A Victorian Christmas – Part 1

How did the Victorians celebrate Christmas? Julia Wood – City Connect’s Features Writer on Art & Culture - looks at the Victorian Christmas and finds out the truth behind the nostalgia and tradition…

Christmas is a time when not merely individuals, but culture itself, turns reflective and introspective. It is a sentimental free-for-all, in which nostalgia reigns supreme and the hankering after Christmases past, in the times before cars and computers, is too great to resist. At the centre of such hankering is the iconic Victorian Christmas, in which there were several feet of snow and people drifting around in fur-trimmed red velvet capes to the sound of Christmas carols.

In reality, the Victorians’ weather was similar to ours: mild and rather disappointingly unseasonal. The concept of snow at Christmas was in fact, borrowed from the eighteenth century when there was a mini ice age and the Thames froze over.

Yet our fascination with this Victorian ideal of Christmas, with its frosted landscapes and crackling fires continues and is responsible for the plethora of period dramas gracing our screens at this time of year. I think, in particular, of adaptations of Charles Dickens, whether repeats or new dramas, such as the BBC’s Great Expectations, starring Gillian Anderson as the cobwebbed and querulous Miss Havisham.

Indeed, one cannot imagine Christmas at all without Charles Dickens. The novels of Dickens, a key Victorian figure, epitomise what we consider to be the quintessential Christmas. This is particularly true of A Christmas Carol, which helped popularise the tradition of Christmas and its associated festivities.

The Victorians invented much of the iconography we now associate with Christmas. It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who brought the Christmas tree to England, and the Illustrated London News in 1848, produced a picture of the Royals, gathered around a lavishly decorated Christmas tree. Subsequently, the public followed in their wake and every Christmas tree in the land was adorned with candles, sweets, fruit and gifts.

Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley for Sir Henry Cole, 1843

Back in 1843 Henry Cole commissioned the first Christmas card, which depicted some people around a table, and contained a Christmas message. Although the prohibitive cost of these cards meant that they did not catch on straight away, children were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards. However, the rapidly advancing industrial age made it possible to utilise colour technology to produce Christmas cards at a faster rate, which had the effect of reducing the price and by the 1880s the sending of Christmas cards was a highly popular tradition. In 1880, 11.5 million cards were produced and we see the first intimations of the commercial machine Christmas has now become.

Another Victorian invention is the Christmas cracker. In 1848, British confectioner Tom Smith discovered a new way of marketing sweets. He took the idea from a visit to Paris, where had seen bonbons wrapped up in paper that was twisted at either end. Smith produced packages that were filled with sweets and which snapped when pulled apart. By the late Victorian period, these had evolved into parcels containing small gifts and paper hats.

As with all things Victorian, the Victorian house at Christmas was lavishly decorated and much time and effort spent on decking out the house using elaborately woven evergreens around fireplaces and doors. As Christmas became more popular, these decorations assumed a more significant position in the house.

Read Part 2 of Julia Wood’s “A Victorian Christmas” on 30 December 2012 exclusively on City Connect.

Images reproduced from telegraph.co.uk and vam.ac.uk

Sporting in the Olympic Theatre

Olympic fever appears to have taken over the country, with Britain hosting, and performing astoundingly well, particularly in the cycling events, perhaps even putting cycling on the map as a national sport.

In such economically dark times, a bit of flag-waving patriotism may be just the tonic the country needs; the moral-booster that helps people forget their troubles.

Yet the Games isn’t just sport: it is an Event-with-a-capital-‘E’. It is sport invested with all the pomp and pageantry of which humans are capable, with its opening and closing ceremonies, its media hype and its crowd-pleasing winners. Athletes competing in the Games are not merely sportspeople but performers, playing to a crowd, putting on a show.

It seems, that in spite of the increasing de-formalisation of society, (even David Cameron’s wife opted not to wear at hat to Kate and Wills’ wedding at Westminster Abbey) – we still love the thrill and the glory of a formal event properly staged; the build-up, the presentation, the sheer performativeness of the display. The Olympics, purely and simply, is a three-week long piece of marvellous theatre, with sports commentators continually referring to an athlete’s ‘performance’ in their chosen event. Winning a race is deemed to be ‘a fine performance.’

In terms of its history, the Games is nothing new. It originated from Greece, taking its name from Olympia, the place where it was held. As early as 776B.C. the games took place every four years, although it is conjectured that it had already been established many centuries earlier. Events in these early Olympics were confined to running.

Other events were subsequently assimilated into the Games, such as wrestling and the pentathlon; an event which, in Ancient Greece, consisted of a day’s worth of contests, and included long jump, javelin, discus, a short ‘foot race’ and wrestling.

However, by A.D. 394, the Roman Emperor Theodusuis I, in some kind of personal crusade against the nature religions, abolished the Games, on the grounds that they were too pagan.

The first ‘modern’ Olympic Games was held in 1896, the International Olympic Committee having been founded two years earlier, in 1894. It was held in Athens, the home of the original Games and featured fourteen countries and a total of two hundred and forty-five athletes competed in a total of forty three events.

Of course, there was no television coverage of this first modern Games, only the live experience of seeing the event for oneself. Nevertheless, the Victorians doubtless enjoyed the spectacle in much the same way as we do today, marking it with both an opening and closing ceremony.

The 1896 Games did indeed begin with a grand opening ceremony, held on April 6th and the Panathinaiko Stadium was thronging with around 80,000 spectators, who listened in anticipation as Crown Prince Constantine declared the inaugural Games officially open.

1896 Olympic opening ceremony in Panathinaiko Stadium

Of the fourteen nations that competed in the Games, ten earned medals, the U.S.A. being the nation to earn the most gold medals, while Greece, the host country, won the greatest number of medals overall.

Of course, all the competitors were men, since the founder of the I.O.C., Baron Pierre de Coubertin, declared that to include women would be, ‘impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.’

In hearty defiance of this stipulation, one woman, Stamata Revithi, did run the marathon course on April 11th, the day after the official race had been run. Revithi finished in around five hours and thirty minutes, and managed to achieve verification for her running time by persuading some witnesses to sign their names as proof of her achievement.

As to the sports themselves, the 1896 Games did not differ much from our modern Games, in terms of the events that were staged. There was Athletics, including a marathon and track running, in which the American, Thomas Burke, won the hundred metre race, finishing with a time of twelve seconds. Burke also won the four hundred metres race, finishing with a time of just over fifty four seconds. No world records were broken, perhaps because not many top athletes had opted to compete.

Interestingly enough, Thomas Burke was one of the first ‘modern’ athletes to crouch down at the start to the race instead of starting from an upright position, a move which confused the jury, who, perplexed, allowed him to start in this way.

Thomas Burke (2nd lane from the left)

In addition the Athletics, there was Gymnastics, Fencing, Shooting, Weightlifting, Tennis, Swimming, Wrestling and of course, Cycling, the track events of which, took place in the then newly constructed Neo Phaliron Velodrome, a building probably not too dissimilar from the London Velodrome, in which our modern cyclists are competing in 2012.

All cycling competitions employed rules created by the International Cycling Association and there was only one road event, a marathon of eighty-seven kilometres, racing from Athens to Marathon.

Frenchman Paul Masson won the track cycling, achieving victory in the one lap time trial, the sprint, as well as the 10,000 metres and Adolf Schmal, an Austrian, won the Marathon, which only two cyclists managed to complete.

Paul Masson

The Olympic Games has subsequently been held every four years ever since, the 1900 Games being held in Paris. The 1948 Games was the first Olympic Games to receive television coverage.

So what is it about sporting events of this magnitude that gets us all fired up? Is it the sport itself, or the media hype surrounding it?

My guess is that, in a world where political correctness has deemed competitiveness a negative thing, people enjoy watching sportsmen and women competing in a friendly, good-natured way, sympathising with the losers, celebrating the winners. At the risk of sounding dreadfully cheesy one might almost say the Games is like life, but with all the boring bits edited out. In other words, it is like a piece of art.

Interest in the Games shows that we still love a good show. The age of pomp and ceremony is not quite dead and the Games is feeding upon our human love of theatre and display, all in the name of some fine performances from our home-grown athletes.

Image reproduced from en.wikipedia.org and listverse.com

Workhouse or Workfare? Attitudes Haven’t Changed – Part 2

Julia Wood, author and scholar, continues her discussion of “the undeserving poor”, workhouses and today’s attitudes to the unemployed.

dole street

Throughout the nineteenth century, workhouses became places of refuge for those who were vulnerable, either because they were ill – mentally or physically – or because they were disabled. These people were made to work to earn their provisions, which were negligible and sparse, a type of watery gruel served with bread being the staple diet, though sometimes meat and potatoes were provided and supper would usually have consisted of bread and cheese and if they were lucky, some kind of broth.

Workhouse conditions were extremely harsh, and sanitation often negligible, a far cry, one might think, from conditions for the poor in England today.

Yet it is in their attitudes to the poor that the Victorians bear a striking similarity to today’s politicians and tabloid press. Just as today’s benefit claimants are characterised by the media and the Government as work-shy, good-for-nothing scroungers, so in the nineteenth century, the Victorian underclass – ‘the undeserving poor’ – were comprised of those generally regarded as ‘beggars and cheats.’

Indeed, a pamphlet published in 1862 by Henry Mayhew describes itself as A Victorian Guide to Those That Will Not Work and talks about a class of, ‘beggars, thieves, drunkards, gamblers and prostitutes’ not dissimilar to the underclass identified today.

The Victorians divided the poor into two categories: deserving and undeserving. The former term included anyone hard working and diligent who was a victim of circumstance, and who, through illness of loss of earnings was forced to throw themselves onto the mercy of the state.

The latter – the undeserving poor – was the term used for those regarded as work-shy and idle, those who did not want to work, or who refused to do so, preferring instead to live off the public purse (then, as now, poor relief was subsidised by taxpayers).

It is this latter category which describes today’s attitudes to those on state benefits. The media continues to perpetrate histrionic propaganda about ‘scroungers’ who live like royalty at the taxpayers’ expense and is full of stories abound about families – often immigrants – with multitudes of children, who reside in luxurious houses, along with a detailed breakdown of what this costs the taxpayer per annum.

People claiming sickness benefit are depicted as work-shy and ‘faking it’ and an exception – maybe a small handful of people conning the system – is taken as the norm and used as an excuse to denigrate the vulnerable poor.

The new and controversial Workfare scheme, in which benefits claimants are forced to work for their benefits or risk losing their entitlement, is similar in principle to the Victorian workhouses and utilises the same opportunities for labour exploitation amongst the vulnerable, the disabled and the mentally ill.

In conclusion, social conditions may have improved a bit since the Victorian era but attitudes have not. At a time of economic recession, when an angry nation is hungry for a scapegoat for its financial woes, the benefit-claiming poor are as vulnerable to public opprobrium and scorn as they were in the nineteenth century.

And although we are a secular culture, the Christian Work Ethic of humility, frugality and diligence still has the power to shape public attitudes to the unemployed.

Image reproduced from thelunaticarms.wordpress.com

Nostalgia – Part 2

“The past is not dead; it is living in us and will be alive in the future, which we are now helping to make.” – William Morris

In Part One of my nostalgia-themed article, I pointed out that the cult for nostalgia is not new, discussing the Victorian predilection for an idyllic past as exemplified through the illustrations of Kate Greenaway.

This week, in Part Two, I will be exploring the contemporary predilection for all things historical. This is a phenomenon we find expressed in the popularity of vintage clothing, and ‘retro’ styles of music, but which is perhaps most interestingly expressed in the popularity of the ITV1 series, Downton Abbey.

Cast of Downton Abbey

Fashion and popular music have always inclined towards the referential, invoking familiar sounds and images that hark from different eras. Treating the past as a vast shopping centre from which one can annex any style one chooses and reproduce it in a consciously ironic reference lies at the heart of post-modernity, to cite an over-used phrase. It is what one might call conspicuous irony.

Madonna has achieved precisely this type of relentless referentiality throughout her musical career. Her video for Vogue, released in 1990, was a pastiche of Marlene Dietrich in the film noire genre and her 1989 video for Express Yourself was a direct reference to the Fritz Lang film, Metropolis. 

Marlene Dietrich and Madonna

There is, however, a fundamental difference between this type of post-modern referentiality – self-conscious and ironic in essence – and the simple nostalgic yearning to return to an idyllic past. The post-modern sensibility is one in which there is a disenchantment with meaning.

The current leaning towards nostalgia is closer to what can be described as pre-modern, since it expresses a simple desire to revisit a time, or times, that have passed; not in order to repudiate or subvert meaning, but to recover it.

The pre-modern sensibility is more to do with taking a stand against the modern world, or expressing disenchantment with it and it is my belief that we are evolving from a post-modern culture into one that is pre-modern. That is, we have become disenchanted with disenchantment. The endless reproduction of images dissociated from their original meaning so beloved of an ironic post-modern sensibility is, ultimately, unnerving and disorientating because as human beings we have a basic need to discern meaning in our lives.

The success of ITV1’s Downton Abbey, for example, has nothing to do with irony and everything to do with the type of pre-modern nostalgia that yearns to return to a time when things seemed to make more sense.

Of course the catalyst for this current nostalgic mood is the recession. Times of economic uncertainty cause us to become introspective and nervous about the future. Instead, we retreat to the relative comfort of the past, which seems rosier and cosier than our bleak present.

Economic uncertainty can also make us feel cast adrift, unsure of our place in the great scheme of things and as we struggle to comprehend how the Western World got itself into such a mess, we may wonder if the phenomenon of the economic boom is becoming a thing of the past.

The past, of course, is a non-threatening place. We already know what the past is, or we think we do. The future, on the other hand is, as Shakespeare would say, “that undiscovered country,” an unknown place that, in times of recession, can become a terrifying one.

It is of particular note that in the equally economically depressing 1970s – also a time of recession – there was the power shortage; the oil crisis of 1973, when the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath imposed a three day week as an emergency measure. During this time, there was a plethora of period dramas such as Poldark, The Onedin Line, Flambards, and of course, Upstairs, Downstairs. 

Cast members from Upstairs Downstairs

The fashion for period dramas says much about our collective fears, our cultural aspirations and perceptions. The Edwardian era, in which Downton Abbey is set, was a time before the world changed irrevocably, before the carnage of the First World War, when the collective consciousness of the nation was still relatively naïve and idealistic.

In Edwardian times, the climate of optimism and innovation so characteristic of the Victorian era was still very much in evidence, as the Edwardians lived through a host of new-fangled innovations: the automobile, electricity, the telephone, central heating.

Indeed, there are some amusing scenes in Downton Abbey where characters struggle to cope with new inventions. Carson, the butler, has no idea how to use the newly installed telephone and holds it the wrong way round, then jumps out of his skin when the operator comes onto the line.

Downton Abbey's Carson played by Jim Carter

It is easy to see why, as well as envying what we perceive as their comparative complacency, we might identify with the Edwardians. They struggled to adjust to their new world much as we have struggled to ours – in our case, grappling with the complexity of computers in the often too-rapid advancement of technology; coping with the consciousness shifts brought about by global capitalism.

Like us, the Edwardians lived and worked in an uncertain, ever-changing world, in which the everyday lives of ordinary men and women were being revolutionised, both economically and culturally. The Edwardian world, contrary to popular belief in the myth of the Long Summer – was not a stable and secure one, but one fraught with protests and strikes. It saw the rise of the working man, through the founding of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions, as well as the long and often violent struggles of the Suffragette movement, which by the First World War, had secured votes for women.

Yet somehow our lives seem so much more troubled and uncertain than those of our Edwardian predecessors. It is not with irony that we follow the story of Downton Abbey’s cast of characters, but with a sentimental and perhaps rather self-indulgent fondness for times past, for ‘better’ times.

Until the recession ends, if it ever does, our days of conspicuous irony are over.

Images reproduced from madblackcat.com, thepixeljunkie.blogspot.com, guardian.co.uk and itv.com

Workhouse or Workfare? Attitudes Haven’t Changed – Part 1


The Workhouse

Few people would dispute that social conditions and standards of living for the poor have improved since Victorian times. Yet, the Government’s draconian measures against benefit claimants suggest that conditions may have improved but attitudes have not really changed.

The poor, especially those unable – some would argue unwilling – to work, are regarded with a similar vitriolic contempt as they were in the nineteenth century. The Victorians called those too ill or sick to work ‘the undeserving poor;’ referred to these days as the underclass.

The relationship between the poor and work has always been complex, having its roots in the Christian belief in the redemptive power of work. The Protestant Work Ethic, as it has been described by social historians, was founded upon the belief that humility, frugality and good old fashioned hard work were steps along the road to salvation.

The Victorians strongly believed in the notion of work, as a means of keeping the poor out of trouble and keeping them humble so that they could be unitised as cheap labour, about which the Christian Work Ethic was adamant that they should not complain, since they would gain their reward in heaven.

During the Victorian period there was of course, no benefits system and the only means of support for the very poor, was to enter the workhouse, where they would have to endure hours of tedious, menial work for little pay and negligible nutrition.

Workhouse inmates were put to work in jobs such as picking oakum with a spike (workhouses were colloquially known as ‘spikes,’ perhaps because of this) – breaking stones, and bone-crushing for use in fertiliser. Some were so hungry and malnourished that they would suck the marrow from the bone before crushing it.

Of course the Victorians did not invent the workhouses, though the inexorable link between the workhouse and the nineteenth century is due in part to Charles Dickens’ Oliver, in which the workhouses are depicted as corrupt and filthy and their inmates as malnourished, starving and desperate.

The workhouses go as far back as the fourteenth century, to the Poor Law Act of 1388, when the labour shortages due to the Black Death meant that the movement of labourers needed to be restricted and so the poor were put into workhouses and became the responsibility of the state.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there was mass unemployment, a fact that was not helped by the invention of new agricultural technology that made many farm labourers redundant and therefore reliant upon state support. Poor relief was becoming difficult to sustain and maintain.

Thus, in 1834, a new Poor Law Act was introduced that attempted to tackle the problem of an ever-burgeoning state-dependant poor. This act has been heavily criticised for its harshness, since its chief objective was to discourage or refuse poor relief to those who would not enter the workhouse, thus forcing many people to do so against their will.

Many authorities saw the opportunities for cheap labour and exploited it to its hilt. As we know from Charles Dickens, whose harsh experiences with poverty shaped much of his early life, the workhouses were designed to be harsh and unbearable in order to ensure that those who were able-bodied did not enter them, and that only the really desperate applied.

Join us next Thursday when Julia continues her discussion of the attitudes to the poor in Part 2 of Workhouse or Workfare?

Image reproduced from tumblr.com

Ghost Stories – Part 2

In Part One, I looked at the history of the ghost story, utilising Freud’s essay The Uncanny to argue that ghosts are representations of collective fears and prejudices. I argued that, in the Victorian era – when there were stronger boundaries and taboos – ghosts were represented in fiction as threatening, mysterious and sinister, consistent with the prejudices and fears of which they were an expression.

The Victorian ghost is, on the whole, a portend of doom and calamity whose true essence can never truly be known since the ghost is not of this world, but a figure less than human; a dehumanised entity whose purpose is often, but not always a subversive one.

In Part Two, I will be exploring the modern ghost story and looking at how the representation of ghosts has changed.

Like most other things in contemporary culture, the ghost has in fact, been claimed by post-modernism, given a reworking on the post modern principles of collapsing polarity and the unsettling of pairs of opposites. In the case of the ghost story this polarity is the life/death polarity.

To clarify this, two examples of ghost stories that have adopted these principles are The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, and Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis.

In both of these films, the viewer is unaware at the start of the story, that the main protagonists are themselves ghosts, viewing life from an outsider’s perspective. Thus, the ghost – instead of being cast as the outsider looking in; the figure on the margins – is centralised as the main point of view character. The viewer – unless he or she notices the signs at the beginning of the story – is unaware that they are seeing the world through the eyes of the ghost.

In The Others, Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, lives in a large deserted house in Jersey after the Second World War, with her photosensitive children. She is waiting for her husband to come home from the war, though unbeknown to her, he is dead. Everything changes for her when some servants turn up at the house asking for work, even though the advert Grace had placed had not yet been published in the newspaper.

"Nicole Kidman", "The Others", "Ghosts"

Nicole Kidman in The Others

There is something disturbing about the servants, a woman and a deaf mute girl – and it transpires that they are ghosts. Gradually it becomes apparent that Grace had a breakdown and killed herself and her children and they have yet to accept that they are dead too.

In this moment the revelation for the viewer is that they too have to accept that they have been seeing the world through the eyes of a ghost. Such a revelation has the very post modern effect of unsettling the neat, established polarity between the living and the dead; of challenging and over-throwing the distinction between self and other.

In Sixth Sense, something similar happens with Bruce Willis’s character, the child psychologist Malcolm Crowe. Crowe becomes involved with a boy who ‘sees’ dead people, not realising that the boy only sees him because Crowe himself is dead.

Throughout the film there are tiny clues to this effect, such as when Crowe is dining with his wife and she does not actually acknowledge his presence, though he interprets her gestures and reactions as a response to him.

Once again the ghost is cast as a central, point-of-view character and the viewer is tricked into seeing the world through the eyes of the ghost until the revelation comes, and the line between life and death is challenged and, temporarily, overthrown.

Such examples, I would argue, illustrate a culture tolerant of difference; a society that seeks to embrace and celebrate the marginalised point of view; collapsing or overturning the often oppressive polarities that have governed the way we think, especially where those polarities have been transcribed into a governing ideology in which the first of a pair of opposites is the dominant one, e.g. male/female, white/black, straight/gay.

Thus, the post-modern ghost reflects the cultural need to dismantle the oppressive polarisation of opposites being challenged elsewhere in our language.

Contemporary representations of the ghost symbolise this trend towards inclusion and the embracing of difference; reflecting society’s move away from the marginalisation of minorities and the suppression of alternative voices and points of view. In short, in societies where there are less taboos, the figure of the ghost is friendlier and less threatening.

Of course not all modern ghost stories conform to this pattern. The recent adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe reverts back to a more traditional ghost story. Indeed, Hill’s tale could easily have been written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, drawing as it does, upon the classic ghost story tradition of the malevolent figure with malign intentions, the sighting of which is a portend of doom and disaster.

Thus, it is safe to say that, in this era of technological excess and the relentless march of scientific progress – the ghost story is experiencing something of a revival. This perhaps should not come as a surprise, since a fascination with spiritual matters abounded in the late nineteenth century, when society was teetering on the brink of a new world and experiencing the often negative effects of the Industrial Revolution – effects which for many, included the dehumanisation and mechanisation of life through mass production and factories in which the need for the re-spiritualization of life, whereby we are reminded of our humanity, was ever-present.

In our time, the increasing pace of technological progress, the advances made by science, as well as the gradual decline of orthodox religion have each helped create a spiritual void.

Human beings have a fascination for mystery, for things that defy logic and explanation; for things which, as it were, go bump in the night. The popularity of programmes such as Most Haunted testifies to this.

In spite of how far science has come, or maybe because of it, we still like to think that the world has retained an element of mystery; that there is something out there which is beyond the scope of the relentless rationality and analytic scrutiny that has become the governing sensibility of our time.

Perhaps too much knowledge is a burden and we feel safer with the idea that some things can never be known. Or perhaps we hanker after the lost innocence of a less rational age, where myth could fill in the gaps left by science and our imaginations could flourish without censure or fear of ridicule.

Whatever the reason, ghost stories still grip the imagination with as much fervour as ever, reminding us of that primal fear of the dark; even in our over-lit, clinical age.

Image reproduced from thefilmpilgrim.com

Nostalgia – Part 1

We live, it would seem, in nostalgic times. Clothing now hailed as the height of fashion by critics and fashionistas, is more often than not, derivative of earlier times; usually the 1960s and seventies, sometimes earlier. Often this is regarded by cultural critics as referentiality; a self-conscious and ironic invocation of the past through the replication of familiar images, known as post-modernism, in which nothing is produced, merely reproduced. Yet behind such post-modern referentiality is a longing for better times that is anything but “ironic”. In Part Two of this article I will be exploring this contemporary tendency towards nostalgia, in the light of the success of period dramas such as Downton Abbey.

Nostalgia, however, is nothing new. From the mid-nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution, which urbanised the English landscape through expanding cities and the building of new factories, gave rise to a growing nostalgia for times past and for a forsaken rural idyll.

No artist epitomises this reflective mood better than the children’s illustrator and writer, Kate Greenaway. Greenaway harked back to the eighteenth century for the inspiration for her character’s clothing, drawing her ideas from the empire line dresses and pantaloons fashionable during this period. 

Kate Greenaway

Greenaway’s idyllic childhood paved the way for the idealistic portrayals of childhood depicted in her paintings and illustrations. To this day, Greenaway’s romantic rural images, of immaculately attired children playing in lush gardens on perfect summer days, symbolise a yearning for a lost innocence which while seeming a little sentimental in our cynical times, nevertheless still speaks volumes about the English attitude to landscape, essentially one of melancholia and loss.

Born in London in 1846 to an artist father and a mother who ran a gift shop, Greenaway, along with the painter Helen Allingham, was one of the most successful female painters of her day. Greenaway studied at the Slade School of Art, after which she began producing illustrations and had her first exhibition in 1868, at the tender age of twenty-two, which included a watercolour and a series of illustrations for fairy stories. Following this, interest in her work was such that she received a commission from the editor of the People’s Magazine. This led to her being asked to illustrate Christmas and Valentine cards for a company called Marcus Ward. These designs secured her further commissions and she began to achieve a modicum of success as a freelance illustrator and by 1871 her annual income amounted to just over seventy pounds, by 1877 this had reached around three hundred pounds. In addition she held exhibitions at the Royal Academy, as well as taking in regular commissions from the famous London Illustrated News.

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamlin

Her partnership in 1878 with Edmund Evans, ostensibly the finest engraver in London, led to the production of her first children’s book, Under the Window. This secured her position as the most famous illustrator of the Victorian age and by 1881 her annual income was in the region of £1,500, not a lot of money by modern standards but a sizeable amount in late Victorian times.

A study of her work reveals a surprisingly broad plethora of influences. While at an immediate glance we discern a traditional and rather sentimental Victorian fussiness, upon closer inspection this use of detail and sense of design owes much to the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic movement, both popular artistic fashions of the time. Her passion and the prevailing subject of her paintings was nature and the study of the natural world, a factor which aligned her with artists such as Rossetti and Lord Leighton, key figures in the pre-Raphaelite movement.

Greenaway led a relatively sheltered life and did not travel much, a factor which is reflected in her quintessentially English drawings, though she was friends with some of the greatest artists of her day, including the poets Browning and Tennyson, as well as the cultural critic John Ruskin, whose ideas would later influence Oscar Wilde.

One of Greenaway’s most interesting legacies is her influence upon children’s fashions. The high-wasted empire gowns depicted in her illustrations and paintings became the fashion for those who liked to dress their children in historic clothing. This paved the way for a romanticised ideal of childhood, in which freedom and play, expressed through the physical freedom of the loose flowing gowns, became central to the notion of a lost innocence, of a forsaken childhood.

What is noteworthy here is the link between the “innocent” childhood and the “historical” style of the clothing in which the children are depicted. From an adult perspective and in the popular culture of the day, childhood is mapped as the lost idyllic past, a factor that is borne out by images of clothing that refers back to an earlier time.

May Day

When something – such as childhood, or landscape – is perceived as irretrievably lost it becomes idealised, like the Eden myth, and we are barred from returning to it by the proverbial flaming sword. It gives rise to a yearning – to what I have elsewhere described as a “wound of lost community” (The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde, A Cultural Afterlife, Lutterworth Press, 2007) – a longing to be elsewhere; to be in a better place, somewhere other than here and now. Because we human beings are quixotic creatures we buy into the myth of the perfect past, of the lost Eden.

These days, Kate Greenaway’s paintings, along with those of her contemporary, Helen Allingham, are often to be found hanging in pubs and hotels, teasing us with the promise of Eden with their images of happy children playing in meadows in flowing gowns. In our cynical times the child in the sunny meadow is still a powerful image, one that resonates powerfully with those who lament the erosion of the natural environment and the ever expanding metropolis.

A Victorian Christmas – Part 2

In the second part of her look at the Victorian Christmas, Julia Wood examines the customs and traditions the Victorians started which we continue today. Click here to read part one of this article…

Until the Victorians, the giving of presents had been a New Year tradition but this tradition was moved to Christmas to reflect the significance of the Christmas festival. Because they were small, modest and relatively light, these gifts were usually hung on the Christmas tree. However, the giving of gifts quickly became more central to Christmas, the gifts became bigger and people bought rather than made them. The increased size and weight of the gifts made it impractical to hang them on the tree, so they were placed underneath it.

Although the notion of the Christmas feast has its origins in the mediaeval period, it was during the Victorian era that the meal we have come to associate with Christmas first began to emerge. Mince pies were originally made from savoury meat and not from fruit but in the Victorian era recipes without meat began to accrue popularity, giving us the mince pies we know today.

Meats such as roasted beef and goose had been in vogue until the Victorians, who added turkey to this repertoire, at least in the wealthier echelons of society but by the early twentieth century turkey had become the main Christmas dish.

Although the first collection of carols was published in 1833, four years before Victoria came to power, the Victorians also revived and popularised carols, setting old words to new tunes.

What is more, the Victorians have bequeathed to us, the notion of Christmas as a family time, with all the festivities such as eating and parlour games centred upon the family.

However, Victorian society was at the nadir of consumer culture and people did not have the presents they have today. Even the children from wealthy families would have been unlikely to receive more than one present and many gifts were hand-made rather than shop-bought. Popular amongst wealthy children were Dutch dolls, a doll’s house or the newly emerging teddy bear.

Without television or computer games people played socially interactive games – parlour games like Charades and Blind Man’s Buff and of course most houses would have had a piano around which the family would gather to sing popular songs.

In our socially isolated times, many people live alone and the insular nature of television and computers makes social interaction less likely, even for those with families. There is, it seems a warmth and conviviality about the Victorian Christmas, or at least our perception of it – which we find irresistible. The past, and especially Christmases past, exude a luxurious and sumptuous comfort. Perhaps we feel people were happier then, in spite of consumption and the workhouses and the crippling poverty in the slums where people often slept six to a bed.

An internet search for anything about Victorian Christmas will turn up a wealth of sites advertising Victorian ‘Fayres’ and Victorian themed Christmas events. Perhaps this is simply because we have inherited our notions of Christmas from the Victorians, who did, after all, invent it. Or perhaps Christmas simply brings out the sentimental traditionalist in everyone.

Image reproduced from michellehenry.fr

Ghost Stories: Part 1 – A Potted History

Ghost stories, it would seem, retain a timeless appeal. In this first of another two-part article, I will be looking at the history of the ghost story.

In the second, I will be exploring why ghost stories are still capable of captivating us today, how the Victorian model of the ghost has shifted from dehumanised to humanised spectre and why. I will be examining the treatment of the subject in modern films and television, arguing that contemporary writers and film-makers treat the world of the afterlife and the idea of the ghost quite differently from our Victorian predecessors.

This cultural shift, I will argue, is one that reflects our greater tolerance for those once confined to the margins of society.

People throughout the ages have enjoyed stories about ‘spooks’ and spirits. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth are gripping ghost stories that still appeal to the contemporary imagination.

Hamlet is plagued by the ghost of his father, urging him to avenge his death by murdering his uncle, Claudius; while Macbeth is troubled by disturbing visions of Banquo’s ghost after sending two assassins to murder him whilst he is out hunting.

However, the era most notable for its ghost stories was the Victorian period, when the gothic novel was at the height of popularity.

The Victorians loved a good ghost story and literature of the time abounds with tales of hauntings and ghostly happenings. Writers in the Victorian gothic genre included Henry James, Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens, to name but a few.

Perhaps the most famous ghost story of all is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, which tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by the spirit of his business partner, Jacob Marley, described by Dickens as having, ‘a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.’ Scrooge is subsequently visited by Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.

In traditional ghost stories the apparition, the visiting spirit wants something, often, but not always, revenge. An apparition is usually a portend of doom, a sign that bad things are going to happen to the person to whom they pay their ‘visit,’ and the experience of an other-worldly visitation is, more often than not, an unpleasant one.

The etymological root of ghost is, ironically, quite hard to pin down but its most common derivation is the German word ‘geist,’ from geis, meaning to be excited, amazed or frightened and this is invariably the effect upon the character in the story who sees a ghost.

Scrooge is all of these in turn, since the three ghosts of Christmas appear as catalysts for his emotional and psychological transformation, and ultimately produce a positive effect upon him but they are also sinister because what Scrooge sees frightens him, and they frighten us too, because, as the reader, we do not initially know what their purpose is.

It is this sense of the unknown which is a key factor in creating the dramatic tension in any ghost story. Yet this unknown is a paradox because it is also the known; the familiar fear, the primal terror of something beyond our understanding which has its origins from somewhere deep within the human psyche.

Sigmund Freud describes this in his essay The Uncanny (1919) – as Das Unheimlich, ‘the opposite of the familiar,’ but is actually foreign and familiar at the same time – ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich,’ sometimes translated as homely and unhomely.

The Uncanny presents a highly persuasive explanation of the cultural role of ghosts, in our folklore and in our literature and one which serves us well in understanding how the role of the ghost has shifted in modern times, moving from dehumanised to humanised as our cultural values have simultaneously shifted from prohibitive to permissive.

Culturally, Freud argues, taboo subjects and ideas with which we are uncomfortable – often of a sexual origin – become repressed and then projected onto objects or figures that are then imbued with the very fears and anxieties we carry within us and as a result, deemed frightening or, in Freud’s word, unheimlich: uncanny, unfamiliar.

Traditionally, ghosts represent our repressed fears and anxieties; cases where the familiar has become strange, sinister, threatening – beyond the realms of the human, no longer living and yet not dead. They invoke feelings of distaste and fear because we cannot identify them.

We are unable to pinpoint their origins or work out where they belong within the polarity that is life/death. They belong in the shadows, on the margins, outside the boundaries of society. Of course, the Victorians had far more clearly defined boundaries than we do, coupled with a greater sense of censoriousness defining their notions of the acceptable and the unacceptable.

For example, to name a couple of Victorian taboos, homosexuality was still punishable by law and having a child out of wedlock would condemn the mother to the life of a pariah.

Thus, if as Freud argues, ghosts are an expression of repressed fears and anxieties; the familiar turned frightening, then it is no surprise that the traditional Victorian ghost – perhaps with the exception of the affable Simon de Canterville in Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost – should be unidentifiable and sinister.

The Victorians had stricter moral and social codes than we do; stronger boundaries for what was within and what was outside, the realms of society and the norm; stronger prejudices and beliefs, both secular and religious.

It is no wonder then, that the classic Victorian literary ghost should be a sinister figure hovering on the margins of life and death, a figure mostly devoid of humanity who cannot be brought into the realms of the human but remains mysterious, elusive and unsettling.

In Part Two, I will be discussing the post-modern ghost, a new, humanised figure, who is a reflection our culture’s absorption of previously marginalised identities and value systems as well as our need to overturn the polarities that many minorities have found oppressive.

Image reproduced from allposters.com