Archive | January 2016

Young Arthur Sullivan at the Crystal Palace

sullivan-young-manIn the fall of 1866, young Arthur Sullivan (he was just 24) got one of his first big breaks: The chance to show off his orchestra-conducting skills as the guest conductor in place of Herr August Manns at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham on September 17, 1866.

Sullivan excitedly wrote, “I am to conduct the Ballad Concert on behalf of Manns—it may lead to greater things.”

The Crystal Palace began its existence as The Great Exhibition of 1851, featuring a wide variety of exhibits of art, crafts, manufacturing, and novelty items from around the globe.

Presided over by Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition was originally built in Hyde Park where it was open for 6 months. It was such a success there that a new, permanent building was built in London’s Sydenham area, south of the Thames. The permanent building opened in 1854.

The Crystal Palace was a breathtaking combination of museum, trade show, and entertainment venue, complete with refreshment courts and – a special innovation in those days – public toilets.

An old-time printer marvels at the wonders of the Crystal Palace in this educational YouTube video.

It was the Place to Be from its opening in 1854 until the 1890s, when it began to fall into decline. The impressive iron-and-glass structure burned to the ground in 1936.

There were Egyptian, Roman, Renaissance, Greek and Pompeiian art exhibits. Giant dinosaur sculptures, displays of tropical fruit, handicrafts, and steam engines all could be found within the immense glass walls. Special events included a circus – the famous tightrope walker Blondin did a high-wire act inside the Crystal Palace that included him cooking an omelet 180 feet in the air above the crowd – the Shakespeare Tercentenary Festival, Christmas pantomimes, and weekly concerts at the 4,000-seat concert hall equipped with a complete concert orchestra and a 4,500-pipe Great Organ.

Here is a terrific collection of drawings, colored images and paintings of the exhibits (9 mins):

Beginning in 1855, Herr Manns took over the musical program at the Crystal Palace and stayed there until 1901. He expanded the orchestra from a small wind ensemble with an additional four string players into a full 34-person concert orchestra.

Manns was a mentor and friend to Sullivan for decades. He was the first to introduce Sullivan’s concert music to the English public, when he conducted Sullivan’s Tempest music – Sullivan’s first major work, consisting of incidental music designed to be played during Shakespeare’s The Tempest – in 1862.

The BBC radio show “In Our Time” has a 41-minute radio program on the Crystal Palace





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!

10 things you didn’t know about William S. Gilbert


Portrait of Gilbert in the 1870s (from W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian & His Theatre, by Jane Stedman)

Okay, so in case you didn’t know, I really like William S. Gilbert. Yes, yes, I know the famed dramatist has been dead for a while (almost 105 years), but I don’t care. He was a cool guy. Therefore, let me share with you the following 10 things I bet you didn’t know about William Schwenk Gilbert:

  1. As a baby, he was kidnapped by bandits. Gilbert told this story to his first biographer, Edith Brown: When he was two years old, his family went on an extended visit to Italy. While in Naples, some men convinced his nurse that they’d come to take the little boy to his parents. They were lying.  The kidnappers demanded £25, which his parents immediately handed over. Perhaps this was the source of many of his “switched at birth” and “lost baby” plot devices.
  1. His family nickname was ‘Bab.’ Under the name ‘Bab’ he wrote at least 50 comic poems, known as the “Bab Ballads,” some of which were later re-used as the plots of his comic operas with Sullivan.
  1. He ran away from school to join the theater. In 1852, 16-year-old schoolboy Gilbert saw actor-manager Charles Kean perform in Dion Boucicoult’s The Corsican Brothers. Determined to become an actor, he packed a bag and presented himself at the stage door, asking for an interview with Mr. Kean. Sadly for Gilbert, Kean knew Gilbert’s father and sent him straight home.
  1. He attended King’s College, London. According to Hesketh Pearson, author of Gilbert: His Life and Strife, “While there he made his presence felt by turning the Scientific Society into a Dramatic one, by writing satirical verses, and by drawing caricatures of his fellow-collegians and their professors which were only appreciated by those who were not caricatured.”
  1. Gilbert learned to write lyrics by working on burlesques. Unlike the risqué version seen on American stages, an English-style burlesque relied on comedy and wordplay for its entertainment value. Like with “Three Penny Opera,” new lyrics would be sung to familiar folk tunes. Gilbert learned to write words to fit existing music. Later, when writing lyrics for his original comic operas, Gilbert would follow the same pattern: He would have a song in his mind and write words to fit that tune. Then he would give the words to Sullivan, without telling the composer what song he’d used, so it wouldn’t influence the new composition.
  1. Gilbert-clowning

    Gilbert, clowning around in the 1880s (from Gilbert: His Life and Strife by Hesketh Pearson)

    Often uncomfortable around humans, he loved animals. 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 wandered in an open window and stayed. Gilbert fed it sugar-water and called it Buzfuz.

  1. He was one of the first of the “dramatist stage managers.” On the Victorian stage at the time, the top actors usually did whatever they wanted with their roles. Gilbert was one of the first dramatists to insist that the actors carry out the physical business that had been decided on at rehearsal, and to require them to stick to the words he had written and not ad lib. This earned him a reputation for being autocratic and demanding, but his productions were very professional and high-quality.
  1. Gilbert also wrote serious dramas challenging social problems. Although most of his dramatic works are satires and comedies with fantastical elements, he did not shy away of controversy. His plays “Charity” and “Ought We To Visit Her?” were written to depict, as he wrote, “the bitter injustice shown by society against a woman who has once gone wrong… When the damning fact comes to light, her character is utterly blighted in the eyes of the world—her penitence goes for nothing—her subsequent good deeds, her remorse, her pure life—all go for nothing. …But in the case of a man, the verdict of society is in the opposite direction. He may violate faith with every woman who will listen to him and no harm to him comes of it.”
  1. He hated giving out his autograph. But sometimes he made an exception. When a young girl wrote a cute letter asking for his autograph, he responded, “What shall I do? Toss for it! Heads I send you my autograph – Tails I write to tell you that nothing will induce me to do anything of the kind. Now for it! It’s Tails! So I won’t send it to you. Yours very truly, (signed) W. S. Gilbert.”
  1. The Pirates of Penzance had its world premiere in New York City. Gilbert and Sullivan had to make sure that theirs was the very first version of the opera to be performed on American soil in order to establish copyright in the USA. So on December 31, 1879, Pirates had its first full performance and it was a hit. The character of the Major-General was probably based on his wife’s uncle, General Turner, with whom Gilbert had had a dispute while coming up with the plot. The Major-General’s song, and its allusions to mathematics and classical history, was probably inspired by Gilbert’s own memory of the written examination he had to take to qualify to join the Royal Artillery, 20 years earlier (the Crimean War ended before he could join).


Victorian Time Travel: H G Wells vs. Jack the Ripper

So on New Year’s Day, I traveled back in time.

To be accurate, I watched the 1979 movie “Time after Time,” starring Malcolm MacDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen. It was mind-blowing, being flung 37 years into the past, all the way back to the late 70s.

Well, back to the late 1800s as well. In the movie, the late Victorian era is portrayed as gritty and dangerous, the gaslit alleyways hiding the specter of hideous death in the form of disease, deprivation, and Jack the Ripper.

H.G. Wells is portrayed not as a fantastic storyteller bur as an actual Victorian inventor who built a working time machine. When his friend Dr. John Stevenson is unmasked as the Ripper, Stevenson steals the machine and travels forward into time to 1979 San Francisco, where the Time Machine is on display in a museum.

Here’s the trailer:

Fortunately, the Time Machine will return to its proper time unless the driver has a key to hold it in the alternate time. This will allow the nerdy and idealistic H.G. Wells to pursue Jack the Ripper into the future, in order to bring him back to face justice.

But in 1979, the marvelously evil Ripper takes one look at the horrors of modern life and knows that he’s where he belongs. In the best lines in the movie, he declares, “I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home…The world has caught up with me and surpassed me. Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

Watching this movie really made me think about how the Victorians must have felt about themselves: So modern, so fast-moving. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in less than a week! Talking instantly to someone miles away by telephone! Traveling from one end of Britain to another by train in a single day!

And then the two characters journey into the future and discover that it’s not the peaceful paradise that H.G. Wells had so confidently envisioned. The world was moving faster than ever but violence was everywhere, even in cartoons (cartoon violence was a big issue in the 70s, as I recall. Victorians would have sympathized with that, since they had a very sentimental view of childhood). War continued to plague humanity – as was demonstrated when the camera closed in on the forearm of a San Francisco jeweler, who bore the tattoo of a concentration camp survivor.

On the positive side, H.G. Wells meets Amy Robbins (actually Wells’ wife’s name), played by Mary Steenbergen. During the late 70s Women’s Liberation was in full swing. Women were experiencing a heady feeling of sexual freedom, thanks to new, more effective birth control methods. It was delightful to see thoroughly modern Amy putting the moves on Herbert the Victorian nerd.

In sum, the old adage rings true: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Here is an interesting commentary on the film from Alan Spencer: