Book Review: The Art of the English Murder

What is it that makes a murder mystery so satisfying to read about? In her book The Art of the English Murder, Lucy Worsley tracks the history of English literature devoted to murder, mayhem and true crime.

I’ve already commented on the book, but now I want to do a complete review (And, since W.S. Gilbert often finds his way into my thoughts, there is a reference to one of his works below).

Beginning with Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater” and “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” this entertaining book traces the development of popular taste in sensational murders from the 18th-century broadsheets printed with murderer’s confessions which were sold at public hangings, to the bloodless, upper-class “puzzle mysteries” of the Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s.

Here are a few of the questions that are answered in the pages of this book:

  1. When did England gain its first paid professional police force? (In 1749, magistrate Henry Fielding created the Bow Street Runners, which began as six trained parish constables; in 1829, the patchwork of local constables in London was replaced by the Metropolitan Police Force, and in 1842 the Detective Branch was established to actually solve crimes, not just apprehend criminals.)
  2. Before then, who was responsible for tracking down the guilty and seeing justice done? (Before the advent of a professional paid police force, people of means had to hire a “thief-taker” to find stolen goods or finger a criminal.)
  3. What was the official name of Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors? (The “Other Chamber” – although in 1860 it was renamed the “Chamber of Comparative Physiognomy,” in deference to the then-popular pseudo-science of phrenology)
  4. Before reading became a widespread pastime, how did people learn about celebrated crimes and criminals? (Through “street patterers,” plays and puppet shows. Street patterers were sellers of newspapers, confessional broadsheets and booklets describing a sensational crime. Some of them would team up with a second patterer and act out the most sensational moments of a crime to attract the attention of the crowds. Melodramatic plays also re-enacted well-known murders. The Victoria and Albert Museum has marionettes of murder victim Maria Marten and her killer, William Corder, which were used in a travelling puppet show.)
  5. Who created the first fictional detectives? (Charles Dickens is credited with the first detective, Inspector Bucket, who is a character in Bleak House (1852). Willkie Collins added a police detective, Sergeant Cuff, to The Moonstone (1868).
  6. Who created the first female detective? (One of the first amateur female sleuths is maidservant Susan Hopley, who appears in The Adventures of Susan Hopley, or Circumstantial Evidence, by Catherine Crowe, in 1841. Andrew Forrester wrote The Female Detective around 1864, featuring his character Mrs Gladden, a paid private investigator who sometimes goes undercover in disguise to gather her clues. Like W.S. Hayward’s female detective Mrs. Paschal, introduced in The Mysterious Countess at about the same time, she was a strong-willed woman dedicated to crime-solving, with a brain both “vigorous and subtle.”)

Nowadays it seems that the cozy mystery is less popular than the thriller. Like its predecessor the “sensation novel,” the thriller aims to arouse strong emotion in the reader—quicken the heartbeat, bate the breath, and make the reader turn the pages.

The sensation novel was so popular that W.S. Gilbert even wrote a play parodying the style, in which the novel’s characters come to life and criticize the beleaguered playwright’s plot. You can learn more about this little gem here at the Gilbert and Sullivan archive http://gsarchive.net/gilbert/plays/sensation/index.html

For those of us devoted to mysteries and to history, Worsley’s book is a fun exploration of changing attitudes and trends in mystery literature. It’s definitely worth a read.

 

Read All About It: Victorian Crime News

Image from a broadsheet

Just wanted to share some interesting bits from what I’m reading now: The Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley. It’s a very entertaining account of nineteenth-century attitudes towards crime and violence, and the enduring fascination that lawlessness holds for human beings.

She traces the relationship between crime and entertainment, from word of mouth gossip to broadsheets  (printed accounts of a murderer’s crimes and confessions). Literacy was spreading among the people of Britain, but this didn’t prevent those who couldn’t read from enjoying a vicarious thrill. Often their friends would read the broadsheets aloud, and some street sellers of crime news had interesting ways of enticing their customers. Worsley writes:

“Henry Mayhew, one of the co-founders of Punch, was also the compiler of a tremendous work of oral history gathered from the people on the streets of London in the 1840s. One of his interviewees was a street ‘patterer.’ Posted on a street corner, he kept up a lively constant ‘patter’ of verbal information, and worked with a partner to perform dramatic mini-reconstructions of crimes: ‘He always performs the villain, and I take the noble characters. He always dies, because he can do a splendid back-fall, and he looks so wicked when he’s got the moustaches on.’

“These two were ‘standing-patterers,’ who took up a fixed spot on a street corner. They were complemented by ‘running patterers,’ who moved constantly through the crowds, shouting out details of what was in their broadsides, emphasizing words such as ‘horrible,’ ‘barbarous,’ and ‘murder’. They made a vital contribution to the very distinctive aural landscape of the Victorian city.”

She goes on to add that these two kinds of performers were joined by singing or chanting patterers, who made songs out of their news reports.

Although I knew about newsies shouting, “Read all about it!”, I never knew that some street  newspaper sellers went so far as to act out the details of the crime. They must have been horribly fun to watch.

I also see strong parallels between these long-ago street hawkers and today’s wall-to-wall news on TV and the Internet. I guess it’s always been the case that “If it bleeds, it leads.”

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Image: By Probably a supplement of the Edinburgh Courant – Victorian broadsheet, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13000089

 

Cover Reveal: A Romantic Tale of Christmas in Venice

Hello, all! My dear friend Caroline Warfield has a treat in store for you — her delightful novella of unexpected love blossoming during a winter in Venice.  Take a look at the beautiful cover of Caroline Warfield’s 2017 Christmas Novella and don’t miss this opportunity to pre-order the book.

Love is the best medicine and the sweetest things in life are worth the wait, especially at Christmastime in Venice for a stranded English Lady and a dedicated doctor.

 

About the Book

Lady Charlotte Tyree clings to one dream—to see the splendor of Rome before settling for life as the spinster sister of an earl. But now her feckless brother forces her to wait again, stranded in Venice when he falls ill, halfway to the place of her dreams. She finds the city damp, moldy, and riddled with disease.

As a physician, Salvatore Caresini well knows the danger of putrid fever. He lost his young wife to it, leaving him alone to care for their rambunctious children. He isn’t about to let the lovely English lady risk her life nursing her brother.

But Christmas is coming, that season of miracles, and with it, perhaps, lessons for two lonely people: that love heals the deepest wounds and sometimes the deepest dreams aren’t what we expect.

Pre-order it as an Amazon e-book here.
Pre-order it from Smashwords here.

 

About the Author

Caroline Warfield – Author

 

Traveler, poet, librarian, technology manager—award winning and Amazon best-selling author Caroline Warfield has been many things (even a nun), but above all she is a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows where she lets her characters lead her to adventures while she nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. She is enamored of history, owls, and gardens (but not the actual act of gardening). She is also a regular contributor to History Imagined, a blog at the intersection of history and fiction, and (on a much lighter note) The Teatime Tattler, a blog in the shape of a fictional nineteenth century gossip rag.

Her current series, Children of Empire, set in the late Georgian/early Victorian period, focuses on three cousins, driven apart by lies and deceit, who must find their way back from the distant reaches of the empire.

Click here to find out more.

 

Best wishes to all!

I’m Back!

For a while, I wasn’t able to access this blog — I don’t know why, but nothing worked. Anyway, now I’m able to get back to posting things. Hooray!

I will start by adding a new post tomorrow. See you all then!

Art and Money: The Peacock Room

Rose and Silver

For a man who described his artworks as Harmonies or Symphonies, in his personal life the famous artist James MacNeill Whistler created plenty of discord. One of his greatest quarrels happened with his former friend and artistic patron, F.R. Leyland.

Called the “Liverpool Medici,” Leyland was a self-made man who rose from office-boy to wealthy ship-owner.  He was an accomplished amateur pianist and an art lover with a discriminating eye for both Old Masters and contemporary artists, including Botticelli, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, and Albert Moore.

In order to fulfill his ambitions of living like the culturally enlightened merchant prince he believed himself to be, Leyland bought an elegant house in Kensington, The Mansion, at 49 Prince’s Gate and began to remodel it to suit the needs of a merchant prince. And thus began the saga of “L’art et L’argent (Art and Money), or the Story of the Room.”

Noted interior designer Thomas Jeckyll was hired to remodel the dining room. Jeckyll’s original plan was to cover the walls in Spanish leather hangings that had once belonged to Catherine of Aragon. They were painted with her heraldic device, the open pomegranate, and a series of red Tudor roses, to symbolize her union with Henry VIII. Walnut shelves would hold Leyland’s extensive collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain.

The centerpiece of the room was to be Whistler’s large painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain.  Toward the end of the remodeling Jeckyll became ill, and Whistler was asked to finish the room and oversee the placement of his painting on the wall.

Then the trouble began. Whistler thought the red Tudor roses painted on the leather wall hangings clashed with the colors in his painting. He wrote to his patron, and Leyland agreed that maybe the flowers could be painted yellow instead. Then the artist wanted to paint a “wave” pattern on the on cornice and wainscoting. Leyland agreed again.

The Peacock Room

Whistler painted, and then he kept painting. “I just painted as I went on – without sketch or design – it grew as I painted…And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it!”

He re-finished the ceiling in imitation gold with painted peacock feathers. Then he gilded the walnut shelves. Blue and green paint covered the antique Spanish leather. The panels on the walls were embellished with golden peacocks.

When he was done, Whistler was so pleased with his work that he called the newspapers and held press conferences in the finished room. In a letter to Mrs. Leyland, he confided that he thought his work was wonderful and worth a “large sum.” He billed his patron Leyland 2,000 guineas.

Leyland was definitely not pleased.

The finished room was not at all what he’d expected—nor did he expect to pay 2,000 guineas for work he hadn’t agreed to. Furthermore, the artist’s nerve in calling in the press before he’d even gotten a look at it really upset him. To add insult to all these injuries, Whistler was also having an affair with Leyland’s wife.

Leyland grudgingly agreed to pay £1,000 for Whistler’s work. Oddly, he didn’t kick Whistler out of his house, despite all that had happened. Whistler, deciding that Leyland probably wouldn’t hang three of his other works on the wall opposite Princess, came back to the Mansion and as a final act of defiance, painted two huge peacocks in the empty spot where his pictures were to have gone. One peacock was supposed to be Leyland, standing on a pile of gold coins, and the other peacock, meant to represent Whistler himself, is letting loose with an angry shriek.

Finally, in 1877, Whistler was barred from the house, but that did not put an end to his romance with Mrs. Leyland. When her husband found out, he wrote to the artist: “I am told you were seen walking about with my wife at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It is clear that I cannot expect from you the ordinary conduct of a gentleman. If I find you in her society again I will publicly horsewhip you.”

Thomas Jekyll, the interior designer whose original plans had been completely altered by Whistler, took one look at the Peacock Room and had a breakdown. He was later found in his home, feverishly gilding his bedroom floor and babbling about fruits and flowers and peacocks. He was committed to an asylum, where he died soon afterward.

Despite the enmity that had grown up between them, Leyland never had the Peacock Room re-done. It stayed exactly as Whistler had created it until Leyland’s death in 1896 at the age of 60.

In 1904, the American industrialist Charles Freer bought the entire Peacock Room and had it shipped to the United States, where he installed it in his own dining room in Detroit. When Freer died in 1919, the Peacock Room was permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The Peacock Room should be open to viewers again in the summer of 2017.

 

 

 

Sources and further reading:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/arts-culture/a-look-inside-the-peacock-room/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Peacock_Room

 

The Aesthetic Movement, https://www.amazon.com/Aesthetic-Movement-Lionel-Lambourne/dp/071486319X  by Lionel Lambourne

 

Images:

By James Abbott McNeill Whistler – This file was derived from James McNeill Whistler – La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine – Google Art Project.jpg:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22553630

Peacock room: By Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery – https://www.flickr.com/photos/freersackler/14063370032/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32462467

 

 

 

A Trip to the Dentist – Victorian Style

Vintage scrap art from the Graphics Fairy

So I went to the dentist yesterday, and completely forgot about the blog post I’d planned to write!

However, in an effort to assume an attitude of gratitude toward dentistry, I decided to research what it would be like to go to the dentist in Victorian times.

Now I am very grateful.

The watchword for the Victorian era was “progress.” Modernization through science and automation allowed our Victorian forebears to live longer and better than their parents ever did. From the beginning of the 1800s to the middle of the 19th century, dentistry had progressed from the local blacksmith’s side business in un-anaesthetized tooth extraction using pliers to less painful procedures with better health outcomes for the patient.

Even though the practice of brushing one’s teeth had been known and practiced since ancient times (either by chewing on a fibrous stick or twig, or using toothpicks or  little metal scrapers to clean the teeth, or brushing with a boar-bristle toothbrush and a paste made with salt and bicarbonate of soda), toothaches still happened – and often the only remedy available was extraction. In fact, problems with teeth were so common that in some areas, some people opted to have all their teeth removed just to avoid further pain.

Ad from the British library collection

This led to a good business in dentures which were made of wood (not a good choice since saliva would eventually turn the wood to mush), porcelain, animal bone, ivory, hardened rubber and even gold. Often real human teeth were used in the dentures: “Waterloo teeth” scavenged from the corpses on the battlefield, teeth robbed from graves, or the teeth of poor people who raised desperately needed funds by allowing someone to plunder their mouths.

In 1856, the College of Dentists of England was formed, largely through the efforts of a young dentist in Croydon, England named Samuel Lee Rymer. Across the Atlantic, by the 1870s American dentistry was being brought into the modern age by a Civil War-era practitioner named G.V. Black. Mostly self-taught, Dr. Black invented over 100 hand instruments and even developed silver alloys for restoring teeth. His system for classifying different types of cavities and how they should be filled is still in use today.

Dental anesthesia had also progressed from a swig of whiskey before tooth-pulling to other methods. Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, was the first chemical used for pain relief, but Horace Wells, the American dentist who pioneered the practice, was not able to reliably provide the correct mix of gas and air.

Other solutions, including chloroform (also unreliable and sometimes leading to death), and liquid cocaine injected into the jaw (less dangerous but the needles were huge), were also tried.

Foot-powered dental drill

As dentistry improved, practitioners were able to use drills to remove cavities – but the drills were operated by a foot-pedal, like sewing machines. This was better than extracting the whole tooth.

However, as one Victorian era writer noted, to avoid cavities one should eat whole-meal bread instead of refined white bread, and avoid sugary treats. Good advice even today!

Aren’t you glad that you didn’t live during the Victorian era? I am – at least in terms of dentistry!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images: Foot powered dental drill : By Royalbroil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4755880

 

Article Sources:

http://www.clevelandorthodontics.com/blog/questions/victorian/

https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/tag/19th-century-dental-hygiene/

http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/565139/teeth-dentistry-Drills-Dentures-And-Dentistry

https://www.theguardian.com/society/gallery/2014/jun/16/a-history-of-dentistry-in-pictures

http://www.deardoctor.com/articles/national-museum-of-dentistry/

http://www.victorianlondon.org/health/toothpaste.htm

http://rockemeet.com/fear-of-the-dentist-be-glad-that-you-werent-born-in-the-victorian-era/

http://bizarrevictoria.livejournal.com/95923.html

https://www.pinterest.com/amy_lynn47/victorian-dentistry/

 

The Sentry’s Song: Politics are Crazy!

Gilbert’s drawing of a singing soldier – probably Private Willis

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 hit Iolanthe, a troupe of flighty, gauzy fairies go toe-to-toe with Britain’s venerable House of Lords. Guess who wins?

(Spoiler alert: They both do.)

Act II of this charming opera begins with a quiet interlude as Private Willis stands on sentry duty. He is dressed as a soldier (although it seems  that is an inaccuracy, for the Houses of Parliament are actually guarded by police officers and not the army).

We meet him as he’s standing at the door in Palace Yard, at the eastern (or Whitehall) end of Sir Charles Barry’s great neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament – which was only completed five years before Iolanthe was written.  He sings:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.

 

So the poor fellow, while on his solitary sentry duty, has nothing to do but think – and he assures us that he does have a brain to think with:

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.

 

Although the best education may be reserved for the children of the wealthy, that doesn’t prevent a person from developing actual wisdom. So here are the fruits of Private Willis’ mental labors:

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!

 

Gilbert, with his love of wordplay, indulges himself “a little” here – using little in the sense of “small,” and also in the sense of “slightly.” This makes me happy.

When Gilbert wrote these lyrics circa 1882, the British parliament had a strong two-party system—Liberals and Conservatives. Nowadays, the Labour Party occupies the liberal end of the spectrum. Annotator Ian Bradley, in The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, commented that “[s]ubstitution of ‘a little Socialist’ for ‘a little Liberal’ would have provided a more accurate description of the prevailing political climate for most of the twentieth century, although in our present era of mould-breaking goodness knows what a modern Private Willis should sing. Perhaps it is best, after all, to leave him in those happy days when there were just Liberals and Conservatives.’

However, this has not been the case in some productions of Iolanthe – for example, this performance in Southampton Operatic Society’s 2005 production of Iolanthe changes the word “liberal” to “Labourite.”  From the comments, you can observe that some people objected to this change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B55YgD1gr0c

However, he continues:

When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

 

This is a practice that many Americans may not be familiar with: the Division of the Assembly. Here’s an explanation from the UK Parliament’s official website :

Members of both Houses register their vote for or against issues by physically going into two different areas either side of their debating chambers. This is known as ‘dividing the House’, while the areas concerned are ‘division lobbies’. Therefore, a vote is called a ‘division’.

 

According to Wikipedia,  this is  a more accurate way of counting a vote than a voice vote. Typically, a division is taken when the result of a voice vote is challenged or when a two-thirds vote is required. Moving on:

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

 

This passage above is a cynical Gilbertian comment – although it’s bad that Members of Parliament should be required to stop thinking and vote as their party leaders tell them to, it would be much worse to let all those mentally dull MPs think for themselves! Nobody could face such an alarming prospect with equanimity (i.e., calmly).

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!

Therefore, it’s a good thing that the system is the way it is, because it works out for the best in the end.

 

What do you think? Should our elected representatives follow their leaders or follow their consciences? It certainly does sound like a choice between order and chaos.

 

Sir Harry Flashman: Fictional Victorian Anti-Hero

My favorite fictional anti-hero is Sir Harry Flashman, Victorian war hero and quintessential rogue. He was created by George Macdonald Fraser in the 1970s, so there may be readers today who have not had the pleasure of reading the Flashman Papers, as the stories are known.

Let Harry introduce himself:

“I’ve been a Danish prince, a Texas slave-dealer, an Arab sheik, a Cheyenne Dog Soldier, and a Yankee navy lieutenant in my time, among other things, and none of ’em was as hard to sustain as my lifetime’s impersonation of a British officer and gentleman.”

― George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman in the Great Game

Fraser was inspired by a character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, written by Thomas Hughes in 1857. The young hero of that book was bullied by a Harry Flashman who is later kicked out of the Rugby school for drunkenness. Fraser decided to have that character grow up into an illustrious Victorian soldier who, despite being a scoundrel, a toady and a coward, somehow manages to emerge from each adventure looking like a hero.

In Fraser’s stories, Flashman fights in many of the Victorian era’s most well-known battles, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the first Anglo-Afghan War, and the Battle of Little Bighorn as well as getting himself mixed up in political situations in the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Abyssinia, to name just a few locations. Married to a beautiful ninny named Elspeth, he also beds thousands of women, famous, infamous, and unknown, all around the world. His lovers, who include Lola Montez, Lillie Langtry, and the Empress Dowager Cixi, are all willing bed-mates (if untrustworthy schemers in their own right).  Harry’s attitude toward women is definitely politically incorrect, so sensitive persons should beware.

There have been 12 historical fiction novels detailing Flashy’s disreputable adventures, as well as Royal Flash, a movie that came out in 1975 starring Malcolm MacDowell. According to IMDB reviews, the movie pleased some and disappointed others – and I have to admit that in my mind, Oliver Reed would have been the perfect Flashman. I can’t understand why he would play Otto von Bismark instead, and let Malcolm (who doesn’t physically resemble the strapping Flashman) play the title role.

I also own a couple of audiobook versions on CD, Flash for Freedom, read by Rupert Penry-Jones (detailing how Flashy unwillingly got involved in the Triangle Trade and later helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad), and Flashman on the March (about his mission to rescue Britons held hostage by the mad emperor of Abyssinia) read by Toby Stephens. Both are excellent.

To give you an idea of the books, let me share some of my favorite quotes from the Flashman Papers. The following are from Goodreads and from the blog Flashman’s Retreat, a compendium of some of Flashman’s best quotes.

On bravery:

This myth called bravery, which is half panic, half lunacy (in my case, all panic), pays for all; in England you can’t be a hero and bad. There’s practically a law against it.

Flashman

On the Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mind you. I’m harmless, by comparison – I don’t send ’em off, stuffed with lies and rubbish, to get killed or maimed for nothing except a politician’s vanity or a manufacturer’s profit. Oh, I’ll sham it with the best in public, and sport my tinware, but I know what I am, and there’s no room for honest pride in me, you see. But if there was – just a little bit, along with the disgust and hatred and selfishness – I’d keep it for them, those seven hundred British sabres.

Flashman at the Charge

On diplomatic trips to Paris:

My advice to young chaps is to never mind the Moulin Rouge and Pigalle, but make for some diplomatic mêlée on the Rue de Lisbonne, catch the eye of a well-fleshed countess, and ere the night’s out you’ll have learned something you won’t want to tell your grandchildren.

Flashman and the Tiger

On statesmanship:

There’s a point, you know, where treachery is so complete and unashamed that it becomes statesmanship.

Flashman and the Mountain of Light

On royalty:

You never know what to expect on encountering royalty. I’ve seen ’em stark naked except for wings of peacock feathers (Empress of China), giggling drunk in the embrace of a wrestler (Maharani of the Punjab), voluptuously wrapped in wet silk (Queen of Madagascar), wafting to and fro on a swing (Rani of Jhansi), and tramping along looking like an out-of-work charwoman (our own gracious monarch).

Flashman on the March

Do you think Flashman sounds like a fun character to read? I think he’s one of the best!

 

Stack of Flashman novels

 

 

 

Cover image:  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3163609

Stack of books: By SchroCat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24424576

Gilbert at Law

W. S. Gilbert

The first complete Gilbert and Sullivan work that we have today is Trial by Jury, a one-act comic opera that takes place in a courtroom – a venue that Gilbert knew well.

Although Gilbert had been writing plays since he was a boy (the earliest ones were performed by his mother and two younger sisters, who were all interested in amateur dramatics), as a young man he didn’t see play-writing as a career option.

But what was he to do? He got a job as an assistant clerk in the newly-formed Education Department, but loathed every minute of “the detestable thralldom of this baleful office,” as he put it.

As an antidote to the boredom, he joined a volunteer militia, first as an Ensign with the Fifth West Yorkshire Militia, and then switched to the Civil Service Rifle Volunteers where he soon rose to become Lieutenant of the Second Company.

But then in 1861, he received a legacy of £300 from his great-aunt and godmother, Mary Schwenk. It changed his life.

Gilbert wrote: “On the happiest day of my life I sent in my resignation. With £100 I paid my call to the Bar (I had previously entered myself as a student at the Inner Temple), with another £100 I obtained access to a conveyancer’s chambers, and with the third £100 I furnished a set of chambers of my own, and began life afresh as a barrister-at-law.”

But life as a brand-new barrister-at-law proved difficult. His few clients included a number of entertaining characters.

His first appearance as a barrister was at Liverpool, where he had to deal with an Irish woman who was charged with stealing a coat. According to Gilbert, the moment he rose to his feet the woman began to yell.

“Ah, ye devil, sit down!” she shouted. “Don’t listen to him, yer honner! He’s known in all the slums of Liverpool! Sit down, ye spalpeen! He’s as drunk as a lord, yer honner, begging yer lordship’s pardon!”

Every time Gilbert tried to speak, she drowned him out with her insults. The Recorder of the court was laughing too hard to stop her.

Another client was an excitable Frenchman who, when Gilbert won his case for him, embraced him in open court and kissed him on both cheeks.

It was with a third client that Gilbert learned the danger of assuming too much about the person one is defending. This client was a very religious woman on her way to a prayer meeting, when she was accused of pickpocketing by a fellow traveler. Sure enough, the traveler’s purse was found in her pocket. The woman told Gilbert that she always carried her hymn-book in that pocket, so she didn’t realize anything else had been put in there.  As a result, Gilbert assumed the purse was planted on this poor devout woman by some evildoer.

Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, reported that the young barrister cross-examined the arresting policeman as follows:

“You say you found the purse in her pocket, my man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you find anything else?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What?”

“Two other purses, a watch with the bow broken, three handkerchiefs, two silver pencil-cases, and a hymn-book.”

The items in question were produced as exhibits amid roars of laughter.

Then, when Gilbert called the witnesses he’d asked to appear in court to testify to his client’s good character, exactly none of them were present.

When the judge handed down a sentence of 18 months’ hard labor, the woman pulled off one of her heavy boots and threw it at Gilbert’s head. He ducked. The boot missed him, and hit a reporter in a sensitive spot, which may have been the reason for the tone of the news report that appeared the next day, criticizing Gilbert’s handling of the case.

But on a brighter note, Gilbert’s experience in the courts of law helped him create Trial by Jury, one of the funniest and most original comic operas ever to be set in a courtroom.

Performances of Trial by Jury may be viewed on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuPwTdRLLLY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vq4ftBaRuwY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRYuNIlB7yI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbIncUh9IF8

 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Sullivan’s Dilemma

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Poor Arthur Sullivan! Though hailed as England’s answer to Mozart, honored with a knighthood at the relatively young age of 42, friend to the crowned heads of Europe and frequently ‘living large’ as a guest of royalty, happiness and health eluded him.

Beginning in 1872 when he was 30 years old, Sullivan suffered from kidney stones. Wikipedia describes the pain as “excruciating, intermittent pain that radiates from the flank to the groin or to the inner thigh,” and says it’s one of the strongest pain sensations known. Surgical removal of stones was the best-known procedure at the time, but it had a high risk of death from bleeding and infection. Apparently, Sullivan did not take that risk.

He lived in constant fear of a recurrence of the disease. As Hesketh Pearson put it in Gilbert and Sullivan, “the presence or near-presence of this disease drove him to work in a frantic effort to forget it, and its complete absence was such a relief that he would take advantage of the blessed interregnum and revel in the futilities of social life or dream away the hours in some rural retreat.”

The other problem that plagued Sullivan and diminished his happiness was of a spiritual sort – his dissatisfaction with the course his career had taken. He aspired to be taken seriously as a genius who wrote important musical compositions, but he was painfully aware that he was best known for his popular and commercially successful tunes. Pearson again: “He was secretly discontented with the serious work that he had already done, that he felt he ought to go on doing, that his friends were always begging him to do, and therefore a little ashamed of the fact that the lighter type of composition came to him with such frightening facility. It was the old story once again of the natural comedian who wanted to play Hamlet.”

It was a real dilemma: the money he earned from his commercially popular work enabled him to circulate in the aristocratic social circles he enjoyed most, but the very commercialism of working for money was anathema to those aristocrats – and made him less worthy in their eyes.

Between his terror of being unable to work when his disease flared up, and his reluctance to work when he felt ashamed of its lowbrow nature, Sullivan ended up cramming all of his composing into brief but intense periods of round-the-clock effort followed by near collapse.

I am convinced that many artists feel as Sullivan did, that working for a monetary reward is somehow doing a disservice to one’s art. Do you feel that way? Let me know in the comments.