“English women are not to be trusted with arsenic.”

1840s Essex was a tough place to call home. If the damp cottages or the Potato Blight didn’t kill you, your wife might take the hump and lace your porridge with deadly poison.

This is the grisly focus of the new true crime book by Helen Barrell, Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex.

Three ordinary Victorian women – Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate – all stood trial, accused of poisoning with arsenic. The press quickly seized the stories, suggesting the women were part of a ring of murderesses who taught nice English housewives how to kill. The public were thrilled and repulsed. Was the average woman secretly capable of such a thing? And as this practically undetectable powder was freely available, what was stopping other women from sprinkling arsenic on their husbands’ dinner?

Author Helen Barrell

I’ve talked to Helen about death and domesticity in 1840s Essex…

What drew you to poisonings as the subject of your first book?
I grew up reading Arthur Conan-Doyle and Agatha Christie, so when I tripped over a real-life poisoning case, I was fascinated. I had been transcribing the burial register for Wix in Essex, as part of my genealogical research, and there it was – some poor chap who’d been poisoned by arsenic. As a lot of my family are from that area, there was a chance that I was related to him, and so I started to dig deeper. With the British Newspaper Archive, there’s so many newspapers digitised and easy to access, so I was able to read the inquests and trials. Being a genealogist, I was able to reconstruct the families of the women who were accused of the poisonings, which is a new angle that hasn’t really been explored before.

Arsenic poisoning is a terrible way to die, but that didn’t stop Victorians from using it around the home. Of the many 1840s uses for arsenic – disposing of a bad husband aside – which struck you as the most alarming?
A patient suffering adverse effects of arsenic treatment - Wellcome CollectionIt’s hard to know where to start, when you consider they were rubbing arsenic-infused preparations onto their faces, or wore clothes made with arsenic dye, or had wallpaper coloured with it. It was taken medicinally in Fowler’s Solution – tiny amounts of it gave people a pep, and in fact, it has a positive effect on the blood, hence it’s used today in leukaemia treatments.

But I think what shocked me most was how casual they were about using arsenic in conjunction with food. You could become poisoned by it if you absorbed it through the skin, but the most common way was by it entering your mouth. So if you’re trying to deal with rodents plaguing your badly maintained cottage, putting arsenic on bread and butter to attract the vermin might seem like a good idea. But if you’ve got a house full of people, it’s just possible that someone might accidentally die. Especially as arsenic used in the home was often ‘white arsenic’ and resembled flour.

What alarmed me more, though, was that arsenic-based green dyes (Scheele’s Green) were used in food colouring. And yes, it killed people. In 1853, two children died eating the green ornaments on their Twelfth Night cake, and in Northampton in 1848, one man died and several others fell ill after eating a green blancmange. The shopkeeper who sold the dye for the blancmange was convicted of manslaughter – why? Because it was felt he hadn’t explained the safe dose clearly enough.

“He’s in the burial club” was Victorian slang for ‘he’s not got long to live’. Tell us about these these burial clubs and how they tied in to the 1840s poison panic.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the case of Burke and Hare, the Edinburgh-based resurrection men who, rather than dig updead bodies, killed people to provide Edinburgh Medical School with cadavers. Following that scandalous case, it was decided that Something Must Be Done. As long as it didn’t involve dead middle- and upper-class people being cut about by medical students; after all, the faithful believed that an anatomised body couldn’t rise from the grave on Judgement Day (though somehow bodies reduced to bones and dust could). So Edwin Chadwick, that enemy of the poor, came up with a brilliant plan. How about parishes, which were more or less the local councils of their day, selling their dead paupers to medical schools when they were in need of a body. So if you died, and your body was unclaimed by family and friends because they couldn’t afford to bury you, you could end up the subject of an anatomy lesson – the poor weren’t allowed agency over their own bodies.

35At the same time, you’ve got funerary and mourning rituals becoming increasingly codified – the Victorians loved a good funeral, and it was a point of pride to give your loved ones a good send off. For a few pence a week, you could sign up your loved one to a burial club, so that when the time came for the solemn bell to toll for them, the burial club would pay out – about £10, which in the late 1840s was half a year’s wage for the average East Anglian farm worker. You’d have a respectable funeral and avoid medical students laughing at your embarrassing wart. Sounds like a win-win situation.

Except burial clubs were run by self-organising workers, usually meeting in pubs. So for instance, in Great Oakley in Essex, you had the Maybush Burial Club, which met at the Maybush pub – that pub is still open. Landlords liked to get involved as they could convince the funeral party to have a knees up at their pub. But they weren’t very secure, and they were unregulated, which meant that you could pay into a club for several years, and then when Little Eleazar went the way of all flesh, the club has packed up and can’t payout. So people would enter family members in more than one club at once. But then there was a problem – what happens if the clubs are in fine fettle when Little Eleazar’s cough turns bad, and you get a £10 payout from four different clubs? You’ve suddenly got £40 from your son’s death. Edwin Chadwick decided that some parents were entering children in multiple clubs and then murdering them, just for the burial club money. It’s a version of the life insurance murder, which would reach its most infamous moment at the trial of William Palmer in 1856.

Mary May, who lived in Wix, had entered her half-brother William Constable (also known as Spratty Watts), in a burial club in Harwich. He died a month later. The local vicar, Reverend George Wilkins, was suspicious, especially as Mary kept pestering him to write notes for the burial club, as they wouldn’t pay out. There was an inquest and it was discovered that Constable had died of arsenic poisoning. But had Mary May really murdered her own brother for £10?

In the 1840s, how could an investigator attempt to detect arsenic in a suspected poisoning case? How accurate were these early forensic techniques?
I’ve been doing lots of research into this for my second book – it’s quite interesting. Sometimes the investigator would be able to see arsenic with the naked eye: either in white lumps, or yellow orpiment. This was caused by arsenic oxide (white arsenic) reacting with the sulphur being released in the body after death, creating arsenic trisulphide. In one case, Professor Taylor asked one of the illustrator at Guy’s Hospital, where he worked, to produce a colour drawing of the deceased’s stomach, and use the arsenic trisulphide with gum to show where he had found the poison in the body. Not quite something you’d see in a courtroom now, but I suspect Taylor would’ve embraced colour photography if it had existed in his lifetime.

They would also look for backup evidence – the symptoms of poisoning were important, partly to indicate what they had been poisoned with, but the onset of symptoms would indicate when the poison had been administered, and might point you in the direction of the culprit. It could even lead you to realise it was an accident. But then you had the problem that poisoning symptoms, such as those of arsenic, weren’t unlike the gastric upsets that were common in a world with poor sewerage systems. It just wasn’t possible to open an inquest for everyone who died of violent vomiting and diarrhoea, as it would upset the county ratepayers who footed the bill for Professor Taylor.

In the early 19th century, they had to rely on a battery of tests. In some forms, arsenic would smell of garlic when it was heated, but this was clearly unreliable as it relied on the chemist’s sense of smell. There was the reduction test, which was a bit more reliable, but you needed to have a decent about of arsenic present for it to work. You heated arsenic oxide (white arsenic) in a tube, which released the oxygen and turned it into a metal. If you were testing a liquid, you used hydrogen sulphide to make arsenic trisulphide. The remaining oxygen reacted with the hydrogen and created water, then you could perform the reduction text on the arsenic trisulphide. There were reagent tests as well, which relied on the known reactions of arsenic with other chemicals, but they were unreliable when there was, how shall I put it, organic matter present, which would affect the colour changes.

So in 1836, James Marsh came up with a test involving hydrogen and zinc, which forced arsenic out of liquids. You’d hold a piece of cold glass over the end of the tube and as the highly poisonous ‘arsenuretted hydrogen’ (or arsine gas to you and I) came out, the arsenic would deposit itself on the glass in a convenient metallic film. You could then use the reduction and reagent tests on the metallic film; the test would also dislodge other poisons such as antimony and mercury, so you had to rule those out.

In the early 1840s, Hugo Reinsch’s test took over from Marsh’s. It used simpler equipment – you added hydrochloric acid to your suspicious liquid, and dipped in some copper. Any arsenic present would appear on it, again, as a metallic film, and the other confirmatory tests could be performed.

The Marsh and Reinsch tests were far more sensitive than the previous methods available, but this could lead to embarrassing mistakes, such as eminent French chemist Orfila claiming that arsenic was a natural constituent of human bone. When he used the Marsh test on bone, a metallic film resulted, but far too small for him to carry out any confirmatory tests. It’s possible that the arsenic found in the alleged victim of Madame Lafarge, which Orfila used the Marsh test to investigate, actually came from the pots his corpse was boiled up in, or the acids that were used as part of the process.

If you’re dealing with someone who’s been killed with a large dose of arsenic, the Marsh and Reinsch tests are probably quite reliable – as long as the chemist has checked their apparatus, their zinc, and copper, and acids for any contamination. But it’s when the amounts are small that there’s a problem and it seems less reliable. When Sarah Chesham’s husband died, Taylor found a tiny amount of arsenic inside him – in 1859, he wrote that it was the smallest amount he’d ever identified. But he was clear with the prosecutors – it was too small an amount for Sarah to be charged with murder. Bearing in mind the problem he ran into later in 1859 with the Smethurst trial, I have to wonder if the arsenic Taylor found in Richard Chesham’s insides was from Taylor’s laboratory apparatus, rather than a dose administered with murder in mind.

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How did the press handle the idea of women murdering their husbands? Do you think Southgate, May and Chesham’s cases would be approached differently by today’s tabloids?
The first thing that struck me about the way they reported the cases was how they described the accused. These days, people in news stories are described as ‘mother of two’ or ‘a grandmother’ – and the same goes for how they describe men, even if the news story that follows has no bearing on whether or not they’ve managed to reproduce! Anyway, in the 1840s, the newspapers would define you by your social status. So the women in Poison Panic, the women were described as ‘wife of an agricultural labourer’ or ‘wife of a farmer.’

And then there’s the women’s appearances. When women were found not guilty, the newspaper describes them as beauties, and women sent to hang are described in highly unflattering terms. At the execution of one of the women in Poison Panic, the papers commented on the fact that her stoutness meant her hanging was swift; it seems such an unseemly thing to comment on, but it’s an extra indignity piled onto an already wretched end. Newspapers still make a big fuss about women’s appearances, more so than men’s.

Victorians adored a good murder. How did these sensational crimes filter down into the popular culture of the day?
Public executions drew big, rowdy crowds, so if you wanted to make some money, just print up some doggerel verse with the name of the condemned shoved in any old how. It doesn’t even have to rhyme that well, and it certainly doesn’t need to scan. It wasn’t unusual for people to use execution ballads as their newspapers, as some were sold house-to-house, or in the streets, which is problematic as the ballad-sellers didn’t make much attempt at factual accuracy.

If there was a particularly sensational trial – such as that of Thomas Drory, the Essex farmer who strangled his heavily pregnant lover – the ballad-sellers really went to town. You could buy an illustration of Drory murdering Jael Denny; you know he’s bad because they gave him a melodrama villain’s mustachios. What a lovely souvenir.

Executions had previously taken place only a couple of days after sentence was passed, so there wasn’t much time for them to prepare their ballads. As one ballad-seller explained to Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, “There wasn’t no time for a Lamentation; sentence o’ Friday, and scragging o’ Monday.” But by the 1840s, there would be several weeks before the hanging, so they could print multiple confessions, lamentations, and ‘true histories’ (which were anything but), ensuring that it wasn’t just William Calcraft who earned a pretty penny from a hanging. Sorry, ‘scragging.’

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You’ve invested in a pretty fantastic Victorian outfit. Can we hope to see you out and about in it?
I’ve always loved dressing up in historical costume, probably because I was taken to Kentwell Hall at an impressionable age! So when the chance came up to have my own made-to-measure 1840s dress, it had to be done.

I’ve been a fan of the Brontës for a long time, and at one point was considering a postgrad research project on them. I’d been researching the 1840s, which is another reason why finding that burial record from 1848 was somewhat fortuitous! And seeing as it’s the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth – which, I feel I must say, has been overshadowed by the anniversary of that playwright bloke’s death – getting my bonnet on seemed only right.

I shall indeed be scuttling about in it; quite frankly, whenever the opportunity arises.

h60And finally, tell us about your work in progress, Fatal Evidence.
The name “Alfred Swaine Taylor” runs through Poison Panic like “Clacton” through a stick a rock. He’s the expert witness in nearly all the cases in my book, and although he’s mainly remembered as a toxicologist, he was involved in the Drory case because he identified bloodstains on clothing, and could comment on strangulation. He gets called ‘the father of English forensic science’ quite often, as well he might, but no one had written a book-length biography of him. So Fatal Evidence is a balance between Taylor the public man, in his laboratory and in the witness box, and Taylor the private man, in his home in Regent’s Park, borrowing his wife’s lace to experiment with photography. It’s fascinating – all the different cases he worked on, and all the ridiculous things scientists did then. Taylor only became Professor of Chemistry at Guy’s Hospital because his predecessor accidentally blew himself up when experimenting with compressed gas, and Taylor’s Scottish counterpart, Robert Christison, found out that arsenic didn’t really have a flavour by putting it on his own tongue! That will be published next year – I’ve already started looking for a cravat.

Poison Panic is published by Pen & Sword at the end of June, and available for pre-order now.

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Tales From The Crypt

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Two days until Halloween! Which means there’s still time to acquire some 100% natural dark circles around your eyes. Maybe she’s born with it; maybe she’s too scared to sleep. I’ve been meaning to do a book recommendation post for a while, so here are some scary stories to give your cheeks that desirable rosy glow. White roses. Dead ones.

Dolly

Susan Hill is one of our finest living ghost story writers, and Dolly is the tale of what happens when children go bad. Brief enough to be read in one sitting, Dolly takes the old spooky doll trope and shakes it by the shoulders.

Hawksmoor

I love Peter Ackroyd. I love hulking London churches. And I love a nice occult murder conspiracy. Ackroyd has a way of presenting jump-scare moments so coolly, the reader is totally taken by surprise. He’s still one of the few horror-esque authors who can genuinely thrill me.

Dark Matter

Photographs of abandoned Arctic whaling stations are terrifying, let alone having to live in one, alone, when you know the sun isn’t coming up for months. Part paranormal horror, part solitude survival story, Dark Matter is a genuinely refreshing, tense book with a vivid sense of place.

A Good and Happy Child

We were all lonely children, right? And we all wished for a friend. George Davies lived to wish he never had.

The Quick

The Quick is for vampire lovers. ‘Enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of the richest, most powerful men in England’. I want more from The Quick’s universe – it feels a natural springboard for short stories and sequels.

The Haunting of Hill House

“No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”. Shirley Jackson is the master of the haunted house story. It’s a classic. Go and read it.

Have a pleasurably traumatic happy Halloween, friends! And recommend me some books in the comments.

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Wunderkammer: The Master & Margarita. Manuscripts don’t burn.

A few years ago, I was absorbed in a book at a bus stop when a man materialised in front of me. Grinning, the stranger leant in so close that our noses almost touched.

“Good book?”

It’s fortunate he took me by surprise, because I could well have spoiled his pickup artistry with, “Sure is! It’s about Satan.”


“Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar’s vile tongue be cut out! Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!”

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is one of those books I thrust at people like a zealot. “No, really. You need this. You. Need. This.” The Devil’s minions – a joker with a pince-nez, a thug, and a wise-cracking, vodka-swilling cat – wreak havoc across 1930s Moscow. If that doesn’t excite you, you’re beyond help.

Now considered a twentieth-century classic, The Master and Margarita was nearly lost to history. A jab at Russian state-sanctioned atheism and the stranglehold of Soviet bureaucracy, the novel is laugh-out-loud-in-public-like-a-lunatic funny, yet heartfelt and romantic, a channel for Bulgakov’s frustration and depression. Juxtaposing his contemporary Russia with Biblical Jerusalem, the story demonstrates Bulgakov’s keen intellect and interest in ethics and questions of personal freedom – all of which could get a writer killed in Stalin’s Russia.

By Chris Conn Askew

By Chris Conn Askew

Shortly after kicking a morphine habit in 1919, Mikhail Bulgakov gave up his life as a country doctor to write full-time (just as well, considering he managed to rip out a sizeable chunk of a man’s jaw during a tooth extraction). He enjoyed early success with his plays and short stories before finding his niche, blending merciless political satire with the fantastical. Then, in the 1920s, censorship caught up with him. Stalin personally banned Bulgakov’s play The Run, and the rest of his work, if not banned outright, received brutal criticism for making fun of the Soviet regime.

Surreally, Stalin was a fan of Bulgakov. Allegedly, he saw The White Guard performed 15 times and went so far as to step in and protect him from his harsher critics, claiming dangerous political jargon like ‘counter-revolutionary’ was beneath a writer of such calibre. Bulgakov must have felt in league with the Devil.

"Well, as everyone knows, once witchcraft gets started, there's no stopping it."

“Well, as everyone knows, once witchcraft gets started, there’s no stopping it.”

The censorship took its toll on Bulgakov’s mental health. As a medical man, he knew he was likely to die young of hereditary kidney disease, and his life’s work was being ‘killed’, as he put it, within his lifetime. In a staggering moment of chutzpah, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin – mad Stalin, Stalin of the Gulags and the purges – demanding to be taken off the blacklist or allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Stalin let him resume his day-job the Art Theatre. But Bulgakov was a watched man, increasingly bitter and depressed. The manuscript he had been working on since the 1920s – the one that would eventually become The Master and Margarita – worried his family and friends. It was an impassioned treatise on artistic and spiritual freedom, and the satire was razor-sharp. Everyone privileged enough to be shown a glimpse loved it, and everyone knew it would never see the light of day.

In a fit of despondency, Bulgakov burned his only draft and was forced to rewrite from memory. This drastic act is one of the autobiographical details that make the story so compelling – in the rewritten novel, The Master burns his magnus opus only to have it returned to him by the Devil. “Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?”

Bulgakov never saw his masterpiece published. After his death at 49, his wife Elena strove to find a publisher who’d agree to work with such dangerous material. In the end, she could only persuade a small periodical to release the novel in serial form, twenty-six years after the author’s death.

“‘What’s its future?’ you ask?” Bulgakov wrote. “I don’t know. Possibly, you will store the manuscript in one of the drawers, next to my ‘killed’ plays, and occasionally it will be in your thoughts. Then again, you don’t know the future. My own judgement of the book is already made and I think it truly deserves being hidden away in the darkness of some chest…”

Bulgakov

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Christmas: A Survival Guide For The Spooky

Every year, around September, the nightmares start. I’ve lost the ability to cook, or forgotten to buy presents, or – and I had this one last night – a completely imaginary cousin is having a breakdown over the sprouts because he can’t afford to move out of his parents’ house and what are you going to do about it, Verity?!

Wading through the syrupy supermarket ads, the money-grabbing pop songs, and all that infernal fruitcake, we’ve forgotten that midwinter was once a time for ghost stories, when our ancestors met around the fire to celebrate another year of narrowly avoiding the bloody flux. All that phoney Christmas cheer can be hard when you’re spooky by nature, so I’ve put together a list of things that might just get you through…

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

Misty winter evenings, strong drink, and Victorian medical students with too much time on their hands. It’s a pocket-size ghostly novella that can be read in one sitting, and the punchline is Susan Hill at her effortlessly chilling best.

M.R. James’ ghost stories by Nunkie Theatre

nunkieI’ve seen Robert Lloyd Parry read James’ tales of the uncanny twice, in the flesh – in a candlelit medieval leper chapel, no less. Parry’s softly-spoken delivery casts you back into an antiquarian age of fusty academics and sherry sipped alone by the fire. He is the next best thing to re-animating the author. You can buy DVDs and audio here.

Krampus

krampussticksIf you’ve ever worked Christmas in retail, you’ll understand the appeal of a giant Germanic goat-man dragging naughty children away in chains. Krampus has enjoyed something of a Renaissance in recent years, so it’s no longer hard to source hilariously macabre cards, ornaments, and festive jumpers bearing his grinning hairy visage. My own tree features a glass Krampus nestling amongst bat tinsel.

Christopher Lee’s heavy metal Christmas singles

Thrashing as we go
In a hearse that knows the way
To hell we go!
Crying all the way.

“It’s light-hearted, joyful and fun,” he says. Thank God for Christopher Lee. His own Christmas tradition involves wearing Vincent Price’s special festive hat.

The Haunted Looking Glass

Selected and illustrated by Edward Gorey, this is one of my favourite collections of ghost stories. Highlights include Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’, and Stoker’s ‘The Judge’s House’. Small enough to produce from your handbag during those hellish Post Office queues.

Jill Tracy – Silver Smoke, Star of Night

Because nothing fosters that festive glow in the heart like the minor chords of murky cabaret. Jill Tracy’s voice is silk and cyanide. Her Christmas album features gloomy renditions of traditional carols as well as ‘Room 19’: “Tracy’s tale about the forlorn spirit who haunts a desolate hotel room where he committed suicide Christmas Eve 1947”.

Charles Dickens’ hot gin punch

ginpunchI sampled one or two of these at the recent London Month of The Dead, courtesy of Hendrick’s Gin and inspired by Mister Micawber…

I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning spirit, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of a punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Gin lovers disagree on the finer points, but go ahead and experiment with the basic elements: gin, Madeira, lemon juice, sugar, spices, and boiling water. For a more authentic Victorian taste, perhaps swap dry gin for the harder flavour of Dutch genever. Punch doesn’t have to be cosy; simply don a black veil and sit in a corner, a la Lady Dedlock, and brood over the intoxicating vapours.

There. Doesn’t that feel better? Merry bleedin’ Christmas. And roll on next Halloween.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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Tributes of an old friend

It’s no secret that Fred Stephens has a special place in the hearts of Pre-Raphaelite acolytes. ‘Swoony Fred’ to the initiated, because, well…

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Yes.

Frederick George Stephens was one of two non-artistic members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Stephens tried his hand at painting and poetry, but, dissatisfied with his efforts, reportedly destroyed most of his paintings (a handful now hang in the Tate) and turned away from poetry:

Most sadly falls this life on me,
With noble purpose unwrought out:
The steeled soul rusteth thro’ the day;—
My life it flitteth fast away.

Poor Fred. He stuck instead to criticism, writing for the Athenaeum for forty years until his conservative views on British art and dislike of Impressionism caused friction. Despite the growing paranoia and grumpiness of his Pre-Raphaelite associates in their old age, he remained a steadfast friend and one of the most ‘sensible’ figures in the bunch.

I’ve got my hands on an original copy of Stephens’ ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, gifted at Christmas 1897 to a Miss Foster from Emma V. Roberts, who clearly knew how to spoil her friends.

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Stephens was aware of the race to the publishing houses in the wake of Rossetti’s death. The outpouring of grief and praise (for a fee) from those who barely knew the man bothered him, as did the bickering of his former Brothers. While some placed Rossetti at the helm of the PR movement, other recalled him floating along in his own bizarre bubble, and others still – particularly an increasingly batty Holman Hunt – were unhappy with the cultish following Rossetti had accumulated (“Rossetti was the planet round which we revolved,” gushed Valentine Prinsep), and took pains to defend their own place in the movement’s history.

In 1894, Stephens published his own biography of his old friend. It’s a short, affectionate book with vivid, amusing descriptions of the early scenes of Rossetti’s life, including the “respectable, but dull” Charlotte Street with its “opposing lines of brick walls, with rectangular holes in them, which Londoners call houses”.

It also contains my favourite description of the student Rossetti in full-on self-conscious Romantic mode, by an anonymous ‘fellow student’ (possibly Fred himself) who had evidently been staring a bit too intently:

“Thick, beautiful, and closely curled masses of rich brown much-neglected hair, fell about an ample brow, and almost to the wearer’s shoulders; strong eyebrows marked with their dark shadows a pair of rather sunken eyes, in which a sort of fire, instinct of what may be called proud cynicism, burned with a furtive kind of energy, and was distinctly, if somewhat luridly, glowing. His rather high cheek-bones were the more observable because his cheeks were roseless and hollow enough to indicate the waste of life and midnight oil to which the youth was addicted; close shaving left bare his very full, not to say sensuous, lips and square-cut masculine chin. Rather below the middle height, and with a slightly rolling gait, Rossetti came forward among his fellows with a jerky step, tossed the falling hair back from his face, and, having both hands in his pockets, faced the student world with an insouciant air which savoured of defiance, mental pride and thorough self-reliance.”

I love that. Have you ever described one of your friends so minutely?

The book itself is rather fragile, one-hundred-and-twenty years on. The tissue paper over the illustrative plates feels like dried petals. Luckily, you can read the text in full at the Rossetti Archive.

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Wunderkammer: The Street of Crocodiles

It’s hard to separate the writing and art of Bruno Schulz from the tragedies of his life and death. Schulz’ peculiar inner world was shaped by the traumas of WW1, the death of his father, and an almost pathological solitude that cut him off even from his fellow Jews in the ghetto. In the wake of his death at the hands of a Nazi officer in 1942, many of his drawings and his final literary work, The Messiah, were lost forever. Under cover of darkness, a friend carried his body from where it lay in the street to a nearby Jewish cemetery. No trace of his grave site remains.

brunoshultzI first became aware of Schulz through the Brothers Quay 1986 film of his short story collection, The Street of Crocodiles. Terry Gilliam called it one of the most beautiful films ever made, and he’s not wrong. The stuttering dolls and the clash of rusty machinery alongside throbbing organic matter stay with you long after the twenty minute film is over.

I only read the book recently, needing something brief after a massive Donna Tartt blowout. The Street of Crocodiles bears little literal resemblance to the film, but thrums with the same unsettling energy. Beginning in a stiflingly hot day in the Polish city of Drogobych where Schulz lived and died, the reader is introduced to the strange inhabitants of the city, wheeling about like beetles on the baking pavement. Then come the even more disconcerting denizens of the family home. A shy, thin young man, Schulz inserts himself as an unobtrusive narrator, watching the strange comings and goings of his family with little concern for the creeping madness of his father and the violence of the strangely powerful servant Adela.

Schulz is most commonly lumped in with Kafka and Proust. Having only read Crocodiles so far, he reminds me most of magical realists like Angela Carter and Mikhail Bulgakov; more introverted, like a quiet cousin of theirs, but just as poetic and hilarious.

With Schulz, everyday sights are loaded with meaningful life. The landscape he traipses each day with his mother becomes a character in itself, as much as any family member: “And over the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth.” His disturbed father shares this odd sensitivity, adopting tailors’ dummies and treating them as beings capable of pain: “Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, will to eat into it like fate, like destiny?”

Bruno_SchulzHe is sensitive without being sentimental, as if conscious that the rules of his world are not the same as his neighbours:

“In a way, these ‘stories’ are true; they represent my style of living, my particular lot. The dominant feature of that lot is profound solitude, a withdrawal from the cares of daily life. Solitude is the catalyst that brings reality to fermentation, to the precipitating out of figures and colours.”

Reality goes in. Imagination – distilled – comes out.

Schulz’ drawings remind me of those of his contemporary Mervyn Peake – probably the reason I warmed to him so quickly. Schulz’ hollow-cheeked Jews wouldn’t be out of place in The Hall of Bright Carvings; Peake’s Mister Flay would be quite at home in The Book of Idolatry. Sideways black comedy came naturally to them both, although it’s impossible to look at them side-by-side without the sad realisation that Peake documented the atrocities of the Holocaust as an official war artist while Schulz – and so much of his surreal, beautiful work – did not survive it.

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Leaping into the new year

A belated happy new year to you all. 2013 brought new friends, new skills, and new publications, but I’d be fibbing if I said I wasn’t ready to leap into 2014.

I’ve made headway on a new, inevitably Victorian novel. This was aided in part by my summer experience at the Isle of Wight steam railway, getting to grips with the challenges of hopping on and off steam engines in a crinoline during the hottest weekend of the year. There’s nothing like primary research.

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Getting intimate with a new narrator is part joy, part daunting challenge. Emma Darwin’s post, 19 Questions To Ask (and ask again) On Voice, has been a helpful point of focus as I reign in the material of the woolly winter months.

“Yes, Voice, overall, is one of the archetypal writerly things that you can’t, completely, make happen by sheer force of will. But as I was discussing here, it’s a mistake to assume that the only good decisions are those which come from that mysterious place we call instinct and intuition. A bit of clear thinking and precise focus can make things clear for your intuition to recognise. And besides, there are always times in your writing life – the depressed moments, the hungover and lack-of-sleep moments – when intuition fails you. But even then, you can always ask practical, technical questions about language and grammar, and – as I was exploring here – so often when you do get practical and technical, you’re led back to the strange, instinctive stuff of our imagined worlds.”

I spent the Christmas break reading Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and goggling at her masterful world-building. I’ve never been to Mississippi, but, 500 pages later, I feel I know something of its dreary gorgeousness and savagery. “Oh man, you are starting with the wrong Donna Tartt novel,” says just about everyone I mention it to. If that’s Tartt at her worst, I’m intimidated by the possibility of her best.

Which brings me to my resolution. I don’t usually make resolutions. I find myself struggling to think of a suitably righteous goal and become distracted by bizarre Victorian greetings cards encouraging the recipient to fire a pig out of a cannon for luck.

nyepigBut, because I’m feeling disgustingly optimistic at present, my 2014 resolution is to keep striving, keep learning, and above all, as always, keep writing. Rossetti had a lifelong habit of trying to accomplish ‘something in some branch of work’ every day, whether that meant poetry, painting, translation or illustration, and when he wasn’t working – or when he was depressed and unable to work – he was reading, observing, taking things in. As I said on Literary Rejections, experience accumulates. I want to be more conscious of that this year. The practical, technical stuff as well as the strange and instinctive.

Failing that, during ‘the depressed moments, the hungover and lack-of-sleep moments’, I can fall back on my secondary resolution: wear more hats.

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