Things I Bet You Didn’t Know About Victorian England


Huffington Post Books tweeted a cute little blog post called “Things You Didn’t Know About Dickens’s London.”  Lo and behold, I didn’t know all of these things!  I decided to add a few tidbits of my own that I have come across in all of my extensive research of the Victorian Era.  Here are a few more things you probably didn’t know about Victorian England.

1.  Victorian women would often use their bustles to hide baskets of food so they could enjoy a discreet snack during a long, dull house-call or a particularly strenuous turn about the garden.

"Got any Doritos in there?  I'm positively ravenous!"

“Got any Doritos in there? I’m famished!”

2.  It was required by law that the height of a man’s top hat be directly proportional to the length of his, um, manhood.  Some gentlemen paid large sums of money to convince their milliners to “exaggerate.”

"Who do you think you are, Michael Fassbender?"

“Albert, who do you think you are, Michael Fassbender?”

3.  The Victorian pre-cursor to modern “Stitch and B*tch” clubs were called “Sew and Blow.”  Ladies would bring their sewing and alternate taking hits of cocaine, which at the time was thought to have medicinal qualities.

4.  Wealthy women would often employ a maid whose sole job was to give them pedicures.

5.  As the Victorian obsession with Far East Asian culture and decor died out in the late 1880’s, it was replaced be a brief fad for West Indian culture.  Dreadlocks and Rasta colors were very popular for a few seasons in London.

We be jammin'.

We be jammin’.

6.  Victorians actually invented the first orbital rocket but were so embarrassed by its shape that they never launched it.

Actual name of this photo from Wikipedia "Atlas V First Stage Erection."  Geez, even I'm uncomfortable.

Actual name of this photo from Wikipedia, “Atlas V First Stage Erection.” Geez, even I’m uncomfortable.

If you’ve made it this far, I expect you have figured out that these are not, in fact, true at all.  So please don’t cite us in any class papers, kids!



A Victorian Dictionary


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In the back of my Harper Collins E-book version of North and South, there’s an appendix called “Classic Literature: Words and Phrases, adapted from the Collins English Dictionary.”  Skimming through, I noted that there were a number of words that have modern meanings quite different from the definition listed.  Some of these have confused me in the past when I’ve come across them in novels, so I thought I’d share a few with you.

The following text is from “Gaskell, Elizabeth.  North and South, Harper Press Collins Classics, London 2012.”

Artificially ADJ artfully or cleverly

bait VERB to stop on a journey to take refreshment, “They stopped to bait the horse…”

basin NOUN a cup without a handle “who is drinking his tea out of a basin” (this one could be a bit confusing – someone is moon-shining in the tub?)

by hand PHRASE a common expression meaning that baby had been fed either using a spoon or a bottle rather than by breast-feeding “she had brought me up ‘by hand’

canvas VERB to discuss

chopped VERB to come suddenly or accidentally “if I had chopped upon them”

coil NOUN noise, fuss, of disturbance

complacency, complaisance NOUN eagerness/desire to please others

fob NOUN a small pocket in which a watch is kept (so not a key chain that unlocks your carriage?)

haggler NOUN someone who travels from place to place selling small goods and items

interview NOUN meeting

lapse NOUN flow “stealing with silent lapse to join the brook”

lottery tickets NOUN a popular card game

treadmill NOUN a device for hard labour or punishment in prison (That one hasn’t really changed except they aren’t just in prisons anymore)

nice ADJ discriminating. Able to make good judgments or choices.

noggin NOUN a small mug or a wooden cup

physic NOUN medicine

pox NOUN sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis (Ah!  So was “a pox upon thee!” a curse of syphilis?  That’s way more hardcore than a curse of chicken pox)

sensible ADJ to be aware or conscious of something

supper NOUN a light meal taken late in the evening.  The main meal was dinner which was eaten at four or five in the afternoon.

trump NOUN a good, reliable person who can be trusted (Hmm, I can think of a modern counter-example of a Trump…)

vamp VERB to walk or tramp to somewhere (not involving Sookie Stackhouse)



For my birthday this year, I received a lovely gift from my dear friend Lady Brett Ashley.  She gave me this beautiful Encyclopedia of the Victorian Age!  I hope to find inspiration here for many new blog posts over the coming months.  Thanks, Brett!



Period Drama Tropes – Gotta Love ‘Em

Someone help me; I am currently totally obsessed with North & South.  Heather and I watched it over the weekend, and I hear Heather hasn’t left her room since. There are a lot of close parallels between North & South and Pride and Prejudice (did anyone in Gaskell’s time think this book was a little hacky?), but while watching, Heather and I also noticed a lot of commonalities with other period dramas.  If you watch enough of these, you start to catch on to some of the common devices used both in the books and in the films.  Here are a few we have noticed.   

Hottie McSmolderson as Leading Man



 The truly memorable period dramas are the ones that bring the brooding hotties, am I right?  There is nothing like seeing a beloved book character brought to scowling, fist-clenching life by a handsome actor.  No matter how charmed you are by that man, do NOT under any circumstances watch the special features interview with him.  He might just be wearing a cheesy, surfer-dude hemp and wood bead choker, and it WILL RUIN IT FOR YOU.  <Ahem>

Meaning-Laden Hand Touch

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Be it a handshake, a finger-brush while passing a tea cup, or a stumble-and-catch, the hand touch is the opening salvo of romantic affection.  Watch out, heroine, emo is coming your way!

Imperious, Haughty Old Lady Who Likes To Stir Things Up

Gotta love the snooty old busy-bodies up in everyone’s business.  They are there to stir the pot, sometimes give the heroine key information, and sometimes to act as an established authority figure against whom the plucky heroine can rebel in order to develop her character.

The Foolish/Uncouth/Ugly Woman Who is There for Comic Relief and Contrast with the Clever, Plucky Heroine

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You’ve gotta have her – the ignorant, silly, snobby, or maybe just large-footed woman who is there to either make you chuckle or make the heroine look so much better in comparison.  Or maybe she’s just there to make those of us who don’t haven’t dainty feet feel bad. 

The  “Don’t Worry Primary Love Interest, He’s Actually My Brother/Cousin/Other Platonic Relation” Misunderstanding


 I swear…it’s not what you think!  Or, well, maybe it is?  Don’t worry Primary Love Interest – you may think I like THIS OTHER PERSON, but he is actually just a plot device to cause misunderstandings and further draw out our slow-burn love affair.  BTW, I’m totally counting Star Wars as a period drama. 

Kind of Boring Dying Person (also, Martyr-Like Angelic Character)


Generally set up either as another contrast to the energetic, strong heroine, the angelic character can also convey a social or spiritual message.  She may be someone less fortunate than the heroine in some way, be it physical strength, social position, or family situation, and her loss serves to build the protagonist’s character.  Either way, she generally doesn’t have much of a personality.

Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’ll be in the basement re-watching the Northbound train scene.  Feel free to leave other tropes we missed in the comments section, or just talk North & South.



North & South, where have you been all my life?!




If you mention a movie called North & South to an American, they will likely first think of the American Civil War epic of the same name.  This may be why it took me a while to realize that this is also the title of a 19th century novel and a fantastic corresponding BBC mini-series.  I just watched the series this past week, and it…is…awesome.  Like, tingly-feels, heart-meltingly good.  I just watched it through this week, and I’m making Heather watch it with me again on Saturday.  I’ve also started reading the book.

I was fascinated by the dichotomy of the English northern and southern regions, primarily because the differences seem so similar to ours in the U.S.  I, like Margaret, grew up in the rural (American) South and learned to love nature and the out-of-doors.  I grew up hearing stories about how the more industrial North is full of Yankees who are rude and brusque, always in a hurry.  After college, I spent two years in the North at graduate school and was finally able to observe “Northern” culture first-hand.  At first, I felt much like Margaret arriving in Milton, a little bit confused and disoriented.  People WERE more rude!  And they drove like crazy!  Everything they said down South was RIGHT!  Except, it wasn’t.  The more time I spent in the Northeast, the more I grew to love what makes it, and the people, unique – efficiency, strength of character, valuing education and discussion – many of the same qualities Margaret learns to love in the movie.  When visiting home, I couldn’t help but realize what Margaret also did upon her return to Helstone – the South wasn’t quite as perfect as I had thought it was.  I began to see the flaws I hadn’t noticed before.  And you know what?  I even ended up marrying a Yankee!  Now, all this being said, I am and likely always will be a proud Virginian.  I moved back down South after school, and I will probably never leave, but my time spent in the North helped to dispel some of the regional prejudices imparted to me in my youth.

So my question to our English readers is, does modern England still have these regional differences, or has the country since become more homogenized?  Can any of you relate to Margaret’s journey in the same way?

Victorian Hottie of the Week: Wilfrid Scawen Blunt


626ad8e85b4a07636135c94ef2bac51aCalling all Willem Dafoe fans – I’ve got a hottie for you!  Well, he’s a hottie for everyone, really.  This is Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.  He was an English poet, writer, and horse-breeder (HEATHER!) who lived from 1840-1922.  He was an anti-Imperialist who spent a lot of time in Egypt, the Middle East, and India.  He married Lord Byron’s granddaughter, Lady Anne Noel, but had numerous affairs, notably with Catherine “Skittles” Walter, a famous Victorian courtesan (she’s worth a post herself, btw – I’ll get on that next).  Wilfrid and Lady Anne brought the first Arabian horses to England, starting a horse farm called Crabbet Arabian Stud.  I think it’s clear that the horses weren’t the only studs at Crabbet Farm.



Bathsheba Everdene – Role Model or Another Anti-Feminist Trope?


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Upon beginning Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, I immediately connected with and was impressed by his heroine, Bathsheba Everdene.  Based on the first few chapters, this chick could have been Katniss’s ancestor.  She jumps into a traditionally male leadership role as the head of a large farm and prospers; it’s a surprising storyline for a Victorian novel.  Before long, though, this tough woman begins to show signs of some “classic” anti-feminist character flaws and ultimately loses her independence and control.  Hardy takes an admirable character and turns her into the same old tired trope of a woman wholly at the mercy of her own erratic emotions.

Though Gabriel’s first characterization of Bathsheba is to pointedly note her vanity, she quickly shows herself to be clever, resourceful, independent, and strong-willed.  Initially, I found her to be a refreshingly different heroine for a Victorian novel.  She starts out the novel as a relatively poor peasant girl but soon inherits her uncle’s farm upon his death and resolves to run it herself.  Here, she addresses her new staff at the farm on her first day in charge.

 “Now mind, you have a mistress instead of a master. I don’t yet know my powers or my talents in farming; but I shall do my best, and if you serve me well, so shall I serve you. Don’t any unfair ones among you (if there are any such, but I hope not) suppose that because I’m a woman I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good.”

(All.) “No’m!”

(Liddy.) “Excellent well said.”

“I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.

Sounds like a pretty solid job interview to me – I would hire her.  Bathsheba continues to impress as she determines to serve as her own bailiff and sell her corn at the market, where she is the only woman.  Her vanity is again apparent when she relishes the attention she gets from the men all around her, but I can’t entirely blame her for this.  In fact, I can relate.  I have to admit, every once in a while, when I look around a meeting room in which I am the only woman at the engineering company where I work, I get a little bit of a rush.  I take pride in my ability to prosper in a traditionally male industry, so I don’t begrudge her a little bit of vanity in that regard.  All in all, through the first several chapters of the book, I found Bathsheba a woman rather after my own heart, and I liked her.  “Now this is a feminist role model!  A woman ahead of her time!  Thank you, Thomas Hardy!” I thought.  But things go downhill from there.

Bathsheba’s first mistake is to capriciously send a valentine to a local confirmed-bachelor, an act which sets off an ultimately tragic chain of events.  The valentine was certainly a bad idea, but I feel that Bathsheba is punished too harshly for a ostensibly harmless joke.  When the bachelor, Farmer Boldwood, receives the letter, he starts down a path of desire for Bathsheba that becomes an obsession.  He confronts Bathsheba repeatedly, asking (in fact, nearly demanding) that she marry him, continually referring to the valentine as the impetus for his passions, and she, feeling guilty for her momentary lapse in judgment, promises or nearly promises to marry him despite not caring at all for him.  This was the first time I began to question her feminist credentials.  Perhaps she is driven more by penitence than by a lack of will, but Boldwood’s almost violent nature seems to frighten her into submission when she should have firmly held her ground, apologized once, and gotten a restraining order.  This is our first sign that while Bathsheba is a bold leader on the farm, she is meek when it comes to personal affairs, and that is why she (and Thomas Hardy) ultimately disappointed me.

It gets worse when she meets Sergeant Troy, the man she will ultimately marry.  After turning down Gabriel Oak, the first and most sensible of her suitors, and Boldwood, a gentleman who does seem to truly care for her, she falls for the rakish soldier.  This is the part that frustrated me the most.  Perhaps I have to concede that there would be no novel if Bathsheba had not chosen her husband poorly, but I was so disappointed that this independent-minded woman who starts out the novel claiming she has no interest in being married to any man (what a concept!) is suddenly overwhelmed by the dashing soldier’s over-the-top flattery.  She knows he’s no good, but she falls for him anyway.  Why must the bright, strong woman always fall for the rogue soldier?  Even Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennett is partially susceptible to this classic female failing.  Apparently all women, even the smart ones, are not only secretly foolish but are also entirely unable to control their emotions and make logical, sensible decisions when romantic feelings are involved.  They are ready to give up everything at the slightest nod from a handsome cavalry-man.  I’m so sick of reading that storyline.  This is not a story of a woman who is trapped and mistreated by society’s expectations for her, like Hardy’s Tess.  This is a woman who willfully chooses to debase herself, deny her talents, and submit to a transparently dishonest and immoral man because she “loves” him.  She blames this failing, her inability to control her own emotions, on her sex.

My poor life and heart, how weak I am!” she moaned, in a relaxed, desultory way, heedless of Liddy’s presence. “Oh, how I wish I had never seen him! Loving is misery for women always. I shall never forgive God for making me a woman, and dearly am I beginning to pay for the honour of owning a pretty face.”

As Troy grows colder towards her, Bathsheba becomes more desperate for his love, and he dislikes her more and more as the bold woman he married disappears and is replaced by a sniveling submissive.  Her subjugation of herself to him, which initially seems to be his expectation and desire, ultimately leads to his increasing disinterest and eventual rejection of her.  He asks her for money so that he can gamble and becomes angered when she will not give it to him.  When she concedes, gives him the money, and begs that he pay more attention to her instead of running off to the horse races, he becomes annoyed that she gave up so easily and acts so needy.  Is Hardy trying to show us that a woman’s strength and independence is a quality that a man should love in her and that she should honor?  Maybe I will give him the benefit of the doubt here and accept that interpretation.

In the end, Bathsheba gets what is meant to be a happy ending when she marries Oak, but by that time, she is a more somber version of her former self.  Hardy tells us that Gabriel and Bathsheba’s love is not based on passion but a sensible companionship borne out of mutual hardship and shared experience.  Yay?  Is this happily ever after?  After the disaster of her first marriage, I would expect Bathsheba to eschew any future romantic entanglements and return to her prosperous farm, free from any controlling male influence.  Instead, she chooses to remarry.  At the end of the novel, we don’t know if she lets Gabriel take over the management of the farm in her place or if they manage together – my hope is for the latter, but I think that outcome is unlikely.  Though blessed with many of the qualities of a good leader, Bathsheba fails to “sit at the table” as Sheryl Sandberg would tell her to do, and abdicates her power a second time.  Someone hand this woman a copy of Lean In.

Hardy’s novel presents the reader with a refreshingly strong female lead who quickly falls prey to one of the more anti-feminist tropes in literature, a complete inability to control her own “emotional female nature.”  Someone should have told Bathsheba that it’s ok to date the bad boys, but a smart girl doesn’t marry one.

Wilde Friday – On Spring



Contemplating all the things.

“All the spring may be hidden in the single bud, and the low ground nest of the lark may hold the joy that is to herald the feet of many rose-red dawns.”

-Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Today was the first day chez les Vicky A’s that actually felt like Spring. Many happy wishes for a good thaw, warm weather, and a happy weekend to you, our dear Readers.

Victorian Painting: Frederic Edwin Church – El Río de Luz (The River of Light), 1877


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In addition to my visit to the Chigusa Tea exhibition in the Sackler Gallery, I whiled away the hours at one of my all-time favorite museums, the National Gallery of Art. I always spend a great deal of time in the 18th and 19th century sections of the gallery and after spending some time with some old friends in British landscapes (J.M.W. Turner is a longtime companion), I found myself wandering into the American galleries and gazing dumbstruck at the above painting. It’s by Frederic Edwin Church, an American landscape painter from Connecticut, and was painted in 1877 on oil on canvas.

I first became acquainted with his work in an amazing exhibition at the American Art Museum back in 2012 called “The Civil War and American Art“, which featured many of his landscapes in a Civil War context. I was struck by the staggering beauty of his art, and the immensity and power of the works. As the above painting shows, his style “used extraordinary detail, romanticism, and luminism” in its depiction of a wild, idealized, uncorrupted, uninhabited nature, all of which was characteristic of the Romantic painters of the time.

There are many parts of this painting that I adore, but if I had to pick a favorite section, it might be the flock of birds in flight in the lower right side of the painting. It is actually breathtaking how realistic the birds seem in person; it’s more like a photograph than anything. Then your eyes move to the left to admire the translucent gleam on the ferns and fronds in the lower half of the painting and the varying greens on the moss and vines creeping up the trees. The ruby red throat of the bird sitting on the palm overlooking the vast river. The tiny, tiny boatman way in the distance, either coming or going from our idyllic paradise. The lushness of the whole scene is dominated by the perfect beams of light from the sun, giving the painting its name: El Rio de Luz, or the River of Light. I must have stood in front of this painting for nearly 20 minutes and could have stayed an hour more finding new things to love and appreciate about it. (Sorry, everyone: I am THAT person in the galleries who hogs up the space in front of the paintings for ages at a time. Just gently shoo me along.)

I’ll definitely be featuring more of his works in the future: he’s an art obsession of mine and he deserves to be one of yours as well, Dear Reader. See the enormous full size of the painting here or simply click on the image itself. Be careful: you might get lost in it for a time.