Victorian Women – Pioneers of Photography

View from the window at Le Gras

Although for centuries humans have known the principle of the “camera obscura” – in which light passing through a pinhole can throw an upside-down and reversed image onto the opposite wall of a darkened room –  it wasn’t until 1826 or 1827 that a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce figured out a way to preserve the images.

Photography was born.

Nicéphore Niépce’s photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras is believed to be the oldest surviving camera photograph. His discoveries were quickly followed by those of such photographic pioneers as Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, who publicly announced their own photographic processes in January 1839.

To preserve a photographic image, the challenges included how to capture the image, and how to transfer the captured “negative” onto a positive surface. One of the ways to print a photograph from a negative was to make an albumen print, and another way was the wet collodion printing process.

Albumen, or egg whites, can be used with silver nitrate to produce a photographic print. The paper must be first dipped into a solution made with albumen, and then dried. Once it’s dried, the paper is taken into a darkroom and “sensitized” by being placed in a bath of silver nitrate, then dried again. Once that’s complete, then the negative plate is placed on the prepared paper and the whole thing is exposed to light until the picture develops. After that, the silver is washed off, a toner applied and then the print is dried. Finally your image is ready to be admired! The process is fully described in this interesting resource:

Alternatively, collodion – a highly flammable, gooey mixture of guncotton dissolved in sulfuric and nitric acid with ethyl alcohol and ether added – can be used in the place of the albumen. Less exposure time is needed with the collodion than with albumen. As the solvent evaporates, it dries to a clear, celluloid-like film.

For a step-by-step description, visit

Cyanotype by Anna Atkins

Most of the early pioneers of photography were male. The science of photography involved expensive, dangerous chemicals and new processes. Furthermore, dabbling in such advanced technology went against Victorian expectations of female behavior.

Nevertheless, there were a few women pioneers in those early days of the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. Among them were Anna Atkins, Viscountess Hawarden, and Julia Margaret Cameron.

Anna Atkins (nee Children) was the only child of a prominent scientist, John George Children, who gave her “an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time.” It was her great interest in botany that led her to explore the cyanotype process – she was interested in using cyanotype to preserve images of various types of seaweed. She did this by placing the dried seaweed on the cyanotype-treated paper, and then exposing it to light.

Some say Anna Atkins was the first woman to produce a camera photograph. What we do know is that Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs. Only 17 copies of this historically important book are now known to exist.

One of Viscountess Harwarden’s photos of her daughters

Clementina Maude, Viscountess Hawarden, turned to photography in 1857 or 1858, while living in Ireland at her husband’s estate. In 1859 she moved to London, where she set up a photographic studio in her home in South Kensington. Considered an amateur photographer, her work was nevertheless praised for its artistic excellence. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and also a photographer, was among those who admired Hawarden’s work.

In the approximately 7 years that she was actively photographing, she created 800 photographs. Her photographs include images of her children, particularly her daughters – she had eight children in all.  Scholar Carol Mavor says the photographs raise “issues of gender, motherhood and sexuality.”

Probably the best known of the early female photographers is Julia Margaret Cameron. She created many portraits of Victorian aristocrats and artists, many of them dressed up as Shakespearean characters or legendary figures.

Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, by Julia Margaret Cameron

When she was 48, she was given a camera as a present, and thus began her photographic career which lasted from 1864 to 1875.

During the 11 years in which she was active in photography, Cameron treated photography as an art as well as a science, manipulating the wet collodion process to give her images a dreamlike feel. As a result, her soft-focus images and cropped portraits were appreciated more by the pre-Raphaelite artists than the photographic critics of the day.

Photography was in its infancy at the beginning of the Victorian era – as a pursuit, it was exacting, expensive, and high-tech. These women were among the vanguard of explorers in a new field that merged chemistry and art. They used their skills to express ideas about botany, family, and about how we present ourselves to the world.

Individuals living in 1850 probably felt like new technology and scientific information was being thrown at them so fast they could barely catch their breath. And yet, today’s scientific discoveries and inventions are being developed even faster than they were 170 years ago. But no matter what the historical age, men and women have been willing to explore ever deeper into the mysteries of our world.

How about you? Do you like exploring new ideas, or do you prefer the comfort of the familiar? Let me know in the comments.


Modest Maidens Captured by Kodak, by Bab



By Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – Rebecca A. Moss, Coordinator of Visual Resources and Digital Content Library, via email. College of Liberal Arts Office of Information Technology, University of Minnesota., Public Domain,

Public Domain,

By Clementia Hawarden –, Public Domain,

By Julia Margaret Cameron – HQGPeFPsjI99sA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

W.S. Gilbert – The Dragon at the Stage Door

Gilbert the Dragon

Gilbert the Dragon

Many Victorians assumed that actresses were “no better than they should be” (i.e. very bad indeed).

According to Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, “In those days actresses were considered to be saleable property. Their social status was extremely low, and the average middle-class Englishman scarcely differentiated the back of a stage from a brothel.”

However, that certainly wasn’t the case for the actresses in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. William S. Gilbert insisted on all his players behaving with utmost propriety.

Jessie Bond, the long-time Savoyard actress who created many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most delightful contralto roles, from Hebe in HMS Pinafore to Pitti-Sing in The Mikado to Tessa in The Gondoliers, wrote about Gilbert’s protective attitude towards his actors and actresses in her Life and Reminiscences:


“An outsider would hardly credit the strict discipline of our life behind the scenes. No lingering about was allowed, no gossiping with the other actors; the women’s dressing-rooms were on one side of the stage, the men’s on the other, and when we were not actually playing we had to mount at once our respective narrow staircases – sheep rigorously separated from the goats!

Once, when my mother came to see me in London, expecting to find me dwelling in haunts of gilded luxury, and far down the road to perdition, I took her behind the scenes and showed her the arrangements for the actors and actresses, conventual in their austerity. She was astonished, I can assure you, and evidently thought it all very dull and restricted.

I think there never was a theatre run on lines of such strict propriety; no breath of scandal ever touched it in all the twenty years of my experience. Gilbert would suffer no loose word or gesture either behind the stage or on it, and watched over us young women like a dragon.

Not that I ever gave him any trouble. Verses and love-letters used to be sent to me, presents and invitations too, all of which I returned or disregarded. The unhappy experiences of my youth had made me quite impervious to that sort of thing. I had no use for love or lovers, and never felt the slightest romantic interest in any man I acted with. I lived only for my work, my last meal was a light one at six o’clock, and never once in all those years did I accept an invitation to supper!”


Jessie Bond as "Mad Margaret" in Ruddigore, 1887

Jessie Bond as “Mad Margaret” in Ruddigore, 1887

However, during the run of Patience, Gilbert happened to be behind the scenes one night when one of those notes was brought to Jessie Bond. When he asked her about it, she handed it to him “indifferently,” not being at all interested.  Jessie goes on to explain:

“It was from a party of four young men in one of the stage boxes, inviting me to supper with them after the performance. Gilbert was furious. He went round to the box, rated the young men for insulting a lady in his Company, and insisted on their leaving the house forthwith.”


He also came to the aid of the actress who played Celia in Iolanthe, Miss May Fortescue, when her noble fiancé Lord Garmoyle jilted her in 1884. After her engagement was broken off, Gilbert not only found Miss Fortescue a role in a revival of his play Dan’l Druce, but he also sent her to his solicitors so she could sue Lord Garmoyle for breach of promise. She won her case, and used the money she received to set up her own theatrical company which toured for many years, often performing Gilbert’s plays.


Gilbert had a very sentimental view of women and a deep hatred of the hypocritical Victorian double-standard that blamed and shamed women for the same acts that were admired in men.

Here is his poem “Only A Dancing Girl,”  in which he gives us a very sympathetic portrait:


Only a dancing girl,

With an unromantic style,

With borrowed colour and curl,

With fixed mechanical smile,

With many a hackneyed wile,

With ungrammatical lips,

And corns that mar her trips.


Hung from the “flies” in air,

She acts a palpable lie,

She’s as little a fairy there

As unpoetical I!

I hear you asking, Why –

Why in the world I sing

This tawdry, tinselled thing?


No airy fairy she,

As she hangs in arsenic green

From a highly impossible tree

In a highly impossible scene

(Herself not over-clean).

For fays don’t suffer, I’m told,

From bunions, coughs, or cold.


And stately dames that bring

Their daughters there to see,

Pronounce the “dancing thing”

No better than she should be,

With her skirt at her shameful knee,

And her painted, tainted phiz:

Ah, matron, which of us is?


(And, in sooth, it oft occurs

That while these matrons sigh,

Their dresses are lower than hers,

And sometimes half as high;

And their hair is hair they buy,

And they use their glasses, too,

In a way she’d blush to do.)


But change her gold and green

For a coarse merino gown,

And see her upon the scene

Of her home, when coaxing down

Her drunken father’s frown,

In his squalid cheerless den:

She’s a fairy truly, then!

W.S. Gilbert's "Only A Dancing Girl" drawing

W.S. Gilbert’s “Only A Dancing Girl” drawing





W.S. Gilbert – Tilting at Social Windmills

gilbert-risingNothing succeeds like success!

Although W. S. Gilbert is known mainly for his brilliant comic operas with Arthur Sullivan, he wrote many other plays, some of which addressed serious social issues and which turned out to be the inspiration for later works by other playwrights. Here are a few examples:

Charity (1874) is a play about Mrs. Van Brugh, a good woman who, in her youth, lived with a man without benefit of marriage, and they had an illegitimate child. Now a widow of 35 years’ standing, she has dedicated her life to helping those in need. She has almshouses, and scandalizes the village by letting in not only good Anglicans, but also Catholics, Jews, and even Dissenters.

But when her daughter, Eve, becomes engaged to the serious-minded and rather priggish Fred Smailey, things get difficult. Fred’s father discovers that Mrs. Van Brugh was never married and blocks the marriage, declaring that her daughter is unfit to marry his son. When it is revealed that Fred’s father was the psalm-singing villain who ruined a young girl 20 years ago, the father excuses his actions, but continues to persecute Mrs. Van Brugh.

Finally, the engagement of the son and daughter is broken off, and Mrs. Van Brugh and her daughter decide to move to Australia to start over.

oscar_wilde_saronyThe play analyses and critiques the double standard in the Victorian era concerning the treatment of men and women who had sex outside of marriage, anticipating the “problem plays” of Shaw and Ibsen. The same story situation influenced Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance.”

Engaged (1877) is a three-act comic version of a romantic drama. The main action revolves around a group of innocent-seeming Highlanders who cause train derailments and then sell refreshments and hotel rooms to stranded travelers. Among the travelers are a young couple, Belvawny and Belinda, escaping from Belinda’s relentless suitor. Belinda refuses to go through a Gretna Green marriage because of the odd way that Belvawny earns his money—by keeping his wealthy and amorous friend, Cheviot Hill, from getting married to any woman who crosses his path. If Cheviot gets married, then Belvawny loses his income and the whole of Cheviot’s estate goes to the villain Uncle Symperson. Naturally, not only do Cheviot and Uncle Symperson show up in the same spot, but so does the relentless suitor, Major McGillicuddy.

After mistaken marriages and mysterious disappearances and misunderstandings separate the lovers, everyone is sorted out in the third act and all is well.

bernard-shaw-iln-1911-originalThe topsy-turvy elements in Engaged are believed to have inspired Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and may also have inspired George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” and Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests.”

Pygmalion and Galatea (1871) Gilbert’s blank-verse play set in ancient Athens, has the sculptor Pygmalion falling in love with his creation while his wife Cynisca is away. The innocent Galatea doesn’t understand anything about morality or social conventions, so she accepts Pygmalion’s love as a matter of course. She also is unflatteringly truthful in her opinions. She drives away Pygmalion’s rich, vulgar patrons, calling them statues sculpted by a clumsy beginner.  She meets a soldier, Leucippus, and calls him a paid assassin – and when Leucippus shoots a fawn by accident, she tells Pygmalion the man is a murderer.

When Cynisca returns, Galatea is open about her relationship with Pygmalion. This infuriates Cynisca, who calls upon the goddess Artemis to blind her husband. Pygmalion rues the day he brought Galatea to life, and Cynisca relents, restoring his vision. Galatea, disillusioned by humanity, is glad to go back to being a statue.

Pygmalion and Galatea was so popular that other Pygmalions were rushed to the stage. In January 1872, Ganymede and Galatea opened at the Gaiety Theatre. This was a comic version of Franz von Suppé’s Die schöne Galathee, coincidentally with Arthur Sullivan’s brother, Fred Sullivan, in the cast. In March 1872, William Brough’s Pygmalion; or, The Statue Fair was revived, and in May of that year, a visiting French company produced Victor Massé’s Galathée.

Would you like to see any one of these three original plays? What do you think of the themes they address – double standards toward men and women, matters of love and marriage, and truthfulness in all dealings? Do you think those themes are still valid today? Let me know!


Photo of Bernard Shaw By Alvin Langdon Coburn – Illustrated London News, p. 575 (subscription required), PD-US,

Photo of Oscar Wilde By Napoleon Sarony – Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain,



Beauty in the Eye of the Victorian Beholder

What features were considered beautiful in the Victorian age?

Would our teenage Victorian sleuth, Lucy Turner, have considered herself beautiful by the standards of the day — and if so, what would she have done about it?

Lucy, as we can see from her photos, was small and slender with blonde hair and blue eyes. She probably would have had light colored eyebrows and eyelashes, and possibly even freckles on her nose. Being the youngest daughter of a respectable, upper-middle-class widow, however, she would not have worn make-up.

Victorian women were under pressure to look beautiful, but no respectable female of that age would be caught wearing cosmetics – at least not visible cosmetics. Any woman with noticeable makeup was considered vulgar. However, Victorian women did manage to employ a variety of beauty techniques that – although sometimes harmful to the wearer – were not noticeable to the male eye.

The Victorian ideal for a maiden was a pale complexion, thick dark hair, flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes. Was this a result of the Victorian fascination with illness and death?

Lucy would probably not have done much to darken her eyelashes — or at least one hopes she didn’t, since there weren’t any safe cosmetics for that purpose. But she might have made use of some skin preparation to remove any trace of freckles.

As explained in an article in the New York Times, Victorian women sought to improve their complexions with many toxic preparations  including lead and arsenic that also produced the fainting, languor and sickliness of disease. Belladonna made the eyes sparkle, but was a poisonous derivative of deadly nightshade.

504153One group of Victorians who set their own standards for feminine beauty were the pre-Raphaelites. This group of artists, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Holman-Hunt favored women they called “stunners” – ones who had strong features including Roman noses, low foreheads and thick lips.  The pre-Raphaelite models, in some ways, even blurred the lines between masculine and feminine features, adding to the visual tension of the art.

Sadly for Lucy, she probably wouldn’t have made  a good pre-Raphaelite model because of her small nose, big eyes and delicate features.

On the plus side, there were some Victorian experts who argued that a woman’s most attractive asset was her mind – assuming, no doubt, that she was clever enough not to appear smarter than her male companions ( and there is no historical record that I know of to prove it, but I think that Lucy was clever).

Usually, health and meticulous grooming are the main elements of beauty, and this article explores the Victorian ideal of “cleanliness is next to godliness.”   (Note: Contains nude images depicted in works of art). The article also explores how developments in medical knowledge, such as germ theory, influenced beauty and fashion. Perhaps Lucy will get to investigate a murder that leads her to learn more about health in the Victorian era.

The notion that a woman’s physical beauty is her most important feature is not a new one. The use of cosmetics has been a subject of debate and dissention throughout recorded history. The issue was not resolved during the Victorian age, nor has it been in any time period since. And so it goes.

Those interested in the subject of makeup throughout history can check out Maggie Angeloglu’s wonderful book, A History of Make-Up.

What do you think about the use of cosmetics? Are we much more advanced in our notions of beauty and health than our Victorian forbears?

Leave me a comment and let me know!






Shopping — Victorian Style

Women of the Victorian era enjoyed shopping as much as women do today. By the middle of the 19th century, shopping had evolved into a way for middle-class Victorian women to get out and explore the city without male companions.

The first prototype of the shopping mall might be said to have been the Great Exhibition of 1851, which displayed consumer goods from around the globe.

A Victorian woman in the 1860s on a shopping expedition in London would probably head toward the West End, where the shops catered to fashionable upper-middle-class ladies. She might also go to Regent Street, which was designed as a promenade and shopping area with small stores selling luxury goods.

While Victorians placed a great deal of importance on items that were handed down from generation to generation (a symbol of historical wealth and family connections), they also enjoyed the latest in luxuries. Consider the recitative sung by Josephine, the young heroine of H.M.S. Pinafore, as she thinks about the comforts and elegancies of her father Captain Corcoran’s home – things she would have to give up if she were to marry the handsome but penniless sailor Ralph Rackstraw:

On the one hand, Papa’s luxurious home,
Hung with ancestral armour and old brasses,
Carved oak and tapestry from distant Rome,
Rare “blue and white,” Venetian finger-glasses,
Rich oriental rugs, luxurious sofa pillows,
And everything that isn’t old, from Gillow’s.

So here you have the inherited, “ancestral” items – which are still important indicators of status. In far more recent times, a British MP dismissed another politician as the kind of person “who bought his own furniture”— perhaps an indication that it was better to furnish a house with antiques that had long been in the family, than to have new stuff.

Also described by Josephine are the imported treasures like oriental rugs, tapestries from Rome, and Venetian finger-glasses (we would call them finger-bowls, filled with warm water and placed so that each diner at a fancy meal could rinse their fingertips after eating finger food).

The Six-Mark Tea-pot. Aesthetic Bridegroom. "It is quite consummate, is it not?" Intense Bride. "It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!"

The Six-Mark Tea-pot. Aesthetic Bridegroom. “It is quite consummate, is it not?” Intense Bride. “It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!”

The rare “blue and white” she mentions refers to the collections of Chinese porcelain so beloved by aesthetes of the Victorian age, including Oscar Wilde.

Not only that, but everything that isn’t old comes from Gillow’s – furniture makers renowned for creating high quality items.   (Gillows furniture is referred to by Jane Austen, Thackeray and the first Lord Lytton, which shows that our comic opera heroine Josephine has very good taste.)

But how could a woman get to the shops? Well, she could walk, take a carriage, or ride in an omnibus or even a train.

Not only were Victorian women more visible walking down the streets to get to the shops, but they also could be seen making use of various modes of public transportation. In an attempt to control and limit women in public areas, etiquette manuals strictly prescribed the way a “well-bred” woman was to act when outside the confines of her home.

According to “Daily Life of Victorian Women” by Lydia Murdoch, Victorian etiquette manuals stated that “one can almost invariably distinguish the well-bred girl at the first glance, whether she is walking, shopping, in an omnibus, descending from a carriage or cab, or sauntering up and down in the Park.” The key was their restrained behavior – their “self-effacement.”

Victorian women usually traveled in pairs or groups, but sometimes traveled by themselves. A comprehensive network of trains allowed women to travel throughout the cities, although for decades a debate raged over whether it was safe or proper for a woman to travel alone by rail. Some even argued that the speed of a train caused damage to the female organs.


Shopping for fabric in the Victorian era

Within a city, a woman might choose a horse-drawn vehicle to get to her destination. Privately owned and maintained carriages could only be afforded by the wealthy. Hiring a four-wheeler was expensive, but might be suitable for a group of ladies traveling together with luggage. However, by the middle of the century the lighter, two-wheeled “safety cab” or hansom, was a good option for those who could afford the fare.

Luckily, by the 1840s, the horse-drawn omnibus became a good and inexpensive way to get around the city – provided, of course, that a woman could manage to squeeze her hoops and crinolines into the vehicle!

For more on shopping and department stores, take a look at the BBC’s article here.

Later on, in the Edwardian era, Selfridge’s would dazzle the buying public, as depicted in the BBC series Mr. Selfridge.

Arthur Sullivan: Early Success and Early Heartbreak

(Note: Sorry for the delay in posting this week’s blog — I finished a free short story, which you can read here.)

Everybody liked Arthur Sullivan. Good looking, charming, funny, smart, superbly talented. How could they not?

boy-sullivanMen liked him and women fell in love with him. According to Hesketh Pearson, author of Gilbert and Sullivan, “With women his appeal was immediate and often permanent. His oval, olive-tinted face, his dark luminous eyes, his large sensuous mouth, and the generous crop of black curly hair which overhung his low forehead, no doubt added to the attraction.”

But despite all this, Arthur Sullivan’s first serious love affair ended in heartbreak.

Michael Ainger, in his book Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, explains that in 1866, Sullivan was part of a group of friends called the Moray Minstrels, who gathered at Moray Lodge, Campton Hill, at the home of Arthur Lewis. They liked to put on amateur theatricals.

One member of the group, a writer named Frank Burnand (later the editor of Punch magazine) suggested to Sullivan that they should write something together. Sullivan agreed, and Burnand set to work adapting the farce “Box and Cox”, a story about two men who never met, even though they shared the same room in a boarding house—and, as it turned out, the same girlfriend.

Burnand called his effort Cox and Box, and it had just three characters: Box, who worked all day; Cox, who worked all night; and Sgt. Bouncer, the landlord who rented them the same room. When one of the two lodgers gets the day off work, hijinks ensue.

Sullivan wrote a number of clever songs for the piece, including a lovely lullaby to a rasher of bacon that one man sings as his dinner cooks quietly on the stove. You can hear it here. At first, he only wrote out the vocal parts, because he was playing the music on the piano himself.

On Wednesday, 23 May 1866, Cox and Box was performed for the first time for the Moray Minstrels. The friends who played the characters included the popular Punch cartoonist George du Maurier in the role of Box. This amateur performance was such a success that later Cox and Box was turned into a complete one-act comic opera with orchestration by Sullivan.

But during this time, Sullivan was falling in love. Her name was Rachel Scott Russell.

Rachel Scott Russell was the daughter of John Scott Russell, a wealthy and socially prominent engineer. She and Sullivan had known one another since 1863 when Sullivan was 21 and she was 18. Although on friendly terms with the whole family, no one expected anything to come of their friendship.

Rachel and Arthur’s relationship turned serious and intimate around the time of the amateur performance. However, they did not tell her parents.

In May of 1867, the first public performance of Cox and Box took place at the Adelphi Theater. It was a success. William S. Gilbert reviewed the comic opera for the magazine Fun, and wrote in part:

“Mr. Sullivan’s music is, in many places, of too high a class for the grotesquely absurd plot to which it is wedded.”

(History records that Burnand never liked Gilbert too much.)

When Rachel told her parents that she wanted to marry Sullivan, her mother, a baronet’s daughter, absolutely forbade it. Sullivan was poor, and at that time he made very little money – he survived by selling sheet music, playing the church organ on Sundays, and teaching. His serious compositions brought in critical acclaim but not much financial reward.

sullivan-young-manRachel and Arthur continued to write to one another and to meet in secret, but their tumultuous love affair was marred by jealousy and misunderstandings. Rachel expected Arthur to put her ahead of his music. At one point, she wanted him to put his musical career aside and work in a bank to make enough money to satisfy her parents so that they could get married.

But Arthur’s career as an artist and musician was more important to him, and his priorities caused a lot of stress in their relationship. However, since she had “given herself” to him, she felt that they must eventually marry. Arthur could not find a way to break off their relationship, and the affair limped along until 1870, when it was finally broken off.

Rachel’s letters to Sullivan survive, although she burnt his letters to her at his request. In one of her last letters to him, she returned his ring and wrote,

“You have others to work for & your beautiful genius to work for—& I—nor any other woman on God’s earth—is worth wasting one’s life for.”

Although he had longstanding love affairs after Rachel, Sullivan never married.

In Sullivan’s family, the long relationship with Rachel Scott Russell was known as his one serious love affair. The blame for the failure of the relationship was laid firmly at the door of Mrs. Scott Russell because Rachel’s mother had thought that the young composer was not good enough for her daughter to take in marriage.

Such a sad chapter in the life of a man who wrote beautiful music, don’t you think?

Was W. S. Gilbert a Victorian Feminist?

What did W.S. Gilbert think about women?

scholar-ladyDuring the Victorian era, the division between the worlds of men and women seemed particularly wide, with many popular male writers making efforts to restrict women to the domestic sphere of influence. But as society at large changed, the role of women in public life was expanded – women began to be admitted to colleges and universities, reformers such as John Stuart Mill advocated for women’s right to vote, and women were increasingly able to participate in the world outside their homes.

So what was William S. Gilbert’s attitude toward women in the public arena?

“Gilbert always enjoyed the company of women, particularly intelligent ones, and he was attractive to them,” said Jane Stedman in her biography, W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and his Theater.

He had three sisters, and was evidently close to them. Gilbert also had a number of female friends.  While working as a barrister on the Northern Circuit, he engaged in amateur dramatics with Marie Wilton, later Lady Bancroft. He worked with a few female theatrical managers, including Marie Litton and Priscilla German Reed (who together with her husband Thomas produced the German Reed entertainments). And when Gilbert was 28, he appeared comfortable enough with the idea of a “lady novelist” to ask the popular author Annie Thomas to marry him. They remained friends even though she refused.

I believe that in his personal life, his views were more progressive than might have been portrayed in his plays and opera librettos – as a satirist, he was well aware that it is important to defuse an audience’s anger by making them laugh when pointing out what’s wrong with them. As Jack Point sang in Yeomen of the Guard:

…he who’d make his fellow creatures wise
Should always gild the philosophic pill

So although many of his female characters behave as typical females of the Victorian era were expected to behave – young women sweet and demure, older women lamenting over the loss of their physical attractions – there are occasions when Gilbert took up his satirist’s pen to point out the injustice of the double standard applied to men and women, and to tackle social issues such as higher education for women and women in politics.


Women in Politics

In 1867, Gilbert’s one-act farce, Highly Improbable, was performed at the New Royalty Theater under the management of Martha (Pattie) Oliver. The work was written not long after John Stuart Mill’s unsuccessful attempt to secure women’s suffrage, and contained the first examples of his inclusion of political satire. The play’s script was never published, but Jane Stedman describes it in her book.

The play contains references to a “Young-Ladies-in-All-Employments Bill” and a “Members of Parliament Matrimonial Qualifications Bill” which would require all MPs to be married. The first bill is introduced by the six daughters of a country MP, and the second bill is their father’s attempt to make all MPs respectable through marriage. (The hero outsmarts the girls, and then qualifies for Parliament by marrying one of them.) He also has a character called Cocklethorpe, a female footman, who is dressed as a footman from head to waist, and as a lady’s maid from the waist down.

Sounds like fun! Sadly, the script was never published, as far as I can tell, so there’s no way to find out exactly what Gilbert had in mind.

Other references to women’s role in society appear in Gilbert’s problem play, Ought We to Visit Her? This straight drama is about a seemingly respectable widow who is revealed to have been an unwed mother when, years later, her grown daughter is courted by two men.

The comic opera Iolanthe deals with the topsy-turvy effect of a troupe of fairies taking over the House of Lords, but it’s also about women in politics.  In fact, that’s one of the lines spoken by a disgruntled peer:


Lord Mountararat. I don’t want to say a word against brains – I’ve a great respect for brains – I often wish I had some myself – but with a House of Peers composed exclusively of people of intellect, what’s to become of the House of Commons?

Leila. I never thought of that!

Lord Mountararat. This comes of women interfering in politics. It so happens that if there is an institution in Great Britain which is not susceptible of any improvement at all, it is the House of Peers!



Higher Education for Women

The Princess, Gilbert’s 1870 musical play, and Princess Ida, his later comic opera with Sullivan, were both based on Tennyson’s 1847 poem “The Princess.”

Tennyson’s original had been written as a response to the opening of Queen’s College, London, founded in 1847. It was the first school in Britain to offer higher education to young women ages 12 to 20. At the time, members of the press criticized the establishment of the College because of the supposedly ‘dangerous’ consequences of teaching mathematics to women.

Tennyson’s work had comic as well as dramatic elements. It is the story of Princess Ida who leaves her father’s house and establishes a women’s university where men are forbidden to enter. As a baby, she was promised in marriage to the prince of a nearby country, Prince Hilarion. This prince and two of his friends decide to disguise themselves as women and enter the university. Their identities are revealed and eventually a battle is fought over the princess’ hand. The men lose and are wounded, but the women nurse them back to health. In the process, the princess falls in love with the prince and they get married in the end.

When Gilbert re-cast the poem as a musical play in 1870, women’s education was in the news again. This time, it was the 1869 opening of the first university-level women’s school, Girton College, Cambridge.  He follows the story line of the original poem pretty closely, but comes closest to Tennyson’s original language in the final passage of the work.

Here is the final speech in Tennyson’s poem, spoken by Prince Hilarion:


…my bride,
My wife, my life. O we will walk this world,
Yoked in all exercise of noble end,
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no man knows. Indeed I love thee: come,
Yield thyself up: my hopes and thine are one:
Accomplish thou my manhood and thyself;
Lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me.’


Though he uses similar language, Gilbert gave this speech to Princess Ida in both his versions. In the 1870 play, Ida says:


Take me, Hilarion—“We will walk the world
Yoked in all exercise of noble end!
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no man knows!  Indeed, I love thee—Come!”


And in Princess Ida (1884), there’s only one small change:


Take me, Hilarion – “We will walk this world
Yoked in all exercise of noble end!
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no one knows!” Indeed, I love thee – Come!

(For Star Trek aficionados, let me point out the change from “no man” to “no one.”)


David Fidler thinks that by giving the speech to Ida, he’s making her say, “You win, I lose.” But I disagree. To assume that Ida is giving up the fight is to ignore the fact that Gilbert left out the lines from the original speech, where Hilarion insists, “Yield thyself up, my hopes and thine are one…trust to me” – Here Hilarion is telling Ida to give up and embrace his hopes.

My opinion corresponds to that of Caroline Williams in “Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody (Gender and Culture Series)” which is – if I remember correctly – that giving this speech to Ida gives her more agency and allows her to make the decision to accept Hilarion.


All the Older Ladies

The most comical – and sometimes most poignant – roles in Gilbert and Sullivan belong to the older ladies: sassy Little Buttercup in HMS Pinafore, who flirts with all the sailors while she sells them her wares; Lady Jane, in Patience, who laments losing her figure and her looks; the domineering Duchess of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers, who’s “not a beginner,” and Katisha in The Mikado, who despite describing herself as “tough as a bone with a will of her own” sings one of the saddest and most beautiful laments of all:

Alone, and yet alive! Oh, sepulchre!
My soul is still my body’s prisoner!
Remote the peace that Death alone can give —
My doom, to wait! my punishment, to live!
Hearts do not break!
They sting and ache
For old love’s sake,
But do not die,
Though with each breath
They long for death
As witnesseth
The living I !


In conclusion, it is difficult to say exactly what Gilbert’s personal attitude was toward women — but nevertheless, he managed to create some interesting and complex female characters in his works.

What do you think? Was Gilbert more liberal in his views about women than many Victorian era men? Or did he adopt the prevailing views of his times?


Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: A Book Review

MrsRobinsoncoverWhat I’m reading now: Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale.

This is a masterful reconstruction of the life and times of Isabella Walker Robinson, a well-educated upper-middle-class British woman married to a cold and difficult second husband.

No doubt many other women in the 1850s felt as lonely and frustrated as Isabella did – but she poured out her feelings in her diary. On its pages she confided her deepest secrets, including her hopeless passion for Dr. Edward Lane, a married man. Their two families were friendly, with the adults spending many long hours walking and talking together while their children played.

In 1857, the new Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce possible for middle-class Britons.

In 1858, Henry Robinson found and read his wife’s diary.

Outraged by the passionate outpourings of sensual desire that Isabella had written and convinced that they amounted to infidelity, Henry sued his wife for divorce under the new law. The trial was a public scandal and her diary was read out in court.

Mrs. Robinson’s diary threatened the Victorian ideals of womanhood. Was she a sign of the decline of the morals of a nation? How many other seemingly proper Victorian wives were secretly harboring lawless sexual fantasies and wicked cravings?

In this fascinating true story, one woman’s longing for passion, learning, and companionship rocked the very foundations of a society clinging to rigid ideas about the workings of the human brain, the rights of women, and the institution of marriage.

I picked this book up at my local library, because I have read—and enjoyed—Kate Summerscale’s bestselling The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, about the creation of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Division and one of the first modern detectives, Mr. Whicher, who correctly solved a horrific murder mystery in the 1840s. I’m enjoying this book just as much, if not more.

Isabella Robinson was a poetess, whose social circle included such notables as author Charles Dickens, obstetrician and pioneer anesthetist James Young Simpson, publisher Richard Chambers, and phrenologist George Combe. Her first husband, Edward Dansey, died of a brain tumor, leaving her a widow with a young son after only five years of marriage. Two years later, she met Henry Robinson, whom she finally married after he proposed for the third time. In the book, the author quotes from a letter Isabella wrote: “I suffered my scruples & dislike to be talked away by others.” No doubt she wanted more out of life than the restricted society of her parents’ home – being married was the closest most Victorian women ever got to independent adulthood.

hebe 001

Herbertina Compton Turner, Lucy Turner’s mother. Born and raised in India and the daughter of the Lord Chief Justice of the Bombay Presidency, she remained a widow after her husband’s sudden death in 1847.

As a rule, during the Victorian era most unmarried or widowed women lived in a male relative’s house, if the family was of middle class or higher standing. In that regard, Lucy Turner’s mother Herbertina Compton Turner was unusual. Widowed suddenly in 1847 after ten years of marriage and with two children and a third on the way, Lucy’s then-32-year-old mother was brought from her native India to Suffolk, where the Turner family had a large farmhouse. But after five years of living under her in-laws’ roof, Herbertina Turner moved herself and her three children to Kensington. She bought a villa on Victoria Road, where she raised her children and spent the rest of her life as widow. She lived to the ripe old age of 98 and was widowed for 66 years, even longer than Queen Victoria herself. Mrs. Turner evidently made the right choice not to marry a second time. Lucy Turner was close to her mother all her life, and Mrs. Turner will help (and sometimes hinder!) Lucy’s fictional investigations.


I highly recommend Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady to anyone who wants to read a fascinating account of one woman’s life and struggles during the mid-Victorian era.




Skittles the Victorian Courtesan

In the first of my upcoming mystery stories featuring Lucy Turner and William Gilbert, Lucy gets to know the Duchess of Sanditon, a young woman with a checkered past – before marrying her older, war-hero Duke, she had worked as a “pretty horsebreaker” just like the famous real-life courtesan, Skittles.


Catherin “Skittles” Walters

Who was Skittles, you ask?
Skittles was the nickname of Catherine Walters, Small and slender with blue gray eyes and chestnut hair, she was exceptionally beautiful and dressed with excellent taste. Her personality has been described as bubbly, outspoken, direct and bawdy, as well as affectionate and sympathetic even toward lovers who had left her. She never wrote any tell-all autobiographies, and seemed to remain on good terms with the men she’d had affairs with.
She was born in a drab and dirty dockside house in Liverpool on June 13, 1839. Her mother died when she was very young and her father, described as a custom employee, was apparently a heavy-drinking man. Her nickname is said to have been gained from the time she worked setting up skittles, a type of bowling pin, in a bowling alley.  At some point in her childhood she became an expert rider.
No one knows for sure where Skittles first learned to ride. Maybe she worked as a bare-back rider in a traveling circus, as one story had it. Or maybe she got a job in a local stable and taught herself to ride while exercising the horses. The fact was that she loved horses and could out-ride and out-hunt most men.
She arrived in London as the 16-year-old mistress of George, Lord Fitzwilliam. He set her up in a pretty London townhome and when the relationship ended, he made her a generous settlement of £ 300 a year and a lump sum payment of £ 2,000.

Marquess of Hartington

At the age of 19, she became the mistress of Spencer Compton Cavendish, Lord Hartington, who was  nicknamed ‘Harty-Tarty.’ Their relationship, which lasted about 4 years, seems to have been very affectionate on both sides. They both loved hunting. He gave her a lovely little house in Mayfair and a life settlement of an annual sum of of £ 500 which the family continued to pay even after Hartington‘s death in 1908.
“A model of a dutiful aristocrat,” as Margot Asquith later eulogized him, Lord Hartington (a courtesy title only) served in the House of Commons before ascending to the title of the 8th Duke of Devonshire. He was a major figure in Liberal politics. While her lover was busy with his duties in Parliament, Catherine improved herself by taking lessons with a governess.
By 1861, she was one of the most notable women of the day, riding in Hyde Park’s Rotten Row between 4 and 7 pm during the Season. It must have been a wonderful scene to behold: The dandies of London gathered at the wooden rails that lined the Row, the ladies in their crinolines strolling accompanied by their footmen, children playing in the park, and maybe even the occasional “wicked old buck,” splendidly attired, angling for a glance under the bonnet of a respectable woman.
Her notoriety only increased when Sir Edwin Landseer painted “The Shrew Tamed,” with a pretty woman reclining against the side of her recumbent horse in a box stall. Even though Skittles didn’t pose for the painting, the model looked so much like her that people were shocked.
A reviewer in The Athenaeum, struck by its scarcely-veiled sexuality, said of the portrait:

“…the mighty agile sweep of the animal’s limbs, his glossy muscle-binding hide, all a-shine with health and horsehood, the powerful hoofs, the eye of subdued fire, the strong, unmastered neck, that turns graceful in its vigour, towards the slender lady reclining fearless among the dreadful feet as if there were no more harm in them than in her own, that peep, daintily brodequinned, beneath the blue riding-robe’s edge.”


The Shrew Tamed by Sir Edwin Landseer

After her relationship with Hartington ended, Catherine decided to move to Paris during the 2nd Empire of Napoleon III. The young diplomat and poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) who was 23 when they met, fell deeply in love with her but couldn’t bring himself to propose. Still, later in life Blunt and Skittles picked up their friendship again, writing letters until her death.
She returned to London after the fall of the 2nd Empire, and spent her time hunting and holding Sunday afternoon tea parties which were attended only by men. She was close to Prime Minister William Gladstone and had a brief affair with Bertie, the Prince of Wales. The prince wrote her 300 love letters, which she returned to him after their liaison had ended. In gratitude, he gave her a lifetime pension.
She met her final beau, Gerald de Saumerez, when he was 16 and she was 40, and when she died in 1920 at age 81, she left her estate to him.
So that is Catherine Walters, the inimitable Skittles. In my story, I’ve borrowed some of Skittles’ life story for the fictional character that Lucy Turner and her mother meet. The mystery that Lucy and her mother – and William Gilbert – will face is, who is trying to murder the young Duchess of Sanditon? Is anyone actually trying to bump her off, or is it all in the Duchess’ mind?

Soon you’ll be able to find out!

Victorian Crochet for Christmas

onlyadancinggirlChristmas is not too far away! Are you crafty and wondering what to make for that beloved Auntie or other relation? Fear not! There’s still time to crochet a Victorian-style gift for a family member who appreciates handmade things.

During the Victorian era, a dutiful upper-middle-class woman’s leisure time would have been occupied in making decorative items to wear and to decorate their homes.

Working for financial gain was out of the question for a well-off married Victorian woman – it would have reflected poorly on her husband. Furthermore, the woman of the house would have servants to clean and cook for the family, so she would have turned her attention to other activities such as socializing by paying morning calls, doing charity work, and hobbies.

There were plenty of ladies journals and magazines containing helpful instructions for making any number of things: Beadwork, painting on glass or china, decoupage, scrapbooking, and all forms of needlework including knitting, tatting, petit point and crocheting.

These hobbies are still popular among many people, myself included. Here are some wonderful online resources of vintage patterns (both Victorian and Victorian-style) for avid crocheters: a collection of rare and hard to find 1920’s (and earlier) needlework books containing patterns for beautiful creations from times past. Free, public-domain content. Old patterns, but not necessarily only Victorian. Has patterns for afghans, pin cushions, lace jabots, fascinators and more. A very lovely collection. Includes patterns for crochet, tatting, beading, Hardanger embroidery, and other crafts. More nice scanned-in crochet resources. Instructions for a lacy crocheted border. Very pretty. Two patterns for making Irish lace jabots. A jabot is a decorative frill that is worn at the collar of a blouse. Heritage crochet patterns and traditional style doilies, pillows, afghans, and more. A blogger mentions two crochet pattern books from the 1890s which she cherishes. Crocheting and darning patterns from the Victorian era as well as knitting.


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