19th century

I have boldly decided that for the purposes of this blog, the 19th century is defined as the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War, i.e. 1814.1914.

This makes sense to me both from a political and cultural perspective for the western world.

Apr 182017


Public domain image from Library of Congress, Flickr

In 1883, John Murray published a “Handbook of the Panjáb, Western Rajpútáná, Kashimír and Upper Sind”. Not only is the potential traveller given useful information such as not to pit his tent in Bagh (let’s just say there was a reason it was named for “tiger”) and the truth about Kashmiris (“false, ready with a lie and given to deceit”), but he is also equipped with a short vocabulary and list of useful phrases in Punjabi and Sindhi.

First, the Englishman as taught to count and name the days and months. Encouraged by his newly found linguistic ability he immediately seems to want to address more complicated topics, because he is taught the words for “atom”, “ancestor” and “whirlpool”. Being English, he will naturally want to talk about the weather and so he’s taught to exclaim: “fog!” and “hail!” (likely followed by the appropriate hand gestures; something that will surely make him a social success not only in Punjab but in Kashmir and Upper Sind as well). He is also taught to explain that he has indigestion (always a problem when travelling in the tropics) and if it gets worse, he may draw attention to his condition by shouting “cholera!” On the other hand, if his delicate English bowels manage the shock of being confronted with a whole new continent, he can now order a wide selection of foodstuff; from a meagre “broth” to a full “feast”.

However, it isn’t until the list of phrases we really see what sort of man we’re dealing with.

No sooner has he decided to disembark the P&O ship before he starts:

“I want to go ashore. Is this your boat? Will you take me ashore? What will you charge? These boxes are all mine. Put them in the boat. Is the surf high today? Is there much current? How long will it take to land? I want a palanquin. Take me to the hotel. Which is the best hotel? Take up the palki. Put it down. Put it in the shade.”

You get the picture. Apparently, this Englishman never shuts up. He’s a walking, talking list of demands. Just listen to him having his tea:

“I like it strong. This is not sweet enough. I like it weaker. Put plenty of milk in. Don’t bring cow’s milk but buffalo’s milk. Do you call this milk? There is more water than milk. Don’t smoke the milk.”

His thirst quenched, Mr Englishman complacently goes on:

“I want bearers to Allahabad. What must I pay? Must I give largesse? Tell the bearers their payment depends on their conduct. If they go quickly they shall be well-paid. Have done with your smoking and go on. As you value your place there will be a torchbearer at each set. Make sure he has an abundance of oil for each stage.”

That last one confused me and I admit I leapt to all sorts of unsavoury conclusions (nudge, nudge) until I read in David Gilmour’s The Ruling Caste that back in the day when you travelled by palanquin, there would be a torchbearer running ahead of you with a torch fuelled by coconut oil. Now, if he ran out of coconut oil, you’d obviously all be stuck somewhere in the deep Indian night without any source of light whatsoever, so I’m guessing Mr Englishman is trying to prevent that, because, you know, the torchbearer himself wouldn’t think of this. He’s only a professional torchbearer and all, but, gee, he cannot be expected to have the razor-sharp mind of an Englishman on his first visit to India.

As a paternally-minded colonial officer, our Englishman also takes a profound interest in the health of his household. Therefore, he learns to ask – possibly the torchbearer, who knows – things that any good employer needs to know about his hirelings:

“Are your bowels regular? When were your bowels moved?”

What, your boss never asked that? He must not be taking his responsibilities seriously!

Anyway, the cheerful Englishman slash Amateur Physician is now ready to make a diagnosis of his poor servant’s condition. Guessing wildly, he tosses out: “Gout. Hunger. Indigestion. Inflammation. Asthma. Jaundice. Madness. Measles. Ophtalmia.”

Never mind which really, because the Englishman only knows the word for two treatments anyway: “emetic” and “amputation”. If the one doesn’t work, I suppose he shall have to try the other.

At the end of this trying day, we can imagine our Englishman sitting down to relax over a glass of wine. It starts innocently enough:

“Give me a glass of wine. Is there red wine or white wine?”

But before long he is once more furiously taking charge of the situation:

“Don’t fill the glass so full. That is enough. Bring me a tumbler of water. Cool the wine with salpetre. Ice the water and the soda water.”

Even retiring, he keeps up his endless chatter: “Is the bed clean? Has any sick person slept on this bed lately? What was his ailment? Is this a healthy place? Are there any bugs, fleas or other insects? Is there any epidemic in the village? Is there smallpox, cholera or fever?”

I don’t know what he suggests to do if there is, since he apparently doesn’t react to the answers. One shall have to assume that our Englishman isn’t so much worried about disease as he is merely talkative.

Finally, silence reigns over Mr Englishman’s surroundings. He is snoring; his huge moustaches moving gently with each rumbling sound while he sleeps the deep sleep of the righteous, safe in the knowledge that surely his servants must be in awe of his his wonderful linguistic skills and that his continued journey through the Panjáb, Western Rajpútáná, Kashimír and Upper Sind will indeed be a pleasant one.

Mar 222016

Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp, shortly after her wedding. Portrait by Alexander Roslin, 1774.

Why today: Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotte was born on this day in 1759.

Name: Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp
Character class:Queen
Lived: 1759-1818
Also known as: Duchess of Södermanland, “Little Duchess”, “Duchess Lotta”, Queen Charlotte
Special powers: Malicious gossip (+5 reputation damage on all rolls)
Known affiliates: Sophie Piper von Fersen, Fabian von Fersen, King Charles XIII
Quote: “You have to admit, my dear friend, that woman is truly an unhappy creature: while men have their complete freedom, she is always burdened by prejudice and circumstance”. Continue reading »

Mar 202016
Young Victoria, starring Emily blunt and Rupert Friend

Young Victoria (2009), starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend

I tried to put together a list of films set in the years between 1815 and World War I. It’s not exhaustive, and I’m not saying they’re all good (or even that I saw them all) but it’s a start for getting your Victorian and Edwardian fix, anyway.

A Christmas Carol  (1999)
A Dangerous Method (2011)
A Little Princess  (1995)
A Midsummer’s Night Dream  (1999)
A Room with a View  (1985)
Adèle and the Secret of the Mummy (2010)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984)
Affinity (2008)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Amistad (1997)
An Ideal Husband (1999)
Andersonville (1996)
Anna and the King (1999)
Anna Karenina (1997)
Anna Karenina (2012)
Anne of Green Gables 
As You Like It  (2006)
Augustine (2012)
Berkley Square  (1998)
Bleak House (2005)
Bramwell, 1995
The Buccaneers (1995)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
Cold Mountain (2003)
The Conspirator (2010)
Cousin Bette (1998)
Cranford (2007)
Crimson Peak (2015)
The Crimson Petal and the White (2011)
Daniel Deronda (2002)
David Copperfield (1999)
Desperate Romantics (2009)
Dorian Gray (2009)
Downton Abbey (2010)
Dracula (1992)
Elvira Madigan (1967)
Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble (2000)
Ethan Frome (1993)
Far from the Madding Crowd (1998)
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Finding Neverland (2004)
Fingersmith (2005)
The Forsyte Saga (2002)
The Four Feathers (2002)
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)
From Hell (2001)
Gangs of New York (2002)
Gettysburg (1993)
The Glass Virgin (1995)
The Governess (1998)
Glory (1989)
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Great Expectations (2012)
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)
Hamlet (1996)
Hans Christian Anderson: My Life as Fairy Tale (2001)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1999)
Howard’s End (1992)
Hysteria (2011)
The Illusionist (2006)
The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
The Impressionists (2006)
Jane Eyre (2011)
Jane Eyre (2006)
The Jungle Book (1994)
The Last Samurai (2003)
The Legend of Zorro (2005)
Les Misérables (2012)
Lagaan: Once upon a Time in India (2001)
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982, 2001)
Life in Squares (2015)
Lillie (1978)
Lincoln (2012)
Little Dorrit (2008)
Little Lord Fauntleroy (1995)
Little Women (1994)
Madame Bovary (2000)
Madame Bovary (2014)
The Man Who Would be King (1975)
The Mayor of Casterbridge (2003)
The Mill on the Floss (1997)
The Miracle Worker (2000)
Miss Friman’s War (2013)
The Missing (2003)
The Moonstone (1997)
Mr Selfridge (2013)
Mrs Brown (1997)
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1986)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012)
Martin Chuzzlewit (1994)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World 
Maurice (1987)
Middlemarch (1994)
Millie (1997)
Miss Julie (1999)
Miss Potter (2006)
Moby Dick (1998)
Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999)
Moulin Rouge (2001)
Mountains of the Moon (1990)
Mrs. Brown (1997)
Ned Kelly (2004)
Nicholas Nickleby (2002)
North and South (2004)
The Old Curiosity Shop (2007)
Oliver Twist (2007)
Onegin (1999)
Original Sin (2001)
Our Mutual Friend (1998)
Peter Pan (2003)
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
The Piano (1993)
The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Possession (2002)
Queen of the Desert (2015)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987)
The Ripper (1997)
Ripper Street (2012)
The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005)
The Prestige (2006)
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
The Secret Garden (1993)
The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton (2006)
The Shooting Party (1985)
The Sign of Four (2001)
Silk (2007)
Sommersby (1993)
The Song of the Lark (2000)
Suffragette (2015)
Tess of the D’Urbevilles (2008)
The Tempest (1998))
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)
The Time Machine (2002
Tipping the Velvet (2002)
Titanic (1997)
Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn (2013)
Topsy Turvy (1999)
True Grit (2010)
True Women (1997)
The Turn of the Screw (2009)
Twelfth Night (1996)
Under the Greenwood Tree (2005)
Up the Women (2013)
Upstairs, Downstairs (1971)
Victor Frankenstein (2015)
Victoria and Albert (2001)
The Way We Live Now (2001)
Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991)
Wilde (1997)
The Wings of the Dove (1997)
The Winslow Boy (1999)
Wives and Daughters (1999)
The Woman in White (1997)
Wuthering Heights (2011)
The Wyvern Mystery (2000)
Yentl (1983)
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
The Young Victoria (2009)

Mar 032016

Hershey's kisses

Just for fun, I collected some of the sweets and treats that were around in the early part of the 20th century which you can still find in stores today. There are surprisingly many of them, and some of them are still major bestsellers, like Toblerone,  Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Snickers.

Due to globalisation and various mergers and acquisitions, you can now find many of these brands all over the world, so you should be able to find at least some of these, wherever you are, next time you want a period treat.

Fry’s Chocolate Cream (UK, 1866)
Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles (UK, 1881)
Juicy fruit gum (US, 1893)
Rowntree’s Fruit Gums (UK, 1893)
Tootsie Roll (US, 1896)
Bassett’s Licorice Allsorts (UK, 1899)
Hershey Milk Chocolate Bar (US, 1900)
Cadbury Dairy Milk (UK, 1905)
Hershey’s Kisses (US, 1907)
Toblerone (Switzerland, 1908)
Läkerol (Sweden, 1909)
Life Savers (US, 1912)
Guldnougat (Sweden, 1913)
Fry’s Turkish Delight (UK, 1914)
Cadbury Milk Tray (UK, 1915)
Flake (UK, 1920)
Milky Way (US, 1923)
Baby Ruth (US, 1923)
Milk Duds (US, 1926)
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (US, 1928)
Tarragona (Sweden, 1928)
Snickers (US, 1930)

Feb 062016
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Portrait of Maria Persdotter Länta, aged 45, from Sirkas Sami village (from Flickr Commons)

Today is the international Sami Day. If you don’t know the word, the Sami are the indigenous people inhabiting the far northern region of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsular of Russia that is sometimes called “Sàpmi” or “Sami land”. The Sami are traditionally hunters, gatherers and reindeer herders and were continually pushed north from part of their traditional lands by settlers, and their way of life, religion and language has been under threat for hundreds of years. The old Swedish word for the Sami is “Lapps”, which is now considered derogatory and no longer in use. The word “Lappland” derives from that, and it is still used for parts of northern Sweden and Finland. Continue reading »

Jul 112015

George Gissing (source: Wikipedia)

George Gissing was born in the year of the Indian Uprising and although he survived Queen Victoria by two years, dying in 1903, he is almost the epitome of a Victorian writer, not only in that his books are unmistakably  Victorian in flavour, but also because his personal life contained all the elements of prime Victorian melodrama.

The son of a Yorkshire pharmacist, young George showed promise and scholarly aptitude. However, his budding career in the academic field came to a rather sudden halt at a young age, after he became more or less obsessed with a young prostitute named Nell (she was an orphan, naturally – how could it be a Victorian melodrama otherwise?). Having ruined himself trying to keep her off the streets, he began stealing from his fellow students, but was soon exposed (the shame! the shame!) and sentenced to a month of hard labour.

He tried to get a fresh start in America, but he soon returned to England, propelled by the twin forces of financial failure and longing for his Nell, whom he married. It wasn’t a successful marriage (I don’t think you can label a marriage in which one party engages in prostitution and that ends with separation and the wife dying from alcoholism and/or syphilis as “successful” even if you try) but at least the 1880s saw the beginnings of his writing career – he was first published in 1880 and kept up a decent productivity with seven more novels published in that decade and 12 in the next.

He remarried in 1891, and to hear his friend H.G Wells tell it, the screening process was rather erratic – he simply picked up a servant girl in Regents Park one Sunday afternoon and married her. His reasons were, according to Wells, splendidly Victorian:

he felt that to make love to any woman he could regard as a social equal would be too elaborate, restrained and tedious for his urgencies, he could not answer questions he supposed he would be asked about his health and means, and so, for the second time, he flung himself at a social inferior whom he expected to be easy and grateful.

This is obviously not a sound basis for married bliss, and so, rather predictably, the marriage was yet another failure. Mrs Gissing’s violent and erratic behaviour led firstly to their children being sent away for their safety, and finally, to her being committed to a lunatic asylum in 1902 (yes, that’s one wife who was a prostitute and another who went mad, albeit not hidden in the attic, which gives Mr Gissing 8/10 on the Victorian melodrama scale).

To make it even better, Gissing was, according to Wells, “an extremely good-looking, well-built man, slightly on the lean side, blond, with a good profile and a splendid leonine head” (yes, it’s hard to tell behind that moustache, I agree, but we’ll have to trust Mr Wells on this one). No wonder then that his insane wife should not keep him from scoring yet again – this time with a Frenchwoman, with whom he lived in “psuedo-marriage” until his death. Even that was suitably novel-esque – he died from pneumonia originating from a cold caught on a winter walk (he had emphysema and was thus in poor shape to begin with). It seems his final relationship was only just better than his former ones, and Wells gives poor Gissing a rather depressing epigraph:

So ended all that flimsy inordinate stir of grey matter that was George Gissing. He was a pessimistic writer. He spent his big fine brain depreciating life, because he would not and perhaps could not look life squarely in the eyes,—neither his circumstances nor the conventions about him nor the adverse things about him nor the limitations of his personal character.

Gloomy, isn’t it? If you don’t trust Mr Wells’ word, you can become personally acquainted with Mr Gissing’s writing, since most of his novels can be found online these days.

If you don’t know where to start, the most well-known of his books is New Grub Street, followed by Odd Women.  His style is generally realistic, close to documentary, but at the same time, he was an idealist, deeply in love with the Classical world, and his political stance was certainly not that of a reformer – he looked at the lower classes as doomed and mostly unable to reform. The Nether World is especially bleak, being written after Nell’s death and describing the life of London’s poor. Not a feel-good author, certainly, but a good choice for a close and unsentimental look at Victorian Britain.

Workers in the Dawn (1880)
The Unclassed (1884)
Isabel Clarendon (1885)
Demos (1886)
Thyrza (1887)
A Life’s Morning (1888)
The Nether World (1889)
The Emancipated (1890)
New Grub Street (1891)
Denzil Quarrier (1892)
Born In Exile (1892)
The Odd Women (1893)
In the Year of Jubilee (1894)
Eve’s Ransom (1895)
The Paying Guest (1895)
Sleeping Fires (1895)
The Whirlpool (1897)
The Town Traveller (1898)
The Crown Of Life (1899)
By the Ionian Sea (1901)
Our Friend the Charlatan (1901)
The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903)
Will Warburton (1905) 

Oct 072013

Yngsjö is a small and rather insignificant municipality in the southernmost county of Sweden. It’s the sort of place most people wouldn’t have heard of unless it had been the centre of one of the most publicised murders in the history of Sweden.Anna_Månsdotter

Where it all began is debatable, but a good starting point for the story seems to be the marriage of one Anna Månsdotter to a Nils Nilsson, 13 years her senior, around 1860. It seems that it was very much a marriage of convenience rather than infatuation. Anna had counted on a financially stable and secure future, but instead, they ended up poor and debt-ridden. The relationship between husband and wife was strained, and Anna sought comfort in their son Per, the only of her three children to survive into adulthood. Continue reading »

Oct 022013

Having spent the some time reading about the administration and legal system of British India, I came across the following statement by Gandhi:

Do you think it would be possible for the English to carry on their Government without law courts? It is wrong to assume that courts are established for the benefit of the people. Those who want to perpetuate their power do so through the courts.

Pretentious as it might seem, I couldn’t help asking myself if Gandhi was right. Did law ultimately serve the purpose of upholding or undermining the structures of Victorian England, especially when seen in a colonial perspective? Continue reading »