Archive | December 2015

10 Fun Facts about Gilbert and Sullivan

NOTE: I corrected some erroneous information in this post, which was pointed out to me by an alert reader! Thanks for the heads-up.

  1. WSGilbertSir William Schwenk Gilbert, born 18 November 1836, originally trained to become a barrister. He was elected to the Northern Circuit and prosecuted his first case in Liverpool in March 1866, against an Irish woman accused of stealing a coat. His account of the proceedings, from Gilbert and Sullivan A Dual Biography, by Michael Ainger, went as follows:

“No sooner had I got up than the old dame, who seemed to realise that I was against her, began shouting, ‘Ah, ye divil, sit down. Don’t listen to him, yer honour! He’s known in all the slums of Liverpool. Sit down, ye spalpeen! He’s as drunk as a lord, yer honner – begging yer lordship’s pardon.’ Whenever I attempted to resume my speech, I was flooded by a torrent of the old lady’s eloquence, and I had at last to throw myself on the protection of the Recorder, who was too convulsed with laughter to interfere.”

  1. sullivanSir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, born 13 May 1842 into a musical Irish-Italian family, began playing piano when he was 4 or 5 years old. In 1856, at age 14, he was the youngest of seventeen candidates for a new Mendelssohn Scholarship – and he won a year’s tuition at the Royal Academy of Music and another year at the Leipzig Conservatory. He was proficient on a wide variety of musical instruments.  Sullivan was sometimes described by his admirers as “England’s Mozart.”
  1. In 1861, H. J. Byron, the editor of Fun magazine, invited Gilbert to provide a regular column and a half-page drawing on a weekly basis. Initially astonished by the offer, Gilbert soon began to provide weekly stories and drawings. It was the birth of his writing career. He wrote reviews of plays, funny short stories, and the comic poems now known as the Bab Ballads. These were accompanied by his own drawings, signed “Bab,” which was his childhood nickname.
  1. In addition to his well-known collaborations with Gilbert, Sullivan composed hymns, songs, cantatas, oratorios and other musical works (like the Overture in C  (In Memoriam, which he wrote in honor of his father).  The most well-known of the hymns he composed is Onward Christian Soldiers. His first operatic collaboration was with writer F. C. Burnand. Together they wrote the very amusing Cox and Box, which features a lovely lullaby to a rasher of bacon.
  1. When Gilbert met Sullivan in July 1870, he immediately challenged the composer with a very complicated – but nonsensical – question on whether “the simple tetrachord of Mercury” was the same as “the elaborate dis-diapason.” Sullivan understood immediately that it was a joke, and  told Gilbert that he’d have to think about it and get back to him. According to Gilbert and Sullivan A Dual Biography, was the perfect reply: “Over the years there would be many other challenges that [Gilbert] would set Sullivan; Sullivan would answer them all, and then in his turn start to challenge Gilbert and get the best out of him.”
  1. Gilbert and Sullivan’s first opera together, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, was about what happened when the Greek gods on Mount Olympus decided to take a holiday and let a traveling theatrical troupe take over their jobs. The libretto still exists, but the music has been lost – except for “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain,” which was used in The Pirates of Penzance. The duo wrote twelve operas together.
  1. Early in his dramatic career, Gilbert wrote several operatic burlesques. These were musical entertainments in which serious operas were re-told in a comic way, with songs that joined clever lyrics with well-known tunes. Thus, Donizett’s L’Elisir d’Amore became Dulcamara! Or the Little Duck and the Big Quack, and Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable became Robert the Devil, or The Nun, The Dun and the Son of a Gun.
  1. When Sullivan was traveling through the American West to visit his nieces and nephews in California after the death of his sister-in-law, he stopped at a hotel along the way. That evening, a huge, hulking bruiser of a man came to the hotel demanding to fight Sullivan. The composer nervously came to the lobby to find out what the problem was. The big challenger stared at him in astonishment and complained, “You’re not John Sullivan!” Sullivan had to explain to the disappointed man that he was Arthur S. Sullivan the composer, not John L. Sullivan, the famous boxing champion.
  1. Arthur Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883. He traveled in very exclusive social circles – He was friends with the Prince of Wales and many european heads of state. On a 1881 trip to Kiel, the then-22-year-old Prince William of Prussia (later known during WWI as Kaiser Wilhelm) greeted Sullivan by singing, “He Polished Up the Handle of the Big Front Door,” from H.M.S. Pinafore.
  1. William S. Gilbert was knighted in 1907 – but he was the first person to be knighted for his plays alone; other dramatist knights had also performed political and other services. Gilbert was sharp-tongued, intolerant of injustice or hypocrisy, and did not suffer fools at all, but he was also kind-hearted and generous to those in need.


Christmas, Victorian-style

During the Victorian era, Christmas became centered around the family. Celebrating the holiday became a matter of bringing together the whole family to share in the feasting, gift giving, entertainments and parlor games.

victorian-xmas-royalsThis is thanks in large part to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Illustrated London News in 1848 showed a picture of the royal couple and their young family (the couple had had six children by then: Victoria, Albert Edward, Alice, Alfred, Helena and Louise) celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, and soon Britons adopted the Germanic tradition of having a tree lit by candles and adorned with home-made decorations including tiny baskets of goodies, fruits, and small wrapped gifts.

Another British tradition that began in the Victorian era was the “Christmas cracker,” a small package filled with treats that made a cracking or snapping sound when opened. The Christmas cracker was created in 1848 by British confectioner Tom Smith after a visit to Paris, where he noticed Parisian confiseries selling sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper. Nowadays, Christmas crackers usually contain a colored paper hat shaped like a crown, a small toy, a plastic figure or other trinket and a joke or other saying on a small piece of paper. The paper crowns are usually worn while eating Christmas dinner.

The Victorians also gave us the tradition of eating roast turkey at Christmas dinner. Other meats, including roast beef and goose, were common main dishes at the holidays, but upper-class Victorian families began featuring turkey as the centerpiece of their festive meal. The roast turkey soon caught on among the middle classes as well, because its larger size made it a good choice for a large family celebration.

santa-1Gift-giving became more elaborate as the Victorian era progressed. Originally gifts were modest and hand-made, sometimes small enough to be hung on the tree itself, but as the decades passed they became bigger and found a new place under the tree, rather than on it. Handmade gifts were still considered preferable to store-bought, but perhaps a savvy gift-giver could find something handmade for sale! As the leisure of middle- and upper-class women increased, many became more involved in crafts and hobbies, producing large quantities of hand-crafted items that they could either use, give as gifts, or even sell at charity events like Christmas Bazaars sponsored by their churches or other groups.

Christmas carols – and visits from “the waits” or carolers – were also a tradition during Christmastime. A number of carols that we love and sing today originated in the Victorian era, such as

1843 – O Come All Ye Faithful

1848 – Once in Royal David’s City 

1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow

1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem

1883 – Away in a Manger 

onlyadancinggirlComposer Arthur S. Sullivan also contributed a few tunes to the Christmas mix. He wrote four carols: “I Sing the Birth” (1868), “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (1871), “Upon the Snow-clad Earth” (1876), and “Hark! What Mean those Holy Voices,” written in 1883.

Our heroine, Lucy Turner, will soon meet Arthur Sullivan as she embarks upon her mystery-solving career. But in 1866, they have barely met — and William S. Gilbert doesn’t meet his musical partner until 1873.

The cold, cold winter of 1866 will see lots of changes in the lives of these three, so I hope you will stay tuned! Until then, have a very happy holiday!




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.

19th C. Britain’s Changes Under Unchanging Queen Victoria

Queen_Victoria,_1847Queen Victoria was born 24 May 1819, the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent. A year later her uncle, the Prince Regent, became George IV. He reigned for 17 years. When George IV died 20 June 1837, Victoria became queen. She was crowned on 28 June 1838, a mere 18 years old.

Thus began the second-longest reign of an English monarch – Queen Victoria ruled for 63 years and seven months, a length of time which has only been surpassed by the present Queen, Elizabeth II.

During those six decades and more, England underwent great social, political, economic and technological changes.

The English Regency, which lasted from 1811 to 1820, marked the beginning of the end of the old agrarian and feudal social structures. The Industrial Revolution had its roots in the inventions which were pioneered in the late 1700s. By the early 1800s, advances in steam engines, textile-making machinery and iron founding processes made possible the development of efficient new factories.

Factory work prompted a shift in the overall social structure of the nation, since individuals could now sell their labor for hire to the highest bidder, rather than occupy an unchanging position in the hierarchy of a feudal system. Distinctions between social classes began to erode. An individual’s birth and family origins became less important to their later success in life.

The first British steam railway locomotive was built in 1811, and by 1830, the first intercity route, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, was opened. A mere twenty years later, by the early 1850s, Britain boasted of over 7,000 miles (11,000 km) of railways. Now people could move more freely around the country.

In 1838, the first commercial telegraph in the world was installed on the Great Western Railway over the 13 miles (21 km) from Paddington station to West Drayton. This made it possible to accurately communicate messages over long distances anytime day or night. By the mid-1840s, commercial mass communications systems enabled personal long-distance communications, with telegraph instruments being installed in post offices across the country. By the 1870s transoceanic telegraph lines were able to connect the UK with America and Australia.

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert on 10 February 1840. She loved him dearly, and they had 9 children together. Victoria survived 4 assassination attempts and one assault, but the greatest blow she sustained was the death of Prince Albert on 14 December 1861. Queen Victoria was inconsolable and wore black for the rest of her life. However, after several years of mourning, she was convinced to return to public life. Although British society was changing, they still wanted their monarch.

In January 1878, inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his recently developed telephone to Queen Victoria. A few days later the first telephone in Britain was installed, under licence from the General Post Office. From 1878, the telephone service in Britain was provided by private sector companies. In 1896, the service was taken over by the General Post Office.

Wireless technology, including Marconi’s system, began to be possible in the 1890s, but a regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service was not begun until 1907, several years after Victoria’s death.

Queen_Victoria_by_BassanoIn the 1890s, horseless carriages began to appear on the British scene. Frederick Simms, a London-based consulting engineer, became friends with German engineer Gottlieb Daimler, who had invented a high-speed petrol engine in 1885. In June 1895 Simms and his friend Evelyn Ellis promoted motorcars in the United Kingdom by completing the first British long-distance motorcar journey from Southampton to Malvern in July 1895.

The world’s first moving picture was shot in Leeds, England by French inventor Louis Le Prince in 1888. The next year, the first moving pictures developed on celluloid film were made in Hyde Park, London by William Friese Greene, a British portrait photographer and inventor. He patented his celluloid film process in 1890.

Queen Victoria reigned until her death in 1901. Her oldest son, Bertie, then became King Edward VII, ushering in the Edwardian Era.

Queen Victoria lived to see a great many changes in the lives of her subjects and in her own life. What changes in society, politics, and technology have you lived through in your life?

Leave me a comment and let me know!

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]Queen Victoria and the parade of history [/Tweet]


A Visit to mid-Victorian London – Kensington New Town


Victorian-era gathering at home.

It’s an often-quoted maxim that the past is a foreign country – therefore, I’d like to take you with me on a journey to mid-Victorian London. Specifically, to Kensington New Town around 1866.

You see, that’s where Lucy Agnes Blois Turner, 19 years old at the beginning of my forthcoming mystery novel, lives with her widowed mother, Herbertina Compton Turner. Lucy is my intrepid sleuth, and I’ll tell you more about her later.

So what was Kensington like during the mid-Victorian era?

According to the Survey of London from British History Online, the residents of Kensington New Town included a mix of people, including architects, artists, and families. Toward the end of the century, from 1889 to 1898, the poet Sir Henry Newbolt lived at No. 14 Victoria Road. He described his house as ‘small, but not dark or cramped.’

In general, London was a rapidly-growing metropolis. Already the largest city in the world by 1815, by 1860 it had grown to a total of 3,188,485 souls. 

Compare the Victoria Road area on this map from 1859

To the same area on  this map from 1868

To understand what’s happened, I went to British History Online to find out more. This is a wonderful site, which includes a survey of London that describes Kensington New Town in wonderful detail. Here is what I learned:


Victoria Road, as it was

In the first map, below the church at the southern end of Victoria Road, there is an area marked as “Market Garden.” It turns out that the land was owned by the Broadwood family, a celebrated dynasty of keyboard instrument-makers. The heir, Thomas Broadwood, did not live in Kensington, and until his death in 1861 the property was used as a market garden. The land was eventually developed as Cornwall Gardens.

Also, in the first map one can see a place on the east side of Victoria Road, close to the entrance to Hyde Park, which is marked as a riding stable. Later on, the stables disappear and are replaced by housing.

Note the appearance of the Metropolitan and District railway line in the second map – the line was built between 1864-9, leading to the purchase and demolition of the recently-built houses on Stanford Road, quite close to Victoria Road. I wonder how Lucy and her mother felt about the trains running so close to their house!

[Tweet theme=”basic-full”]Visit Mid-Victorian London – with links to maps! #victorianlondon[/Tweet]