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.

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.


Gilbert and Sullivan – Together

In the 1870s, Arthur Sullivan was a rising young composer whose reputation was growing steadily. At the same time, William S. Gilbert was a rising young dramatist whose plays were attracting an increasingly wider audience.

They lived in the same city, they had friends in common, and each probably knew of the other’s work—we know Gilbert had heard Sullivan’s music, because he had reviewed Sullivan and Burnand’s operetta, Cox and Box, as the theater critic for Fun magazine.

They had even collaborated on a Christmas entertainment, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. It was a successful venture in its limited way, but both men evidently considered the project a one-off. So neglected was it, that the music to Thespis has been lost except for a tune that Sullivan re-used for a chorus song in The Pirates of Penzance: “Climbing Over the Rocky Mountains.”

It was the impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte who brought the two together and encouraged the formation of the partnership that was to change the course of musical theater.

Gilbert had expanded his Bab ballad (comic poem) Trial By Jury for his friend Carl Rosa’s opera company to perform, and Rosa had agreed to write the music for it. Tragically, however, Rosa’s wife Euphrosyne, who had also been friends with Gilbert since childhood, died in childbirth at age 37 in January 1874. Carl Rosa no longer had the heart to continue his work, and the libretto had been returned.

The next year, D’Oyly Carte was trying to find a libretto for Sullivan to write the music for, and he persuaded Gilbert to take Trial by Jury to Sullivan.

It would have been hard to find two less likely collaborators. Everything about them, including their appearances, personalities, and preferences, were diametrically opposed. In his book Gilbert and Sullivan, Hesketh Pearson comments on how completely opposite the two men were:

“…the librettist, a tall military-looking gentleman with fair hair, rosy complexion, bright blue eyes and high massive forehead, who spoke quickly and jerkily in a deep hearty voice; and the composer, a short, plump, daintily-clad person, with a thick neck, dark hair and eyes, olive-tinted mobile face, sensuous lips and tender expression, whose voice was wistful and full of feeling.”

Still, Gilbert was not the kind of businessman to leave an unproduced manuscript around to gather dust if he could help it. On a cold, snowy February 20, 1875, Gilbert went to visit Sullivan at Albert Mansions in Victoria Street.

Sullivan recalled the event for his biographer, Arthur Lawrence, in Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences  :

“It was on a very cold morning,” Sir Arthur tells me, “with the snow falling heavily, that Gilbert came round to my place, clad in a heavy fur coat. He had called to read over to me the MS of ‘Trial by Jury.’ He read it through, as it seemed to me, in a perturbed sort of way, with a gradual crescendo of indignation, in the manner of a man considerably disappointed with what he had written. As soon as he had come to the last word he closed up the manuscript violently, apparently unconscious of the fact that he had achieved his purpose so far as I was concerned, inasmuch as I was screaming with laughter the whole time.”

Less than five weeks later, the music had been written, the cast rehearsed, and the new one-act operetta was ready for opening night.

Even though it followed a very popular opera by Offenbach, La Perichole, the performance was an immediate hit, as this quote from Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography attests:

“To judge by the unceasing and almost boisterous hilarity which formed a sort of running commentary on the part of the audience,” said The Times, “Trial by Jury suffered nothing whatever from so dangerous a juxtaposition. On the contrary, it may fairly be said to have borne away the palm.”  The sheer enjoyment the audience experienced came not from the words or the music alone but from the unusually happy combination of the two, a point that was seized on by the critics as exceptional: “so completely is each imbued with the same spirit,” commented the Daily News, “That it would be as difficult to conceive the existence of Mr. Gilbert’s verses without Mr. Sullivan’s music, as of Mr. Sullivan’s music without Mr. Gilbert’s verses. Each gives each a double charm.”

And so the partnership was born.

Though both were moderately successful in their separate spheres, and in later years, both Gilbert and Sullivan would feel that they each had limited their own talents in deference to the other’s artistic needs, the truth is that it took both of them together to create their extraordinary works.

I think it’s impossible to choose one over the other. What do you say? Do you prefer the music or the words? Let me know in the comments.



Uncle Tom’s Cabin – The Power of the Pen

Harried Beecher Stowe

“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Supposedly, this is what Abraham Lincoln said when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862.  In any event, her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a deep and lasting impact on the public not only in America but around the world, according to the Harriet Beecher Stowe center. From that source I learned:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin originally appeared in installments published in an anti-slavery newspaper, The National Era, in 1851. The next year it was published as a two-volume book. It sold 300,000 copies in its first year, and became the second best-selling book of the 19th century after the Bible. A best-seller in the US, Britain, Europe and Asia, it was eventually translated into 60 languages.

Because the book personalized the political and economic arguments about slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped many 19th-century Americans determine what kind of country they wanted.  Frederick Douglass wrote of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that “nothing could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour. Its effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.”

Eliza escapes across the frozen Ohio River, carrying her baby and herself to freedom.

The book had as many critics as supporters. The poet Langston Hughes called the novel, “the most cussed and discussed book of its time.”

Southerners claimed that the stories were wildly exaggerated, which led Beecher Stowe to publish a second book, called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she detailed the first-hand accounts that she had collected and on which she based the events in her novel, including the runaway slave Eliza’s dramatic escape from slave-hunters by leaping from ice floe to ice floe across the winter-bound Ohio River.

I would guess that W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan might have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or at least heard of it. The first London edition of the book came out in May, 1852, and sold over one million copies. By the time both men had reached their adult years (in the 1860s), the book was widely known and there were even stage adaptations of the work.

According to the Gilder Lehrman history site, even Queen Victoria had a copy of the book.

On the eve of publication, Stowe presented a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. In this accompanying letter addressed to Prince Albert, Stowe acknowledged that England had made some strides since the “less enlightened days” in their treatment of an “oppressed race.” She then appealed to the sympathetic hearts of the British people and their queen, writing “the author is encouraged by the thought that beneath the royal insignia of England throbs that woman’s and mother’s heart.”

Slavery had been abolished in England in 1807, and in the British colonies in 1833 (albeit gradually; The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 legally freed 700,000 in the West Indies, 20,000 in Mauritius, and 40,000 in South Africa, but not in the territories controlled by the East India Company and Ceylon).

The fugitives were safe.

On  Friday, September 3, 1852 the London Times published an article entitled “The English Opinion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at every railway book-stall in England, and in every third traveler’s hand. The book is a decided hit. It takes its place with “Pickwick,” with Louis Napoleon, with the mendicant who suddenly discovers himself heir to £20,000 a year, and, in fact, with every man whose good fortune it has been to fall asleep Nobody, and to awake in the morning an institution in the land. It is impossible not to feel respect for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

I hadn’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin before, so even though I considered some of the portrayals of the characters to be problematic, I was struck by how exciting the story was. It is clear to me why Uncle Tom’s Cabin left such an indelible mark on history.

Have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments.




Eliza: By A.S. Seer’s Union Square Print., N.Y. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fugitives Safe: Public Domain,
Harriet Beecher Stowe by Painter Alonzo Chappel (1828–1887); Engraver: Unknown – Modified version of public domain image. Library of Congress LC-USZ62-10476 (3-18), Public Domain,

Entertaining house guests, Victorian-style

Before the Internet—even before television and radio—beamed professional entertainment directly into our homes, what did people do for fun?

Our Victorian ancestors, especially those of the middle and upper classes, had plenty of leisure time to fill. One way to enjoy oneself was to invite friends over to stay for a while—three days was the standard visit. But once you had your circle of intimates gathered at your country home, what were you to do with them?

Welcoming your guests

The proper time for arrival was mid-afternoon, around teatime. Guests often arrived by train, so a good host would arrange for the guests to be met at the train station. Servants would convey the trunks, suitcases and other baggage to the house, and a carriage would be waiting to bring the guests themselves to the house.

Once at the house, the guest rooms would be all ready with everything they might need—toiletries, needles and pins, brushes, writing paper and pens, and entertaining reading materials.


Reading aloud – tableau with WS Gilbert, Maud Tree, “the Playwright”, and Beerbohm Tree

A good host and hostess would have put some thought into providing entertainment for the guests. Outdoors, there might be opportunities for hunting, or horseback riding, or hiking. In good weather, croquet matches might be held on the lawn. Indoors, options included reading, working jigsaw puzzles, and other quiet activities.

Also, groups of guests might like to indulge in conversation or dancing. Someone could read aloud, or if a guest was good at singing or playing an instrument, they might give a recital. The most active guests could dress up in costume and present a “tableau vivant.”

Tableau vivants

From the French phrase meaning “living picture,” a tableau vivant was when a person or group of people recreated a scene from a famous painting, a moment from a book or a play, or even an idea.

Using costumes, props, and backdrops, the participants would pose in the proper attitudes of the original scene. A curtain would be drawn back revealing the models, who stayed silent and frozen for about thirty seconds. Sometimes a poem or music accompanied the scene, and there might even be a large wooden frame placed around the scene, giving it the appearance of a painted canvas inside a picture frame.

With the advent of photography, the scenes could then be photographed and preserved. Julia Margaret Cameron created a number of fantasy images featuring friends and family dressed in medieval or legendary costumes. No doubt this was big fun for the Victorians, since many of them seemed to enjoy fancy-dress (costumes).

Arthur Sullivan belonged to a group of friends who called themselves the Moray Minstrels and met at Moray Lodge, the home of Arthur James Lewis.  Just for fun, they would hold musical evenings on a monthly basis – they put on the very first performance of Sullivan’s “Cox and Box,” on which he collaborated with writer F.C. Burnand.

Here is a photograph of the costume-wearing Moray Minstrels, plus sisters Kate and Ellen Terry – both were actresses; Kate was married to Arthur James Lewis.  Arthur Sullivan is seated on the far left; the woman seated closest to him is Ellen Terry, the other woman in the picture is Kate Terry, and seated on the floor in front is cartoonist George Du Maurier.

Moray Minstrels, from “Gilbert & Sullivan and their Victorian World” by Christopher Hibbert


W.S. Gilbert: For the Birds (and Beasts)

Gilbert’s home at Grim’s Dyke

W.S. Gilbert was known for his irascible disposition, quick temper and readiness to fight any person whom he thought deserved to be taken down. But he had a soft spot for animals and birds of all kinds, and his home of Grim’s Dyke was also home to a wide variety of creatures.

Hesketh Pearson says in W.S. Gilbert, His Life and Strife:
“His estate became a sort of zoological gardens… In his idyllic oasis of lawns, flowers, trees, bracken, rhododendrons, fruit gardens, ferns and beehives, he had made a lake of one-and-a-half acres, and the whole place was a sanctuary for birds and animals, many of which were quite at home in his house as well.”

In Gilbert and Sullivan, Pearson adds:

“Compared with the average sportsman Gilbert was a softhearted humanitarian. For all his longing to be a despot, he had no real malevolence in him at all. He adored children and animals and could not bear the infliction of pain on either. “Deer stalking,” he once said, “would be a very fine sport if only the deer had guns.”

And when William Archer mentioned the theory that the fox enjoyed his little run with the hounds, Gilbert broke in, “I should like to hear the fox on that point. The time will no doubt come when the sport of the present day will be regarded very much as we regard the Spanish bullfight or the bearbaiting of our ancestors.”

He was not a fanatic on the subject of taking life, but he could not outrage his own sensibilities. To understand his nature we must contrast the figurative cruelty in his poems with a fond following personal confession: “I have a constitutional objection to taking life in any form. I don’t think I ever wittingly killed the black beetle. It is not humanity on my part. I am perfectly willing that other people should kill things for my comfort and advantage. But the mechanism of life is so wonderful that I shrink from stopping its action. To tread on a black beetle would be to me like crushing a watch of complex and exquisite workmanship.”

Gilbert’s library, which had French windows that were usually open. The animals strolled in and out.

His home at Grim’s Dyke was shared with a wide variety of animals: Dogs, cats, a pet fawn, a donkey named Adelina (after Adelina Patti, the famous singer), monkeys, lemurs, pigeons, turkeys, parrots, and – one summer – a bee that wandered in an open window and stayed. Gilbert fed it sugar-water, gave it a little box to rest in, and called it Buzfuz.

For several years he kept a number of monkeys, building a large house for them. His favorites were a pair of lemurs. Pearson says that on September 26, 1905, Gilbert made the following announcement:

“[There has been] a most interesting occurrence in our household. A baby, quite unexpectedly, has been born – to whom do you think? – to our two lemurs! It is the rarest possible thing for ringtail lemurs to breed in captivity. The Sec. to the Zoological Gardens… tells me that such a thing has not happened since 1881.”

Gilbert loved birds, too, and all were safe from being hunted on the grounds of Grim’s Dyke. Pearson reported that:

“The air was full of the song of birds, or to quote an invitation Gilbert once issued, “the gooseberry bushes are thickly hung with stomach aches; and while the cuckoo delights by day, the nightingale and the screech owl do their best to make the night lovely.”

Fantail pigeons occasionally hopped into the library to see what they could pick up, being partial to cigar ends, and when he smoked out-of-doors several of them would sit on his shoulder and peck at his cigar. Once half a dozen turkeys, bored with the farmyard, strolled through the French windows and took up their positions on chairs, tables and desk. Gilbert’s arrival caused their tumultuous departure with some damage to the ornaments in the room.

At one time he formed an intimacy with a robin, which came to him from any distance within call, fed from his hand, and perch twittering on his head as he moved about the garden. Siberian cranes occasionally stalked into the library, though their presence was not encouraged.”

Gilbert was a practical joker, and Pearson reports on a joke he played on his wife, Lucy:

A bullfinch, probably like the one(s) Gilbert used to play a trick on his wife

“A piping bullfinch which he had given to his wife became very tame, but one morning she noticed that it was nervous and piped dissimilar notes. Later in the day it was tame again and back to its usual musical form. This went on for more than a week, timidity and a different song alternating with friendliness and the old one.

She remained in a state of the perplexity until she found three bullfinches in the library, each closely resembling the other and each in a cage of exactly the same pattern. It was one of her husband’s little practical jokes, which he contrived with as much thought and care as he gave to the stage-management of the Savoy operas. The butler had been taken into his confidence, and one cage was substituted for another with a different bird at regular intervals.

For ten days he kept up the mystery, to his amusement and her amazement.”

(Because it fits in with my fictional stories, I like to think that Gilbert did it because he knew Lucy loved to solve mysteries. So he gave her this little mystery to solve – but that’s merely my surmise!)

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2017 bring you all the good things you desire!



Bullfinch by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,




Christmas with the Gilberts

Kate Terry Gielgud, mother of acclaimed actor Sir John Gielgud

Though William and Kitty Gilbert never had any children of their own, they both enjoyed the company of young people and loved to give lavish parties for the children of friends and family.

One young lady who enjoyed their parties was Kate Terry Gielgud – the daughter of actress Kate Terry and Arthur James Lewis (a silk merchant of the firm of Lewis & Allenby), and the mother of famed actor Sir John Gielgud.  In Kate Terry Gielgud: An Autobiography (1953), she explained, “Both author and composer were friends of my parents, and Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert invited us every year to Christmas parties in their house…”

Born in 1868, young Kate would have been between 10 and 14 years old when she attended the Christmas parties she described. The party held in  December 1881 included a special treat:

“…the Gilberts built a new house in Harrington Gardens with a model of the H.M.S. Pinafore as a weather-vane, and this house … had electric light installed in it, and here the Christmas tree, instead of being hung with candles and parcels, was a dazzling mass of tiny festooned globes, blue, red, green and yellow, a light within each. Parcels were heaped on the floor so as not to spoil the effect, but were disregarded in the clamour to be allowed to move the switch in the wall that could plunge the room into darkness and, reversed, restore the light in a dozen fittings at once. We gaped in wonder…”

It’s amusing now, to think that there was a time when the presents under the tree would be ignored in favor of turning the tree lights off and on, and off and on…

Children brought out Gilbert’s sense of fun. Many of his letters to children are especially playful and amusing. A few years before the awesome electric Christmas tree lights, on 20 December 1876, W.S. Gilbert sent a hand-written Christmas card to Miss Terry that read:

Christmas wish from WSG

“Wishing you both a decent, sober, temperate and respectable Christmas, undisfigured by extravagance and untainted by excess,

I am,

very truly yours,

WS Gilbert.”


Here’s hoping that your own Christmas celebrations are the opposite of all that, and very merry indeed!







Victorian Drawing Rooms – Private Refuges from Public Life


The well-decorated library at Grimsdyke, the home of Lucy and William S. Gilbert.

With more people today working from home, it’s interesting to note that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian era marks the separation of the workplace from the domestic sphere.

In Dickens’ Great Expectations, the law clerk Wemmick  says, “The office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle [his home] behind me, and when I come into the Castle,  I leave the office behind me.”

Ah, the Industrial Revolution! Who would have guessed that those “dark satanic mills” of Byron’s poem would have revolutionized every aspect of the way people lived, down to the very style of their houses?

Before the Industrial Revolution, many middle- and lower-class people had previously earned money by working on piece-work at home. But with the rise of industry, workers began to perform their work in the factory or the shop – separate from their living spaces.

Furthermore, the mass production of goods allowed the middle classes to finally have access to cheaper versions of the items that had previously only been accessible to the wealthy. All sorts of decorative items were available – rugs, furniture, wallpaper and artwork – which could be easily acquired and used to display the interests and personality of the residents. Therefore, a plain, unadorned home was considered a sign of bad taste. Victorian homes boasted as much décor as possible.

Life in the public world began to move faster, with telegraphs and trains and machinery of all kinds speeding up the pace of business. Workers, meaning men, had to move faster too, as competition demanded more speed, more efficiency, and more aggression.  Not only were homes now places of adornment and personal display, but they were also pools of domestic tranquility, as people sought to create in their homes a kind of stasis, a permanent refuge in which to slow down and rest.

But even in a private refuge, there must be a place for “the World” to enter, and that place was the drawing room, which was the central formal room in which the mistress of the house entertained visitors. Since homes reflected their owner’s status in life, it was extremely important that the drawing room was neither too modest (which would show a carelessness or lack of self-respect in the homeowners) nor too over-decorated. Sharp-eyed critics of the time were quick to deplore a scenario in which a lowly clerk would be expected to make himself at home in a room fit for the richest of bankers.

As Judith Flanders says in Inside the Victorian Home, “Extravagance was immoral, thrift was moral; the greatest good was knowing one’s place and living up to it precisely.”

This requirement to be exactly who you seemed to be might also have been a reaction to the increasing levels of social mobility – in ages past, everyone knew everyone else’s families, what role they played in the life of the community, and what their status was. But now that a train ride to the city might allow a person to shed their old identity and assume a new one, it became urgently important to have ways of knowing who one was dealing with.

The danger of accepting a person at face value is one of the central issues in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.  In that novel, the fabulously wealthy financier Augustus Melmotte arrives suddenly in London from the Continent, and many of the penniless English aristocrats of the day are dazzled by his display. They take him at his word, and welcome him into their homes even though they know very little about him.

Sadly, however, it turns out that he’s not the man they think he is—and the trusting aristocrats and bankers of London fall victim to his wiles. Of course, they are just as much to blame, since it is their greed that leads them to accept him without checking out his history.


The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

Therefore, even though new technologies, new systems and new ideas were cropping up every day, most Victorian people instinctively reacted negatively to new things, especially with respect to the home and private life. John Ruskin, one of the foremost art critics and taste-makers of the day, reviewed Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscience, which showed a kept woman in her lavishly decorated room, by saying that everything in the picture showed a “terrible lustre” of “fatal newness.” The woman is suddenly realizing the error of her ways and that error is visible, to Victorian eyes, in all the new things that she has surrounded herself with.

Contrariwise, things that were old, handed down, or slightly shabby represented the homeowner’s connection with the past, and therefore were virtuous. In the drawing room, the excess of memorabilia, souvenirs and decorations were meant to be a visual representation of the family’s connection with the past and stability.

From another angle, Victorians were beginning to appreciate the art and design of different cultures, notably the Japanese. One of the main influences came from artist James MacNeill Whistler introducing Japanese art and design ideas to pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who adopted the ideas whole-heartedly. But of course, the craze for all things Japanese caught on in other ways, too, and by the 1880s, no Victorian parlor could be found without at least one Japanese fan mounted upon the wall.

And so the Victorian drawing room contained elements of both old and new, both domestic and foreign, and both cozy and formal. It was the public room of the house, where visitors could be entertained, but it was also the first step into the private domain of domestic tranquility—Victorian style.





By William Holman Hunt – eAEe8oI1HIMufA at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum Tate Images Public Domain,

W.S. Gilbert vs. Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Gilbert-clowning“If you promise me faithfully not to mention this to a single person, not even to your dearest friend,” W.S. Gilbert confessed to his actor friend George Grossmith, “I don’t think Shakespeare rollicking.”

Wait, what? Shakespeare, not a laugh-a-minute dramatist? What about all those zany jesters like Touchstone and Feste? Dogsberry, not funny? Just because Victorians, who were centuries away from to the Tudors, found some of Shakespeare’s in-jokes incomprehensible doesn’t mean that audiences shouldn’t laugh at the right places, if they pretend to be cultured individuals.

However, Gilbert being Gilbert, what do you think he did?

He wrote a parody of Hamlet, of course!

Gilbert’s play was called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and even that severe critic Hesketh Pearson in W. S. Gilbert: His Life and Strife considered that it was just about “the best parody of the poet ever written.”

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, King Claudius has a secret, but it’s not what you might think. Claudius confesses to Gertrude that when he was a young man, he wrote a five-act tragedy that was so awful it was laughed off the stage. Mortified, he decreed that anyone who even mentioned the play would be subject to the death penalty.

“Was it, my Lord, so very, very bad?” asks Gertrude.

“Not to deceive my trusting Queen, it was,” Claudius replies.

Ophelia would rather marry Rosencrantz, but she can’t. She was betrothed against her will to Hamlet, the moody Danish prince who may or may not be mad. His mother Gertrude worries about Hamlet’s alarming tendency to soliloquize and the fact that, even though he’s an eleventh-century Dane, he always dresses like King James the First.

Ophelia explains, “Hamlet is idiotically sane with lucid intervals of lunacy.”

But life isn’t all that easy for poor Hamlet. Every time he starts to say, “To be, or not to be,” he gets interrupted. How rude!

Rosencrantz’s friend Guildenstern suggests that they talk Hamlet into mounting a production of the five-act tragedy “Gonzago.” Using reverse psychology, they convince the stubborn and contrary Hamlet by telling him not to do it – but they don’t tell him who wrote the work, or that his life will be forfeit if he puts the play on.

The play is performed for the King, who almost immediately recognizes his own awful work. As the conspirators planned, the King condemns Hamlet to death.  Hamlet is horrified, because as a philosopher he constantly thinks about death but he certainly doesn’t want to go there. Luckily, Ophelia has an idea. As the King pulls his dagger out to kill Hamlet on the spot, she stops him.

Why not banish Hamlet instead, Ophelia suggests.  Send him to the island beyond the sea known as Engle-land, where the natives might appreciate Hamlet. England, of course!  The King agrees, saying, “They’re welcome to his philosophic brain.”

And so all ends happily, with Ophelia united with Rosencrantz and Hamlet taking his “philosophic brain” to England, where he’s been admired for centuries.

You can check out the entire play here.

Let me know in the comments if you enjoyed it as much as I did!




W.S. Gilbert’s Political Snarkiness

"Iolanthe" American music cover from

“Iolanthe” American music cover from

W.S. Gilbert lampooned Victorian politics in Iolanthe, a topsy-turvy tale in which a troupe of fairies take over Parliament after their Fairy Queen is insulted by the Lord Chancellor. He mistook her for the Headmistress of a Ladies’ Seminary, and in revenge the fairies use their powers to pass all the laws the House of Peers can’t stand to see on the books.

All the political “hot potato” issues of the day are blithely passed into law — from Marriage to Deceased Wife’s Sister to making a Dukedom attainable by Competitive Examination, the fairies ruthlessly suppress all objections from the peers. How can the legislators rescue themselves and the nation from this quandary?

The premise gave Gilbert the chance to satirize Victorian notions of status, privilege, the two-party system, and the laws and lawmakers of the day (I’m feeling very political these days, so it pleases me to share with you the master’s snarkiness, even if it doesn’t apply directly to our own government).

In Iolanthe, the Peers of the House of Lords enter singing,

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!

Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses,

Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses,

Tantantara! Tzing, boom!


Later on, the Chorus of Peers try to woo the beautiful Arcadian shepherdess Phyllis by singing,

High rank involves no shame —

We boast an equal claim

With him of humble name

To be respected!


One of the most famous politically-minded songs from the opera is Private Willis’ song, in which the lonely guard offers his philosophical musings on politics, including the idea that every child is born “a little liberal or a little conservative.” (As a side note, I was thrilled when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted that lyric in a recent interview. Awesome!)

Private Willis also adds, if I’m reading the lyrics right, that it’s probably a good thing that politicians have to vote as their parties tell ‘em to, because it would be too frightening if they all started thinking for themselves. Read the song’s lyrics and decide for yourself:

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.

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.

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!


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.

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.

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!


Isaac Asimov, in his The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, called the bombastic “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” one of Gilbert’s most patriotic songs, but I think the lyrics sound ironic.

Asimov added this fun little story: “In 1909, some of the Liberals campaigning against the House of Lords’ power of veto after its rejection of Lloyd George’s radical budget of that year asked Gilbert for permission to quote this verse:

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!


Isaac Asimov continues: “He [Gilbert] replied rather pepperily: “I cannot permit the verses of Iolanthe to be used for electioneering purposes. They do not at all express my own view. They are supposed to be the views of the wrong-headed donkey who sings them.”

Asimov also reported that “with or without the help of Iolanthe however, the Liberal reformers achieved their aims and in 1911 the Parliament Act was passed, curtailing the House of Lords’ power to veto legislation already passed by the Commons. Since them noble statemen have largely withheld their legislative hand and contented themselves with moving amendments to Bills sent up from the Lower House.”

Here is the complete text of the song:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!



Yes Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!


When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!



Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!


And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!



As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!


And so the political pendulum swings back and forth. Satirists throughout the years have found plenty to mock in a nation’s leaders, but W.S. Gilbert managed to poke fun at the House of Lords and still have them laughing at themselves.

As Gilbert wrote in Yeomen of the Guard, “he who’d make his fellow … creatures wise/ should always gild the philosophic pill.”

"Bab" drawing of a king in the stocks, frm

“Bab” drawing of a king in the stocks, frm

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