Archive | June 2016

Gilbert & Sullivan 101: All Fourteen Operas

So, just in case you came in late and need a refresher, here is a list of all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. (Just to be even more basic, William S. Gilbert wrote the words and Arthur Seymour Sullivan wrote the music.)


Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old (1871 Christmas entertainment for John Hollingshead’s Gaiety Theatre, where it received its first performance on December 26, 1871 and ran for 63 performances. Although it has often been described as a failure, it outlasted most of the Christmas entertainments that season.)

Plot: The gods on Mount Olympus are old and tired, so they decide to take a holiday. Since somebody has to stay and do their godly jobs while they’re gone, they delegate all their responsibilities to a troupe of travelling actors – with hilarious consequences!

Most of the original music for this opera has been lost, so performances today either adapt music from other Sullivan scores, or use a score by one of the several composers who has written a replacement for the lost music.


Trial By Jury (Premiere  March 25, 1875, original run 131 performances) Richard D’Oyly Carte asked the two men to collaborate on a short opera to be played as an after piece to Offenbach’s comic opera, La Périchole. The witty, tuneful and very “English” piece was an immediate hit with Londoners. It is quite short, only forty minutes, and alone of the operas contains no spoken dialogue. The story is set in an English courtroom, where a breach of promise case is underway – Gilbert, a barrister by training, thoroughly enjoyed lampooning everyone involved, from the judge, jury and lawyers, to the plaintiff and defendant! His witty libretto inspired Sullivan to write some of his most sparkling music. The part of the judge in the first production was played by Fred Sullivan, the composer’s brother.


The Sorcerer (Premiere at the Opéra Comique, on November 17, 1877. The original run of the piece was a satisfactory 175 performances.) After the success of their one-act opera Trial By Jury, producer Richard D’Oyly Carte asked Gilbert and Sullivan to create a full-length work together. Gilbert’s story is based on one of his favorite dramatic themes: a magic spell that makes everyone do the exact opposite of what they’d usually do. In this case, the sorcerer is hired to put a magic love potion in the village tea pot at an engagement party, with the result that everyone falls in love with the wrong partner.

It was enough of a success to encourage Gilbert & Sullivan to continue to collaborate, which led to their next piece, H.M.S. Pinafore. And the rest, as they say, is history.


bumboat-2H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor. (Premiere on May 25, 1878 at the Opera Comique where it ran for 571 performances.)

The fourth collaboration between Gilbert & Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore, was their first major success.  Using elements from several of his comic poems, the “Bab Ballads”, Gilbert poked fun at a variety of English attitudes: He poked fun at the class distinctions that keep true lovers apart, at high-minded efforts to keep sailors from using bad language, and at the notion that the First Lord of the Admiralty should be a purely political appointment whose holder need never have been to sea. In the end, “love can level rank,” and therefore, through a supremely silly switched-at-birth moment, the humble sailor marries the Captain’s daughter, the Captain’s daughter doesn’t have to marry the First Lord, and the Captain himself marries the bumboat woman.


The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty (Simultaneous premieres in England and in the USA on December 30 and 31, 1879; the opera finally opened April 3, 1880 at the Opéra Comique in London, where it ran for 363 performances, having already been playing successfully for over three months in New York.)

This was done to make sure that Gilbert and Sullivan controlled the copyright to Pirates in America – unfortunately, American performing companies had presented unauthorized versions of H.M.S. Pinafore before Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte had a chance to establish their rights over the work.  To keep this from happening again, the dual premiere arrangement was conducted.

The main character of The Pirates of Penzance is Frederic, apprenticed as a child to a band of pirates. He’s turning 21 years old and announces he’s free of his indentures, only to discover that he was apprenticed until his 21st birthday – and since he was born on February 29 in a leap year, that birthday won’t be reached by him for another 60 years!

.By the end of the opera, the pirates, a Major General who knows nothing of military strategy, his large family of beautiful but unwed daughters, and the timid constabulary all contribute to a cacophony that can be silenced only by Queen Victoria’s name.


Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride. (Premiere on April 23, 1881 at the Opera Comique and ran for 578 performances, moving on October 10, 1881 to D’Oyly Carte’s new theatre, the Savoy, the first theatre in the world to be lit entirely by electric lights.)

Patience satirizes the “aesthetic craze” of the 1870’s and ’80s, when it was all the fashion to love “art for art’s sake” and to admire blue-and-white china, Japanese screens, and rare things of natural beauty. High-minded, spiritual and esoteric, the poetry and art of the day was considered by some to be empty and self-indulgent.

Patience is a simple village milkmaid who doesn’t understand poetry, is cheerful and uncomplicated and happy. She doesn’t care when all the well-born young ladies in the village, rapturously caught up in aestheticism, fall in love with two contrasting aesthetic poets — a “fleshy” poet and an “idyllic” poet. But both poets are in love with Patience! The military men who are in love with the well-born ladies try to turn aesthetic to please the girls. Patience discovers that love has a prickly side. In the end, everyone ends up with a suitable partner, even if it is only a tulip or lily.


fairy-curateIolanthe or The Peer and the Peri, (Premiere at the Savoy Theatre on November 25, 1882, three nights after the final performance of Patience at the same theatre, and ran for 398 performances.)

In this “fairy opera,” the House of Lords is lampooned as a group of ineffective, privileged and dim-witted men, who are being challenged by a troupe of female fairies.
Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, wants to marry Phyllis, a Ward of Chancery. But Phyllis’ guardian, the Lord Chancellor, and half the peers in the House of Lords are sighing after her, so chances of Strephon winning the Lord Chancellor’s approval for the marriage are slim to none.

The fairies are on Strephon’s side, because he is half fairy (his upper half — his legs are mortal!) and when the Lord Chancellor insults the Queen of the Fairies, the ladies take over.

Phyllis does not know he’s a half-fairy, so when she sees him kissing a seemingly young woman, she assumes the worst. But her “rival” turns out to be none other than Strephon’s own mother, Iolanthe, a fairy — fairies never grow old.

Soon the peers and the fairies are virtually at war, and long friendships are nearly torn asunder. But all is happily sorted out, thanks to the “subtleties of the legal mind”.

Both Gilbert and Sullivan were at the height of their creative powers in 1882, and many people feel that Iolanthe, their seventh work together, is the most perfect of their collaborations.


Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant( Premiere on 5 January 1884 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 246 performances.)

It is the only three act Gilbert and Sullivan Opera and the only one with dialogue in blank verse. This is because Gilbert based his libretto on his earlier play The Princess which, in turn, he described as “a perversion” of Tennyson’s poem of the same name.

Prince Hilarion had been married in babyhood to Princess Ida, daughter of King Gama. The Princess, however, has set up a college for women from which all men are barred. Hilarion and his friends infiltrate the castle and ultimately the men, led by Hilarion’s father, King Hildebrand, stage a full-scale invasion. Ida is abandoned by her women and finally surrenders to her Prince.

Princess Ida was produced between Iolanthe and The Mikado when its creators were at the height of their powers. The score is Sullivan at his best, and some people consider that Gilbert’s libretto contains some of his funniest lines.


701460The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu (The most popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and maybe the most popular opera ever written, premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 14 March, 1885 and ran for 672 nights.)

The plot of “The Mikado”, as Mr. Adair Fitzgerald mentions in his book “The Story of the Savoy Opera”, came to Gilbert through a Japanese sword, which hung on the walls of his study, suddenly falling down.

Ko-Ko, the cheap tailor, was sentenced to death for flirting, until someone in Titipu got the idea to make him the Lord High Executioner. Then the Mikado’s only son Nanki-Poo, disguised as a Second Trombone (apparently Sullivan kept asking for a second  trombone player for his orchestra, so Gilbert gave him one), arrives only to learn that his  beloved Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko’s ward, is about to be married to Ko-Ko. In despair, he plans to kill himself.

Meanwhile, the Mikado has noticed a sad lack of executions in Titipu, so he gives them a month to carry out his orders. In a hurry, Ko-Ko agrees that Nanki-poo can marry Yum-Yum as long as he’s willing to be beheaded in one month’s time, thereby getting the good out of his self-sacrifice.

When the Mikado shows up, the villagers all agree that they have carried out the sentence – upon the Mikado’s heir, which is a serious crime. In order to induce Nanki-poo, who is still alive, to announce that he’s not dead, Ko-Ko must marry Katisha. So everyone gets a mate and with joyous shouts and ringing cheer, everything ends well.


Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse (Premiere on January 21, 1887 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 288 performances.)

This “supernatural opera” is a parody of the stock melodrama — the villain who carries off the maiden; the poor-but-virtuous-heroine; the hero in disguise, and his faithful old retainer who dreams of their former glory days; the snake in the grass who claims to be following his heart; the wild, mad girl; the swagger of fire-eating patriotism; ghosts coming to life to enforce a curse; and so forth. But of course, this is Gilbert – so we can expect that everything will be turned upside down~ Good becomes bad, bad becomes good, and heroes take the easy way out.

The Baronets of Ruddigore are cursed. Anyone who succeeds to the title has to commit a crime every day — or perish in inconceivable agony. Robin Oakapple, is a shy young farmer who loves Rose Maybud, though both are too timid to admit it. But Robin also has a secret. He is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the rightful Baronet of Ruddigore, in disguise. He faked his death and now his younger brother, Despard, has assumed the title. Robin’s foster brother, Richard, seeking Rose for himself, tells Despard of Robin’s deception, and Robin is forced to accept his true position, losing Rose to Richard in the process.

Now the Baronet of Ruddigore, Robin is confronted by the he ghosts of his ancestors who step from their picture frames in the gallery of Ruddigore Castle to confront him for failing to conscientiously commit his daily crime. Fortunately for all, Robin eventually finds a way of satisfying his ancestors’ demands while leading a blameless life.


The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and His Maid (Premiered October 3, 1888, at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 423 performances.)

It is different from the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas in that it ends with a broken-hearted main character and at least two reluctant engagements, rather than the usual plethora of happy marriages. However, Gilbert finds plenty of opportunity to introduce comedy into his libretto.

Many believe that the score is Sullivan’s finest. Indeed, some enjoy Yeomen particularly because of its ever-changing emotional balance of joy and despair, love and sacrifice.

The setting of Yeomen is the Tower of London in the sixteenth century. The plot concerns Colonel Fairfax, a gentleman, soldier and scientist, who has been sentenced to death on a false charge of sorcery. To avoid leaving his estate to his accuser (a cousin), and with the help of the Lieutenant of the Tower, Fairfax secretly marries Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer. The bride agrees to be blindfolded during the ceremony and expects to be a well-paid widow within the hour. With the help of the Meryll family, Fairfax escapes, throwing the Tower into confusion and the astonished Elsie (and her companion, the jester Jack Point, who is in love with her) into despair. But Fairfax, disguised as Leonard Meryll, woos Elsie, and after a number of plot complications are worked out, she falls in love with Fairfax and leaves Jack Point broken-hearted.


The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria. (Premiere on December 7, 1889 at the Savoy Theatre, The Gondoliers ran for 554 performances.)

It was the last of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas to achieve wide popularity. Its lilting score has, perhaps, the most sparkling and tuneful music of them all and calls, perhaps, for the most dancing.

Two just-married Venetian gondoliers are informed by the Grand Inquisitor that one of them has just become the King of “Barataria”, but only their foster mother, presently at large, knows which one. As Barataria, needs a king to put down unrest in the country, they travel there to reign jointly, leaving their wives behind in Venice until the old lady can be interviewed. It turns out that the king was wed in infancy to the beautiful daughter of the Spanish Duke of Plaza Toro, and so it seems he is an unintentional bigamist. Of course, the beautiful daughter is in love with a common servant! When the young Spaniard and the two Venetian wives all show up wanting to know which of them is queen, complications arise. No worries: The true identity of the king is revealed, and all is settled happily by the end.


Utopia, Limited, or The Flowers of Progress (Premiere October 7, 1893 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 245 performances.)

King Paramount of the south seas island of Utopia decides that his people should adopt all English customs and institutions, but he goes a bit overboard and decrees that the kingdom and each of its inhabitants should become a “company limited” based on the English “companies act” of 1862. The king’s daughter, Princess Zara, brings six “flowers of progress” from England to train the Utopian people in “English” customs. But the reforms are too successful, which upsets the judges of the Utopian Supreme Court, the “Public Exploder” and ultimately the entire populace, which revolts against them. Zara realizes that an essential element has been forgotten, namely “government by party”. Introduce that and the result would be “general and unexampled prosperity”.


The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel (Premiere on March 7, 1896 at the Savoy Theatre, London. This last G&S opera ran for only 123 performances.)

In the Grand Duke, Gilbert and Sullivan come full circle, back to the theme of their first collaboration: A troupe of actors takes political power. The Grand Duke suffers from many of the same problems as Utopia Limited — it has a long and rambling libretto — and it calls for more principal quality voices than the typical G&S opera. Nevertheless, the story contains a number of hilarious moments and funny characters, the settings are colorful and the music is cheery. Some find this opera to be the most underrated of the G&S works.

Ludwig, an actor, replaces the company manager, Ernest, and then he replaces the miserly Grand Duke Rudolph of Pfennig Halbpfennig, after “killing” each of them by drawing the ace from a deck of cards in two “statutory” duels. By winning the statutory duels, Ludwig assumes all of Ernest’s and Rudolph’s rights and obligations. Soon he finds himself with far more wives, and prospective wives, than he knows what to do with. Never fear: once again, a lawyer solves the problem and all ends happily.





Arthur Sullivan and the Puzzle of the Lost Music

For nearly fifty years, the musical score lay hidden.

Composed by Franz Schubert – known for his symphonies, romantic settings of traditional Lieder, and for a well-known version of Ave Maria (listen to Luciano Pavarotti sing it here)  – after more than four decades, the incidental music for the play Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus seemed to be irrevocably lost.

Arthur Sullivan meets George Grove

boy-sullivanIn 1862, Sullivan, just 20 years old, was at the beginning of his professional career as a composer. To make progress, he needed the help of influential friends. Luckily, Sullivan was a charming man who made friends easily and sincerely.  His first influential friend was Henry Chorley, long-time music critic for the magazine The Athenaeum. At Chorley’s house, Sullivan met George Grove, the secretary of the Crystal Palace.

Even though Grove was 20 years older than Sullivan, an immediate rapport was struck between the two men and an enduring friendship developed. At the time, only the works of the greatest composers were then being performed at the Crystal Palace, but Grove made an exception in the case of Sullivan. Sullivan’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest was performed at the Crystal Palace in April 1862. The music was widely praised, and Sullivan later said he awoke the next morning to find himself famous.

Introducing Franz Schubert to English audiences

Both Sullivan and Grove were great admirers of the music of Franz Schubert, a prolific Austrian composer who had died at age 31 in 1828. Hoping to establish Schubert’s reputation as one of the greatest composers of the Classical and Romantic eras, in 1867 Grove and Sullivan decided to go to Vienna to look for Schubert’s lost music. In particular, they were looking for the incidental music for the play Rosamunde by Helmina von Chezy (apparently the play was really bad; the original script has been lost and it’s never been performed again).


George Grove in the 1890s

The directors of the Crystal Palace gave their financial support to the effort, but Sullivan added to this by selling three songs so he would have some extra funds for himself. The two men left for Vienna in late September of 1867.

After a stop in Paris, the two men arrived in Vienna where they visited the music publisher Spina. They found some of the Rosamunde music in his shop, but it was incomplete. So Herr Spina gave them a letter of introduction to Dr. Edward Schneider, a lawyer and son of Schubert’s sister Theresa. At Dr. Schneider’s, they found manuscripts of the Symphony in C major, the Symphony in C minor, and an overture in D, in a cupboard. Thrilled, the two men pounced on the compositions. Sullivan went through the manuscripts, copying themes and making notes.

But they couldn’t find the rest of Rosamunde.

Grove was disappointed. Their last day in Vienna arrived, and on Thursday October 10, 1867, they visited Dr. Schneider again to say goodbye.

Grove decided to look one last time in the cupboard where he had located the earlier manuscripts. There, at the very back of the cupboard, at the bottom of the pile of music two feet high, he found what he had come for: the parts-books of the whole of the music of Rosamunde, which had lain in the cupboard for almost 50 years. In Grove’s words, the sheet music was “black with the undisturbed dust of nearly half-a-century.”

In haste and excitement, they began to copy the music – Rosamunde, now described as containing some of the most charming music Schubert ever composed, was complete again. Even with the help of music librarian Frederick Poull, it took them until two in the morning on Friday to finish.

Two musicians celebrate

At 2 am, Sullivan and Grove went out to celebrate their achievement in the deserted streets of Vienna. Giddy with delight, they did they only thing they could at that late hour: They played a game of leap-frog!

Caricature of George Grove in "Punch"

Caricature of George Grove in “Punch”

“I’ve Got A Little List!”

One of the most famous (and most often-parodied) songs from The Mikado is Koko’s “I’ve Got a Little List.”

Koko, a cheap tailor about to be executed for the crime of flirting, finds himself suddenly elevated to the rank of Lord High Executioner by the townspeople of Titipu. They figure he’d be the last person to execute anyone, since he would have to cut his own head off first!

But then the Mikado himself writes to say that if they don’t have an execution by the end of the month, the whole town will be downgraded to a village. So, since Koko has to execute someone, he comes up with a list of possibilities, those “society offenders who never will be missed.”

The original lyrics are as follows:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs —
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat —
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that —
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-á-têtes insist —
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

He’s got ’em on the list — he’s got ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed.

There’s the banjo serenader, and the others of his race,
And the piano-organist — I’ve got him on the list!
And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,
And who “doesn’t think she dances, but would rather like to try”;
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist —
I don’t think she’d be missed — I’m sure she’d not he missed!


He’s got her on the list — he’s got her on the list;
And I don’t think she’ll be missed — I’m sure she’ll not be missed!



And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife,
The judicial humorist — I’ve got him on the list!
All funny fellows, comic men, and clowns of private life —
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed.
And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,
Such as — What d’ye call him — Thing’em-bob, and likewise — Never-mind,
And ‘St— ‘st— ‘st— and What’s-his-name, and also You-know-who —
The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you.
But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list,
For they’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

You may put ’em on the list — you may put ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed!


As The Mikado has continued to delight audiences down the years, a tradition has developed of of altering the lyrics of the “little list” song to include allusions to new “society offenders” depending on current events, local conditions where the opera is being performed, or really on whatever nuisances the parody writer feels inclined to skewer.

So here is a little list of other “little lists”!

Even Gilbert himself parodied his own list, adapting the lyrics to the trials and tribulations suffered by children, such as piano teachers who make you endlessly practice scales, and adults who think girls shouldn’t eat too much.

Online, there’s an entire archive of Gilbert and Sullivan parodies, covering topics from soap opera annoyances to email spammers.

Richard Suart is an English opera singer, a baritone who specializes in the comic roles of Gilbert and Sullivan. In 2008, he and his co-author A.S. H. Smyth released a book called called They’d None of ’em Be Missed, with 20 years of little list parodies.

In the early Nickelodeon TV series called Eureeka’s Castle, the Christmas special had a song called “Just Put it on the List,” where the puppet twins, Bogg and Quagmire, describe all the things they’d like for Christmas to the tune of the Mikado song.

In the Family Guy episode “Lois Kills Stewie”, Stewie, after taking over the world, sings the “little list” song about those he hates, including Bill O’Reilly’s dermatologist (an audio-only version of the song is on YouTube –NOTE: Vulgar language alert).

In the Opera Australia version, the little list included “your auntie with the mustache who insists on being kissed” along with merchant bankers and subprime mortgagists (NOTE: Another vulgar language alert)

The G&S Very Light Opera Company includes “the driver with the Happy Meal who’s talking on the phone” and the telephone solicitors who won’t leave you alone” on their lists

Eric Idle of Monty Python’s Flying Circus offered his own little list of offenders, including newspapers that feature photographs of scantily-clad women:

…nasty little editors whose papers are the pits
Who fill their rags with gossip and with huge and floppy… writs

This book, “The Lay of the Links,” first published in 1923, included a “little list” parody aimed at golfers:

All persons without partners who imagine they play scratch
And would rather spoil your single and make up a three-ball match
And all third persons who on giving good advice insist –
They’d none of them be missed!


I think W.S. Gilbert really put his finger on something we all have experienced in our lives: Those irritations, large and small, that assail us every day.

So what sorts of people would go on your own personal “little list” of annoying people we’d never miss?


Beauty in the Eye of the Victorian Beholder

What features were considered beautiful in the Victorian age?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave me a comment and let me know!






Shopping — Victorian Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shopping for fabric in the Victorian era

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

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

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

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