resource for anyone embarking on a historical fiction project. The attention given to the unromantic nitty-gritty of daily Victorian life is much appreciated, and Goodman’s dedication to trying everything, no matter how uncomfortable, dangerous, or potentially infectious, is hugely entertaining for historians, re-enactors and anyone else in danger of death through tight lacing.

Ruth Goodman’s How To Be a Victorian is available now in paperback.

Share Button

An Easter Brontë Pilgrimage

It’s Charlotte Brontë’s 198th birthday today, and happily I found myself in Yorkshire.

I’ve always been excited to see the land that shaped the Brontës’ imagination; the foundations of Gondal and Angria, and the Parsonage where they lived, worked, and died, particularly as the North is so strikingly different to my own flat East Anglia.

As my Lancastrian boyfriend noted: “That inclining green structure over there… we call that a hill.”

Gawthorpe-HallThe previous week, we went to the Jacobean Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire’s Padiham, where Charlotte Brontë paid two awkward visits to Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth in the 1850s. Sir James fancied himself a budding writer, and the green couch where Charlotte withstood her host’s overpowering enthusiasm is still on display.

Charlotte found the attentions of Sir James and his wife “painful and trying”. The couple tried to coax her down to London for the Season, but Charlotte’s nervousness and dread of being patronised meant she never fully warmed to the couple, despite their real admiration for her radical writing.

The moors further up the country, on the way to Carlisle. Branwell applied for a job as the secretary of a proposed railway line connecting Hebden Bridge to Carlisle in 1845. He was turned down.

The Parsonage at Haworth

With a water supply contaminated by corpses, open sewers, and no ‘night soil’ men to deal with the animal waste in the streets, it’s little wonder that the average life expectancy in Haworth during the Brontës’ lifetimes was just 25.8 years. Nowadays, it’s a pretty little town with a winding road providing a steady influx of tourists. It’s the end of a long rainy winter here, and the heather was flowering and the lambs trotting about in the Easter sunshine. Not remotely Wuthering, but totally lovely.

IMG_1728

The Parsonage, from the graveyard.

As it was Charlotte’s birthday, we were lucky enough to be invited into the collections room not normally open to the public. There we were shown some of the museum’s treasures, including one of Charlotte and Branwell’s handmade miniature books, so tiny it would fit in the hands of their toy soldiers. There was Branwell’s well-loved copy of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a small-print volume with no publishing information, suggesting it was a ‘pirate’ copy. Most touching of all was one of the last letters Anne composed before her death, written in a delicate ‘crossed’ pattern to save paper. In it she talks about her desire to survive tuberculosis for the sake of her father, who had already weathered the loss of so many children.

charlotte-bronte-auction

Another of Charlotte’s miniature books sold at auction for £690,850 in 2011.

Excitingly, we also got within breathing distance of a rare first edition of their Brontës’ 1846 collection of poems, published under their androgynous pseudonyms, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The sisters paid the publishers’ bills, and sold a mere two copies. So if you’re ever feeling down about your own chapbook, take heart. The copy in the Parsonage collection room was gifted by the sisters to a favourite author, and includes a rather apologetic letter in which they detail its failure to fly off the shelves.

IMG_1727The house itself is unexpectedly small. I think that’s a function of decades of Brontë film adaptations set in sprawling Gothic estates, but when you take into account the width of women’s skirts during the 1840s, it’s easy to imagine the family having to shuffle about under each other’s feet, and the emotional closeness such proximity would generate.

Charlotte described Emily as “a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove”, and her presence in the house was less palpable than her sisters’. Emily’s written work demonstrates a self-made inner world fiercely independent from Victorian sentiment and acceptable femininity. Legendary scenes from her life, like her calmly cauterising a dog bite with a hot iron, make her seem remote, but stepping into the windowless kitchen, you get a sense of her there, kneading bread, quietly plotting her next adventure in Gondal.

IMG_1722

When Charlotte was 20, she wrote to Robert Southey, Poet Laureate, for career advice. She received one of the blandest misogynist responses on record: ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life; and it ought not to be […] Farewell Madam!’

Today, on her 198th birthday, when people from all over the world queue to see her writing desk, Charlotte’s reply reads beautifully deadpan:

‘In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts.’

Share Button

The Doom of The Gods – bloodlust & cake

It sates itself on the life-blood
Of fated men,
Paints red the powers’ homes
With crimson gore.
Black become the sun’s beams
In the summers that follow,
Weathers all treacherous.
Do you still seek to know? And what?
– Völuspá

February the 22nd 2014: Ragnarok – the Viking apocalypse.

The Doom of the Gods is coming. I love a good apocalypse, and this one has magnificent shieldmaidens and mandatory mead. So, with the proviso that the Vikings are about a thousand years past my historical comfort zone, I thought I’d try my hand at a couple of Old Norse recipes to celebrate the final destiny of the Gods “before the world goes headlong”.

Odin and Fenriswolf, Freyr and Surt by Emil Doepler (1905)

Odin and Fenriswolf, Freyr and Surt by Emil Doepler (1905)

The Vikings liked their sweets, and most of their ‘dessert’ recipes are recognisable today: there’s a yoghurty substance called färskost, fruit pancakes (did they flip them, I wonder?), and a custardy sauce charmingly called ‘creme bastarde’. I made the honey nut cake for after honey-roasted chicken with soda bread, both of which are in the linked PDF (with sources on the final page). All that protein and carbohydrate – perfect before heading West and ransacking a Northumbrian village.

(I’ve done my best to convert American ‘cups’ into metric here. That was the hardest part, and it’s probably still wrong.)

Odin_hrafnar

Ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin’s shoulders. Illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript.

Honey Nut Cake
100g hazelnuts
100g walnuts
140g dried apple
350ml of honey
2-4 eggs, depending on how massive your baking tray is.

Preheat the oven to 175 C. Finely chop the hazelnuts and apple. Mix the nuts, apple and honey in a bowl. Whisk in the eggs. Spread the mixture on a greased baking tray, preferably one with deep sides as the mixture gets a bit lively. Bake on the middle shelf of your authentic Viking fan-assisted oven for approximately 15 minutes. Leave it to cool on the tray. It should smell like a fruity sponge pudding and look like those bags of hot honeyed nuts you find in the Mediterranean.

Honey Cream
300ml whipping cream
Handful of lingonberries (I used dried cranberries – there were no cranberries in 10th century Denmark, but lingonberries go for around £45 a kilo in the UK, and I haven’t recently robbed a monastery.)
150ml of honey (At this stage, I felt as if I’d used up the planet’s supply of honey. It could either be my maths, or just that the Vikings were just wild about sweets).

Mix the cream and honey in a pan. Simmer the mixture while whisking until it thickens. Spread the honey cream over the finished cake. It doesn’t say what to do with the berries, so I sprinkled them on top. Rejoice.

mead

Mead. Bread. Cake. Metal.

Don’t forget your mead. If there’s anything historical romance novels have taught me it’s that if you’re about to enter into an arranged marriage with a duke you personally despise, a gallon of mead is just what the apothecary ordered, shortly before flinging yourself off a tower. You can make your own, but buying a bottle frees up more of your time for pondering the smell of burning sheepskin and the martyrdom of Saint Cuthbert.

Shieldmaiden Lagertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)

Shieldmaiden Lagertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)

Shieldmaiden Lagertha: “A skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.” – Saxo

I’ll bet Lagertha’s honey cake was a riot.

Skål!

Share Button

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter

princesslou

With her latest book, Lucinda Hawksley delves where the monarchy would rather she didn’t.

The life of Princess Louise is one clouded by rumours and misdirection. Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter was said to be simultaneously difficult and charming, dense and witty, beautiful and naughty. With her files still closed to researchers and the public alike, getting a good look at this headstrong woman is a challenging task, fraught with dead ends and muffled hints of scandal. Hawksley’s new biography is the closest we’ve yet come to the true face of ‘Loosy’.

“Luckily the habit of moulding children to the same pattern has gone out of fashion. It was deplorable. I know, because I suffered from it. Nowadays individuality and one’s own capabilities are recognised.” – Princess Louise in a newspaper interview from 1918.

Louise as a child, by Queen Victoria after Franz Xavier Winterhalter.

Louise as a child, by Queen Victoria after Franz Xavier Winterhalter.

Individuality and independence were luxuries Louise refused to take for granted, likely because Queen Victoria’s treatment of her children was toe-curlingly cruel. The Queen frequently communicated through notes delivered by servants (even when the child at fault was sitting beside her) and laced every affectionate statement with a critical undercurrent. Even when they flew the nest, Victoria would do her best to interfere in her children’s lives to a stifling degree. The psychological effects make for heart-rending reading. When Louise’s father, Prince Albert, died, the thirteen-year-old cried out, “Oh, why did not God take me? I am so stupid and useless.”

It is not surprising that Louise strove to be the polar opposite of her overbearing mother. While the Queen deplored the concept of equal rights for women, Louise admired the drive and ambition of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. The Queen adored Scotland – Louise craved sunshine. The Queen was a stickler for propriety, but Louise, who took on many of Victoria’s official duties during her long mourning for Albert, would openly remark her mother simply couldn’t be bothered any more. The Princess’ charismatic disregard for protocol made her charming, yet her mother seemed set on the idea that Louise was had learning disabilities, or was, as she put it, “naughty and backwards”. Most likely, the artistic young woman was bored.

Louise, with Pre-Raphaelite accessories.

Louise, with Pre-Raphaelite accessories.

This frustration found release in the hard physical work of sculpture. Although William Michael Rossetti took a public swipe at her, tartly (but also quite rightly) stating that an artist who happens to be a royal cannot be judged on merit alone, Louise was genuinely a talented and thoughtful sculptor. She befriended a number of the Pre-Raphaelites (though Dante Gabriel Rossetti was out when she called) and adopted their sense of style, moving in Aesthete circles among radical thinkers, to the horror of her class-conscious mother.

The biography sensitively charts the ups and downs of Louise’s unconventional marriage to the homosexual Marquess of Lorne, a man she came to detest, and later to platonically respect. Rumour had it, the Princess knew Lorne picked up soldiers in the park near their apartments. She consequently had the windows facing them bricked up. More shockingly, Louise herself had a number of affairs. This, Hawksley surmises, is why her files are so forcefully concealed to this day. Although her brother Bertie was a famous philanderer, and even Queen Victoria enjoyed a healthy sex life, there are indications that before meeting Lorne, Louise had done the unforgivable and been an unwed teenage mother – via her brother’s tutor. How Louise concealed this alleged pregnancy – and what may have happened to the child – provides a fascinating insight into the Victorian double standards of gender and sexuality, and also Louise’s indomitable spirit.

Louise's statue of her mother at Kensington.

Louise’s statue of her mother at Kensington.

The scandals don’t stop there. Louise was at ease in the company of men, and therefore attracted a great many admirers, including the artist Sir Edgar Boehm. Despite efforts to wipe the affair from the record, it would seem Boehm died during sex with Louise, leading to comical rumours that the body had been rolled up in a carpet and bundled into a cab to avoid a scandal. That Louise continued to be a vivacious, fun-loving woman after this and other such traumatising events is testament to the inner strength forged by years of her mother’s bullying.

But the book is much more than a catalogue of naughtiness. Far some being yet another fawning royal biography, Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise is unflinching about the human flaws of her subjects. Hawksley conjures the nineteenth century in an accessible way, showing the royal family as being an active part of the great Victorian machine rather than simply perching in its upper echelons. She regularly brings up the contemporary republican viewpoint, which may surprise and interest readers. The same arguments are debated today.

Hawksley also brings up a very important point: Queen Victoria’s diaries as we know them now are the product of heavy editing by ‘the arch-inquisitor’ Princess Beatrice. We will never know her stronger comments on Louise’s liberal lifestyle or the lengths she went to to conceal her daughter’s teenage misdemeanours. In the mid-twentieth century, Princess Margaret made an attempt to research the Princess Louise – even she was barred from the most sensitive records. What we do have is the testament of the companions, servants and chance encounters Louise had during her long life; people who found Louise to be an engaging, headstrong, charming, and exceedingly modern artist and princess.

Lucinda Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter is out on the 21st of November 2013.

Share Button

Wend It Like William – The Morris Pilgrimage with Curiocity

MorrisBJChaucer2Whilst fully admitting it feels as if I left both my legs somewhere in Greenwich, this weekend’s Curiocity Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage was a great (and exhausting, oh good God, exhausting) way to spend a Saturday.

Beginning at Southwark at The George Inn, an original coaching inn close to the site where Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims would have set off, we embarked on a thirteen mile trek to William Morris’ Red House in Bexleyheath, an ‘escape from the city’ taking in the green spaces and lesser-travelled highways of the London Morris would have known.

Coffee in hand, we were packed off with a retelling of The Wife of Bath and the encouragement to tell stories and mingle along the way.

 

In th’ olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
This was the olde opinion, as I rede;
I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo

The Pilgrim’s Passport

We wended our way across the city, thanks to chips and cider, a lot of laughter, and some wonderful sights on the way: the grave of Christopher Marlowe in Deptford (topped with a fresh-cut red rose), storytelling in the Queen’s Orchard following a sudden rainstorm, and seeing the brown guts of the Thames bared at low tide, where the mudlarks and toshers would once have rooted for valuables – the modernity Morris sought to flee, and the history that made up the landscape of his imagination.

(This got me thinking. An equivalent Rossetti pilgrimage might involve a nocturnal wander through Chelsea, the ransacking of a Whitechapel antique shop, and a good cry on the floor. Another Saturday, perhaps.)

Back at Red House in time for folk music and a further dose of cider, we had our polaroids taken by the front door as proof of survival. Yes, we all brought wombats. We are serious scholars.

prbpolaroid2 At the same time, across London, 300 people were arrested at an EDL rally. We were reminded that for every person generating cruelty and ugliness there is more than one devoted to beauty and equality.

“All we true people must make up our minds – if we don’t see – to feel each other – & never let go. Else the wicked ones will have it all their way.” – John Ruskin

Seeing those newly-uncovered murals for the first time was as exciting as we knew it would be. There’s what could well be Morris’ first repeating floral pattern, as well as two wombats (verified by John Simon, author of Rossetti’s Wombat and world authority on that most noble of marsupials) snuggled up at a wedding feast. To think, someone covered it all in white emulsion on purpose.

“I am too blind and sick to know what I am about,” wrote Lizzie Siddal, working on something within the house. Seeing these collaborative works in the flesh, you really feel what a joint effort the place was, and though, as our guide said, the wildly clashing patterns give the impression that the artists were cheerfully tonguing LSD, the excitement and the love of the time shines through.

“You realise they were all in their early twenties when they did this?” grinned the lovely lady who served us tea. “Sickening, isn’t it?”

morrisbadge

Si je puis – ‘If I can’, or, paraphrased by Rossetti ‘as I can’t’.

Many thanks to Red House and the people at Curiocity for creating such a challenging and enjoyable day out.

Share Button

Sound the Important Artistic Discovery Klaxon

Excuse me while I let the Red House press release do the talking. I’m busy gnawing the furniture with excitement.

Remarkable wall painting by Pre-Raphaelite artists is uncovered at home of William Morris

For years, two figures painted on a wall and concealed behind a cupboard at the former home of William Morris were believed to have been the work of a single artist.

Now, major conservation work has uncovered an entire wall painting which experts believe is by William Morris and friends, all of whom were important Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Red House in Kent, owned by the National Trust, was the home of Morris between 1860 and 1865. Regular visitors were Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.

At different times, the friends helped Morris to decorate walls, ceilings and items of furniture at the house with colourful wall paintings and decorative patterns inspired by their love of the medieval past.

After Morris left Red House, until the Trust acquired it in 2003, it remained in private ownership. As tastes changed, much of his original decoration was covered over with panelling, wallpaperor paint.

The bedroom wall painting had been hidden for years behind a fitted wardrobe and covered with wallpaper and until this year only two indistinct figures were visible.

Following generous funding, the Trust has been able to undertake conservation which has uncovered the complete painting, measuring six feet by eight feet. The painting, designed for what had been Morris and his wife Jane’s bedroom, depicts Biblical characters: the figures of Adam and Eve (with the serpent), Noah (holding a miniature ark), Rachel and Jacob (with a ladder) and is designed to resemble a hanging tapestry with the illusion of folds.

beforeafterconservation

Before restoration and (nearly) after. Magic.

It is not known for certain which artist painted which figure, and further research and analysis will be undertaken.

Jan Marsh, author and President of the William Morris Society said: “The concept of the overall design was almost certainly by Morris. Our initial thoughts are that the figure of Jacob was by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal, Noah by Madox Brown. But who painted Adam and Eve? Maybe Rossetti or Burne-Jones?”

wombatmural

There’s even a wombat snuggled up under a chair.

James Breslin, House Manager at Red House said:

“The early years at Red House were a flowering of ideas and creativity for Morris, who encouraged his friends to help him design a home uniquely medieval in feel. To uncover such a remarkable example of this early decoration has been so exciting.

“As we uncover more and more of those original schemes, we have been delighted that our visitors today have been able to share in these discoveries, and see the conservation in action, every step of the way.”

If the thought of incredible collaborative artworks hiding behind wallpaper makes you foam at the mouth, there’s still time to reserve your place at the Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage on the 7th of September – a thirteen-mile Chaucerian trek from The George Inn on London’s Borough High Street to Red House. You don’t even have to walk it, and there will be beer. I, for one, might need it.

Share Button