history


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.

From Pieter in the North to Sebastian in the South (from Cane and Conflict)

14 February 1861

I’m lying here in bed, not ‘my’ bed because that is wherever you are and we are many hundreds of miles apart. I know it was my choice to leave as I can’t fight for the South if war does come, but that necessity doesn’t make me miss you any less or my wish any greater that we were lying in each others’ arms.

It’s only by chance that I discovered today is Valentine’s Day, but it matters not; I love you with my whole heart each and every minute of each and every day.

I will come home as soon as it may be possible; months – years, I will come, I swear. I pray you will still want me when that day finally dawns. Know I will always love you, always.

Piet

Richard to Julian (from Smoke Screen)

14th February 1802

You were restless last evening and you got up and went to the balcony. You thought I was asleep but I missed your warmth almost immediately. I lay there and watched you, entranced as the moon slipped from behind a cloud and bathed you in its light. You’re always beautiful to me but in that moment you were ethereal and I had the insane idea that perhaps you weren’t of this world, that you were but a dream that visited me when I needed to know that love was real.

Then this morning I awoke to find you in my embrace, your arms wrapped around me. Then you opened your eyes, smiled at me, and whispered, “Happy Valentine’s Day, my love.”

If you are but a dream then I am happy to forever share it with you.

I love you.

Richard

 

"..through rain and snow you stand alone by the water's edge..."

Seeing Poems Written by Yuan at the Blue Bridge Inn

On your return last spring
you stayed in the Blue Bridge Inn;
wen the wind sweeps down
from the Qinling Mountains, I head
the other way; each time I
come to an inn I dismount first
eagerly looing on the walls to see
If you have hung any poems there.
 

In Rewi Alley’s book, “Bai Juyi-200 Collected Poems,” there’s this intriguing note:

“Durng the early part of his official career, Bai made close friends with Yuan Zhen, young scholar and poet also in his twenties… the two poets’ relationship was most intimate.  Their friendship was famous in literary history, and it was said taht whenever the two went out riding together, crowds gathered to watch them pass…”
 
and yet.. many of their poems vanished, and
“whereas it had been the custom for outstanding poets to be granted a posthumous title, this hoour was denied Bai by the emperor.”
Alley believes this was because the poet wrote verses criticizing the government, and that might be true.  But I wonder.

 

Sending Summer Clothes to Weizhi(one of Yuan’s courtesy names)

Upper garment white in colour
woven fine as mist
cotton cloth for trousers
thin as a cloud; don’t think that
these are too light; please
wear them, for I fear you
will suffer from the heat at Tongzhou.

The two poets planned to live together as Taoist recluses after they retired.   Yuan Zhen died before this could happen.  Juyi wrote dirges and songs for the funeral.

Night deep–the memorial draft finished;
Mist and moon intense piercing cold.
About to lie down, I warm the last remnant of the wine;
we face before the lamp and drink.
Drawing up the gren silk coverlets,
Placing our pillows side by side;
Like spending more than a hundred nights,
To sleep together with you here.

By permission of Alex Broughton, whose works these are.

Discalced
 To Mr HH on the sweet privilege that is his unclothing.
 
Discalce? Your feet, by habit shod and neat,
I loose to run with mine on sea-damp sands.
I both address and undress you, and meet
prevarication with a kiss, the while my hands
further with gentle and determined skill
 their appointed course to divest you. Heart
and head as much as garments fall, yet will
you yield me all your glorious self? No part
reserved, recalcined and remote? I see
With every limb revealed, the gift of grace
and suddenly am still, awed; just to be
here, now and stripped of artifice. Your face
is mirror true to mine. Then two are one
and  love lies open, and envious is the sun.  

AK,  Sandy Bay, Gibraltar, 1797
 

Demi -paradise
 To Mr HH, co –creator of the demi- paradise
 
Not yet Arcadia, not yet Eden bright;
not far from both , as we both love and love.
Paradise is here, held within the sight
your beauty brings, the heart whose all you give
to mine. Though both are bruised and shy of trust
Love has within it faith , and ours is love
enough to shape a world new-made, which must
raze past harm to dust, and yet may move
grief’s mountain, levelled by honest open
speech. There is in you such strength of will, in
me of hope. Together much is spoken
of how we change the world. For us to win
each other is to win the whole. Your heart,
my world, mine yours, elation every part.

 AK,  Sandy Bay, Gibraltar, 1797
 

Laid up in ordinary
A phrase heretical when used of you.
Lying with you, in confined space and dark
Constrained by circumstance to silence, do
What fate will with us, still remains the spark-
Your alchemy- that makes of every bed
narrow, thin or mean, a holy ground, fit
haven both to body and to soul. Led
by love and lust and laughter , I would sit
beside you, singing in a wilderness
for, were you there, the barren earth would
turn to pillowed  rest, arid sand to gold, less
desert than harbour,  where for my every good
I sail within. Laid up in warmth, in love
In extraordinary you, I move.

AK, Indefatigable  st sea, off the Biscay coast.

When I was little, we were always told to put butter on a burn to soothe it. Of course, if you do that, it fries the skin, so you end up with a worse scar. Cold water and lots of it is the best first aid. I also remember the advice about putting a key down your back for a nosebleed, or sitting with the head forwards. Not sure about the former, but the latter puts extra pressure on the blood vessels and hampers clotting. Head straight upright is best.

Old wives and their tales, eh? Some of them may have proved to be excellent – red sky at night really does mean you’re likely to have good weather the next day, it’s been meteorologically backed up – but some of them are a positive menace. Wrap up a fever patient. Well, yes, I suppose you sweat the infection out (it’s part of the body’s reaction to bugs) but you might perilously overheat the poor patient in the process. And where the heck did the ‘wisdom’ come from that it was dangerous to wash your hair during your period? Anyone else remember being told that little gem?

Not just the medical stuff has changed, though. What was presented as ‘fact’ (or what I remember as fact) is not longer factual. Dinosaurs don’t have two brains, one in their heads and one in their pelvis. White spots on your nails aren’t due to calcium deficiency. There are no canals on Mars and, despite what my granny told me, I won’t get the smit if I rub my face against a cat. No wonder I’m bewildered.

I guess one of the problems is that some of these pronouncements (like the Martian canals) come from scientists. Cool, objective, logical, infallible (or so they like to present themselves) scientists. Except, of course, scientists can make as much of a cock-up as the rest of us. They get things wrong, sometimes because they’re so besotted with their pet theory they can’t or won’t recognise anything which contradicts it. Clearly knowledge moves on, so we can look back at scientists who pronounced that rail travel couldn’t work as people would be suffocated if they travelled at speed and laugh. We wouldn’t be so silly! Or would we…

Take eggs. When I was younger, they were good for you. Experts said so, the egg marketing board told you to go to work on one (an egg, not an expert). Then they were bad for you – experts said so. Then they were good for you again because…you get the drift. Now I don’t know if they’re bad for me or good for me, although I do know they’re delicious. Almost weekly there seems to emerge a new bit of research that contradicts another recent bit of research; if I’m struggling to keep up (and I’ve got a degree in applied Biology) how does everyone else cope?

Maybe we don’t try to. Maybe we just go along and do our own thing, relying more on old wives than New Scientist. Now, what colour’s the sky today?

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