Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oscars? Pah! We've been nominated for "The Excessively Diverting Blog Award"

It is with great pleasure that this blog announces that it has been nominated for The Excessively Diverting Blog Award. The nomination came from Helen Webberley, blogmatresse of ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly.

The aim of the Excessively Diverting Blog Award is to acknowledge writing excellence in the spirit of Jane Austen’s genius in amusing and delighting readers with her irony, humor, wit, and talent for keen observation. Recipients will uphold the highest standards in the art of the sparkling banter, witty repartee, and gentle reprove. This award was created by the blogging team of Jane Austen Today to acknowledge superior writing over the Internet and promote Jane Austen’s brilliance.
Helen, in nominating this blog wrote:

Victorian History. Bruce writes one of my favourite blogs because the quality of the writing is top notch. Several times I have used his material as a springboard, then gone on to read more about the topic.
Please forgive us this little "ego" trip, but we are touched and honoured by this recognition from one of our peers and want to share it with our readers.

PS: Boy am I embarrassed! I was so excited I failed to notice that I was supposed to "nominate seven (7) other blogs that you feel meet or exceed the standards set forth." So, over the next few days I will be thinking about that and will add them to the list below - with comments.

  1. The Virtual Dime Museum (http://thevirtualdimemuseum.blogspot.com) is the creation of "Lidian" who clearly loves all of those wonderful bits and pieces that make up the ephemera of history. Lidian also maintains a wonderful blog on - of all things - kitchens. It is Kitchen Retro (http://kitchenretro.blogspot.com) and it probably deserves a nomination in its own right, but I reckon one nomination is all I'm entitled to give and it has to go to the Virtual Dime Museum.

  2. The Victorian Peeper (http://victorianpeeper.blogspot.com) UK Politics said of the site that it "Combines scholarship, a range of subjects, a light touch, and excellent images and links." In addition, it is literate and very well written. Kristan Tetans, who maintains the blog is a fine scholar and a joy to read.

  3. The Diary of Samuel Pepys (http://www.pepysdiary.com). I'm not sure that this is really eligible, but it is a truly remarkable site. Phil Gyford uses Pepys own writing for each of the days as a diary entry. His annotations are first-rate, making Pepys wonderful writing clear to even the layman. Whose writing deserves the award - Pepys or Gyford? Does it really matter; it is a great blog.

Monday, February 16, 2009

By the Seaside, By the Beautiful Sea

Promenades, piers, Punch and Judy, music hall - where else could a Victorian on holiday possibly be but at the seaside. Whether at Brighton, Margate, Bournemouth, Weston-super-Mare or one of a hundred other resorts, one of the most popular forms of holidaying for the emergent middle-class during the latter half of the nineteenth century was a visit to the seaside. Most "white collar," or to use a more Victorian term, "black coat" workers received a week's holiday every year. Frequently this coincided, as in the case of Mr Charles Pooter, the lower middle-class clerk in Diary of a Nobody, with the August Bank Holiday.

With many others, Mr Pooter took his family to Broadstairs, a coastal town on the Isle of Thanet in East Kent about 76 miles east of London. By the middle years of the 1860s, Broadstairs was served by rail with its station located about a ten minute walk from the seaside. Here the Pooters took lodgings in a boarding house near the station where the cost was about half of what they would have paid closer to the sea. Broadstairs Beach at around the turn of the century is pictured on the left.

For many Victorians, the seaside seemed to hold a particularly romantic image. Although writing of American seaside resorts, J. P. Ritter, Jr. captured the "spell" of these holidays in his long poem, Marie, A Seaside Episode, when he wrote, in 1888,

My story opens with our heroine
And mother at a famous seaside place;
Two large hotels-along the beach a line
Of red-tiled cottages-in front a space
Of glistening sand, up which the ocean rolled,
And where bright groups of summer idlers strolled.

The reality, however, was that the quality of such seaside accommodation ranged from excellent to pretty awful. Udny Yule recalled going to the seaside as a youngster. "Keating's Powder [a powerful insecticide] was an invaluable item in the outfit for the summer holidays." He had, he went on, "dreadful recollections of our taking a house at the seaside ... a doctor's house - out of which we fled the next morning, hopelessly routed by its hordes of saltatory inhabitants."

A typical seaside holiday featured walks along the shore, donkey rides, bathing, band concerts, and Punch and Judy shows. For those women wishing to bathe in the sea, there were bathing machines which could be hired. These consisted of a wooden shelter on wheels which was dragged into the sea by a horse or a donkey. Within the enclosure, one could undress and change into one's bathing costume with absolute decorum and, for those not brave enough to actually swim, they offered a secure site from which to splash in the water.

No seaside town could possibly be complete without a pier where one could play games, go on rides and engage in all of those activities traditionally associated with a seaside holiday even today. The reality, however, of such a holiday was often less exciting than the prospect. Mrs Pooter, for example, probably found that the case for when her husband commented, "I don't think we can do better than 'Good old Broadstairs,'" Carrie, much to Charles' "astonishment, raised an objection to Broadstairs for the first time."

Mr Punch, never slow to comment on the social peculiarities of the middle-class summed up the seaside holiday in verse entitled "A Seaside Reverie."

I think as I sit at my ease on the shingle,
And list to the musical voice of the Sea,
How gaily my Landlady always will mingle
From my little caddy her matutine tea.
And vainly the bitter remembrance I banish
Of mutton just eaten, my heart is full sore,
To think after one cut it's certain to vanish,
And never be seen on my board any more.

Some small store of spirit to moisten my throttle
I keep, and indulge in it once in a way;
But bless you, it seems to fly out of the bottle
And swiftly decrease, though untouched all day.
My sugar and sardines, my bread and my butter,
Are eaten, and vainly I fret and I frown;
My Landlady, just like an Aesthete's too utter
A fraud, and I vow that I'll go back to Town

In a more serious vein, in the introduction to the book, Mr. Punch at the Seaside, published in 1910, the editor has noted that

It is ... curious ... how little seaside customs, amusements, troubles and delights, have varied in the last half-century. Landladies are at the end what they were at the beginning; the same old type of bathing-machine is still in use; our forefathers and their womenfolk in the days when Mr. Punch was young behaved themselves by the "the silver sea" just as their children's children do to-day. Nothing has changed, except that the most select of seaside places is no longer so select as it was in the pre-railway days, and that the wealthier classes, preferring the attractions of Continental resorts, are less in evidence at our own watering places.
For many, the annual trip to the seaside was little more than an extension of their home life. The Pooters, for example, were delighted to run into their neighbours and seemed to spend much of their time at the seaside exchanging visits with them. Once again we can turn to Mr. Punch for his view of such meetings.

Wearied by London Dissipation, the Marjoribanks Browns go, for the sake of perfect quiet, to that picturesque little watering-place, Shrimpington-super-Mare, where they trust that they will not meet a single soul they know.

Oddly enough, the Cholmondeley Joneses go to the same spot with the same purpose.

Now, these Joneses and Browns cordially detest each other in London, and are not even on speaking terms; yet such is the depressing effect of "perfect quiet" that, as soon as they meet at Shrimpington-super-Mare, they rush into each other's arms with a wild sense of relief!

The seaside holiday, although not a Victorian invention, was brought to fulfillment by the middle-class throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century. And while much changed - for example the growth of municipal orchestras which took the place of the military band concerts in many of the seaside resorts - much remained the same although a certain more relaxed attitude seems to have emerged as the working class moved into many of the seaside resorts for their holidays.

To download Mr Punch at the Seaside, click here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Coming Out

During the long reign of Queen Victoria the key social event of the year was always "The Season." There were a number of specific social events connected with the season, but the most important event for many was the formal entrance into society of the young women of the upper class; their "Coming Out." Coming out was a very Victorian ritual although it had its origins well before those decades. For the daughters of the aristocracy, this meant presentation at Court. it commonly occurred when a young woman reached the age of eighteen and was, in the words of one etiquette book "the hall-mark demanded of those who aspire to fashionable life."

Not all of those who came out, particularly in the last years of the century, were from the aristocracy. If one had the right contacts it was possible to be presented. The informal embargo on those whose papa's were either manufacturers or significant tradesmen, however, began to break down towards the end of the century. By the 1890s, one popular book on etiquette could pronounce that being presented at Court did not "carry such distinction with it as formerly, as nearly every one with any pretensions to wealth or position contrives to get an entrance to her Majesty's Drawing-room."

For a marriageable young woman, the season was often the most important event of the year, for she knew that she had, at best, only two or three seasons in which to confirm her future through marriage. The first season would be her coming out, but if she was not successful in the marriage race, she knew she still had one, or at most two, more seasons in which to find a mate.

Were one fortunate enough to be presented at Court, preparation began weeks, sometimes months, before. First there was the clothing required for the momentous few minutes in which one was presented to the Monarch. Cynthia Asquith described the process as "a violent sudden change as though at a word of command a butterfly had to break her chrysalis and instantaneously spread her wings."

The metamorphosis called Coming Out was supposed to be effected when you were presented at Court, where the wand was officially waved over your head. The picturesque rites of this social baptism were preceded by weeks of trepidation - weeks busied with long lessons in deportment ... and panic-stricken rehearsals of my curtsey ... then there were endless wearisome hours of trying on.
Imagine what it must have been like for even the most self-assured seventeen or eighteen year old to take part in this drama - or perhaps it was a comedy, at least when recalled in later years. For Cynithia Asquith who came out at seventeen, in 1905, only a few years after the death of Victoria, it was a combination of both for, in her own words, she came out in what

most people thought ... a deplorably unconventional way, for instead of diving with one clean plunge into the social stream, I came out, so to speak, in instalments. Why? Because my mother constitutionally incapable of saying "No", had psromised to present someone else's daughter, a girl who being several years older than myself, could not, in her parents' dreadful phrase, "afford to wait". So I was taken to Court a year sooner than had been planned and then promptly withdrawn from circulation ...
When, in the following season, she returned to the social scene, and "reappeared in London ballrooms," there was comment about the events of the previous season and according to Cynthia herself, the worldly-wise shook their heads and pronounced her coming out a "very badly bungled production."

But as her presentation at Court approached, at least the young woman being presented to the Monarch did not have to worry about what to wear. She already knew, for there were extremely strict regulations about what was acceptable and what was not. In Victoria's later years,

A lady about to be presented at Court must appear, if a spinster with two, and if married with three, feathers disposed on her head so that they are visible from the front, and with two long lappets of tulle or lace (two yards in length) flowing from the back of the hair. She must wear a low bodice and short sleeves, and a train coming either from the waist or the shoulders, not less then three yards in length. The gloves must be white, and never tinted with a colour, except in cases of mourning, when black or lavender are allowed.
For Cynthia, after the dressing and primping, after the interminable hours of being fitted for the dress, the final dreaded hours arrived. Her hair was "tonged" and "three stiff white ostrich feathers ... stuck into ... [her] newly corrugated head." She was laced into her "billowing white crepe-de-chine dress" and an immensely long and unmanageable train" fastened to her shoulders. Finally prepared for the event, the party left Cadogan Square for Buckingham Palace.

The drive to the Palace must have seemed to take forever, but on arrival the debutante was ushered into an anti-room which she entered with her train carefully folded over her left arm. Here she might have quite a long wait before being ushered into the Royal Presence. In the ante-room, where older women might wait for their young charges,

Ghoulish dowagers froze ... young blood by reciting disasters that had befallen debutantes. They did not even spare ... the story of the wretched girl who from extremity of nerves had been sick in her SHOE (what commendable presence of mind to tke it off) on the very footsteps of the throne.
On entering the Presence-Chamber, the debutante let down her train which was immediately spread out by two lords-in-waiting. She would then approach the Monarch, curtseying as low as possible "so as almost to kneel and the Queen kisses her on the forehead if she is a peeress or peer's daughter, or extends her hand to be kissed, if the lady is a commoner."

Lady Cynthia Asquith described her experience on entering the Royal Presence.

Flourish of music; blaze of uniforms; backward-stepping, white-wanded courtiers; dazzle of light. ... Suddenly I seem to be all by myself in that fierce light. A small floodlit, isolated figure, I am advancing towards Their Majesties. ... Heaven knows what my feet do but the voluminous folds of my dress conceal their fumblings. At least I don't topple over, and however loudly my knees may crack, the strains of the orchestra prevail. ... I have passeded into, through, and out of the Royal Presence. ... King Edward and Queen Alexandra have both smiled most graciously, giving me - even if only for one split second after all those long, long hours of pebble-on-the-beach deflation - the lovely illusion that the whole magnificent ceremony has been for - me! ...
After curtseying to the Monarch and any other members of the Royal family who might be present, the debutante "then passes on, keeping her face towards the [King or] Queen, and leaving the room in a succession of curtsies". It was over and now it was time for the enjoyment of innumerable balls, dinners and other social events that made up the season; and time to start thinking about marriage!

To read Lady Cynthia Asquith's description in full, download her book, Remember and be Glad, by clicking here and reading pages 57-84.

To see a guide to the etiquette of "Presentation at Court": download Modern Etiquette by clicking here and reading pages 34-36.