history


Tripped up by words. 

In my one Regency story I have a charcter talking about how hard the snow is falling; he calls it a blizzard. Nice, traditional English word, I thought. Imagine how cross I was to recently discover that not only is “blizzard” a late nineteenth century word as applied to weather, it’s American in origin. What right had it to trip me up like that? 

Trouble is, it’s too easy to just assume things about language. Yes, I look up brands to see if they’re contemporary for my heroes (that’s why Orlando can’t snaffle jelly babies) and I check out phrases, too (which is why Helena couldn’t say “Goodnight Vienna”) but some words seem so obviously “old” that I don’t bother. Perhaps I should, but when to stop? 

I guess for most of us there’s an internal sort of check which means we’re fine if we’re writing post 1700. If the word/phrase is in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, then we’re safe.  So I can use punk, “eye for an eye”, ‘’beggars description” and the like to my heart’s content. Plumber, spectacles,  barricade, shuttle; they’re all nice safe words.  Some are surprises, too – skyscraper goes back to the Age of Sail, and was then used as a nickname for things like tall hats. Dunce, admiral, stationer – all these words can be traced back a surprisingly long way.

Clearly there are some obvious words which a writer could never use in a story set earlier than the twentieth century – bikini, Quisling, green in the sense of concerned for the environment, gay in the sense of sexuality., tank in any sense other than a storage receptacle. But there are some phrases which could catch you out. “The cat’s whiskers” comes from the days of radio, so couldn’t be used to describe something really good in Regency days. Nor could your Victorian spy be brainwashed. He could, however, have gone to see a floodlit rugby match, although they weren’t necessarily called floodlights then. 

Aren’t words confusing, or is it just me getting old?

I’m hugely indebted to Lee Benoit for mailing me with some pictures she noticed in an archive for the athletic departments at her old university.

These lovely – and very modern looking lads – appear to be the 1870 baseball team. The guy sitting down, second from right, looks just like Steve Borthwick.

And this lad from 1880 looks like he could just have stepped out of my Sky Sports screen!

I picked up the book British Greats at a charity stall; it’s a real gem. As I flicked through, I came across this picture – the bloke second from the left at the back really caught my eye. “That’s Mallory! I had no idea he was so striking!”

The story of Mallory and Irvine’s bid to climb Everest is the stuff of which British history is made, especially the attitude that using oxygen to aid climbing was somehow unsporting! Did they scale the mountain three decades before Hilary and Tenzing? How did they die? The haunting account of them being last seen disappearing into cloud as they attempted the summit has me welling up even as I type.

Andrew (Sandy) Irvine, even if he’s traditionally more handsome, doesn’t cut it for me.

Mallory’s my boy.

Lytton strachey thought he was pretty hot, too.

My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words — oh heavens! I found of course that he’s been absurdly maligned — he’s six foot high, with the body of an athlete Praxiteles, and a face — oh incredible — the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an imaginable English boy. I rave, but when you see him, as you must, you will admit all — all!

Maybe the picture featured here is the reason. Mallory seems to have had a hankering for being in the nude – how cold must he have been doing this?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years reading books and poetry by and about the WWI poets. I’ll start by saying that I’m not going to be extolling either the beauty or the virtue or Rupert Brooke or Siegfried Sassoon. Despite the way that women raved about their looks, I find neither particularly attractive physically and the more I read about them the more I dislike their personalities.

Instead, let me squee about these lads:

Ivor Gurney is one of the almost forgotten poets of WWI, in comparison to Brooke, Sassoon, Graves and Owen. He seems to have had some sort of mental disorder, not just the almost inevitable shell-shock, and died tragically young,  leaving behind a legacy of such poems as “To His Love“.

is body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

And then there’s my favourite, Wilfred Owen

I have on my computer cart a WWI Manchester’s cap badge, ourchased solely because Owen was with one of the Manchester regiments (the seller gave me a discount because I mentioned that). Complex, charming, a touch immature, shy, talented, Owen comes across wonderfully well – better, indeed, with everything I read about him. There’s something so gentle and wistful in that gaze, something to make me go weak at the knees.

He’s retained his place in the heart – and the English curriculum – of the nation, although I do wonder what some teachers would think if they knew he’d written about rent-boys as well as life in the trenches. I’d recommend that anyone who wants to understand WWI, and early twentieth century Engalnd, reads his work. I’ll go back to sighing…

At the Macaronis authors’ group we were discussing handsome men (par for the course) and got onto hotties from days gone by. Some of us will be sharing our favourite historical hotties over the weeks ahead.

I’m starting with some sporting heroes (well, there’s a surprise!) I like men’s tennis, so I was astonished to discover that there were two British players who dominated Edwardian tennis, worldwide, and I’d never heard of them!

Laurie and Reggie Doherty between them won every Wimbledon singles tournament from 1897 to 1906, bar 1901. They had wins at the US championships, won doubles titles in the US and UK and garnered Olympic gold, including in London 1908. And they were gorgeous.

Then there’s Ronnie Poulton-Palmer. He scored four tries in an international against France (shades of Chris Ashton and Italy!) and was killed in the trenches, his last words apparently being, “I shall never play at Twickenham again”.

His death inspired a poem, by Alfred Ollivant, in The Spectator:.
‘Ronald is dead: and we shall watch no more
His swerving swallow-flight adown the field
Amid eluded enemies, who yield
Room for his easy passage, to the roar
Of multitudes enraptured, who acclaim
Their country’s captain slipping towards his goal.
Instant of foot, deliberate of soul -
All’s well with England, Poulton’s on his game.’

I’m off to have a lie down and a weep.

No – the title isn’t misspelled. (However – warnings for plot spoilers of Mere Mortals)

One of the things I wanted to explore in Mere Mortals was the sheer disposability of human life. I remember that Dickens’ expose of the terrible treatment of orphans in Oliver Twist helped to start the authorities to look at them, and to improve matters–and Kingsley’s Water Babies highlighted the plight of chimney sweeps, which again led to reform.

I’m a bit too late to reform the Victorian Age, though, but I did want to explore some aspects of life that make our modern hair stand on end.

Orphans were pretty much human detritus–we see that in Oliver Twist, of course. Boys from the orphanage are simply objects, not humans to be raised and cared for in the way they are today. When Oliver plays up, asking for more food (the cheek of it!) he’s sold off to a local tradesman–which would have been a step up, if he’d managed to keep the job. He certainly had more chance surviving out of the workhouse.

Greediest Boy In The School

In Mere Mortals, the three young men, Crispin, Myles and Jude, are a little more fortunate, at least in some respects. They are obviously natural sons of well-to-do men, and better still, men who (in the absence of DNA testing and the authorities we have today such as the Child Support Agency) who feel that they should provide the minimum of decent education for those sons. But that’s as far as it went. Once those orphans left their preparatory schools, there would be no money for further education–or apprenticeships. One of them dreams of being a barrister, and that would have been impossible without funding. They might, if fortunate, be placed in an office somewhere as a clerk, or perhaps in a shop, or even–like Jane Eyre–as a tutor, but without more education than they have (two of them didn’t even take their final exams) even this last was an unlikely option.

Thing is, that orphanages and workhouses were good places to find workers for employers, scrupulous and otherwise. Today there would be a national/international uproar if you walked into a school or orphanage and said “I’ll have three, please,” and took them off, no questions asked, but back in 1847 it was a real possibility. Especially if the owner of the establishment was unscrupulous too. If he was being paid for a boy’s education–but no-one had ever checked on that boy–why not let him go, continue to take the education money and pocket the difference?

If they were taken away, no-one would bother to check up on them once they had gone. Perhaps a schoolfriend might write, if he knew where his friend was going, but the headmaster was unlikely–once rid of his responsibility–to ensure that his ex-charge was being treated well. Look at Becky Sharp, you can be sure that her headmistress, once having got shot of the acid-tongued girl, couldn’t have cared less if the girl ended up as a white slave or white slaver.

And then–if the person who HAD taken these orphans got tired of them? Or they didn’t work well at the job they were given? Or didn’t suit in some way? It’s quite likely that their future would become a little less than rosy–and if they did disappear–who’d care? Who’d check?  All the employer/abductor had to say was “Oh, they ran away, ungrateful wretches, I’ll give another boy the opportunity he obviously didn’t want.”

and in the days before Social Services, phones, email, TV…Who’d know? Who’d care?

A short but fun one today:

Passed along by Syd McGinley, this interactive Victorian role playing game will allow you to see if your character would have been welcomed at the Gentleman’s Club or cruelly cut at the Ballroom.

http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/games/game_0/

 

Recommended by Erastes, a very nice vintage book blog

Bali Hai’s Blog

and two links found at physorg.com

“Gay rights movement born in 19th century Germany, scholar says”
http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-02-gay-rights-movement-born-19th.html

“Eighteenth century writings of first gay activist discovered”
http://www.physorg.com/news96733007.html

And in keeping with this week’s more entertainment-based theme (what, we’ve got games and everything!) but for Brits only, I’m afraid, unless you can get your browser to conceal your location, a moving TV programme about Frankie Howerd – “Rather you than me.”
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b009s7gv/Frankie_Howerd_Rather_You_Than_Me/#recommendSource=tv_episode_page

Drama starring David Walliams as the comedian Frankie Howerd, looking at the relationship with his long-term, long-suffering manager and partner, Dennis Heymer.

~

If you have an article which you think fits with our subject matter (gblt and historical and/or writing) and you’d like us to share it with our readers, just send it along to alex@alexbeecroft.com

“Historical” by our definition means pre-Stonewall, so pre-1969.

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