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,



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.




Victorian Valentines

Valentine image with caption

Valentine image with caption

Across the centuries, humans have loved to celebrate love. From the ancient Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, to the Renaissance vision of courtly love, to Ophelia’s sad mention of Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, February 14 and Valentines have been symbols of romantic love.

In Britain around the 1820s, specially-made papers for sending Valentine’s Day greetings began to be marketed. They became so popular that they were soon being made in factories. Often flat paper sheets printed with colored illustrations and embossed borders, they were designed to be folded up and sealed with wax for mailing.

Elaborate lace quarto: Double-layered, openwork, cameo-embossed lace by the English firm of Joseph Meek, circa 1850. Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

Elaborate lace quarto: Double-layered, openwork, cameo-embossed lace by the English firm of Joseph Meek, circa 1850. Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

A very fancy Valentine could be made with real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the 1830s. Books and pamphlets containing sentimental verses and appropriate messages could be purchased by those wanting help in creating their card.

In 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards were mailed in Britain, despite postage being expensive.

After the introduction of the Penny Post in Britain in 1840, when adhesive stamps costing only a penny made mailing letters easy and inexpensive, sending Valentine’s Day cards became even more popular. And as the century progressed and mail deliveries around London became more frequent, a card sent in London in the early morning might easily be delivered to another London address the same day.

The stationery manufacturers Marcus Ward and Company helped to popularize printed Valentine cards. Specializing in stationery and general publishing, the firm won a medal for their color lithography in the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the 1860s, the firm was well-known for its calendars and greeting cards decorated by the likes of Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane.

Valentine by Kate Greenaway: England, circa 1870. Design from an illustration for the book, Melcomb Manor, a Family Chronicle. Printed by Marcus Ward, London,1875. from Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

Valentine by Kate Greenaway: England, circa 1870. Design from an illustration for the book, Melcomb Manor, a Family Chronicle. Printed by Marcus Ward, London,1875. from Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury



The Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University gathers 450 Valentine’s Day cards dating from the early nineteenth century, printed by the major publishers of the day.

Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury contains a wealth of information about the history of valentines and information about the National Valentine Collectors Association.

Here is a lovely collection of Victorian Valentines assembled by The Guardian.

And who wouldn’t relish receiving a Victorian Valentine with a picture of Cupid on roller skates?

For those who like their Valentines snarky, check out these “vinegar Valentines. ”



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!

An Interview with Lucy Turner

Lucy Turner in 1866

Lucy Turner in 1866. From Gilbert His Life and Strife by Hesketh Pearson.

Allow me to introduce you to Miss Lucy Agnes Blois Turner of Victoria Road, Kensington. All Lucy really wants is to be the mistress of her own destiny.

Sadly, in the Year of our Lord 1866, young ladies – especially those who are members of the large Turner clan, with sisters, aunts and cousins that are reckoned up by dozens – are distinctly NOT encouraged to become mistresses of anything! The Victorian ideal of womanhood is the Angel in the House, sweet and modest, caring and self-effacing –   although it is likely that, in the Turner family, this ideal is honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Today, The Author sits down to have a little chat with Lucy about her life. Could it be possible that Lucy herself doesn’t know that in the very near future, she will be embarking upon the most unladylike adventure of her life?

If only she had known…


Lucy: How do you take your tea? And please take a piece of gingerbread – it’s a special Turner family recipe.

The Author: Why, thank you! No sugar, just a splash of milk. I’m glad you don’t mind telling me all your secrets.

Lucy: No, not at all. There’s simply not much to say. (holding milk jug poised over the cup) Is it not unusual for an American to take milk in her tea? That is what I have been told.

The Author: Yes, well, I don’t usually … but when in Rome, you know. That is to say, in England people take milk…

Lucy: Oh, but you don’t have to. And if you’d like just a tiny amount of sugar, I certainly won’t tell anyone!

The Author: Okay, as long as it’s just between us.

Lucy: How exciting that you are an American! I’ve never traveled anywhere outside England. Tell me where you are from? Is it near to California?

The Author: No, it’s pretty far actually…wait. Perhaps I should ask you a question or two! What a lovely semi-detached villa this is! And Kensington seems almost like a small village, even though the City of London is only a few miles away. Have you lived here all your life?

Lucy: No, in fact I was born on a farm in Suffolk. My mother, sister and brother were staying with our Turner relatives there after their arrival from India, and I was born a few months later. But Mama bought this house in Kensington when I was only five, so I have grown up here.

Another photo of young Lucy. From Gilbert His Life and Strife by Hesketh Pearson.

Another photo of young Lucy. From Gilbert His Life and Strife by Hesketh Pearson.

The Author: I’m surprised your grandfather Turner allowed your mother to set up her own household. He seems like an autocratic old gent who believes women ought always to live under masculine supervision.

Lucy: He could hardly stop her! Mama has her own money, you know, which she inherited from her father, Sir Herbert Compton. He was the former Lord Chief Justice of the Bombay Presidency. In her youth, Mama was known as the Belle of Bombay. We would be living in India still if it hadn’t been for my father’s untimely death, just a few months before I was born.

The Author: I’m so sorry for your loss. You said you had a brother and a sister?

Lucy: Yes. Grace is the oldest. She’s married now. My brother Samuel is in the Army. So at home it’s just Mama and me. And Malli, of course.

The Author: Who is Malli?

Lucy: She is Mama’s closest companion. Malli was Mama’s aya when she was a girl and her lady’s maid after she married. Then she was our aya – Grace’s and Samuel’s and mine – when we were young, too. Now she keeps house for us.

The Author: What activities do you like to do? How does a young woman keep herself busy all day?

Lucy: Oh, any number of things! I love to ride horses. We have a riding stable directly across the street from our home and Hyde Park is just the other side of Kensington Road. I also read a great deal. And naturally Mama and I must pay endless calls on our friends and acquaintances. But they are more Mama’s friends and acquaintances than mine. Mama is also very active in our church. In fact, Mama practically runs the Ladies’ Auxiliary single-handed, no matter what our neighbor Mrs. Gilbert says.

The Author: Who is this Mrs. Gilbert? What is she like?

Lucy: Oh dear. Would you like some more gingerbread?

W.S. Gilbert in 1861 (West Yorkshire Militia) from Gilbert His Life and Strife, by Hesketh Pearson

W.S. Gilbert in 1861 (West Yorkshire Militia) from Gilbert His Life and Strife, by Hesketh Pearson

The Author: No, thanks. Wait, that wouldn’t be the Mrs. Gilbert, whose son is William Schwenk Gilbert? That tall, blonde barrister who writes that funny poetry called the Bab Ballads? I love his drawings, too — some of them are on this very blog. I heard that Lewis Carroll asked him to draw the artwork for Alice in Wonderland, but had to fall back on another artist called Tenniel when Gilbert turned him down.

Lucy: Yes. He has written quite a lot of funny and clever pieces, not just the poems. And he is working on a play, too. Or so I’ve been told. I don’t really know him.

The Author: It sounds as if you know a lot about him.

Lucy: Oh, no! He’s just a gentleman who … who one knows. I daresay he doesn’t even think of me. I’m quite a bit younger than he is. Nearly 11 years. But not quite eleven years – several days short of the total. He was born on 18 November 1836, and I was born 14 November 1847.

The Author: Do you like him?

Lucy: Do have some more gingerbread. It’s a family recipe.

Lucy Turner is the heroine of my new, upcoming historical mystery series, which will debut in 2016! Stay tuned for details.

21 Good Books on Art, Crime, Women, and Life in Victorian London

Here are a few favorites from my personal list of reference books. Have I missed any books that you particularly enjoy? Let me know!


1. The Aesthetic Movement, by Lionel Lambourne (2011)
In the second half of the Victorian era, artists of all varieties became inspired by the writings of Baudelaire and Walter Pater to focus more on ornamentation and aesthetic concerns. The pre-Raphaelite artists, Queen Anne architectural styles, blue-and-white china and Japanese influences all were part of the Aesthetic Movement in both fine and decorative arts. The text of this book provides fascinating insights into the historical personages – such as Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Ellen Terry – who led and shaped the Aesthetic Movement and the color photographs are beautiful. Lionel Lambourne was Head of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 1986-1993.


2. The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900, Eds. Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway (2011)
Lively, interesting essays on various aspects of Victorian life and art, coupled with gorgeous color photographs of art by pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Movement artists, along with items from other decorative arts: vases, furniture, wallpapers, books and architectural elements, as well as satirical cartoons and drawings.



3. Life in Victorian Britain, by Michael Paterson (2013)
A big subject, but the wealth of material is summarized and presented in a very readable and engaging way. A great introduction.

4. The Victorian Studies Reader, Eds. Kelly Boyd and Rohan McWilliam (2007)
Excellent collection of essays by historians on various aspects of Victorian life, including religion, gender and social mores.

5. Daily life of Victorian Women, by Lydia Murdoch (2013)
A scholarly tome – but still interesting to read – on Victorian women’s life and experiences, covering such areas as family and home, politics and the public arena, health and welfare, and beauty, status and wealth. Interesting insights that present Victorian women as more actively engaged in the culture at large than one might think.

6. Daily Life in Victorian England, by Sally Mitchell (2008)
Another easily readable and engaging text on Victorian life in general, covering how people of all classes lived and celebrated the milestones of life.

7. Inside the Victorian Home, by Judith Flanders (2005)
I really enjoyed this book – the topics covered are organized according to the rooms in which those activities might be expected to occur: Cooking and food in the dining room, courtship in the parlor, and so on.

8. Victorian London, by Liza Pickard (2007)
Liza Pickard has authored a number of very interesting and entertaining books on life in London during various periods of history – Elizabethan London, Restoration London, Dr. Johnson’s London – and she brings her trademark wit and insight to the Victorian era. This is about the city, its expansion and development into a modern urban center, as opposed to a domestic view of life.

9. A History of London, Stephen Inwood (1999)
This covers all of London’s 2,000-plus year history from Roman times to the present. But it’s worthwhile reading and helps to get a perspective on the city as a whole.

10. London The Biography, Peter Ackroyd (2003)
A sprawling book covering London’s two millenia of history and development, with lots of anecdotes and perspectives on how the past has left its mark on the present.

11. London Past and Present, by Chiara Libero (2005)
A nice hardcover book with glossy photos of London.

12. London, by Iain Thomson (2000)
Another nice book of photographs of London landmarks.

13. London, by John Russell (1994)
An idiosyncratic memoir of London told through witty anecdotes by a distinguished art critic. Plenty of gorgeous paintings, interesting photographs and other depictions of life in London.

14. Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 (2d Edition), by Clive Emsley (1987)
A densely-written history of crime with statistics and graphs. The second edition has a new chapter on crime and gender.

15. City of Dreadful Delight, by Jane Walkowitz (1992)
A history of gender, exploring the experiences of women in the city. From poor streetwalkers to well-off “shopping ladies,” women have become more visible in the public areas of the city, and that leads to changes in the relationships between men and women.

16. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale (2009)
Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher is Scotland Yard’s best investigator in their new criminal investigation division, but his conclusions about who committed a shocking murder in 1860 challenged public perceptions so much that it cost him his career. Fascinating true crime story.

17. Scotland Yard Casebook, by Joan Lock (1993)
By the 1870s, Scotland Yard’s Detective Branch was discredited and corrupt, and in 1878 it was replaced by the Criminal Investigation Division. Police officer and historian Joan Lock tells the story behind the change, and the new division’s successes and failures including Ernest Southey’s four murders, the dockland killings of 1869, and the Neill Cream and Jack the Ripper murders.

18. Rise of Scotland Yard, Douglas G. Browne (1956)
Starting with the very beginning of the Metropolis, around about 1050, Browne covers the origins of policing in England – the posse comitatus, the hue and cry, the Bow Street Runner, and on up to the creation of an actual publicly-funded police force. He details the early years of Scotland Yard – the cases and the scandals – and then continues on to the events and dealings of Scotland Yard in the mid-1950s.

19. Calling Scotland Yard, by Arthur Thorp (1954)
Chief Superintendent Arthur Thorp wrote this book about his own career at the Yard, and discusses cases that he personally handled in the 1940s and 1950s. So even though it’s not from the Victorian era, I found it interesting to look at how cases were investigated and solved.

20. The Marlborough House Set, by Anita Leslie (1973)
The author, a great niece of Jenny Jerome Churchill, had a ring-side seat when it came to observing life in the highest echelons of British society – and here she’s collected a wide variety of anecdotes and photographs from her Edwardian-era relatives, who intimately knew the scandalous goings-on of the friends of the Prince of Wales (Queen Victoria’s son, later Edward VII), known as the Marlborough House set. Fun to read.

21. The English Companion, by Godfrey Smith (1984)
I picked this up on a whim at a used book store, because I figured it would help to understand some “Englishisms” that an American might not otherwise learn. It’s a fun and lighthearted look at English culture, circa 1984.

So that’s my list! Make sure to add any suggestions you may have in the comments below.

15 Victorian-set Movies and TV shows to Watch


If you’re looking for visual and aural inspiration about the clothing, manners and day-to-day activities of Victorian people, the following movies and TV miniseries will help you!  Here are fifteen of my favorite choices.

The painting at left is so typical of the Aesthetic period, with the blue and white china, the color scheme, and the young woman’s distinctively pre-Raphaelite eyebrows, that I thought I’d just add it here.


1. North & South (2004 TV mini-series) BBC production starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. Based on the novel by Elizabet Gaskell, this is the story of Margaret Hale, a gently-bred parson’s daughter from the pastoral South of England who is uprooted and moved to “dark Satanic mills” of industrial Milton in the North, where she meets the stern, outwardly cold cotton-mill owner John Thornton. Their clash of wills produces sparks that soon turn into a conflagration. Excellent performances by all involved.

2. Mrs. Brown (1997 movie) BAFTA-winning performance by Judi Dench as widowed and grieving Queen Victoria, who finds her joy in life reawakened by her Scots ghillie, or groom, John Brown (played by an excellent Billy Connolly). This true story traces their 20-year friendship, which began when the Queen’s closest advisers brought Brown to the Isle of Wight to encourage her to go out riding for a little fresh air. Brown proved to be a loyal, protective and utterly devoted friend to his Queen, despite the rumors and catty remarks about their relationship.

3. The Young Victoria  (2009 movie) Emily Blunt brings to life the young princess and heir to the English Throne who falls in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and finds enduring happiness with him despite the political machinations and intrigues going on all around them.

4. Jane Eyre  (2006 TV miniseries with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson) A “poor, obscure, plain and little” governess falls in love with her complicated, brooding employer. But the secrets of his past will not stay hidden, and will threaten their happiness.

5. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (2008 TV mini-series with Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne; see also the 1979 movie version with Nastassia Kinski and Peter Firth). Tragic story of a young peasant girl torn between the rich man who seduced her and the conventional man who married her without knowing about her past.

6. Cranford  (2007 TV mini-series) Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, and many other prominent British actresses appear in this delightful series of tales about life, love and gossip in a rural market-town in the 1840s, just on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

7. Wives and Daughters (1999 TV mini-series) Another wonderful story from Elizabeth Gaskell, this time about a country doctor’s daughter who finds herself dealing with a flighty new step-mama, an impetuous step-sister, the gossip of their neighbors, and her own unrequited love for a man who thinks of her just as a friend.

8. Our Mutual Friend (1998 TV mini-series) Paul McGann stars in Charles Dickens’ tale of love, greed and secret identities in 1860s London.

9. Penny Dreadful  (2014-present TV series with Eva Green and Timothy Dalton) Gothic horror series in which an adventurous explorer, a psychic medium and an American gunslinger team up to battle all kinds of unnatural evil threatening London, including Frankenstein, werewolves and deathless Dorian Gray.

10. Copper  (2012-present TV series) In the 1860s, a rugged Irish policeman must navigate New York City’s tumultuous immigrant neighborhood, the fancy residents of uptown Manhattan, and the black community. Starring Tom Weston-Jones

11. Murdoch Mysteries  (2008-present TV series) Starring Yannick Bisson. In the 1890s, Detective William Murdoch uses brand new forensic crime techniques like fingerprinting and trace evidence to solve the most baffling crimes.

12. Effie Gray  (2014 movie) Starring Dakota Fanning, directed by Emma Thompson. After a six-year courtship, teenage Effie Gray marries the much older Victorian art critic John Ruskin. But when Ruskin refuses to consummate their marriage, Effie finds herself drawn to Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. It was a true story that shocked Victorian society.

13. Ripper Street  (2012-present TV series) Starring Matthew MacFadyen. Scotland Yard detectives in 1889 are investigating a series of Jack the Ripper-style copycat murders in London’s East End.

14. Desperate Romantics  (2009 TV series) Starring Aidan Turner, Rafe Spall, Samuel Barnett and Zoe Tapper. The vibrant lives and loves of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as they grow from penniless artists wooing their models and their Muses with equal fervor, into the most celebrated painters of their generation.

15. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: The Murder at Road Hill House  (2011 TV movie) Based on the true story of Mr. Whicher, one of Scotland Yard’s first detectives, who is called upon to investigate a dreadful murder in a quiet rural area. The unpalatable truth shocks the community and shakes their faith in the nascent science of criminal investigation.

Five Great Victorian Studies Reference Sites, plus blogs


If you’re like me, you want to know all the fascinating tidbits and details about life in the Victorian Era. Well, fear not – there are plenty of great reference sites out there on the Internet. I’ve collected five useful general sites here.

1. Victorian Voices – The list of lists. Find articles, websites and blogs on every aspect of Victorian life from America, Gardening, and Country/Village life to Royalty, Women’s Issues, Work, and World Cultures.

2. Victorian Research – Find the libraries and other places where primary sources and archival records are housed. Also, under the heading “Discussion” there are many groups and blogs on Victorian matters.

3. The Victorian Web – Arranged by topic in a diamond shape, the site offers information both about the UK and other nations during the Victorian era on topics including social history, political history and gender matters, philosophy, religion, science and technology, writers, artists, and theater and entertainment as well as much more.

4. Victorian London – The Victorian Dictionary, Lee Jackson’s website, has a wonderful archive of primary sources describing various aspects of London life during the Victorian era.

5. Victorian Literary Studies Archive – Professor Matsuoka of Nagoya University, Japan, has put together a huge collection of links on the Victorian era in London, Manchester, Knutsford, and the U.K., English Department in Japan, English department overseas, Dickens Fellowship, Victorian Studies Society, Victorian authors Dickens, Gaskell and Gissing, Victorian Websites, 19th century authors, English literature, British Authors and American Authors.

You might also want to explore the Victorian-era information on British History Online


I compiled the following list of blogs at random over the course of my previous searches. I have identified the blogger where I could, but I don’t know any of these folks.

The Cat’s Meat Shop (Lee Jackson)
Crime and Insanity in Victorian England (David Vaughan)
The Curious World of Victorian Collecting (Mary Addyman)
Dickens Blog (Gina Dalfonzo)
The Digital Victorianist (Bob Nicholson)
The Floating Academy: A Victorian Studies Blog
The Hoarding (Andrew Stauffer)
The Hour of Mask and Mime (Diane Magras)
Journal of Victorian Culture Online: Editors’ Blog
The Little Professor (Miriam Burstein)
Looking Glasses at Odd Corners (Amber Regis)
Charlotte Mathieson
Neo-Victorian Thoughts (Louisa Yates)
Novel Ideas: Modern Musings on the Long 19th Century (Emily K. Cody and Trey Conatser)
Novel Readings (Rohan Maitzen)
Of Victorian Interest (NAVSA)
Rag-Picking History (Paul Dobraszczyk)
Royal Holloway Victorian MA (Adam Roberts)
Romantic Circles Blog
The Salt Box (Jason Jones)
The Victorian Commons (History of House of Commons Project, 1832-68)
The Victorian Era (Geerte Koeznbasje)
Victorian Geek (Catherine Pope)
Victorian History (Bruce Rosen)
The Victorianist (“Amateur Casual”)
The Victorian Peeper (Kristan Tetens)
The Victorian Poetry Network
Wuthering Expectations

Happy researching!