Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Victoria’s Children, Part 5: Princess Helena

I tend to think of Princess Helena as the forgotten child of Victoria. Both her older and younger sisters had higher public profiles because of their husbands (Vicky and Alice) or because of what they did (Louise, as we shall see, was a talented artist) or who they were (Beatrice was the Queen’s famous “Baby”). But poor Helena just seems to get lost in the crowd.

She was born on May 25, 1846, both the middle child and middle daughter among Queen Victoria’s offspring. She was christened Helena Augusta Victoria, but quickly came to be called ‘Lenchen’, a German diminutive form of her name, by her father, German Prince Albert. As the middle child, she was pretty much fated to a not very exciting life; her older sisters would be the only ones who lived outside of England on marrying…and for a royal princess in the mid-19th century, marriage was the only career option. Poor Lenchen grew into a not very prepossessing child, not as clever or artistically talented or pretty as some of her other sisters. She seems to have been, basically, a matter-of-fact, sturdy child who enjoyed the outdoors and animals. Her physical sturdiness (she would always be chunky throughout her life) belied something of an inner fragility, which became apparent on Prince Albert’s death in 1861, when she was fifteen. Princesses Alice and Louise became Victoria’s chief supporters, because Lenchen could not remain long with her mother without being overcome by Victoria’s grief and bursting into tears. After her older sister Alice married and moved to Darmstadt, though, it fell to Lenchen to be her mother’s assistant. Victoria had already decided that her youngest daughter, Beatrice, would eventually be her companion in old age, and started looking for a husband for a daughter who she considered “…most useful and active and clever and amiable” but who “does not improve in looks and has great difficulty with her figure and her want of calm, quiet, graceful manners.” Ouch!

A husband was eventually found for her in the form of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, an impecunious former solder, fifteen years Lenchen’s senior, who was in no danger of inheriting any position and who could therefore live in England and basically be “Mr. Lenchen”—while Lenchen herself could remain at her mother’s call. Despite this rather unprepossessing start the marriage of Prince and Princess Christian (as she was titled) seems to have been a relatively happy one, lasting 51 years until Christian’s death in 1917, and produced six children (two of whom died in infancy).

In addition to serving as an assistant to her mother, Lenchen took an interest in the infant profession of nursing and was first president of the Royal British Nurses’ Association. She also had an interest in fine needlework and was president of the Royal School of Needlework. Other interests included translation of German works into English (which she did on a semi-professional basis) and women’s rights (which she supported). Though some ill-health seems to have plagued her, whether physical or psychological, she remained a busy, if at times bossy, supporter of several organizations up until her death in 1923…on the whole, not a bad way for a 19th century princess to spend her days.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sighting the Great Comet

On March 25, 1811, an astronomer named Honore Flaugergues was scanning the night skies over his home in Viviers, France, when he suddenly sighted something odd. A glowing ball sat low on the horizon to the south and moved northward each night as it brightened. Over the next 16 months, people the world over watched the Great Comet as it passed earth on its 3,757-year orbit. Only Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 was visible longer in recorded history, and it was not as large. The Great Comet of 1811 must have been a magnificent sight, for its diameter was roughly the same as that of the sun. The tail was 110 million miles long, split into two branches like a crescent with the head at the center.

Today we know that comets are made from dust, rocks, and frozen methane, ammonia, and water. In the Regency, men of science knew them for anomalies in the solar system. People of a less scientific bent considered them omens of either good, or dire, fortune. Napoleon, for example, saw the comet as a sign of his divine right to conquer. He chose that winter to invade Russia, where the weather and valiant Russian people offered him his first major defeat.

In the United States, on the other hand, cults prepared for the end of the world. Particularly in the Ohio and Kentucky wilderness, people feared the worst. Of course, they’d had a rough year by any account. A summer drought killed the crops, and tornadoes and hurricanes plagued the area. Native American uprisings, a massive suicide by squirrels trying to swim the Ohio River, and a total eclipse of the sun on September 17 might have given anyone pause. However, what really shook things up was the Great Madrid earthquake.

The Great Madrid earthquake, centered in Madrid, Missouri, in December 1811 was felt all the way to Boston and changed the course of the Mississippi River for a time. It was the largest earthquake in the U.S. history, estimated to be at least 8.0 on the Richter scale (which had yet to be invented). The Louisiana Gazette and Daily Advertiser (New Orleans) said that the shake was possibly caused by the Great Comet passing westward and striking the “mountain in California.” Either that or God was visiting His wrath on northern areas beyond Natchez, which they deemed as particularly lawless.

An earlier earthquake in Cape Town, Africa, on June 2, 1811, was also blamed on the comet, which had been seen in the skies every night since May 12. People were certain the Cape was going to be annihilated. Today’s scholars even blame the comet for helping to inspire the Luddite riots in England in April 1811.

On there’s an excuse if I ever heard one: “I cannot favor you with a dance, Mr. Jones. The Great Comet was visible tonight, and I do not dare take the chance of something dire happening in this set.”

Monday, March 21, 2011

It’s Not That Easy Being Green

Sunday was the first day of spring! It was a very long and snowy winter here in the northeast—emphasis on the “snowy” part—and I for one am happy to see my snowdrops and crocuses poking up...except of course it just had to snow the day after I took that picture!

In the 19th century, it wasn't just the early spring bulbs that could show a hint of green. Young ladies also could take on a verdant tinge, if they were among the many sufferers of what was known as green sickness, also called chlorosis.

So what was it? In 1802 A.F.M. Willich, M.D. published a compendious 5-volume work called Domestic Encyclopedia; Or, A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge: Comprehending A Concise View Of The Latest Discoveries, Inventions, And Improvements, Chiefly Applicable To Rural And Domestic Economy; Together With Descriptions Of The Most Interesting Objects Of Nature And Art; The History Of Men And Animals, In A State Of Health Or Disease; And Practical Hints Respecting The Arts And Manufactures, Both Familiar And Commercial—quite a title, huh? His summary of green sickness calls it “a disorder which frequently attacks females after the age of puberty. It is attended by a depraved appetite and a desire to eat substances that are not food…the skin is pale and discoloured; the face sallow or greenish, but sometimes of a livid hue; there is a deficiency of blood in the veins; with a soft swelling of the whole body, especially the legs during the night; debility; palpitation; and a suppression of catamenia (menstruation).”

Yes, evidently, there was an epidemic among young women which made them turn slightly green and feel weak and exhausted. Fortunately, the good doctor was full of suggestions for treating this condition. For one thing, it was thought that marriage and childbearing provided the best cure; if that was not in the cards, then young women might try a nourishing diet with plenty of wine (but no spirits); moderate exercise, especially horseback riding, or a vigorous full-body rub with a warm flannel morning and evening, sleeping on mattresses rather than on feather-beds; early rising; and cheerful company. In addition, it was thought valuable to “keep the bowels open”, to wear worsted stockings rather than silk or cotton ones, and, as a last resort, to bathe on alternate days in tepid water, if the patient was strong enough to withstand such treatment. A medical professional might be called upon to give patient with severe cases doses of “dephlogisticated air” or oxygen, which would give almost immediate relief.

Sounds dire, doesn’t it?

So what, really, was green sickness? It wasn’t until the 1930s that medicine realized that it was actually a form of anemia—hardly surprising that young women entering puberty should be especially prone to it, then. Interestingly, a physician writing nearly two hundred years before our Dr. Willich also described green sickness in similar terms, and had his own cure for it: iron!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Looking to the Stars

A while ago on my ongoing series about nineteenth century heroines, we talked about Caroline Herschel, who learned astronomy from her famous brother, William Herschel (he discovered the planet Uranus, though he wanted to name it George), and went on to make many discoveries of her own. The nineteenth century was the time of the Grand Amateur—men and women who, by interest, ability, and fortune, made major contributions to the sciences like astronomy. There was something noble about discovering something new, whether it was a planet or the internal workings of a combustion engine. Discovery wasn’t, however, easy.

In astronomy in particular, the tools were still plagued with difficulties. Many astronomers still studied the heavens through little more than spy glasses. Most available telescopes involved refracting light through carefully crafted glass lenses rather than reflecting it through mirrors. These lenses sometimes gave their images a colored glow about the edges, making it hard to observe some celestial phenomena. Telescopes that did reflect the light used speculum, metal made from bronze and silver to create a mirror-like substance. Unfortunately, it tarnished easily and distorted the image.

In his quest for better viewing equipment, William Herschel learned to grind his own lenses, coat his own mirrors, and make his own telescopes. He started with smaller scopes, like this 7-footer . . .

then graduated to larger ones like this 20-foot goliath.

His skill was so great that other amateurs, including the King of Spain, commissioned scopes from him. Through a grant from King George III, he built a 40-foot-long telescope with a 49-inch mirror at his home in Slough, near Windsor, in what would be called Observatory House. It was the largest telescope in the world at the time, and a source of many visitors, until the Earl of Roth, an Irish peer, build a larger scope in 1845.

But even these mammoth scopes had problems. They were often mounted in such a way that turning them was difficult. If you were lucky, the dais on which they were built could be hand-cranked to swivel the telescope both horizontally and vertically, but this positioning could take hours or days. So basically you could watch a single slice of sky on a given night with a larger scope, which was not conducive to scanning the skies for anomalies or hunting comets.

And why would you want to hunt comets, you ask? That was one of the most exciting aspects of astronomy, your chance to make a name for yourself, to go down in history. All comets discovered during the early nineteenth century were first sighted with the naked eye, so anyone could get into the game. Next Friday marks the 200 anniversary of the sighting of the Great Comet, one of the brightest and largest comets ever seen on earth. Guess what I’m blogging about on that day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fashion Forecast: 1820

What was the well-dressed young lady wearing in 1820?

1820 was quite a year, starting out with two important deaths. In January, poor King George III finally succumbed to old age and ill health, making our friend Prinny the Prince Regent into King George IV. The old king’s death was hardly surprising…what did shock everyone was the death of his son, the Duke of Kent, just a few days before, of pneumonia. The Duke left a wife and a chubby eight-month old daughter, who would grow up to become Queen Victoria. But as these deaths took place late in the month, this Half Dress from the January Ackermann’s Repository doesn’t yet reflect mourning. The deep frill collar is rather pretty…and waistlines are as high as ever:

I have one word for this Carriage Dress from February (now reflecting the mourning that was customary for society after the death of a monarch): cozy! Note the enormous ermine muff on the chair behind her—yes, they’re still in fashion. (Ackermann’s Repository). One other noteworthy event for this month: John Tenniel, the illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass was born:By April we’ve moved into half-mourning as you can see in this Evening Dress from Ackermann. Note the waist set at the natural waistline...unusual for this year:Also featuring a lower waist is this gorgeous Court Dress from July's Ackermann. That's almost an entire ostrich worth of feathers on her head, don't you think? But the lace overskirt over the blue must have been lovely. Being received at court must have quite a memorable event, especially with the feud between the King and his wife Caroline, now returned from the continent and embroiled in a parliamentary struggle to remove her: This next dress is a bit unusual, and I can't help thinking it's almost more a costume than a dress. Perhaps this Cottage Dress is supposed to be an "at home" kind of dress for when one is feeling rustically domestic--note the apron-like front to the skirt, the scarf tied casually around the neck, and the straw hat (Ackermann's Repository, September issue):
What a charming Ball Dress! The white slip is looped back over the pink underskirt, and the dainty puff sleeves are striped pink and white. The bodice is again very high (Ackermann's Repository, September issue):
I love the flirty rows of ruffles around the hem of this Evening Dress from the October issue of Ackermann's Repository, which goes perfectly with her pose. I wonder what was in the letter she's holding to make her look so coy?:
This Walking Dress ushers in a style we'll see much of for the next several years: day dresses of solid-colored fabric, decorated with appliques, puffs, and ruchings of the same fabric, and topped by a bonnet of some description. This one appears to be asymmetrical in shape, and has rather hysterical little bows sewn inside as well as outside the brim, which must have been very distracting to the poor wearer (Ackermann):
What do you think of 1820's fashions?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Supporting the Troops

[First off—our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the earthquake and tsunami along the Pacific. Parts of my state are evacuating, and I’m thankful to have a mountain range between me and the coast. Wherever you are today, be safe!]
Spring is just around the corner! Can you feel it? The earliest flowers are poking up their heads, the grass is starting to green, and birds are singing. The coming of spring heralded many things for a young lady in nineteenth century London too: the opening of the Season right after Easter, more plays at the various theatres, and new performances at Astley’s Amphitheatre of Equestrian Delights. It also meant military spectacles.

Yes, various troops made a spectacle of themselves on a regular basis in London. Every morning around ten, soldiers marched and cavalry rode on the Horse Guards Parade at one end of St. James’s Park to the stirring beat of martial music. Two or three mornings during the week they invaded Hyde Park for more elaborate reviews, drilling and riding.

Of course, as a proper young lady, you would never ogle the men in uniform. But you could certainly find an excuse to indulge in the national fervor. You might have to take your sword-mad little brother to watch the hunks I mean soldiers drilling. You might have to go wave your handkerchief at a cousin of a dear friend, keeping up his morale and all that. And if you weren’t entirely sure when and where to accost er I mean encourage the troops, you could always send a servant to the offices of the Commander-in-Chief or the Adjutant General in Whitehall, where notices were posted as to when and where the troops would be drilling.

If you were very fortunate, and very well connected, you might be invited to review the troops with the monarch. King George had been famous for his reviews. Prinny, unfortunately, was less constant. For example, if it rained on a review day, he’d stay safe in Carleton House and send one of his underlings in his place, a habit that frustrated his advisors and his military. One of the most famous of his reviews happened after Napoleon was defeated the first time. Over 12,000 troops marshaled in Hyde Park to be reviewed by the Prince, King of Prussia, Czar Alexander I, the Duke of York, General Blucher, General Lord Beresford, and General Hill. Huge crowds turned out to cheer them.

All in the name of patriotism, of course.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Prince Regent, Part 5: An Admixture of Both?

1811 saw great changes in George’s life: it was the year that he became regent for his father, who had slipped irrevocably into his final illness, and it was also the year that he and Mrs. Fitzherbert split for good. One of Maria’s friends, Isabella, Lady Hertford, had been insinuating her way into George’s life and affections over the last couple of years, and George began to ignore Maria. By mid 1811, the final separation came when George refused her a seat near him at the great party he gave ostensibly for King Louis XVIII of France but really to celebrate his becoming regent. Though they corresponded intermittently on business matters (George paid Maria a pension for the rest of her life), they were through…unless you count the fact that George was buried with a miniature of Mrs. Fitzherbert next to his heart, and that Maria refused to be made a duchess after his death and never made public any information on their life together, as a less scrupulous—or loving—person might have done.

What of his other wife, the Princess of Wales? Relations between them had progressed from bad to worse, and Caroline seems to have behaved with great indiscretion (not to mention eccentricity). Official investigations into her personal conduct followed, with George hoping that divorce might be the final result. While she was officially cleared and remained George’s wife, it’s pretty certain that she took several lovers, and once Napoleon had been defeated she left England altogether in 1814 to travel in Europe, settling in Italy and continuing in her indiscreet, eccentric habits--dyeing her hair, wearing alarming gowns, and otherwise behaving scandalously according to English travelers who met her during these years. Her part of this story ends badly: on George’s becoming king, she came back to England demanding to be acknowledged as queen…and found herself instead responding to a Parliamentary bill attempting to annul her marriage to George (a divorce case might have revealed details about George’s own life, such as his relationship with Mrs. Fitzherbert, that he did not want to have made public—or at least officially public). Though the bill was narrowly passed in the House of Lords it was thrown out. A triumphant Caroline arrived at George’s coronation six months later expecting to be crowned queen, and instead was locked out of Westminster Abbey on George’s orders. She died three weeks later.

Once consequence of George’s relationship with Lady Hertford was a shift in his political views, from the liberal Whiggish leanings of his younger days toward the more conservative Tory viewpoint. As this coincided with his finally attaining political power as regent for the king, the political and social effect was profound. His struggles with Caroline took on party significance, as most prominent Whig politicians took her part, and with her failure and death came the eclipsing of the Whig party and the causes they fought for (Catholic emancipation, expanded suffrage) for the next decade, until George’s own death.

It’s a little sad to relate the rest of George’s life—his nine years as Prince Regent and ten as King George IV. Always chubby, he grew enormously fat, and as the handsomeness of his youth faded, he took to wearing wigs and make-up to try to regain it. His behavior was sometimes erratic—in later years he managed to convince himself that he’d fought at the Battle of Waterloo (a sign of his lasting disappointment that he’d never been allowed an army career?) His last female “friend”, Lady Conyngham, didn’t help matters. This time she was actually younger than George (all his previous mistresses had been older) but still had the aura of motherliness that he always seemed drawn to. However, she and her husband were also extremely greedy, and took whatever the generous George offered in the way of jewelry, land, or office and influence. Between his own behavior and hers, George lost what little popularity he had left and was pretty universally despised. He spent much of his reign as king in seclusion at Windsor, where his niece Victoria visited her “Uncle King” as a young girl, in increasingly bad health, and died in June of 1830.

I borrowed the titles for several of these entries on the Prince Regent from the comment made about George in his youth—that he would be “either the most polished gentleman, or the most accomplished blackguard in Europe--possibly an admixture of both." I think this turned out to be a remarkably prescient observation, for Prinny was just that. Many of the patterns of his life were reactions against the strictures of his childhood: being allowed only plain and not very plentiful food as a child led to his becoming enormously fat and more or less addicted to food in adulthood; the enforced simplicity of his childhood life led to his later extravagance. And though he was probably his mother’s favorite child, Queen Charlotte was not the most demonstrative of parents, and it’s tempting to speculate that his life-long attraction to older women was a result of that. He loved Maria Fitzherbert for all of his life, yet seemed to be incapable of maintaining an actual day-to-day relationship with anyone for very long. Only his love of art never failed him, and even his enemies had to admit his exquisite taste, artistic knowledge, and love of beauty…and yet even that could be carried to gross excess.

Definitely “an admixture of both.”

Friday, March 4, 2011

Sometimes, It Just Comes Together

My husband calls the writing business a roller coaster. One day you finish that manuscript, and you know it’s the best you can make it, and that feels incredibly good. The next day, you see a review for the last book, and someone absolutely hated everything about it, and that can sink you into a black hole for weeks!

But sometimes, everything comes together. That happened to me this week. You see, as part of my contract with Love Inspired Books, I provided thoughts on what the cover might look like for my first novel for them, The Irresistible Earl, which will be out in June. Now, I am no artist. I had a dear friend who passed away who was an amazing artist, so I know what an artist can produce. I sadly lack that gene. But I blathered away on my art fact sheet, telling the folks at Love Inspired that I envisioned the hero to look a bit like Daniel Craig, giving them examples of nineteenth century clothing and interiors, and suggesting that, given the title, we might want to center on the hero on the cover. I have been waiting patiently (okay, with fear and trembling) to see what they would make of all that.

The cover showed up on Amazon on Thursday. And, oh, what a lovely job those artists at Love Inspired did!

Meet Chase Dearborn, Earl of Allyndale. [Swoon-worthy sigh.] Is he perfect? No, but he has character, he looks like he could be standing in a nineteenth century room, and the warm colors evoke the tone of the book.

Sometimes, it just comes together.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mall-rats, 19th century style, or Meet the Beadles!

When Lord George Cavendish, younger brother of the 5th Duke of Devonshire (or should I say brother-in-law of the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire?) inherited one of the family homes in London, Burlington House, he didn’t expect to be plagued with lackadaisical Londoners using his side garden as a convenient dumping ground for their trash. And oh, those old oyster shells begin to reek after a while, as old oyster shells will. So he came up with a novel solution, one for which generations of young ladies bless him: he built a shopping mall.

No joke. His architect, Samuel Ware, designed a broad covered passage running along his garden wall with an outlet onto Piccadilly. This long (585 feet) passage was lined with 72 small shops which had small apartments above them for the shopkeepers to live in; natural light came in through skylights in the ceiling, visible in the photo above.

London was agog at this project and flocked to visit the Burlington Arcade, established “for the gratification of the public and to give employment to industrious females” (though only six of the original tenants were “industrious females”, male milliners and corset-makers who rented shops here were addressed as “Madame”!) The shops were all luxurious ones, featuring the most fashionable, up to date, and expensive merchandise, and any business whose trade could be described as noisy, noxious, or otherwise offensive was not allowed. King George VI’s official gold lace makers had his shop here.

Rules were put in place to keep the Arcade exclusive. Lord George recruited soldiers from his family’s regiment, the 10th Hussars, to serve as guards and enforcers of etiquette. These “Beadles” wore special uniforms and were on hand to ensure the rules of no whistling, singing, playing of musical instruments (to keep out itinerant street musicians), running, carrying large parcels, opening umbrellas, and baby prams. And though their uniform has changed over the years, they’re still there…because yes, the Burlington Arcade is still in existence! Though some of the shops have been combined so that there are now about forty, it’s still open and featuring shops selling luxury goods and now antiques…perhaps some of the items that were once sold there as new!