Tag Archives: victorian

Forever Stories

The tiny wisps of cardboard are pierced with cords of braided silk, the delicate inventions from a finer, more polished era.  They were created to dangle from a girl’s powdered wrist or to slide along her forearm, perspiring prettily inside its satin glove:  the swath of pastel colored skin worn so tightly that it could not be worn a second time.

Like dried flowers, dance cards might symbolize something that is deceased, yet they are pressed with a tincture of living memory.  Light and music, the swish of bustles and embroideries, the click of patent leather shoes, the scent of hair drenched in oils and pomades:  such things and more permeate these cards. The names written inside, though little more than claimants – not to be denied – were at the same time proof:  of the girl’s success, of her blossoming popularity, of her delicate blush, of her tiny waist.

Sometimes the cards are shaped like butterflies; during wartime they can be shaped like tanks;  some have the shape of fans and some are edged with fringed silk like an old man’s beard.  The ones from military academies might have a tiny sword to dangle in merry accompaniment with the cord.  Some have silhouettes of dancing couples in historic or current dress – and some are flushed with sentimental Victorian colors of spring and summer:  peach and turquoise, sapphire and honey, jade and gilt.

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However, sometimes the cards remained empty:  gripped within the clenched hands of girls with no one to accompany them except for a chaperon, or a loyal friend equally disregarded.  They surrounded the outskirts of the ballroom like a rim of sad clouds, a soft horizon of taffeta and silk, glittering with loneliness.  These were the generations of young ladies who, for one reason or another, found themselves ignored and who out of necessity were forced to make an art out of not caring.

All of these emotions – set to the sweep of waltzes or the slide of the foxtrot and blackbottom, casting shadows against competitive acres of tremulous candle light or light that exploded with electricity – permeate the dance card like perfume.  The glittering laughter, the scent of cosmetics, the frisson of curls still trembling from their abuse under the iron…all of the remnants of a passionate, frantic toilette saturate the tiny cards.

They open like books to reveal diaries of hope, excitement and defeat – the very alchemy of youth. In their way, these narratives make them more evocative than paintings – the unnamed lady claimed for a dance becomes more known to us than the portrait condemned by the artist to remain unblinking for as long as wood and canvas endure.  The unseen becomes more understood than the seen.     And the layers of haunted and haunting stories – like geologic strata – will last forever.


Silent Bells

It burst in front of me like an iridescent cloud.  Blooming with seraglio colors it hovered and dipped like a wayward carpet, alive with Byzantine patterns.  Its tinted sinews smeared the spinning flight:   magenta and green flexed in the air.

It swooped, dipped and paused in mid-flight.  A doubtful sprite of velvet reflections, it traced an invisible latticework of tracks and pathways:  meandering, creative, senseless.   It was as if femininity’s frail nucleus was compressed like coal in an invisible hand, writhing within nameless muscles, waiting and suffering.  And when the birth was over, the hand would open to release a diamond faceted with color– and the hummingbird, in a grateful blur, would fly away.

I heard the impudent buzz in my ear; taking tiny dares to hide in my shadow, to follow in my footsteps. I saw it dive into gardens of flowers, to pierce the fragrance, to shatter pockets of pollen into a gilded mist.   I watched it disappear into bowers of vines and thorns, into cradles of blossoms – to emerge satiated and ready to continue on its chaotic progress.

This tiny vision has stayed with me; Nature’s whimsical compromise between insect and bird. And yet I recall another vision:  one of a garish thing, engraved and metallic, heavy and debauched. It is what is now referred to as “novelty” jewelry, but what in reality is a travesty that only the misguided creativity of the Victorians could produce.

It is a necklace; made up of a single golden tier, decorated with shields seeming ready to be carved and quartered with the family crest by the jeweler’s steel quill.  But instead, as part of the creation of this necklace, many delicate decapitations were committed.  Affixed to each shield was a hummingbird’s head; each mounted at a different angle, so that when the lady opened the velvet case she would be struck by the light that angled across the deceased feathers.


A lady’s magazine of the time described the petite corpses “…as plump and tempting to epicurean palate as any ever served up broiled on toast.”


And when the lady held the dainty executions to her throat, bloodless and gaping, she would admire the kaleidoscope of colors that mirrored across her skin.  She would love the golden beaks, the echo of life in the glass eyes – the deaths done in her honor, inconsequential, ultimately, because they were so small.

She would always treasure her frivolous horror, her captured prisms:  the errant lives that now hung from her neck like silent bells.

Whither The Child?

There was a time – an unfair, enviable time – when the laws of coiffure were strict and steadfast.  These laws tucked morality inside the twisted designs and curls, made sure its rules brushed across braids and ribbons – and that they lay across shoulders in glistening commandments.

A young girl was allowed to proclaim her youth with long, undressed hair.  Like a forest – unknown, undiscovered, untouched by man – her hair was chaste and uncivilized.   She stood outside the tight refinements of adulthood, brandishing her carelessness in a fiery aura.  If she wore her hair clipped, curled or sculpted, she would be reaching into years she was not yet  prepared for – abusing her unadorned childhood, her Victorian gift.

A woman, however, had earned the right to the petty foolishness and daintiness of a lady’s toilette.  Her hair could now be piled into complex patterns, lost and cursive, braided and frizzed – mocking the bare terrain of neck and shoulders.  Held up in turrets by pins and combs, troubled by jeweled bands and flowers, it was a declaration of readiness to touch society’s bracing seas.

But when the woman takes back the appearance of a child, she assumes the seductive confusion of mixed warnings.  The girl sees with eyes dark with experience and breathes within the boned décolleté of brocade and embroidery.  And the woman is warmed by the torrent of hair – as coarse as new silk – that covers her shoulders and arms.

Betwixt And Between

This misplaced femininity was almost immoral – a daring negotiation that wove through the peripheries of age.  With such a bewilderment of years the child risked a quick maturity, and the woman became fiercely approachable.  It was a betrayal of the laws of nature and society that coiled like DNA to define the child’s behavior and set the boundaries of the woman’s home.

A Magic T-Alice-man

Much has been written about this child and her admirer.  Speculations from each passing decade are layered like sediment, creating a geology of conjecture.  These two are caught in amber, her eyes dark requests, his eyes pale and lowered…relics of Victorian affection.

England in the 1860's was romantic and foolish.  The little girl who possessed beauty and innocence was treasured as a charm to protect an adult against the black-cloaked world.  She was the reminder that a diminutive land still existed; where perfection lived, unquestioned and swathed in happiness.  She was a dainty cherub, demanding and bold, charming and spoiled.  She questioned the world and waited, a cloud in lace and ribbons, for the marvelous answer she knew would come.

Alice Liddell was such a child.  As a woman her features lengthened and solidified, but when she was young they were fluid and petulant.  Her face was broad, a suitable platform for eyes that were probing shades.  Dark and demanding, they provided both questions and answers.  Beneath her eyes were wisps of shadow – as if the scarlet fever that carried away two of her brothers had once cupped her chin in his burning hands and looked deep into those eyes.

Her profile was graceful, with a delicate nose forming as refined a slope as you would find anywhere in Switzerland.  Her fragile body seems lost in the multitudes of petticoats…she can barely lift her head over the avalanche of fabric.  The billowing folds of cotton could be hiding air; her frame is so subtle.

Yet for all her ethereal prettiness, she was a starry force; blazing and blinding.  Hers was a determined light – now stilled and sepia-bound – but once alive and insistent.  It was strong and delightful.  It was persuasive enough to inspire a shy Oxford don to write for her…a fairy tale living inside a Bosch painting.  It was a tale of rabbits with pocketwatches, caterpillers breathing in the honeyed tobacco of their hookahs, cats that purred through the dimensions, a tea party where no one poured, a croquet game where no one played.  It was a tale of mangled songs, poems and dances; a tale where the English language was tickled, tweaked and twisted.  And when the breathless adventure was done, he laid it at this little girl's feet.

"Alice!  A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood's dreams are
In Memory's mystic band,
Like a pilgrim's withered wreath of
Pluck'd in a far-off land."

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Faery Lands Forelorn

This is so unnerving to look at.  It's as if Hieronymus Bosch was caught whispering into the ear of Arthur Rackham:  mad, insinuating words that ended in a terrified shriek, shattering a gentle universe.

Bethlem Royal Hospital is the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world.  It had long been referred to familiarly as Bedlam.  Its walls were riddled with terrified shrieks.  In August, 1843 it accepted a new tenant:  Richard Dadd.  And while incarcerated within Bedlam's medieval walls, he painted.

He painted things that were bizarre and disturbing.  His subjects in the hands of other Victorian painters were benign:  rosy-cheeked and lace-winged.  Dadd, on the other hand, rendered them with a kind of detailed horror.  The realism was so intense, it was as if the hallucinations his schizophrenia wrought were standing before him, dancing on his skin – torturing him.  He laid his pain on this canvas, layers upon layers of clear oils, for nine years. 

Drawing from Shakespeare and English folklore:  stories of green mysteries, unnamed statues and abandoned cities, Dadd created a world that has yet to be fully explained.  He wrote a poem as a companion piece, but it only succeeds in drawing one deeper into the pool.

Behind a black web of weeks and seed pods, in front of a trickling stream of daisies – the only light in a world living in the corner of a grain of sand, the scented undergrowh of a stalk of grass – there is a clearing.  In the middle of a clearing is a hazelnut, awaiting The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke:

"fay woodman holds aloft the axe
Whose double edge virtue now they tax
To do it singly & make single double
Featly & neatly – equal without trouble."

Muscular ballerinas, strange wizened figures, squat housefraus, liveried trumpeters and elegant fairy courtiers wearing jewels and feathers stand aloof, gossip, watch and wait.  There are only a few spots of color in this drab fairy-land:  red slippers, a long knitted yellow cap, russet tunics, a green wool dress.  Dadd writes of this world with such powerful detail it is as if he was pressing his face against the Looking Glass, staring wild-eyed:

"Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep:
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' lets,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider's web;
Her collars, of the moonshine's watery beams;
Her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film"

He loved literature, legend, the supernatural, the fairy lands.  No doubt he once loved his father, too.  But the hallucinations told him that his father was the Devil – and he slashed his throat with a knife.

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“She’s A Bird In A Gilded Cage…”

"…the ballroom was filled with fashion's throng,
It shone with a thousand lights;
And there was a woman who passed along,
The fairest of all the sights…"

Every decade has its own peculiar type of celebrity.  oracles, courtesans, alchemists, carnival freaks…for better or worse they commanded our attention.  Many of these have vanished.  For instance, I haven't encountered lately anyone claiming they can turn base metal into gold.

One particular type of luminary has always fascinated me.  She was beautiful.  She had style.  She was witty.  She was discreet.  She was married.  And if not born into society, these qualities would soon draw her upwards into that rarified galaxy.

She was called a "PB" or "Professional Beauty":  a woman whose face was her fame.  She was an English phenomenon; and the idol of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Their photographs were displayed in shop windows for a couple pennies each:  to be bought by envious and adoring factory girls or ladies wanting to see how Georgiana was curling her hair, or what hat Mrs. Langtry was wearing this season.

A PB was a necessary decoration – any party or ball needed to have at least one, holding court, laughing delicately, making sure that the overeager gentlemen would hold her gloved hand while dancing, and not touch her bare arm.  She wouldn't have to reciprocate with a party of her won – her presence was payment enough, making her hostess famous, for at least that one season.

She would never have to pay for a dress.  She would only have to murmur the designer's name that evening, and the next morning his salon would be inundated with ladies demanding that same gown, the same color, the same neckline.  She was worth – literally – 100 paying customers.  She was a walking – no a gliding – advertisement.  Trussed into cuirass-like corsets, weighed down with velvets and brocades, glittering with beads, sequins and jewels, navigating complex bustles, she was fashion's creation – made to be stared at.

Once a lady was recognized as a PB, a comfortable life was guaranteed – for herself and her husband.  The PB was always married.  Her husband was either too blind to notice the notoriety his wife had gained, or was too greedy to mind, and let himself be drawn into society's echelon, riding on the train of his wife's ruinously expensive Worth gown.  Or would it be Poiret this evening?

Where did she get the money?  The jewels?  The carefully sealed letters?

A Professional Beauty was a realist.  Sometimes the gifts did come with a price.  Nearly every PB would eventually become the King's mistress.  Edward (as Prince and King) had an eye for a pretty face – especially one that came with a husband, and hopefully children.  If she came with such convenient baggage, any pregnancy would easly be fobbed off onto the – possibly very surprised – husband.

Those were the rules.  It was how the game was played.

Lillie Langtry was the Prince's first publicly recognized mistress.  She wasn't hidden away in seclusion, a 'kept' woman.  She was even introduced to his beautiful wife, Alix – they got on excellently well together.

Her appearances caused near riots.  People stood on chairs, ladies jostled each other to get a better look at her classic profile, at her lovely rich chestnut-colored hair.

Georgiana, Lady Dudley, also created an uproar.  Huge crowds would gather on Rotten Row as soon as her carriage would come into view.  Invariably Georgiana, referred to in many memoirs of the time as the 'most beautiful woman I ever saw' would be seen holding a brown Holland umbrella over her elderly, unfaithful husband.

Frances, Countess of Warwick, was Edward VII's mistress for 9 years.  Nicknamed 'Daisy', she was the inspiration for the popular song, "Bicycle Built For Two" ('Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true…')  She wore emeralds to match her eyes.

In the end, she was reduced to selling her love letters to the King.

Jennie, lady randolph Churchill, was dashing and outspoken – a typical American, charming English society.  She was one of the Yankee 'Buccaneers":  rich American girls invading England in search of a title to marry. She was the mother of Winston Churchill and shocked society mothers with the unrestrained affection she showered upon her son,  in a time when the parent was only an occasional visitor to the nursery.  Her husband reputedly died of syphilis.

'Patsy' Cornwallis-West was one of the Prince's private guests invited to his coronation.  She and the other special ladies were the occupants of what was dubbed "the King's Loose Box."  She was wild, flippant and "mad":  with a preference for descending the stairs balanced on a tea-tray.  The King might have been the father of her son – who would later become Jennie Churchill's second husband.  (Which brings up one of society's axioms:  NEVER comment on a likeness)

So how did it all end?

I began this post with the opening verse of a popular ballad from the turn of the 20th century.  I'll end it with the final verse:

"…when sunset adorned the west;
And looked at the people who'd come to grieve
For loved ones now laid at rest.
A tall marble monument marked the grave
Of one who'd been fashion's queen;
And I thought, 'She is happier here at rest,
Than to have people say when seen.'"

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Vox Hunt: Fictional Favorite: Aubrey For Me

Book: Show us one of your favorite works of fiction.

Like Queen Elizabeth I was reputed to have had, I have many favorites.  But this is the one that came to mind first:

I own this particular edition, published in 1913.  It's displayed on a marble (OK, imitation marble) pedastal by my desk.  Many times I'll leave off blogging for a moment to gaze at it fondly.

'Under The Hill' was written by a person I follow so devoutly that I own a book of his published letters (a sure sign of adulation!) – Aubrey Beardsley.  It was written in 1896, and is a delicate, naughty, baroque, surreal, erotic tale loosely based on the story of Tannenhauser:  the German knight who founded the home of Venus, 'under the hill', and spent a year there, to enjoy and to worship.  Honestly, I had to hoist my jaw off the ground at the end of each chapter.  Aubrey combined words in a way that couldn't be more delightful:  'slender voices', 'tender gloves', 'malicious breasts', 'golden embrace'…golly!

And this dovetails nicely with the Question of the Day.  What author of fiction would I want to write like?  Well, and believe me this does not come from vanity – a well I've never plumbed – but I would only want to write like myself.  Just like I would only want to look like myself.  If I woke up tomorrow with a face like Cleo de Merode's (you didn't really think I'd choose someone living, did you?) or the gentle writing skill of Max Beerbohm…I would be downcast indeed.  I have been working on creating my personality since Junior High School, when I realized it was my responsibility alone to build one.  I've worked too hard on this to want another's face or talents.

But, for the record, I would have been very joyous indeed to have written things like these:

"…there were buckles of very precious stones set in most strange and esoteric devices; there were ribbons tied and twisted into cunning forms; there were buttons so beautiful that the button-holes might have no pleasure till they closed upon them…"

"Gad Madam; sometimes I believe I have no talent in the world, but to-night I must confess to a touch of the vain mood."

"Would to heaven," he sighed "I might recieve the assurance of a looking-glass before I make my debut!"

One more thing about this book.  In addition to writing like this, there are the illustrations.  I remember seeing them for the first time:  I was so overwhelmed, I had to close the book and walk away.  I needed some quiet time, to come to terms with such mastery:


You're just not going to find anything like this book anywhere.

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The Cafe Royal

I believe a while ago the Vox Question of the Day was to explain the name of your site.  I was highly enthused about that one, but as my computer was acting stupidly I was unable to act on that question.

However.  All seems serene for the moment, so  here we go.  The Cafe Royal was the Main Attraction of Victorian London.  It was where you went to eat, drink, socialize and to be seen.  Oscar Wilde had his only civil meeting with the Marquis of Queensberry there.  He lunched with Bosie there.  Max Beerbohm went there; he called the cafe's domino room the 'haunt of intellect and daring' .  The artist and wit Will Rothenstein drank vermouth there.   W. B. Yeats, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, George Bernard Shaw, Paul Verlaine - AUBREY BEARDSLEY went to the Cafe (no doubt nursing the glass of milk his tuberculosis relegated him to, rather than a dose of grusome, green absinthe).   Civil and not-so-civil society attended.  It was the epitome of everything that was artistic, ravishing and scandalous in the late 1890's.

The collection of luminous names and voices that that place contained makes my head REEL.

So I honor it here.   And it serves as a reminder that I too should be as luminous as I possibly can.

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