On Victorian female painters

I have been notoriously lax in my advancement of the feminist cause. I just assume that women were far more active historically than they have been portrayed. Those who control the media control the message. But at the same time I do notice when women have important public roles to play, and in writing fiction I have made sure that my Victorian females have a great deal of agency.

That’s not wishful thinking. It’s simply that the ordinary academic practice of history tends to believe its sources, without looking at all of them. That’s human. So I just want to say up front, it takes quite a bit to get my feminist hackles up. I’m a humanist.

But as I look into the Pre-Raphaelites, I have found myself getting annoyed with the focus on the men. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais — there are women who took their names, but they are seen as muses alone. No one says “Rossetti” and means Christina, Dante Gabriel’s highly published and respected poet sister. No one says Millais and means Lady Millais, or “Burne-Jones” and means Georgina, an accomplished artist, or “Morris” and means Jane, a talented embroiderer. Why, when most of them published or exhibited their own work? I’m not even sure the men themselves saw them as sidelines — there is much evidence of respect and collaboration. And yet in most of the books, the men’s work is emphasized, and the women’s downgraded. Most of the explorations of the women’s work are recent, like Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, or the National Portrait Gallery exhibit.

For inspiration and pandemic-driven amusement, I’ve been looking at the portrayal of the Pre-Raphaelites in cinema and television, so I’m watching Desperate Romantics. It was made in 2009, not exactly a bad time for feminism. But even there, little mention is made of anything the women themselves created or exhibited. I realize it’s set early (1850s), but the writer didn’t even imbue them with any ambition.

Jane Morris embroidery

by Georgiana Burne-Jones

Clerk Saunders, by Elizabeth Siddall

I thought perhaps I’d look into their lives a bit, see whether they would make good characters in my book, or whether the tale I’ll tell could be through their eyes, instead of the men’s. I don’t know much about the art history of this period, so I’m investigating. My book is set in 1863, so I thought I’d see what the Royal Academy of Arts was doing then. I found The Royal Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, a great resource that for 1863 discussed several of the key works including Millais, comparing his dark work in The Eve of St Anges to the lightness of a painting by Edward Matthew Ward. And then I saw in the Context section:

For some critics, Henrietta Ward’s picture of Mary Queen of Scots surpassed her husband’s efforts, and the Mutrie sisters were described as “still supreme among flower-painters”.

Who’s Henrietta Ward? I tried to search her by name and “Mary Queen of Scots”. I found an engraving from the Illustrated London News of it, but not the painting. So then I found the Royal Academy of Arts catalogue for that exhibition on HathiTrust. I wondered whether she’d be listed like the male painters, as “H. Ward”. I found the work, and her name as “Mrs. E. M. Ward”, and she had half a dozen works in the exhibition. I looked her up at the NPG, but there’s not a lot there. I found a review in the Athaeneum, which said:

They used “Mrs.” but referred to the artist as a male. How strange.

I thought I’d pick at random another female, since they are so clever indicated with “Miss” and “Mrs.” Item 571, Always welcome, by Mrs. J. F. Pasmore. Started searching on Google. “Mrs. J. F. Passmore painting 1863”. Very frustrating. I had spelled the name wrong. Then I stumbled on this at an antiques dealer site:

And here’s the description:


Middle initial and last name spelling confusion aside, she “also exhibited paintings”? Hers is in the Royal Academy exhibition, but I can’t find a copy of Always welcome online (there are plenty of paintings around by John F., mostly for sale). And this website attributes the above painting to him anyway, not her. So now I don’t know what to think. Maybe this is just a picture of her.

I don’t like to class everyone together: all women, all men. Some women had extraordinary power, both in the home and out of it. Others were taken advantage of. This sort of problem makes one wonder whether it’s the sources or the perception. Looking at the sources, I find more and more evidence of women’s agency. But finding those sources seems inordinately difficult.

 

 

What the Dickens

Funny the things that happen when you’re a historian just trying to read a book, and the ways in which being a historian can get in the way of a good read.

I recently joined the Victorians! forum on Goodreads. People there read Victorian-era books. I’ve read some of those myself, including a few by Charles Dickens. I’ve read The Old Curiosity Shop (which someone spoiled for me, thinking everyone knows the ending), A Christmas Carol (of course), and Hard Times (ok, so I listened to the audiobook). The rest await me, eight or so volumes on the shelf. I figured Oliver Twist would be next.

Then I saw that the Victorian group would be reading Nicholas Nickleby. I’m not much of a joiner, but I thought it might be fun. I’ve never read with a group, never been in a book group or anything. The closest I get is reading the “book group questions” at the back of  novels.

But I didn’t have a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. I could have downloaded it from Internet Archive, but I don’t like reading things on a screen. Ironic, isn’t it? Backlit screens are for work, but reading for pleasure is different. I want a book in my hand, turning its pages, absorbing its history.

My ultimate site for second-hand books is abebooks.com. But I’m very choosy, because to me books are historical objects. My first preference is for a book published during the author’s lifetime, so “publication date ascending” is my go-to sort. Ending 1870, when he died. Whoa! the prices! How could Dickens be fetching such prices? OK, maybe not 1870. . . But even with an edition from 1920, we’re talking some money.

I knew Mr. Dickens was not getting a cut from my purchase, but I’m not a huge fan of him as a person, despite Simon Callow’s brilliant portrayal in Dr Who. As a historian, I try very hard to separate the creator from his creation. Where would I be with Rousseau if I cared about how he gave up his own children to foundling hospitals? Or if I ignored the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson because I was busy judging how he lived? People are not their ideas. We are all flawed. Good ideas survive long past the person’s lifetime.

Dickens is somewhat different because I went to his house. Not while he was there, of course, but several years ago. It’s a shrine to him.  I found this bizarre, because it was really her house. His wife, Catherine. She raised his ten (!) children. She wrote the best-selling menu book What Shall We Have for Dinner? Since 2016, the museum has made a huge effort to include her in the house’s story. The problem is that Mr. Dickens, who was having an affair with young actress Ellen Ternan, didn’t want his wife anymore. After she discovered the affair in 1858, he turned the situation on her, separated from her, and dissed her all over London. He even tried to get her committed to an asylum. (I’ve begun reading Lillian Nayder’s 2011 biography rehabilitating her reputation. I feel I must.)

I’ve learned that you cannot be a Victorianist without enjoying, or even reveling in, Charles Dickens. Certainly I admire his detailed portrayal of the era, the wonderful characterizations, the turns of phrase that make you chuckle aloud. He wrote so fast, and so much, that I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of his talent. But the hagiographic approach to him annoys me anyway.

So I clicked past the volume of Nicholas Nickleby that said “Works by Charles Dickens” on the spine, because it was part of a collection. I scrolled beyond the $1,000 matched sets of his work. I searched for the small 8vo versions I prefer, but there aren’t any because the novel is too long. I finally found one I liked and ordered it.

I do not hold it against Dickens that I spent so much time looking for a book I hadn’t wanted to read, by an author I personally dislike, just to join a discussion with a group I do not know. It’s just another case of a historian making things more complicated than they need to be.

At a cost to the economy, 1862

Although it was not as beloved as the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London was extraordinary, as I noted in a previous post.

In addition to celebrating industrial and artistic achievement, the Exhibition also hosted meetings of several international groups. This included the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy. On June 13, the speaker was Sarah Parker Remond.

A free person of color born in Massachusetts, Remond was anti-slavery from an early age. It is reputed that she made her first speech against the practice when she was 16. Her parents were successful business people. They were active in anti-slavery societies, and made sure their children got a good education, despite the lack of good schools for non-white children.

Sarah was already known as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society (founded by William Lloyd Garrison) before she was asked to go to London in 1858. Her intention was to get a better education, and she enrolled at the Bedford College for Women while continuing to lecture. While she was there, the American Civil War began.

Her speech at the Exhibition in 1862 emphasized support for emancipation, and by implication the Union blockade against the Confederacy. Britain had declared itself neutral in the conflict, and British ships continued to bring in products to northern ports. She pointed out how the British cotton industry used the products of slaves, although Britain itself had outlawed slavery in 1824. The British Parliament had further passed the Slavery Trade Act of 1873 and were actively involved in confiscating slave ships, but were continuing to benefit from the manufacture of cotton grown by slaves in America. She said,

Let no diplomacy of statesmen, no intimidation of slaveholders, no scarcity of cotton, no fear of slave insurrections, prevent the people of Great Britain from maintaining their position as the friend of the oppressed negro, which they deservedly occupied previous to the disastrous civil war.

This was despite the fact that she recognized that:

Thousands among the commercial, manufacturing, and working classes, on both sides of the Atlantic, are dependent upon cotton for all material prosperity. . .

As the result of the efforts of Remond and others like her, Britain respected the Union blockade of the Southern states. But the result of the decline in raw cotton importation was mill closures and starvation in places like Lancashire. There it’s become known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine.

In 1862, as now, the problem was not just that economic strain had thrown people out of work. It was that there was not enough of a social safety net to provide for them when they lost their jobs. The British government engaged in some compensation experiments, including minor funds distributed directly (similar to today’s stimulus checks), but it was minimal and in many cases never reached the people who needed it.  The new Poor Laws had funded workhouses rather than “outdoor” relief to help people at home. Ultimately, some relief occurred when the government provided money to local councils, who then created new opportunities for employment in public works. But that wasn’t until 1864. Before that any efforts were supported primarily by private charity (similar to today’s GoFundMe), partly out of a suspicion of increased government activity*.

In 1862 the issue was the moral culpability involved in profiting from slave labor. Now it is the moral culpability of forcing workers into plague conditions. Jobs that take place indoors have the greatest risk of infection, while those outdoors have the least.  Safer jobs could include massive infrastructure repair on America’s roads, bridges, and parks. Designs could be implemented to move commercial, educational, and political enterprises into better ventilated conditions.

Perhaps public works, and a bit of advice from Miss Nightingale (see previous post), might be an answer beyond 1864.

 

____

* Hall, Rosalind. “A Poor Cotton Weyver: Poverty and the Cotton Famine in Clitheroe.” Social History 28, no. 2 (2003): 233.

Writing novels

I read a great quotation today: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” It’s by Ray Bradbury, so of course I had to find out from which book and order it.

Way back in November, which feels like a lifetime ago now, I was feeling stuck in my research. I had applied for a grant for my collection of H. G. Wells’ writings, so it felt like I had no reason to work on it until I knew whether I got it (I didn’t, third time running). The other book on Wells was in the process of being written through a series of scholarly papers presented at conferences, but since I teach full-time plus, and can only present once a year, this was going slowly. I tried reworking the papers into publishable articles, but they didn’t seem to fit what journals were looking for.

So although I was still fascinated by my topic, output was lagging. Nothing felt completable. So on a gloomy November day, I haphazardly began writing a novel based on a character like me, in the process of doing research on H. G. Wells. Over the next four months, I wrote every night between midnight and 1 a.m., until it was done. The writing flowed. I downloaded Scrivener to have a place to write it, and ultimately paid for that program (and I rarely pay for anything). The book seemed to write itself. I edited as I went along, going back to the previous chapters nightly, rearranging and fixing. It was a strange process, since I have long thought of myself as having no imagination. But what came out was pretty good.

I wanted to get it published, so I began reading up on how to do that. I have a former student who’s now an author and writing coach, and subscribed to her advice. I thought I should join writing groups on Facebook, so I found a few and followed them. I searched out information on writing and writers conferences, novel construction, how to make a good plot. I discovered that I’m a “pantser” (writing by the seat of my pants, with no plan) rather than a plotter.

This conclusion annoyed me. I have for many years prided myself on my organization and planning skills. I had read that it is a good idea to start work on a second novel, while waiting for the zillion rejections on the first. The first book was in the genre “literary fiction”, I discovered, but I had been wanting for some time to write a Victorian mystery, so I started that. My many blog posts on the year 1862 attest to the fun I’ve been having doing it. The pundits said no, you should write in the same genre for several books. Oh well.

Unlike the first book, this one should have been planned out rather than “pantsed”. Mysteries are complex, and my memory is not good (few historians have good memories). I tried mind-mapping, and ended up with Scapple, from the same people as Scrivener, to map the plot. This didn’t work well. I tried to plan, but ended up putting things that I had already written on the map instead, a reverse process of tracking rather than planning.

And I kept looking for groups to join, because I’m entering a new world so I felt I should. Writers, they say, should hang out with writers, as a community, for support. I am not a joiner. I don’t like groups. And I’ve become annoyed with the process of looking for an agent, which everyone says takes huge amounts of time and lots of rejections. I expected rejections from publishers, but agents? The whole publishing thing has been frustrating and mystifying. The advice, the formulas, the sample letters, the filling out of forms that each have their own format, just to get someone to represent you whose fee will ultimately be paid through book sales. I have decided on one plan, anyway: write agents some, send directly to publishers if I can’t find an agent, and self-publish if I can’t get an agent or a publisher.

I do not, like some authors, seek fame or fortune. But I would like some people to read and enjoy my work. If the writing itself adds joy to my life, the seeking of agents and publishers seems to suck it back out. My book(s) are good, I think, but I have learned rather quickly that quality doesn’t matter that much in the publishing world. I’ve learned why Dan Brown and John Grisham sell, and beautfully written works do not.

The pandemic now has millions of would-be novelists putting fingers to keyboards. I have been joined by mobs. Am I novelist, without a published novel, just because I’m up at night writing novels? Does this graphomania have anything to do with my job? Why am I doing this?

And yet I continue to do it all wrong. I have read that my protagonist must have a horrible flaw, an Achilles heel that causes conflict. Mine merely has a penchant for buying too many books and taking his time thinking things out. The action is supposed to rise, with a status quo brutally disturbed, truths revealed, and a startling conclusion. Mine has likeable characters that mosey along finding things out. There are supposed to be twists, where I’ve led my reader to think one thing and then — shock! — it’s something else. I have some pinkish herrings, but I don’t think I have a single twist. It’s more like a churro than a pretzel. Is it a cozy? Apparently not, because there’s some plot-based sexuality and the person solving the mystery is a professional. But it seems like a cozy to me.

And now, I’m a bit stuck, with most of the mystery written, and no idea how it’s going to end. But when I allow the characters to just mosey along, talking and discovering and living their lives, the world of today utterly disappears. I am in 1862, caught up in the pushing and shoving of the audience at the Surrey Theatre, sensing the activity of overcrowded London, wondering whether it’s worth the trip to travel to the Exhibition in Kensington when the omnibus doesn’t go all the way there. When I let the characters take over, the plot just goes along fine, so I’ve decided to leave it to them. They know what they’re doing. They’ll figure it out.

Maybe when ones characters become so real they write the story, one really is a novelist. So I’ll stay drunk on writing.

Visiting 1862: The International Exhibition

I’ve been doing some research into London in the year 1862. For me, this is stepping back 25 years from my usual research area, so I find a lot of surprises, in addition to this novel technique for social distancing:


The first thing to do after putting on my crinoline was to find good maps of London, big maps where you can see street names and even buildings:

Guide to the what? The International Exhibition of 1862. Although the Great Exhibition of 1851, with its Crystal Palace, is more famous, this one was supposed to be even bigger. You can see the catalogue here. It took place in South Kensington, on Cromwell Road, where the Natural History Museum would be later.

The Victorianist blog has some good information, and points out that the death of Prince Albert in December 1861 put a damper on the whole proceedings from the start. And it says the building, above, cost £300,000 but the cost was covered by the profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851. My studies of Victorian science education claim that the entire system of British science education was basically financed by the same pool. Which makes me think that the money from the Great Exhibition of 1851 is like pieces of the cross. There is no possible way that they made enough profit in 1851 to fund everything that’s been claimed.

Another page with information is here.

And look, they even had cameras then:

 

 

St Thomas’s Hospital at the Zoo

The cholera ward, of course, was in the giraffe house…

In my recent researches of St. Thomas’s Hospital, Southwark, I have discovered an unusual episode, a time when the hospital went to the zoo.

St. Thomas’s Hospital was located on Borough Street in Southwark from the medieval period until 1862. (What remains of it, the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, is my all-time favourite museum in London.) At that time, the railway was forcing itself through the area as companies competed with each other. The proposed railway went right through the heart of the hospital grounds. So in 1862 the hospital was sold to the railway company, for £296,000, according to this.

Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals shown on “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”

‘St Thomas’s Hospital 1860’, aerial view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Roberts, G.Q., A brief history of St Thomas’s Hospital (1920)

A new hospital site was arranged to be built where most of it still stands, in Lambeth, across from the Houses of Parliament. But this site wasn’t complete until 1871.

View of St Thomas’s Hospital with plan taken from Henry Currey’s, St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. [London] : [Royal Institute of British Architects], 1871 [St Thomas’s Historical Books Collection PAMPH. BOX RA988.L8 T1 CUR]
Most sources skip over this gap. Where did the hospital go in the meantime, for nine years?

It went to Surrey Gardens, in Newington, Walworth, in September 1862. Surrey Gardens had been a pleasure garden, like Vauxhall. It had a zoo. But as business declined, the animals were sold off to build a huge music hall. The hall was gutted by fire in 1861, which coincidentally led to a court case that determined you cannot hold someone to a contract when it’s impossible to fulfill it (in this case, a concert reserved for a burnt-out hall).

St. Thomas’s Hospital decided to lease the whole property, repaired the building, and repurposed some of the zoo.

I’ve been looking for histories and records of St. Thomas’ Hospital to learn more about the situation at Surrey Gardens. The St Thomas’s Hospital Report of 1867 is available, for some reason, at Google Books. Amputation fatalities, I discovered, were lower at the new location.

[Aside: there were also some figures in the Report tables that seem odd to me. How could the average stay in hospital for an ankle sprain be 11 days (p602)? This made me wonder whether one had to stay in hospital to be allowed off work, or whether people really had no one at home to take care of them (or no home — quite possible in a poor neighborhood), or whether ankle sprains were for some reason more serious then? Four men and four women had sprained their ankle that year, and the average stay was 11 days? Perhaps they had more wrong with them than a sprained ankle.]

The giraffe house really was the cholera ward, and the old elephant house was used for dissections. That piece of information comes from a book about Florence Nightingale, who was a big part of all this. She had opened her first nursing school at Old St. Thomas’ only two years before the move, and helped provide for room and board for nurses at the hospital. She also helped design the new Lambeth hospital for maximum light, ventilation, and separation of patients into pavilions. [And she promoted hand-washing as the best anti-infective, as true now as it was in 1860.]

The Illustrated London News of December 1862 (copy available at HathiTrust) features a quick column on how the facilities at Surrey Gardens boasted the “rapid and complete conversion of the old buildings to their new and beneficent uses”, and imagined the gardens would provide a unique opportunity for medical students to stroll and contemplate. Nightingale, who believed in patient access to the outdoors, would have approved this. She wrote a letter to Henry Bonham Carter (her cousin and the Secretary of the Nightingale Fund) on the advantages of temporary buildings for hospitals, but it isn’t available online.

The 9-year relocation gets only a single-sentence mention in Wikipedia. That’s a shame. It seems like such an interesting interlude.