I’m Guest Blogging!

Today, your humble correspondent is guest blogging over at the Bluestocking Belles! This entertaining group of ladies write stories and blog together because history is fun and love is worth working for.

In today’s article, I have interviewed my fictional version of W. S. Gilbert, who plays a part in my upcoming historical mystery novel, A SHORT SHARP SHOCK.

CLICK HERE to go to the Bluestocking Belles’ TeaTime Tattler to find out more about Mr. Gilbert, Lucy Turner, and the blasted country house party.

I’m sure you’ll greatly enjoy my interview with The Passionate Mr. Gilbert!


Uncle Tom’s Cabin – The Power of the Pen

Harried Beecher Stowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fugitives were safe.

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

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

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

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




Eliza: By A.S. Seer’s Union Square Print., N.Y. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fugitives Safe: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3656435
Harriet Beecher Stowe by Painter Alonzo Chappel (1828–1887); Engraver: Unknown – Modified version of public domain image. Library of Congress LC-USZ62-10476 (3-18), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3656415

Entertaining house guests, Victorian-style

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

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

Welcoming your guests

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

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


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

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

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

Tableau vivants

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

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

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

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

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

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


Victorian Women – Pioneers of Photography

View from the window at Le Gras

Although for centuries humans have known the principle of the “camera obscura” – in which light passing through a pinhole can throw an upside-down and reversed image onto the opposite wall of a darkened room –  it wasn’t until 1826 or 1827 that a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce figured out a way to preserve the images.

Photography was born.

Nicéphore Niépce’s photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras is believed to be the oldest surviving camera photograph. His discoveries were quickly followed by those of such photographic pioneers as Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, who publicly announced their own photographic processes in January 1839.

To preserve a photographic image, the challenges included how to capture the image, and how to transfer the captured “negative” onto a positive surface. One of the ways to print a photograph from a negative was to make an albumen print, and another way was the wet collodion printing process.

Albumen, or egg whites, can be used with silver nitrate to produce a photographic print. The paper must be first dipped into a solution made with albumen, and then dried. Once it’s dried, the paper is taken into a darkroom and “sensitized” by being placed in a bath of silver nitrate, then dried again. Once that’s complete, then the negative plate is placed on the prepared paper and the whole thing is exposed to light until the picture develops. After that, the silver is washed off, a toner applied and then the print is dried. Finally your image is ready to be admired! The process is fully described in this interesting resource: http://www.cwreenactors.com/collodion/21steps.htm

Alternatively, collodion – a highly flammable, gooey mixture of guncotton dissolved in sulfuric and nitric acid with ethyl alcohol and ether added – can be used in the place of the albumen. Less exposure time is needed with the collodion than with albumen. As the solvent evaporates, it dries to a clear, celluloid-like film.

For a step-by-step description, visit http://www.alternativephotography.com/the-wetplate-collodion-process/

Cyanotype by Anna Atkins

Most of the early pioneers of photography were male. The science of photography involved expensive, dangerous chemicals and new processes. Furthermore, dabbling in such advanced technology went against Victorian expectations of female behavior.

Nevertheless, there were a few women pioneers in those early days of the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s. Among them were Anna Atkins, Viscountess Hawarden, and Julia Margaret Cameron.

Anna Atkins (nee Children) was the only child of a prominent scientist, John George Children, who gave her “an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time.” It was her great interest in botany that led her to explore the cyanotype process – she was interested in using cyanotype to preserve images of various types of seaweed. She did this by placing the dried seaweed on the cyanotype-treated paper, and then exposing it to light.

Some say Anna Atkins was the first woman to produce a camera photograph. What we do know is that Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs. Only 17 copies of this historically important book are now known to exist.

One of Viscountess Harwarden’s photos of her daughters

Clementina Maude, Viscountess Hawarden, turned to photography in 1857 or 1858, while living in Ireland at her husband’s estate. In 1859 she moved to London, where she set up a photographic studio in her home in South Kensington. Considered an amateur photographer, her work was nevertheless praised for its artistic excellence. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and also a photographer, was among those who admired Hawarden’s work.

In the approximately 7 years that she was actively photographing, she created 800 photographs. Her photographs include images of her children, particularly her daughters – she had eight children in all.  Scholar Carol Mavor says the photographs raise “issues of gender, motherhood and sexuality.”

Probably the best known of the early female photographers is Julia Margaret Cameron. She created many portraits of Victorian aristocrats and artists, many of them dressed up as Shakespearean characters or legendary figures.

Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, by Julia Margaret Cameron

When she was 48, she was given a camera as a present, and thus began her photographic career which lasted from 1864 to 1875.

During the 11 years in which she was active in photography, Cameron treated photography as an art as well as a science, manipulating the wet collodion process to give her images a dreamlike feel. As a result, her soft-focus images and cropped portraits were appreciated more by the pre-Raphaelite artists than the photographic critics of the day.

Photography was in its infancy at the beginning of the Victorian era – as a pursuit, it was exacting, expensive, and high-tech. These women were among the vanguard of explorers in a new field that merged chemistry and art. They used their skills to express ideas about botany, family, and about how we present ourselves to the world.

Individuals living in 1850 probably felt like new technology and scientific information was being thrown at them so fast they could barely catch their breath. And yet, today’s scientific discoveries and inventions are being developed even faster than they were 170 years ago. But no matter what the historical age, men and women have been willing to explore ever deeper into the mysteries of our world.

How about you? Do you like exploring new ideas, or do you prefer the comfort of the familiar? Let me know in the comments.


Modest Maidens Captured by Kodak, by Bab



By Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – Rebecca A. Moss, Coordinator of Visual Resources and Digital Content Library, via email. College of Liberal Arts Office of Information Technology, University of Minnesota. http://www.dcl.umn.edu, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107219

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=455356

By Clementia Hawarden – http://year117deadlysins.blogspot.com/2011/04/envy.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15312439

By Julia Margaret Cameron – HQGPeFPsjI99sA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22179500

Sir Arthur Sullivan – A Knight of the Realm

Sir Arthur Sullivan

The year 1882 had brought financial reverses and difficulties to Arthur Sullivan. His physical health was declining, but he started the new year knowing he would have to work hard to regain his financial security. What would 1883 bring to him?

In February, he signed a five-year contract with D’Oyly Carte and William S. Gilbert, which would provide him with one-third of the Savoy Theater’s net profits “after deducting all expenses and charges of producing the said operas.”

By the spring of that year, Sullivan was involved with the preparations for the formal opening of the Royal College of Music. This school was to be a conservatory where top-notch musicians could be trained. Sullivan’s friend George Grove would be the first director.

As Michael Ainger reports in Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography:

Sullivan noted in his diary on 29 April that the Prince of Wales had said on shaking hands, “I congratulate you on the great honor we have in store for you.” – I suppose he means he is going to place me on the Council of the R.C. of Music! What an honor!” thought Sullivan. The following week, on Monday 3 May, Sullivan received a letter from the prime minister offering him a knighthood, “in recognition,” wrote Gladstone, “of your distinguished talents as a composer and of the services which you have rendered to the promotion of the art of music generally in this country.” Sullivan humbly accepted.

What a thrill for Sullivan! An even greater honor than he had imagined. The Prince of Wales announced Sullivan’s knighthood at the Royal College of Music’s opening ceremony the next week, on May 7, 1883.

Ainger continues:

On 22 May, Sullivan went down “by special train” to Windsor Castle to be knighted along with George Grove, then aged 63, and George Macfarren, age 70. He recorded the event in his diary in formal terms, leaving aside the emotion of the occasion. “I bowed low – then knelt down – the Queen took the Equerry’s sword & laid it first on right then on left shoulder – said softly “Sir Arthur” & gave me her hand to kiss – then I rose – bowed low again & backed out.”

Just six months earlier, his friend and investment manager E.A. Hall had informed Sullivan that he’d lost his entire life’s savings. Now, Sullivan’s latest collaboration with Gilbert was a huge financial success, he was firmly part of the highest social circles in England, and he had been made a Knight of the Realm at the young age of 41.

What a difference six months can make! Good thing Sullivan didn’t give up when the going got tough, or he would have missed all the good stuff that was coming his way.





Photo of Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice by Mary Steen – http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/egallery/object.asp?collector=12787&display=acquired&pagesize=60&object=2105974&row=894, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9477168






W.S. Gilbert’s Childhood Family Drama

W. S. Gilbert

Children abducted, children hidden, children mixed up by their caretakers—in William S. Gilbert’s librettos, childhood was a dangerous time.

In H. M. S. Pinafore, two babies were mixed up by a careless “baby farmer” (day care provider). In The Pirates of Penzance, the young hero’s silly nursemaid apprenticed the boy to a pirate instead of a pilot, dooming him to a life of crime. In Iolanthe, the Lord Chancellor doesn’t know that he even has a son, much less that his child is the half-mortal, half-fairy Strephon. In The Gondoliers, the infant heir to the throne of Barataria was stolen by the Grand Inquisitor and raised in Venice as a gondolier.

Even though the “secret baby” trope is used in many story genres, Gilbert actually experienced scenes of family drama, revolving around child custody and kidnapping.

As discussed in this earlier blog post, Gilbert himself claimed to have been abducted by brigands in Naples when he was two years old. Although the truth of this story has been questioned (he was only a toddler at the time, so how could he remember it so clearly?), it still seems to have been part of their family’s storytelling.

And it seems that in January of 1845, when Gilbert was only 8 years old, he witnessed another tumultuous family scene involving the forcible separation of a parent from their children. It happened like this:

Gilbert’s drawing of the baby’s abduction in The Gondoliers.

W.S. Gilbert’s father, William senior, had a brother named Joseph. Joseph married Catherine, and they had two sons. By 1841, Joseph had developed tuberculosis and died. His will made his wife, Catherine, the guardian of their children – and a few months before his death, Joseph added a codicil to appoint William Gilbert Senior as the second guardian of the boys. The codicil was not drawn up by the lawyers—it was undated and witnessed not by a solicitor but by William Gilbert’s two servants.

Why? Most likely because Catherine, still in her twenties, might want to marry again. Childhood mortality rates were very high in Victorian days. Catherine’s boys stood to inherit money from their grandfather, and without the codicil, their inheritance would go to Catherine and her new husband instead of to William senior.

At Christmas 1844 Catherine and her two surviving sons, Francis, age 7, and Joseph, age 5, came to stay with the William Gilberts through the new year. At this time, the young widow had become emotionally involved with a Captain Harman Baillie Hopper, and intended to marry him. So in January 1845, Catherine and the Captain left the boys with the Gilberts and went on a little vacation together.

While the couple were away, the boys told their Uncle William (and another relative, John Schwenck) about how they had seen Captain Hopper rubbing ointment on their mother’s leg. That, apparently, made the Captain very tired, and the two of them lay on her bed together talking.

Well, that was a shocker! William senior was so disturbed by this account that when Catherine came back on January 16 to pick up her children, John Schwenck and William Gilbert refused to hand them over.

Undaunted, Catherine came back the next day with her brother, John Francis, and a Bow Street officer. After an angry and tearful scene, she still wasn’t able to get her sons back.  William senior insisted that she had created an “immoral environment” which was unhealthy for her sons. The whole sordid thing wound up in the newspapers. Catherine applied for a writ of habeas corpus on January 20, and got her boys back in March 1845, having apparently proven that she was a fit mother after all.

Was young William S. Gilbert aware of all this drama? It’s likely that he knew about the unhappy situation, even if he might not have actually witnessed the struggle between the widowed sister-in-law and the judgmental and forbidding William senior.

As Andrew Crowther says in Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan: His Life and Character:

“Where is the warmth and affection that one would like to see in Gilbert’s family background? Gilbert himself tells us precious little in the way of reminiscence about his family: a sketch of a grandfather, a few passing comments about his father, practically nothing about his mother and sisters. We are left only with a vague feeling of coldness, darkness and isolation. Little wonder, then, that Gilbert looked instead towards the fantasy world of theatre to provide light, warmth and joy.”

Although there is no way to be sure that this ugly event from Gilbert’s childhood affected the stories he wrote as an adult, it’s possible that they might have been twisted and transmuted into the topsy-turvy scenarios he wrote later on. What do you think? Do the events of our childhood leave us, or do they become part of our “core story” as grownups?

Let me know in the comments!

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Ivanhoe


Cover of Ivanhoe CD

Which has more artistic merit: Drama or Comedy?

I bet most people would say that Drama, being more serious, sheds more light on the human condition. They might add that Comedy is more entertaining but less illuminating.

This was the question Sir Arthur Sullivan faced around 1888 to 1891: Should England’s most highly lauded composer continue to write comic operas with W.S. Gilbert (the musical equivalent, one might say, of being a graphic novel illustrator who provides images that suit someone else’s story), or should he devote his time to Serious Music in the form of a grand opera (perhaps comparable to creating an original oil painting worthy of being hung in a museum)?

Despite the success of the more romantic and dramatic Yeomen of the Guard, by 1888 Sir Arthur Sullivan was ready to move on from comic opera. He was helped along the road to Serious Music by The Times’ review of his incidental music to Henry Irving’s production of Macbeth.

The Times wrote, a bit sniffily, “Self-restraint, subordination, and assimilation to a higher purpose become, in such circumstances, almost as important as creative genius; and these virtues Sir Arthur Sullivan has had every opportunity of practicing during his long association with Mr. Gilbert.”

This apparently was an extremely sore spot with Sullivan – the idea that, in his collaboration with Gilbert, the beauty of the music had to take a back seat to Gilbert’s topsy-turvy stories. Sure, audiences loved the words, but maybe any tune would do.

That really hurt.

So Sullivan decided that he was going to write a grand opera. Gilbert declined to provide a libretto, saying that if he were to try it, his work “would be, deservedly or otherwise, generally poo-poohed.” He suggested that Julian Sturgis was the best serious librettist of the day, and when Sturgis accepted the job, work on Ivanhoe began.

The climactic battle between Ivanhoe and Brian de Bois-Guilbert

What could be more English than Sir Walter Scott’s tale of the disinherited Saxon knight, Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, brave Crusader and loyal follower of Richard the Lionhearted? Scott’s story also is the basis for our popular idea of Robin Hood, who appears in the story along with his band of “merry men.” Victorian audiences would have known this story by heart – but it may be less well-known today, which is a pity since it’s a tremendous tale with chivalrous knights, beautiful damsels, villainous noblemen, jousting, archery, a witch trial and a daring rescue from a burning castle.

Between bouts of illness, Sullivan worked on Ivanhoe, which was finished in December 1890 and premiered on January 31, 1891.

Premiere program

The opening night was well attended by royalty including the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, and the cream of London society. Queen Victoria was at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, but her daughter Princess Louise wrote to Sullivan to congratulate him, saying that the Queen was particularly pleased since she believed that “it [was] owing to her own instigation that you undertook this great work.” The Queen had indeed suggested to Sir Arthur that he write a grand opera after she heard The Golden Legend.

Sullivan wrote back saying that it had indeed been the Queen’s encouragement to him that had inspired him to write the opera, and asked to be allowed to dedicate the opera to Queen Victoria. “If Her Majesty would graciously accept this tribute of my devotion and respect, I should look upon it as the crowning point of my career.”

Even W.S. Gilbert, who was in the middle of an extended quarrel with Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte at the time, went to see Ivanhoe and reported that he was not bored by it (“the highest compliment I ever paid a grand opera”).

Sullivan’s Ivanhoe ran for a total of 161 performances – a huge success for a grand opera, but nowhere near the popularity of H.M.S. Pinafore, which had 571 performances, The Gondoliers, performed 554 times, or The Mikado, which ran for an astonishing 672 performances.

At least in terms of enduring popularity, it seems that Comedy has won out over Drama in this case – but maybe it’s time to revisit Sullivan’s grand opera and decide for ourselves.

What do you think? Do you prefer Comedy or Drama? Let me know in the comments.

Sketches of scenes from the opera


References: Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography by Michael Ainger; Gilbert and Sullivan by Hesketh Pearson


PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21340300

PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11713638



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

Gilbert’s home at Grim’s Dyke

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

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

In Gilbert and Sullivan, Pearson adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Bullfinch by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37675952




Arthur Sullivan and The Golden Legend

Cover art for a present day recording of The Golden Legend, available on Amazon.

Even successful artists like Sir Arthur Sullivan struggle with procrastination, goal-setting, and getting things done!

In 1886, 44-year-old Arthur Sullivan was at the top of his career. He’d been knighted in 1883 for his services to music, his collaborations with WSGilbert had brought him a lot of success and financial reward, but success brought increasing pressure into his life.

First, there was the pressure to write “serious music,” not comic operas or other popular stuff.  High-minded critics thought that an ordinary tunesmith could write a comic opera, but a Knight of the Realm had to compose masterpieces, music for the ages. Second, success at any level comes with its own increasing momentum, and the artist or composer has to start running just to keep up.

At the beginning of the year 1886, Sullivan promised to write a cantata for the Leeds Festival, to be premiered in October. The cantata would be a large-scale choral work, The Golden Legend, based on a poem by Longfellow. This is how it all worked out:

By the end of January, Sullivan had dinner with his friend Joseph Bennett, and confided that he could write the music, but he just couldn’t figure out how to put together a libretto.

In February, a story in the press announced that Sullivan was hard at work on The Golden Legend! Since Sullivan hadn’t yet reported back to the Leeds Festival committee on his progress, they were pretty annoyed that the papers knew more than they did. Sullivan was annoyed, too – he hadn’t made any progress yet, no matter what the papers said, and he didn’t need questions from the committee at this stage of the work.  But he assured them he was hard at work on the cantata.

Then other commitments got in his way.

In March, he had to conduct one of his earlier works, The Martyr of Antioch, with the Bath Philharmonic. He also had to work on a new comic opera for the Savoy Theater. Rupert D’Oyly Carte wanted Sullivan to write the comic opera first, before working on the The Golden Legend. Between the cantata and the comic opera and the conducting gigs, Sullivan’s life was picking up speed.

In April, the Prince of Wales asked Sullivan to write a piece of music for the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, on the 4th of May. Of course, he couldn’t turn down the Prince. Now this new work had to be squeezed in before Sullivan could even think about the comic opera and The Golden Legend.

“How am I to get through this year’s work?” Sullivan complained to his diary.

The rest of April was full of social engagements – receptions for Liszt, newly arrived from Paris; the opening of the spring season at Epsom; receptions at Grosvenor Gallery; and more concerts. Very little time was left for writing music.

May was equally busy: Conducting the music he’d written for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, which was opened by Queen Victoria herself; conducting his symphony on his birthday at St. James’ Hall; then sparkling social engagements like Derby Day at Epsom, followed by Ascot Week.

Cover of the score of The Golden Legend

When, oh, when, was he going to find time to write The Golden Legend?

Finally, toward the end of July, Sullivan was able to escape the city and work on The Golden Legend at Stagenhoe Park. It was finally finished on August 25, 1886.

By then, of course, it was too late to do anything about the comic opera for the Savoy – In a meeting in September, Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte decided to postpone the new opera until November. This still didn’t leave Sullivan a lot of time, because now the rehearsals for The Golden Legend would have to begin right away, so the soloists and choir members would be ready for the October premiere.

Would everything come together in time for The Golden Legend to go off without a hitch?

The Golden Legend premiered on October 15, 1886. As Michael Ainger writes in Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, “Most of the press were ecstatic in their praise: “cheer after cheer rang through the hall,” said the Liverpool Mercury, “the audience were excited and the choristers simply crazy. The girls pelted the composer with flowers. Such a frenzy of congratulations has surely never before rung in the ears of any living man as that amid which Sir Arthur left the platform.”

The Times was more restrained: “The Leeds Festival may boast of having given life to a work which, if not of genius in the strict sense of the word, is at least likely to survive till our long expected English Beethoven appears on the stage”.

According to Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, the premiere “was received with delirious enthusiasm. The audience yelled themselves hoarse and pelted him with flowers. He turned to bow his acknowledgments to the choir, who also pelted him with flowers. The newspapers agreed with the audience and choir. The World called him ‘the Mozart of England,’ and said that though it was difficult to claim a place in the foremost ranks of composers for the author of The Pirates of Penzance, the case of the author of The Golden Legend rested on a very different basis. It still does.”

Drawings of the premiere at Leeds in 1886

Finally, Sullivan had received the recognition he’d so long coveted—to be ranked alongside the greatest composers of serious music, and not regarded simply as a popular tunesmith.

Even royalty approved. When Queen Victoria heard The Golden Legend, she told Sullivan that he ought to write a grand opera. “You would do it so well,” she said.

Sullivan did write a grand opera, based on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. It’s not often performed these days. And, although The Golden Legend was one of the most-performed cantatas of the 1880s and 1890s after Handel’s Messiah, the work is not very often performed these days. Ironically, it is those light-hearted comic operas which have endured.

But it gives me hope to know that Sir Arthur struggled to meet his commitments, and that he managed to achieve success despite all the obstacles he faced, such as a busy life, other  work to do, new projects that pop up unexpectedly and all the rest. I’ll take the thought of Sir Arthur’s own challenges with me as I face the projects I hope to accomplish in 2017.

How about you? Do you worry about finishing every job you’ve got on your plate?  Let me know in the comments.

Christmas with the Gilberts

Kate Terry Gielgud, mother of acclaimed actor Sir John Gielgud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas wish from WSG

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

I am,

very truly yours,

WS Gilbert.”


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