02/05/2018

CHANG AND ENG, THE SIAMESE TWINS...




The term Siamese Twins was popularised by Chang and Eng, the co-joined identical brothers who were born in Siam (now known as Thailand) on May 11, 1811. 

The twins were connected at the chest by a thick band of skin and, although their livers were linked, in this day and age they could have been successfully surgically separated.  At that time, their mother refused any attempt to do so, fearing that one of her sons might die. Instead, she helped to gradually stretch the band of flesh that bound the boys together until they were able to stand side by side, rather than being face to face.




Ironically, growing up in Siam, the boys were known as The Chinese Twins – owing to their father being Chinese, and their mother half-Chinese, half Malay. Also, when they were first born, they were viewed as a bad omen. Some even said they hailed the coming of the end of the world; instead of which their growing fame brought prosperity to their village.
In 1828, the twins were discovered by an English trader called Robert Hunter who, along with his accomplice, the wonderfully named Captain Abel Coffin, took the boys on a tour of America, and also around Europe – except for France which denied them admission. They proved to be very successful, even meeting up with royalty. However, in 1832, they disposed of their managers’ services and set up in business with the American showman, P T Barnum.



In 1839 they both retired, living in North Carolina where they purchased a plantation.  By 1844, they changed their names, taking the surname of Bunker, and becoming United States citizens. Both of the twins had also married – Eng to a Sarah Ann Yates, and Chang to her sister, Adelaide.



They had an interesting domestic arrangement, in which the two couples shared one bed, especially constructed to accommodate four adults. But despite many children being born – ten to Adelaide and Chang – eleven to Sarah and Eng – the course of their love did not run smoothly. 

The sisters - who do look formidable - began to argue between themselves and eventually decided to set up separate households, with the twins then moving between the two. 



After the American Civil War, when their plantation and its slaves were lost, the twins were forced to go back on the stage, but they never achieved quite the same success as that attained in earlier years.

A drawing of the autopsied twins


Chang and Eng died on the same day, in January 1874. Chang had contracted pneumonia and when Eng woke to find his brother dead, despite pleas from his loved ones to allow a doctor to operate and perform a separation, he refused to be parted from his twin, also dying within a matter of hours.

The twins bodies were then the subject of a medical autopsy.  Their fused liver is still preserved to see at the Mutter Museum in Pennsylvania.



Mark Twain wrote a short story based on the lives of the brothers. It is called The Siamese Twins.
In 2000, Darin Strauss also wrote his novel, Chang and Eng. It went on to win several awards, and the following description is taken from Publishers Weekly ...

In his stunning debut, Strauss fictionalises the lives of famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, whose physical oddity prompted the term Siamese twins. With compelling characterisations and precise, powerful prose, this audacious work should appeal equally to fans of historical, psychological and literary fiction. Born in the Kingdom of Siam in 1811, the twins... are completely separate individuals with different personalities and needs. Serious and reserved Eng narrates their story, which begins on their parents' boat on the Mekong River...An unscrupulous American promoter brings them to America in 1825. Eng reads Shakespeare, preaches temperance and, all his life, wishes desperately to be separated. Chang is outgoing and garrulous, drinks heavily (which angers Eng, who must also experience the effects of Chang's indulgence) and cannot see himself as less than two. As young boys, the first time the brothers see other children their own age, their philosophical differences are apparent: "'They are half formed!' Chang whispered. To me [Eng] they seemed liberated." The brothers find celebrity as a circus act (displayed in a cage) in the U.S. and abroad...The author gracefully confronts the complicated issues of race, gender, infidelity, and identity, as well as the notion of what is normal. Strauss's vivid imagination, assiduous research and instinctive empathy find expression in a vigorous, witty prose style that seduces the reader and delivers gold in a provocative story of two extraordinary men who wish only to be seen as ordinary.





02/04/2018

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN AND THE LITTLE MERMAID...

The Little Mermaid meets the Prince - by Dulac

Hans Christian AndersEn was the Danish author of many classic fairy tales such as The Snow Queen, Thumbelina, The Little Match Girl, The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid.

Hans Christian Anderson 1805-1875

As the child of a washerwoman and shoe maker, Anderson’s childhood in Odense was one of poverty. His grandfather was said to be mad and his grandmother worked in a lunatic asylum. An aunt ran a brothel and a half-sister was a prostitute who in later life attempted to blackmail her brother. However, despite such a motley crew, Hans' father was always keen to insist that his son was related to Danish royalty. No proof of this claim has ever been found.

When Anderson’s father died, the somewhat prudish and self-obsessed son who used to play with dolls in the street while singing in a lovely high tenor voice, left his home town for Copenhagen where he studied at the university and hoped to pursue a career on the stage. But when that dream failed to materialise, he worked on his writing instead – producing novels, travelogues and poetry – and, in due course, creating the fairy tales that would lead to the fame he always craved –

‘My name is gradually beginning to shine, and that is the only thing I live for...I covet honour in the same way a miser covets gold.’

A recent Danish stamp in honour of Hans Christian Anderson

By the end of his life, the Danish government proclaimed him a national treasure with designs for a statue being made long before his actual death. He was feted by such luminaries as Balzac, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Dumas, Victor Hugo, Ibsen, Wagner and Liszt. Charles Dickens welcomed him into his home for a visit that lasted five weeks – though there was talk of it being a great strain. Kate Dickens called him a ‘bony bore’ and when Anderson finally left the house Dickens pinned a note to a wall of the room in which his troublesome guest had slept: ‘Hans Anderson slept in this room for five weeks – which seemed to the family AGES.’

When it came to his love life, the lanky, gauche and effeminate writer had very little luck. He felt himself an outsider, and his grief for the lack of a sexual ‘companion’ is shown in this diary entry –

‘Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!’

What he desired remained unrequited. Anderson cultured strange ‘love triangles’ where his wooing of a sister often hid the lust for the brother, as in the case of Riborg Voigt – a letter from whom was found in a pouch on Anderson’s chest at the time of his death. 

Jenny Lind

A courtship of the singer Jenny Lind for whom he wrote The Nightingale led on to her being nicknamed the Swedish nightingale. But again, the ‘affair’ was unconsummated and while the two ‘friends’ were staying in Weimer with Duke Carl Alexander, Anderson was more entranced with their host. The two men were often seen holding hands,sobbing over their mutual adoration of Jenny while the duke – ‘... told me he loved me and pressed his cheek to mine...received me in his shirt with only a gown around...pressed me to his breast, we kissed...’  

But it was Andersen’s life-long love for Edvard Collins (whose sister he also courted) that inspired him to write The Little Mermaid – a story of obsessive longing and pain, and the intense desire to be ‘transformed’ which the author expressed in this letter –

‘I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench...my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.

The VV is now inspired to read The Little Mermaid again - and no doubt to view the story in quite a different light.

31/03/2018

A BRIEF HISTORY OF EASTER EGGS...



The egg has long been a symbol of rebirth and fertility. Thousands of years ago, a simple bird's egg might have been a gift, often painted so as to celebrate the colours and the vibrancy that marked the coming of the spring, when the sun god stirred to life again. 

With the coming of Christianity, the egg continued to be used as a symbol of the faith. In 1307, Edward I’s household accounts included the following entry: 18 pence for 459 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the royal household

If you also want a golden egg, wrap a chicken's egg in onion skins, secure the skins with string or rubber bands, then simmer in a pan of water for up to an hour – by which time the egg should be marbled gold. 

Then again, you might prefer a more valuable alternative, such as the flawless jewelled affairs created by Carl Faberge in the nineteenth century for the Russian Czar and Czarina, each marvellous egg constructed of enamelled platinum, and containing a smaller golden one. 

A Faberge egg


Such a rare and priceless gift is unlikely to find its way into our hands this Easter morning. But many children's fingers will be sticky from holding chocolate ~ the melting quality of which makes it  possible to mould into egg shaped confectionery.



Price list for some of the earliest Cadbury's Easter eggs


The first chocolate eggs were developed in France and also Germany. In England, in 1842, John Cadbury constructed the first of the solid chocolate eggs. But, not until 1875, when a press was used to separate the cocoa butter from the bean, could a finer chocolate be made, much easier to melt and mould. The first commercial Easter eggs were made of smooth plain chocolate and filled with small dragees, or sweets, but other designs soon followed on, with icing decorations and flowers made of marzipan, their boxes wrapped with ribbons ... just as they still are today.





For a related post, see: THE SWEET SUCCESS OF CADBURY'S.

03/03/2018

MR BENTLEY'S MAGICAL ICE CRYSTALS



We've had a lot of snow and ice this week, which makes the VV think about the photographs of snow flakes made in the nineteenth century by Wilson Alwyn Bentley.




Born in 1865, 'Snowflake Bentley' was raised on the family farm in Jericho, in the American state of Vermont where the annual depth of snowfall was around 120 inches.

From childhood he was said to be fascinated by the natural world. At the age of fifteen his mother gave him the gift of a microscope. From then on he became captivated by the close-up views of snow crystals, which he placed on a black velvet base so as to see them clearly.  But, to try and preserve the sights he saw – with the ice flakes often melting before he could try and sketch them – he set his mind on attaching a camera to the microscope (now known as Photomicography), and as soon as this had been achieved he compiled a unique collection of work which is still, to this very today, considered as remarkable.




Describing his snowflake photographs as "ice flowers" or “tiny miracles of beauty”, he produced more than 5,000 of these ephemeral works of art during the course of his life–time, by the end of which his work was sought by the Harvard Mineralogical Museum and the University of Vermont.

Today his photographs are held by academic institutions all over the world. The Smithsonian (to whom he sent 500 prints in 1903, in the hope that they would be preserved for the sake of posterity), now keeps a comprehensive record in their institution archives.




It is something of an irony that he died from a case of pneumonia, having walked for six miles through a blizzard of snow to try and find his way back home.








Before Bentley died, a book of his snowflake prints was published by McGraw Hill. The book, produced in various forms, is still available today.

11/01/2018

THE WORST NOVELIST IN HISTORY...



Amanda McKittrick Ros 1860-1939


The worst novelist in history is how some cruel-hearted souls once referred to an Irish writer by the name of Amanda McKittrick Ros. Of her Victorian contemporaries, Mark Twain was said to be a fan - though the VV wouldn't be surprised if that was because he was so amused when reading of eyes as 'piercing orbs', or legs described as 'bony supports', or that to blush is to be touched 'by the hot hand of bewilderment.'






One of her most outspoken critics was the poet Barry Pain. He was very far from charmed when he wrote this review of the author's work -

“The book has not amused. It began by doing that. Then, as its enormities went on getting more and more enormous in every line, the book seemed something titanic, gigantic, awe-inspiring. The world was full of Irene Iddesleigh, by Mrs. Amanda McKittrick Ros, and I shrank before it in tears and in terror.”

Had he read her novel, Six Months in Hell?

However, McKittrick Ros could hold her own with any critic's jibes. She referred to those who abused her work as the 'auctioneering agents of Satan' , or  'bastard donkey-headed mites', or the 'clay crabs of corruption'. She also claimed their venom was the direct result of jealousy - or else of being secretly in love with her. 

She had such faith in her person, and talent. She firmly believed that her own work compared with that of Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, or Dickens. What's more, she was sure it would be known for more than 1000 years to come.

She had great expectations. When she heard of the Nobel Prize for Literature, she contacted her publisher to say, 'What think you of this prize... Do you think I should make a dart for it?'  She had no doubt whatsoever that the world would clamour to read her work, because it was exceptional literature.

It certainly was unique. In her novel, Helen Huddleson, most of the characters are named after fruits or vegetables - with Lord Raspberry, Sir Christopher Currant, Madam Pear, and Lily Lentil.



And these are the opening lines of the novel, Irene Iddesleigh which, if anyone is inspired to read, is available free on Kindle -

"Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn,"


The VV is particularly fond of the mention of private parts as being the 'fleshy triangle' in this, the first occasion when the lovers Delina Delaney and Lord Gifford chance to meet -

"Could a king, a prince, a duke – nay, even one of those ubiquitous invisibles who, we are led to believe, accompanies us when thinking, speaking, or acting – could even this sinless atom refrain from tainting its spotless gear with the wish of a human heart, as those grey eyes looked in bashful tenderness into the glittering jet revolvers that reflected their sparkling lustre from nave to circumference, casting a deepened brightness over the whole features of an innocent girl, and expressing, in invisible silence, the thoughts, nay, even the wish, of a fleshy triangle whose base had been bitten by order of the Bodiless Thinker."


What more is there to say? Oh... has the VV mentioned that McKittrish Ros was a poet as well as a novelist? No? Well, perhaps that particular joy should be savoured on another day.


08/12/2017

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE JACK THE RIPPER


The VV is delighted to see that David Bullock's The Man Who Would Be Jack ~ an investigation into the identity of the infamous Jack the Ripper ~ has recently been updated in a brand new edition. 

David Bullock has spent many years researching the Jack the Ripper case, during which time he has managed to gain exclusive access to Broadmoor's patient records.

Thomas Hayne Cutbush

Broadmoor is the hospital for the criminally insane where Thomas Hayne Cutbush, the man Bullock suspects as being the Ripper, was confined for many years. The Cutbush story is intriguing. Indeed, for a time, The Sun newspaper had been convinced that he was the murderer, with many of its journalists providing witness testimonies. However, due to a flawed police report, Cutbush was eventually cleared.

As well as providing factual evidence which overturns this legal decision, David Bullock's descriptions of the man and also the dreadful Ripper crimes are conveyed so very vividly that the reader cannot help but be swept up in the book's momentum. It provides a most convincing case.




David Bullock (41) lives in Berkshire with his wife and son. He has been researching the Jack the Ripper case for over 26 years. After releasing the first edition of The Man Who Would Be Jack in 2012 (Robson Press), David went on to collaborate on The Little Book of Jack The Ripper (History Press 2014). 


David is a regular speaker on the subject of criminal history as well as being a contributor on a number of crime journals. He was also the historical advisor on The Sixth Victim by Tessa Harris (Kensington Press 2017).

In 2013 David appeared in the acclaimed Channel 5 documentary Inside Broadmoor, charting the history of the Broadmoor Asylum.



For more Jack the Ripper posts, please use the blog search box opposite.

13/11/2017

THE ENDURING INFLUENCE OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON...

Robert Louis Stevenson 1850-1894

The VV loves these portraits by John Singer Sargent. They show the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. They seem so immediate and 'modern' and the one below is stunning. Who could fail to be drawn to such an attractive and seemingly vigorous character, his eyes full of earnest intelligence and warmth as they stare right out from the canvas, making an intimate connection with the viewer as if he were with us, right here, right now? The VV would say that he certainly had the X Factor, with that not restricted to the marks he made on maps of buried treasure!

And then, of course, there is his wife; the exotically-dressed woman to the right of the frame of the portrait below, whose bohemian appearance illustrates the free and artistic lifestyle upon which she and her husband embarked ~ rather than the stricter conventional one of his puritanical Scottish family.





Ever since he was a  child, growing up in Edinburgh, Stevenson had been plagued by ill health. Tuberculosis led the adult man to have an unusually thin and frail demeanour. But his character was always strong. He refused to succumb to the sedentary life of an invalid and, ironically, his illness  may well have contributed to his future career as a writer. 




Had his constitution been more robust he may well have entered his father's profession, which was that of an engineer. But, with such work proving too onerous Stevenson then attempted to study law. However, he found his temperament unsuited to that particular calling, which was when he decided to follow the true inclination of his heart ~ which was to be a writer


While he was travelling in France, seeking material for his work, Stevenson met his future wife  ~ even though the American Fanny was already married to somebody else. But, not to be deterred by that he eventually made her his own wife, bringing her back to Europe from her native California - along with  her son, Lloyd Osbourne, who inspired Treasure Island as discussed in another VV post.

For more about his life with Fanny the VV recommends a book written by Nancy Horan. Under the Wide and Starry Sky is published in America by Random House, and in the UK by Two Roads Books.


Fanny Osbourne at the time of her first meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson



Avoiding cold weather that harmed his health, the family spent their summers in Scotland and the winter months in France. But, after the death of Stevenson's father they travelled to the Hawaiian Islands, settling in Samoa where Stevenson felt his artistic spirit to have been truly released. There, he enjoyed new vigour and increasingly better health until, at the age of forty-four, he suffered a fatal haemorrhage.

Had Stevenson gone on to live until a naturally old age who can say what new wonders he might have produced. Most of the stories he did write are still selling well as classics now, with many stage and screen dramatisations of Treasure IslandKidnapped, or The Black Arrow - or the dark and sinister gothic tale of Doctor Jeckyll and Mr Hyde.





But, Stevenson was not a man whose talents were restricted by genre. He also produced A Child's Garden of Verses, a compilation of poetry that entranced the VV when she was a child - just as it did Isobel Dixon, the contemporary poet who recently wrote her own tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson



The VV can't think of a better way to illustrate Stevenson's enduring charm than by reproducing Isobel's words right here  ...

TUSITALA - THE STORYTELLER



When we were children, my Great Aunt Ella used to send us, her horde of South African nieces, lovely little gold-embossed leather-bound copies of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson books as gifts each year. Far away from us in Scarborough, she may have lost track of what she'd sent before, and there was some duplication over the years, but we never minded. We loved that these were not 'childish' gifts and opening that package and dividing up the beautiful slim books was always a delight. I'm just sorry that my stash of them is back home in South Africa and not on a shelf within arms' reach in my study.



The 1886 first American edition of Kidnapped, published by Schribner's



I have been unable to resist duplication of course, especially when confronted with old second hand editions, and have Kidnapped again, Virginibus Puerisque (a title which always fascinated me with its strangeness), a dinky hardback copy of The Pocket RLS (‘Being Favourite Passages from the Works of Stevenson’) which I bought with some of the pages still uncut, and the gift of a beautifully bound Familiar Studies of Men and Books.


A poster for the Disney film of Kidnapped



My older sisters, especially Mary Lou, used to read to me and I remember snippets of the flight across the heather in Kidnapped, and the pleasing echo of Scottish place-names. But most of all I remember watching the film – whichever adaptation it was. I can't remember anything else about it, not even whether it was colour or black and white (the way memory re- or de-colours things) but what remains vivid is the tension as David Balfour mounts the perilous stairs of the tower in the House of Shaws, watched by his treacherous uncle Ebenezer Balfour – and then, in the flickering candlelight, almost meets his end as the half-built stairs simply cease. That lurching moment, the near-plunge down the tower has sometimes echoed in dreams since. My early Vertigo moment. 



Illustration for The Land of Counterpane by Jessie Wilcox Smith

My father, like RLS, had 'a weak chest' and as a Scotsman also loved the books and the poetry. RLS's poem in A Child's Garden of Verses, 'The Land of Counterpane' had particular echoes for a sickly boy and asthmatic man. 'When I was sick and lay abed/I had two pillows at my head' are lines that bring reminders of my white-bearded father sitting propped up with a cup of tea and a book during some bout of bronchitis later in his life, but also make me think of the imaginative boy who, laid up in bed for weeks, wrote an entire history of 'his' Scottish island. A real uninhabited one (but I can't recall which), which he claimed and named 'Dixonia'.  We have one surviving notebook from his childhood project, recording details of 'population' and ‘government’, in his already characteristic spidery hand, and he too 'sometimes sent his ships in fleets/All up and down among the sheets;/Or brought his trees and houses out,/And planted cities all about.'


Cover for A Child's Garden of Verses, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

A Child's Garden of Verses was a source of early poetry, with marvellously memorisable lines in 'From a Railway Carriage' (another favourite for my train-loving dad) and delicious child’s-eye observations, like in the short 'Auntie's Skirts': 



Whenever Auntie moves around,
Her dresses make a curious sound,
They trail behind her up the floor,
And trundle after through the door.


But my mother's beautiful illustrated hardback volume, a prized possession, was also a source of great mortification for me. I can't track down the exact edition  – A Child's Garden of Verses is one of the most illustrated children's books, with more than 100 editions– but I remember the fresh colours and the pretty children on its pages. I was bored, it was a hot afternoon, my parents napping after lunch, my sisters playing outside, not wanting to be bothered with their three-year-old sister. Though I couldn't read, I recognised the poems that had been read to me, but I wanted something more from the book, and it struck me for some reason that I should colour in the little girls' pupils. My mother's precious book was much more alluring than my own colouring-in books – but no longer so pristine once my clumsy hand had deployed her marking pen (for indelibly labelling my sisters’ school clothes) and I watched in horror as the discreet (I’d thought) black pinprick spread. Not just over the little British children’s irises, but across half their faces, as though they had been punched in the face, had black eyes or were wearing masks. Maybe I unconsciously hated those neat children, or maybe it was just that I loved the book so much I wanted to be part of its creation and adaptation too, who knows, but I had turned A Child’s Garden of Versesinto something spoiled, and sinister. I can’t remember if I tried to hide it when my mother woke, but my sense of shame would have been blazoned across my own face, I was so horrified at what I had done. I remember that shame more than the hiding after.





Looking at the ‘Works by Robert Louis Stevenson’ page in my Pocket RLS, I realise how much more there is to readSeeing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on the list reminds me of another adaptation that made an impression on early watching (Reuben Mamoulian’s 1931 film with Fredric March, rather than Victor Fleming’s later one with Spencer Tracy). Some Saturday night showing on TV: Dr Jekyll playing the organ and that curious, disturbing scene of his transformation. (A transformation which, in its written version, Oscar Wilde described as "[reading] dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet.")

Many academic papers have been written about RLS's fascination with the idea of the double life (as inspired too by the infamous Deacon Brodie, Edinburgh cabinet-maker and town councillor by day and armed burglar by night) and I'm sure J & H is worth another read, but now it’s the travel writing that attracts me the most – The Amateur Emigrant, The Silverado Squatters, Across the Plains, Vailima Letters, In the South Seas. Recently I’ve also been working on some new poems for a residency and commission for Notting Hill’s Travel Bookshop and have been captivated by the writings of Mary Kingsley (about whom more anon), and was amused to come across her reference to RLS in her defence of the beauty of West African women: ‘I will back my Igalwa or M’pongwe belle against any of those South Sea Island young ladies we hear so much about, thanks to Mr Stevenson, yea, even though these may be wreathed with fragrant flowers, and the African lady very rarely goes in for flowers.’
I also thought of Stevenson (or ‘Tusitala’, ‘the storyteller’ as he was called by Samoan locals) when I was in Pascal Petit’s poetry workshop in Tate Modern’s Gauguin exhibition halls a couple of weeks ago. The paintings from his own South Sea Island days on Tahiti and the Marquesas are lush, evocative and intriguing, Gauguin’s artistic genius certain – but knowing a little about both men’s lives, I know who I’d most have wanted to go and visit.



As Stevenson writes in Across the Plains: ‘To be honest, to be kind — to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation — above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself — here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.’ A man who valued ‘gentleness and cheerfulness’ especially, believed in adding to the good of the world, while still taking pleasure in life: ‘My idea of man’s chief end was to enrich the world with things of beauty, and have a fairly good time myself while doing so.’ Tusitala is certainly a top choice for my fantasy literary dinner party.

 Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson once wrote: ‘This is the particular crown and triumph of the artist – not to be true merely, but to be lovable; not simply to convince, but to enchant.’ This lovableness, this power of enchantment surely was, and is, RLS’s enduring crown and triumph.



30/10/2017

BEYOND THE TEMPORAL ~ SPIRITS AND FAITH IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND

The following article is taken from the body of a talk given by Essie Fox while at the 2016 Historical Novel Conference in Oxford. (Also speaking on this panel were Karen Maitland, Mary Sharratt, and Antoinette May. )


Dowlais Ironworks by George Childs. 1840


The Victorian Cult of Death - a cult of misery and grief - took hold in a time of great energy, with advancements in industry and science that created a bridge to our modern world. And yet, so many Victorians were torn between the new ideas thrown up by this revolutionary age, and the more superstitious pagan beliefs carried down from previous centuries.

Add to this the sensation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the firmest of faiths were challenged, especially when influenced by the charlatans who travelled around with freak shows and claimed to show exhibits such as mermaids brought from Feejee, which were really the mummified remains of a monkey’s upper torso sewn onto the body of a fish. A clever taxidermist’s trick.



Taken in by such wonders and miracles many Victorians also believed in ghosts - a belief that was partly influenced by authors such as Charles Dickens, who had gone on a tour of America where he witnessed the traditions of Halloween and was particularly intrigued by morbid stories of the dead - after which he came back home again and wrote A Christmas Carol.




Robbie Burns’ poem ‘Halloween’ had fairies that dance on moonlit nights. Why, even Queen Victoria took part in halloween parades when she was at Balmoral. And perhaps on those nights she also read the popular sensation tales, with spirits seen in mirrors, or women who wailed by misty graves, with eerie worlds of make-believe inspired by death, disease and sex, with crumbling castles and dripping crypts ... and perhaps a rotting corpse or two.

Ah, those pale limp corpses! How the Victorian authors loved them  - but then they lived in a time when the mortality rate was very high, and all too visible to see. While our ill are confined in hospitals, and even with loved ones who die at home being very quickly whisked away to undertakers’ mortuaries, the Victorian dead would often remain at home until their burial. There was no National Health Service to step in at a time of crisis - or prevent that crisis happening. No inoculations to protect against fatal childhood diseases. No antibiotics to kill off infections considered as trivial today. Not to mention the complications faced by women during childbirth.



Death could strike at any time. Ruthless, swift, invisible, whatever your age or social class. And for those who strayed too far away from the path of moral righteousness there was the risk of syphilis - a scourge so well alluded to in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, when he writes of the vampire’s lust for blood as something sensual and exotic - but also something sinister, corrupting the flesh and bringing death.

In the nineteenth century, sexual diseases were rampant, and beneath the surface social veneer many immoral deeds went on, with the consequence of such ‘sins of the flesh’ becoming the time’s great leveller, not discriminating in the least between rich, or poor, or famous. So, illicit sex was linked with death. A nightmare! A real life horror tale - which is surely one reason why the age became obsessed with purity, taking their lead from Queen Victoria, who, along with her husband, Albert, portrayed the ideal marriage.




But, when Prince Albert died so young, at the age of only 42 (and not from syphilis, I stress) Victoria turned her misery into something of an art form, with the man she had adored in life then worshipped as a god in death – with the Queen so often heard to say that wished that she could die as well: to join him in Eternity.



While waiting for that eternity her mortal flesh must still be clothed – and the fetish for mourning now took hold, with the queen remaining dressed in black until she reached her dying day. Mourning was an industry. People visited vast emporiums which also placed their advertisements in newspapers and magazines. (The mail order business is nothing new!) People who mourned seemed suspended between the world of the living and dead. They wrote on black-edged stationery, blew their noses on black-stitched handkerchiefs, even sometimes threaded black silk ribbons through the lace of their undergarments. They wore black jewellery made of jet - with the best of it from Whitby. (That link to Dracula again!) They tried to keep their loved ones close by wearing lockets with their hair... whereas today we are more content by looking back on photographs.

In the Victorian era, photography was very new. Even when studios opened up where personal portraits could be made, this was something of a luxury; an expense beyond most poorer folk– which is why some people at this time only had their pictures taken once ... very often after they had died, when the body would be washed and dressed, then posed as if still living, sometimes alone, and sometimes in the midst of the rest of the family, thus creating a personal memory to treasure in years to come.



In one of the least disturbing of the Post Mortem images I’ve seen, two children are standing at the side of the bed in which their sister lies where, due to the long exposure time, the living children look like ghosts - blurred, because they moved, whereas the little girl who died is very clear for us to see. But then, of course, she was quite still.


Such accidental blurring soon became a deliberate method used by photographer charlatans who claimed to take pictures of ghosts which hovered close while loved ones posed. I've actually referred to this in my latest novel about Edwardian film (The Last Days of Leda Grey) with moving pictures being yet another Victorian ‘miracle’ ... when stage magicians often turned to the trade of directing feature films, using smoke and mirror tricks as the forerunners of those special effects we often take for granted now.




It was double exposure, nothing more. Still, it is astonishing to think how people were convinced. But then, we see what we want to see. We believe the things we want to believe - particularly in times of grief.




The Queen’s yearning for her husband meant that she simply couldn’t let him rest, often hiring spirit mediums who claimed to summon up the dead. But, was she, along with so many more, really duped into believing that the souls of the dead could rise again - come home and have a chat with them?

Well, with grand scientific discoveries, such as the harnessing of electricity, with X Rays to see beneath the flesh, or voices heard through the ether as they travelled along a telegraph wire – why should it not be possible to discover another invisible force, and to tap into the energies of those spirit souls beyond the veil?



I’ve also covered some aspects of this cult in my Victorian novels. In The Goddess and the Thief we actually see Victoria meeting with some mediums. Indeed, while he was alive, she and Albert conducted séances. Gladstone, her Prime Minister had been a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Another acquaintance of the Queen who firmly believed in the spirit world was a certain Mr Brown; the gamekeeper turned confidante, who claimed to have a psychic gift through which to channel Albert’s soul. If only Victoria’s diaries had not been edited when she died ... since when she shares eternity, not only with Prince Albert's corpse, but also with some keepsakes from John Brown. For, after being laid to rest, her personal physician testified that the royal tomb at Frogmore contained not just the royal pair, but also a lock of John Brown's hair, a photograph, some letters, and a ring that had once belonged to John's mother.

The Queen – like so many of her time - went to her grave a Christian. But she was also influenced by the eastern myths and religions encountered through the Empire’s reach - which also inspired stories such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which was based on the cursed Koh-i-noor, a sacred diamond that was said to have some supernatural powers.

I’ve also woven this into the story of The Goddess and the Thief  which features Alice Willoughby, who was born and raised in India, until at the age of eight she is sent away to England. There she lives with her Aunt Mercy, a fraudulent spirit medium who forces the young and defenceless child to take part in the séances she holds - as described here in this extract, which illustrates some of the tricks that fakes like Mercy might have played ...


I walked the path of Mercy’s ghost. I acted in her Mysteries. I became an apprentice in the trade for which she placed advertisements: discreet invitations in magazines for “Tea and Table Moving” ... for which she had me eavesdrop on those ‘guests’ who waited in hall. Nearly always women, nearly always old, exchanging confidential woes, and thus revealing vital clues. And later, when they had been called to sit beside the parlour fire, when the front door bell would chance to ring, requiring Mercy be called out on a matter of some urgency – that subterfuge was all it took for me to show my aunt the page on which I’d scribbled down the facts that I had learned while hiding: those names and sorrowful events that might then drip from Mercy’s lips.

When guests returned as regulars, when no more secrets need be learned, I wore the garments of the ghost, the hushing silks, the sheer black veils, the darkness of which obscured the face on which my aunt brushed silver paste, with ashes smudged around my eyes, to make me look half skull, half corpse. At other times a mask transformed my face into an infant child, whose tiny rosebud mouth would cry, ‘Mama - dear Mama. I am here!’

In daylight, it was pitiful to see those crude deceptions. I felt ashamed to play a part, to cause yet more unhappiness. But in the parlour’s darkness, the power of those wicked acts! Truly it was astonishing when, at Mercy’s given signal – a pre- arranged word, a certain look – her spirit guide materialised from behind ‘The Filmy Veil of Death’, which was generally the Chinese screen or the drapes in the dimmest corner ... from where I would float across the room, leaving a trail of apports behind – the blooms that might be Spirit-sent: as were the kisses that I gave. The touch of lips on tear-damp cheeks. The diversion of which allowed my aunt the chance to fling some sprays of dust from her pocket down into the hearth – where those chemicals would cause the flames to crackle purple, orange, red - exuding such a dense grey pall while I opened the door and left the room, during which my aunt would stand and chant:

Through the mists that hide the Light of God,
I see a shapeless form of Death.
Death comes and beckons me today to glimpse the sacred Summerland. 
And with commingled joy and dread, I hear the far-off whispers . . .




Were all those far off whispers real? Will we meet again in the summerlands? The only thing I know for sure is, oh, so very well expressed in the Latin ‘Memento Mori’ - which is: Remember You Must Die.