Ah, May! The time when a young gentleman’s fancy was said to turn toward his lady love. May Day was once a major holiday in Britain, although by the nineteenth century it had generally fallen out of favor in the sophisticated metropolis of London. The one exception was the annual chimney sweeps parade. Gentlemen who were acknowledged as scruffier than most for much of the year donned their finery (and apparently it was pretty good finery by all accounts of those who remember it fondly) and invited their lady friends to do the same, then paraded throughout the streets of the city (and other locations as well).
Among them was Jack-in-the-Green, termed “half animal, half vegetable.” This fanciful creature was covered in a cage of greenery that towered over his head and fell as low as his ankles. Sometimes he had a small hole that showed his face. Other times he was a giant walking bush with flowers sprouting from his head. Jack danced to the music of accompanying pipers and drummers. He was said to delight children and scare horses. I think you can see why.
Those members of the capital of a more staid persuasion looked forward to May 3 instead, for that was the traditional day that the Royal Academy began its Annual Summer Exhibition. Around 1,000 works of art, from promising amateurs to famous artists, were displayed at the Academy building. Everyone who could afford the 1-shilling entry fee strolled through the galleries to view paintings and sculpture. And it was a bet who was more crowded—the artwork or the people viewing it.
But supposedly one of “the most pleasing affairs in London” (which is saying a lot!) was held the last Tuesday of May. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce awarded its medals and awards from its grand room at the Adelphi Hotel. The Society of the Arts, as it was called (bit of a mouthful otherwise), had been established to promote the arts, manufacturers, and businesses of England and celebrated all useful inventions, discoveries, and improvements not protected by patents. The Society was frequently headed by a member of the royal household over the years, and the 1,800 members were chosen by ballot and paid two guineas annually for the privilege. Charles Dickens and William Hogarth the artist have had the honor of belonging to the Society. By the middle of the century, the Society was said to have awarded more than 100,000 pounds (millions of dollars by our standards.
Think they’d have any use for a writer of romances and teen novels set in the nineteenth century?