30/03/2010

A RAZOR WRAPPED IN SILK by R N MORRIS

This week sees the publication of R N Morris' latest historical crime  mystery. A Razor Wrapped in Silk which is published by Faber and Faber is the third in a gripping series inspired by Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Dostoevsky's great novel, Crime and Punishment. 
 
Dostoevsky: 1821-81

To whet your appetite, here is a brief description of the plot...

"St Petersburg. 1870. A child factory worker is mysteriously abducted. A society beauty is sensationally murdered. Two very different crimes show up the deep fissures in Russian society of the late Tsarist period. The first is barely noticed by the authorities. The latter draws the full investigative might of St Peterburg's finest, led by magistrate Petrovich.

The dead woman had powerful friends - including at least one member of the Romanov family - so when the Tsar's notorious secret police becomes involved, it seems that both crimes may have a political - not to say revolutionary - aspect. A trail of missing children leads to a shocking discovery that takes Porfiry inside the Winter Palace for a confrontation with the Tsar himself. The usually inicisive magistrate grows increasingly unsure what to believe, who to trust and how to proceed. His very life appears to be in danger, though from whom he can't be sure..."

Morris' dark mysteries are peopled by vivid characters whose struggles against good and evil are played out against the backdrop of St Petersburg's rigid bureaucracy. Almost a living creature itself, the city exudes evil and squalor - an atmosphere that is well evoked on all three 'St Peterburg' covers. But, the real star is Porfiry Petrovich who, despite limited tools of investigation, is able to apply a sophisticated awareness of the frailties of human psychology when solving the most atrocious crimes.


Roger Morris lives in North London with his wife and two children. For more information on his work, and a chance to win a signed copy of A Razor Wrapped in Silk, please do visit his website before April 1: http://rogernmorris.co.uk/a-week-away-from-publication/

19/03/2010

QUACK DOCTORS AND WONDROUS POTIONS

The Quack Doctor by Charles Green

The Victorian age was one of scientific and medical advance. Useful new drugs were developed, such as quinine, atrophine, digitalin, codeine and iodine. Many diseases were described and classified. And, in 1858, Parliament passed the Medical Act which was an attempt to regulate the unqualified and unscrupulous 'quacks' who often promoted their dubious cures on the streets, or in newspapers and magazines.

Today, many of those advertisements are available to view on a website known as The Quack Doctor. Here, the writer Caroline Rance is compiling a fascinating resource of  'historical remedies for all your ills', where posts are often accompanied by the author's wry, informed commentary.


The VV recommends a visit. But, for now she will display just a few of The Quack's discoveries. And, considering her previous post on the charlatan, Madam Rachel, it seems somehow apt to concentrate on those constructs, potions and pills pertaining to matters of feminine grace and beauty. 
Let us start with a woman's crowning glory. The Quack Doctor reports on the 'curious Tricosian Powder', a product from 1851 that promised to restore greying hair to its former lustrous hue -   

TRICOSIAN POWDER.  
For rendering Red or Grey Hair and Whiskers a beautiful Black or Brown.
THIS POWDER, which is a very curious dis-
covery in Chemistry, will be found, upon trial, much
superior to every preparation now offered for these purposes;
it is perfectly innoxious both to the Hair and Skin; indeed it
is of service to the Hair, for it promotes its growth, and in-
vigorates its texture. It is so perfectly safe for the Skin or
Clothes on which it happens to fall, and so infallible in its
operation that the dark tint, which is produced in a few
hours, cannot be obliterated by any process whatever. Price
3s. per box.



So, with your hair now dark and gleaming with health,what about improving that pimply skin; perhaps nibbling on some of these 'harmless' arsenic wafers? 



THE SECRET
ONE BOX
 Dr. MACKENZIE’S IMPROVED HARMLESS ARSENIC COMPLEXION WAFERS will produce the most lovely complexion that the imagination could desire, clear, fresh, free from blotch, blemish, coarseness, redness, freckles, or pimples. Post free for 4s. 6d. ; half boxes, 2s. 9d.— S. HARVEY, 5, Denman St., London Bridge, S. E. Use Dr. MacKenzie’s ARSENICAL TOILET SOAP 1s. per Tablet; No. 2, unscented, 6d. per Tablet. Made from Purest Ingredients, and Absolutely Harmless.
BEWARE OF THE MANY IMITATIONS. Have Dr. Mackenzie’s or none.


One of Dr Mackenzie's reckless imitators

Finally, considering the figure, why not be at the forefront of fashion and wear a sturdy corset, powered by that magical ether - the force of electricity?

And, if you're inclined to learn something more of this stimulating undergarment, then the VV suggests that you visit Caroline Rance's blog, where the very subject is covered in an excellent podcast.

13/03/2010

BEAUTIFUL FOREVER: A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR MOTHER'S DAY

On this Mothering Sunday many women will be receiving gifts of flowers - or perhaps cosmetics. But, the elusive search for beauty and youth has never been restricted to the influence of modern social ideals.

In the 1860s women of sufficient means might well have sought out the miraculous creams of one Madame Rachel. At number 47a New Bond Street, the sign above her salon door read: 'Beautiful Forever'. And, once they had stepped inside, Madame Rachel's clients were offered the utmost discretion. For, in Victorian times the use of cosmetics was frowned upon and the quest for eternal youth was not something addressed in public. But, such secrecy came at a price - not least that Madame Rachel was a confidence trickster. 


Sarah Rachel Levison began her lucrative career by advising on 'female grace and beauty' , often selling her products to actors in the London theatres. She claimed that her vocation started when, having been sick as a child, she lost all her hair which was then restored by the use of a medical potion - a potion of magical powers which she was then able to gift to the world.
 
Once established in her grander Mayfair scheme, for which she advertised in the press, she built up a substantial clientelle that included the likes of The Countesses of Dudley and Cardigan (seen left and right below) and even going so far as to claim Queen Victoria's patronage.

Her potions sold for outrageous prices.  The 'Rejuvenating Water' was no less than twenty guineas a bottle, which today translates into approximately £1,500.  And if that's not steep enough, how about the 'Royal Arabian Toilet of Beauty' which, in modern currency,  would be £75,000? But, Rachel's highly-prized - and priced - products were often formed from toxic chemicals that could cause the skin permanent damage. And yet, who would make a formal complaint when to do so would only prove that the foolish woman concerned had done what society abhorred by seeking cosmetic adornment to what God and nature provided? Others were blackmailed by Rachel, handing over more money and jewels in attempts to buy her silence - until she was finally charged with fraud and ended her days in a prison cell.

It was a cause celebre. Author Lloyed, the music hall performer, sang these lines about 'Madame Brachel' -

I paid her a couple of thousand and got my pick,
Of the most beautiful requisite cosmetic,
Prhaps you'll think me a lunatic,
Talking to you in this way.
She said a great Duke had fallen in love with me,
This was the truth, and the truth she could prov' to me;
Very soon he was introduced to me,
And adored me from that day.

Should you wish to know more of this fascinating story, then please do read Beautiful Forever. Written by Helen Rappaport, it will be published  by Long Barn Books on this Monday, March 15th.
.

11/03/2010

THE BRUNEL FANCY UNDERWATER FAIR...


Should you  live near enough to London, and should you happen to be free on Friday 12th or Saturday 13th March, you might like to visit Brunel's Thames Tunnel which stretches from Rotherhithe to Wapping and where, to recreate the original opening party of 1852, there will be a Fancy Victorian Fair. On both evenings you can expect to see characters in Victorian dress, food sellers, strongmen, jugglers and aerialists, all accompanied by music powered by steam.

When the tunnel first opened in 1843 - after eighteen years of construction, during which Isambard Kingdom Brunel was very nearly drowned - it contained a shopping arcade where visitors could purchase souveniers, such as commemorative plates.
But, what was then termed as being the eighth wonder of the world, paving the way for the tube transport system, soon became less attractive. It was frequented by prostitutes and thieves who hid in themselves in the arches before jumping out on their victims - as this articles from the Times Archive shows...


The VV can only hope that all surprises this coming weekend will be of a more pleasant  nature.



02/03/2010

DAISY, DAISY, GIVE ME YOUR ANSWER DO...



In 1892, by which time the bicycle was an everyday sight in Victorian life, Henry Dacre composed a song that became immensely popular, both in the London music halls and in America. 

The lyrics featured a tandem - a bicycle made for two - and the Daisy he described was said to be based on the Countess of Warwick, Frances Evelyn 'Daisy' Greville. 

Daisy was a champion of women's rights, and also a mistress of the Prince of Wales, and her name is still well-known today from the chorus of  Dacre's 'Daisy Bell' -





Daisy Daisy,
Give me your answer do!
I'm half crazy,
All for the love of you!
It won't be a stylish marriage,
I can't afford a carriage,
But you'll look sweet on the seat
Of a bicycle built for two !



It is always surprising to the VV that, despite the long time use of the wheel, it took so long for the bicycle to actually be invented. And, like so many other events that we tend to take for granted these days, the main development of the machine occurred in the Victorian era.



However, it is fair to say that its innovation really dates back to 1817, when the German Baron, Karl von Drais, created his 'Laufmaschine' - what was basically little more than a wooden, foot-propelled running machine.



A year later, the English version (above) was patented by Denis Johnson, and proved to be quite a craze at the time, though Keats called it 'the nothing of the day'. 

The  fate of the 'pedestrian curricle' was initially to be ridiculed. It was nick-named the hobby or dandy horse, due to the style of foppish young men who often used to ride it. And Keats was right when he surmised that its popularity would be short-lived. The constant pushing along the ground quickly wore out the soles of gentlemen's boots, and those riders persisting in using the sideways were frequently stopped and fined two pounds - which was quite an enormous sum at the time.

Michaux' Velocipede


But, the Drais model led the way to future innovations. The first pedal-operated machine is believed to have been constructed in 1839 by the Scottish blacksmith, Kirkpatrick MacMillan. 

Later, in 1861,the French carriage maker, Pierre Michaux, invented his famous 'Velocipede' which had pedals directly attached to the front wheel. This machine was nick-named the 'Boneshaker' due to the terrible vibrations caused by riding along upon rough roads with nothing beneath you but wooden wheels bound in hoops of iron.



That design was to metamorphise into what was called the 'High Wheeler', the 'Ordinary' or the 'Penny Farthing', where one wheel was a great deal larger than the other as a way of attempting to reduce the trauma of the shaking - and also the risk of the wheels lodging in potholes beneath them. 

From the 1870s to the 1890s such methods of transport proved increasingly popular - though it must have taken some nerve and skill to remain in place upon such a machine. Nevertheless, this form of travel could often move faster than a horse and afforded a measure of freedom  that enabled many city folk to venture out into the countryside. 

The hobby of cycling became very popular indeed, with clubs being formed for the sport - including church groups who used such a means as a method of spreading the word of Christ. 



The real success came after 1890 when the 'Safety Bicycle' was produced, with brakes and gears and identical wheels which were cushioned on pneumatic tyres. 

This design has remained more or less constant and is very much the standard shape upon which we wheel around today - though rarely on bicycles made for two.





ADDENDUM: The VV would like to add this small but charming post which shows Victorian ladies on bicycles - as stately as any galleons.