Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes

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In 1863, a young single woman from the North of England went on Thomas Cook’s first Conducted Tour of Switzerland.  Group tours meant it was OK for her to go without a chaperone – hooray!   And, during one of her group’s excursions, they got caught in a storm and took refuge in a mountain hut.  I love how Chalet School-esque that is, over sixty years before the Chalet School opened!    I also love the fact that the author of this book, who retraced her journey -with his mum – is called Diccon, rather than rather than Rick or Rich or Ricky.  It sounds very Frances Hodgson Burnett.  And I’m extremely impressed by just how much Victorian tourists – we’re talking middle-class tourists going for a few weeks, not the wealthy upper-classes who could afford to wander round Europe for months on end and see everywhere at a leisurely pace – got through during their trips.  I like to keep on the go when I’m on holiday, but getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and not getting to the next hotel until midnight, especially whilst dressed in crinolines and corsets, really would be going a bit far.

The idea of this book was that Diccon Bewes (a British travel writer living in Switzerland) and his mum were going to retrace the journey described in the journal of Jemima Morrell.  She’s always referred to as “Miss Jemima”, because the members of the group (which started off with 130 people but was down to seven by the end, some of its members having only gone as far as Paris or one of the resorts on Lake Geneva) had agreed to call each other “Miss Jemima”, “Mr William” (her brother) etc, rather than Miss/Mr/Mrs Surname.  They were obviously well into holiday mode – even if they did have to don formal dress for their evening meals.

Back in 1863, tourism in Switzerland was just starting to take off – and it was mainly a British thing.  The book tells us a lot about the character of the people who went on these tours, and also about Switzerland and how it was changed by tourism.  We think of Switzerland as a wealthy country, but, in 1863, it really wasn’t.  It wasn’t until I saw this BBC documentary in 2014 about children in Switzerland being used as indentured farm labourers even well after the Second World War, that I realised just how recently it is that Switzerland’s become so wealthy. And it was in no small part the growth of the tourist industry that kick-started that.

Diccon Bewes is a very entertaining writer, and the book’s very readable.  I’m not going to recount all his travels, or Miss Jemima’s, but I thought I’d list a few of the points that particularly struck me, in the hope that someone might read them and that they might find them interesting too!  Some of them are pretty obvious, but the fact that something’s obvious doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting .

  1. Miss Jemima being able to travel abroad with no travelling companion/chaperone.  And the development of group tours in general, making travel available to people who just wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise.  Then as now, people can be snotty about group tours, but I’d have missed out on a lot of the best experiences of my life without them.  So would she.
  2. The tourist industry being the impetus for railway building in Switzerland. Quite an interesting concept when you come from Lancashire and have grown up with the idea that railway building was all to do with the Industrial Revolution!
  3. The difference in types of travel hassle between then and now!  OK, Victorian travellers did not have to pass through body scanners or have their luggage rummaged through by security staff.  But they did have to have their luggage paid at every single railway station where they broke their journey, and pay for it.  And Miss Jemima’s cousin, Miss Sarah, another member of the party, was charged 50 cents at the Douane in Dieppe for carrying Yorkshire curd tarts.
  1. And they didn’t have to go through passport control. No passports required.  Individual British passports weren’t introduced until 1915.  I knew that, but I didn’t know that, prior to that, it was advisable to get a group passport for your party, which listed all the men by name but only gave the total number of women!  Huh!!5. As I said, just how much they did!  Usually a different place every day.  Well, sometimes several different places every day.  A different hotel every night would be a better way of putting it – and this was at a time when travel meant going by trains that took far longer than today’s trains do, diligence (stagecoach), steamer, and, in some areas, mules.  And a lot of walking.  Especially for blokes.  If there weren’t enough mules to go round, women got first dibs.  Eighteen hour days, sometimes.  I’ve done some fairly tiring tours, but I don’t think any of them were as tiring as the ones these Victorian travellers did.  How were they not exhausted?  Oh, and Diccon wondered (and so did I) what they did about toilet stops, but, sadly, Miss Jemima’s journal doesn’t mention anything so indelicate!

    6. Environmental issues.  I often wish I could have visited places in the days when they were less crowded – which is totally hypocritical, seeing as I’m part of the crowds.  And before everything was so globalised.  I’ve got nothing against McDonald’s or Starbucks, but I don’t really need to see them everywhere when I’m looking for an Austrian coffee house or a French patisserie.  But, although I get upset every time I hear that Venice has been flooded again, I’ve never really stopped to wish that I could have seen a glacier in the days when it was far bigger, or to be sad that they’re in retreat.  I will do from now on.

    7. The traumas of the mountain weather never change, though!  You’ve been promised one of the best views in the world.  On the day you’re meant to see it, the clouds are so low and so thick that you can hardly see a thing.  As you’re on an escorted tour on a tight schedule, rather than a Grand Tour lasting twelve months, you can’t come back another day.

    8. The British links to the development of Swiss winter sports.  At this point, the British were keener on winter sports than the Swiss were. Thomas Cook even introduced a skating tour of Switzerland in 1905.   The Cresta Run, built in 1884, was a British idea.  We should really be winning medals galore at the Winter Olympics!  Hmm.

    9. The importance of appreciating the simple things.  I do actually do this!   Getting excited over an Alpine flower meadow, rather than wanting to be going bungee jumping off a bridge or the side of a dam.  Obviously Victorian British tourists did not have the option of doing bungee jumping, but some of them were weirdly obsessed with the idea of climbing the Matterhorn.  I’m with Miss Jemima and the Alpine flowers on this one.

    10.And, of course, taking shelter in a mountain hut during a storm.  Annoyingly, this bit was actually in France – whilst visiting the Mer de Glace near Chamonix – rather than in Switzerland, but never mind.  All these years, I’ve been reading Chalet School books and wondering how likely it was that people stranded in a storm would actually have been able to find a mountain hut that was conveniently open.  Evidently, it really did happen!

So there.  This is a light-hearted book, but there’s plenty of stuff in it that’ll really make you think.  Very enjoyable.

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Gentleman Jack – BBC 1

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Anne Lister’s diaries have been described as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.  They’re on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and include commentary on the major national and international events of the day as well as details about her personal life.  Anne was also a successful businesswoman, a traveller, a climber (and a social climber!), responsible for a huge amount of work at her family home, Shibden Hall near Halifax, and married (“celebrated marital commitment with”) her final partner, Ann Walker by their taking communion together on Easter Sunday in 1834.   She went against everything that society expected of women of her time and her class, but she seems to have been completely comfortable in her own skin – and her own masculine-style black clothes.  What a fascinating character!  Ann Walker’s also interesting, although her story’s much sadder: she suffered from depression and, after Anne’s death, was tricked into leaving Shibden Hall, declared insane and taken to (as it would then have been called) an asylum. Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle and the rest of a strong, Northern-led 🙂 cast are doing an excellent job of portraying their story.

I did wonder if – this being the cosy Sunday 9pm period drama slot – the scriptwriters might be tempted to make Anne Lister into a much nicer person than she actually was.  Admirable, yes – likeable, not so much!  And if they might be tempted to turn her relationship with Ann Walker into a fairytale romance.  It wasn’t!  But no – it was pretty much warts and all.  Well done to Sally Wainwright and the rest of the scriptwriting team!

Black mark for anachronistic language, though.  People in the 1830s did not go around saying “Either way works for me” or “They’re a handful”.  But, especially after ITV 1’s Victoria had Robert Peel sounding like he came from the East Midlands rather than Bury, gold star for getting most of the characters in this Halifax-based series genuinely sounding like they came from Yorkshire!

The series opened in 1832, when Anne was 41, so there’s a huge amount about her life that we’re not going to get to see.  Maybe an opening for a prequel some time?  We won’t see her having affairs with other girls whilst at school.  We won’t hear her thoughts on the Peterloo Massacre.  We won’t see her travels to the French court.   But, hey, you can only fit so much into eight hours!

In 1832, she was returning to Shibden Hall, which she’d inherited from her uncle, after a long time away.  I went to Shibden Hall on Saturday, and so I particularly enjoyed seeing the house and gardens on TV on Sunday.  It was really nice to see a TV series that was actually filmed where it was set, rather than Budapest filling in for Virginia or whatever!   Immediately, we got the impression that Anne was a real force of nature – everyone was all of a doodah about her return!

And then we saw so many different facets of her fascinating personality that every scene seemed to bring something different.  She was a snob – talking about “shabby little Shibden” (having seen what the panelling was like before she did it up, she had a point, but still!) and clearly feeling that she belonged in far higher social circles than those she’d be mixing in there.  She was a proto-feminist – and made an interesting point about the 1832 Reform Act enshrining in law the fact that women were debarred from voting because of their gender, a point that was to be made repeatedly in the 1901-1914 era, when there was talk of bringing in universal male suffrage without giving the vote to any women.  She showed affection for her family, yet her main concern about the death of her groom seemed to be scientific interest in how death actually came about.  She also showed her affection for her horse, but was tough enough to put him down when it was necessary – shooting him herself when her new groom couldn’t bring himself to do so.

She was a businesswoman, seeing new opportunities such as developing coal mines, and so hard-headed that she had no compunction about evicting an elderly tenant whom she felt was unable to farm efficiently.  And she was fine about collecting the rents herself, and even sitting in the pub to do so.  Yet we saw how deeply she could feel, and how she was broken-hearted that her former lover had dumped her in order to marry a man.

We saw that through flashbacks.  I’m never sure that flashbacks really work in period dramas, but Pride and Prejudice used them, so I suppose they’re OK!  We also got moments when we just got Anne’s thoughts as a monologue, as if she were addressing the viewer – which was a bit weird, but I don’t know how else we could have “seen” her thoughts.  She wrote everything down.  In code.  Brilliant!  And what a good job, from a historian’s viewpoint, that the code was cracked, and that the relative who first read her journals decided not to get rid of them – as he was advised to do by a friend who thought that they might bring scandal on the family.

Being broken-hearted didn’t stop her from spending the night with another former lover.  She had rather a lot of them!   But she wanted a wife.  A couple of days ago, there was a protest march calling for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.  One of the women marching summed it up very well when she told a Sky News reporter that no-one was asking for special treatment, just that everyone should have the same rights as everyone else.  Anne Lister wanted to find a life partner, and she wanted that partnership to be a formal commitment, and she saw that the fact that that would be with a woman rather than a man shouldn’t be an issue –  at a time when the word “lesbian” didn’t exist and so many gay (to use the modern term) people ended up in heterosexual marriages.  She wanted a wife.

Just going back to the issue of the relationship between her and Ann Walker not being a fairytale romance, I’d like to  think they did genuinely love each other, but Ann Walker’s money was certainly a big attraction – as this first episode made crystal clear.  And it’s known that they argued over finances, that Ann felt neglected because so much of Anne’s time was taken up with business and politics and that Anne wasn’t as understanding as she might have been about Ann’s bouts of depression.

I feel rather sorry for Ann, and I was glad to see that the programme did deal sympathetically with her.  We didn’t really get much idea of her from herself, it was all about what other people thought about her, but that was probably quite accurate.  She was very vulnerable – a wealthy single woman, prey to fortune hunters and without the strength and confidence that she probably needed, and struggling with depression.  Sophie Rundle played her very well – and the supporting cast were excellent too.  We met various Lister and Walker relatives, and two of Anne’s former lovers.  And we also got to see the lives of the tenants and the servants – which is a staple of period dramas theswe days, but wasn’t always.  But it was always Anne Lister around whom everything revolved.  Emotional one minute, hard-headed the next.  What a complex and intriguing personality.

However, one big facet of her personality wasn’t shown, and that was her religious side.  She’s known to have had a strong Anglican faith, and evidently found no problem with being a practising Christian and being in a same sex relationship.  Nearly two centuries later, the subject of religion (not just Christianity, but religion generally) and sexuality is still contentious, despite all the progress made in gay rights in other areas of life.  It’s something which causes a lot of distress to a lot of people, and is an area in which little progress seems to be being made.  In that respect, Anne Lister was ahead of our times, never mind her own.  I really hope the BBC aren’t going to pussyfoot around this.  Maybe it’ll come up next week.

Sadly, Anne died aged only 49 and only six years after her marriage to Ann, of a fever caused by an infected insect bite whilst travelling in Georgia (the one in the Caucasus, not the one in America!).  By the terms of Anne’s will, Ann should have had a life interest in Shibden Hall – which she deserved because it was her money that paid for it to be done up, as well as because of her relationship with Anne! – before it passed to some Lister cousins.  However, Ann, who struggled with mental health problems, found it difficult to cope with the pressure of running both Shibden Hall and her own property, and probably also with the gossip about her relationship with Anne.  She was forcibly removed from Shibden Hall by her own family and the local constable and taken to an asylum in York, before eventually returning to her childhood home.

So there isn’t going to be a happy ending to this story – but (as well as the Shibden Hall estate, which is rather a nice place for a half-day out) there’s Anne Lister’s legacy to history, which is an important one.  That’s recognised by the fact that there are blue plaques commemorating her life both at Shibden Hall and at the church in York where she and Ann Walker had their ceremony.   And this series is about to make her very well-known.  Just spare a thought for Ann as well, eh?  But Anne’s the character who grabs your attention, and Suranne Jones really did a very good job of portraying that.  This looks set to be an excellent series.

 

 

 

Victoria’s Palace – ITV 1

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Queen Victoria could eat a nine-course meal in half an hour. That’s pretty impressive. Prince Albert insisted that all leftovers from the Buckingham Palace kitchens had to be given to the poor. That’s even more impressive. Hopefully, none of this was until after the Palace kitchens had been tarted up to stop them getting flooded with sewage from the River Tyburn.  Parts of this programme felt like a genuine historical documentary, about the transformation of Buckingham Palace into both a centre of state occasions and formal entertainment and a working family home, and about Queen Victoria’s life in general.  Other parts of it made me wonder if I’d accidentally switched over to either a cookery programme or the ITV drama “Victoria” (how many clips from that did they show?!).  But it was all very watchable.  Hey, talking about food is always interesting!  And the presenters were very understanding about Queen Victoria’s struggles following the death of Prince Albert.

It started off covering what it said on the tin – the history of the Palace during the reign of Queen Victoria. We heard about how unhappy Queen Victoria was during her childhood at Kensington Palace, and how Buckingham Palace seemed like a glorious escape from all that. Then about how she and Prince Albert thought that Buckingham Palace was too small for their family (at a time when similar-sized families were all living in one or two rooms!!) and wanted a new wing built, but, to avoid putting too much of a strain on public finances, Brighton Pavilion was sold to fund the building work.

I’m not actually convinced that that’s right: I thought the money from the sale of the Pavilion was spent on the purchase of Osborne House. It was interesting to hear about how much stuff was brought from Brighton to Buckingham Palace, though, notably for the new Chinese drawing room, and even more interesting to hear about how this very lavish room was used on a day-to-day basis by the royals. You see these very ornate rooms in stately homes and wonder what it was like actually to live in them, especially with young kids, but I suppose it’s just what people are used to.

We also heard about the construction of the famous balcony, and saw a picture of Victoria, Albert and a load of others standing on it to welcome troops back from the Crimean War. I’m not sure whose idea the balcony was, but it was a stroke of genius! It’s been such a focal point on so many occasions, from royal weddings to VE Day. And it’s something that only the Royal Family can do. Would hordes of people turn up to see politicians stood on a balcony? I don’t think so.

However, after that, we were told that “food became the centre of Victoria’s life”, and the programme then wandered off into Mary Berry territory.  It was fascinating to hear about the conditions in the kitchens, and about just how much food was consumed.  It was nice actually getting to see the present-day Palace kitchens – although they were rather dull-looking, all stainless steel surfaces! – and it was even interesting to hear about how the old Palace kitchens, before Victoria and Albert’s renovations, regularly got flooded with sewage!  But I’m not sure that we really needed to see people making roast quails, or sitting at tables laden with food.  I wonder what ITV did with all the food afterwards!  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that eating so much rich food gave people flatulence, either, but never mind.

But then it was back to the more serious stuff, and we heard about Prince Albert tackling the inefficiency and corruption within the Royal Household, and his and Queen Victoria’s joint involvement in putting pictures from the Royal Collection on display and creating the Palace ballroom.  In a relatively short space of time, they really did do a very impressive job of turning a palace that hadn’t even been completed when Victoria first moved in, and that’d undergone a lot more work since then, into … well, one of the most important buildings in the world, a centre of politics and culture, the focal point of the nation.

As with the recent BBC 1 programme about the role of music in the lives of Victoria and Albert, the programme did a good job of showing just how completely everything changed when Prince Albert died.  I can’t believe they trotted out the idea that Prince Albert died because of the trauma of finding out about the Prince of Wales and Nellie Clifden, though.  OK, it didn’t help, but they didn’t half overplay its significance.  But they dealt very sensitively with the sadness of Victoria losing both her mother and her husband in the same year, and then withdrawing from public life … and, not unreasonably, they credited Disraeli with coaxing her back into it. Victoria does come in for a lot of criticism over what was seen as dereliction of duty, and it was touching to hear the programme explain that, in addition to her grief, she’d lost her self-confidence. It’s very hard to mix with anyone when you feel like that, never mind be the head of an empire.

Happier times lay ahead, with the opening up of the Palace for royal garden parties, and then the Golden Jubilee and Diamond Jubilee festivities, with Buckingham Palace and the Mall as the focal point for them.  The programme did have rather a feeling of one of those A-level history essays where you get off the point and then hastily shove in a reference to the actual essay question, with references to the Palace being shoehorned into talk about Queen Victoria’s life – I’m not sure that which room she met Disraeli in was really that relevant to anything! – but it did undoubtedly get across the point that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert transformed a palace which had only been owned by the Royal Family since 1761, and hadn’t really been used much until 1837, into one of the most important and best-known buildings in the world.

I recently went to see an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and, even though it was early in the morning, and the Queen wasn’t even in residence, there were just hordes of people, from all over the world, standing outside, looking at the Palace, and taking photos.  The Gallery only opened in 1962, incidentally, and the main Palace only assumed its current appearance after building work in 1913.  It’s not all about Victoria and Albert!  But they were the ones who made it into a symbol of the nation and the monarchy, and, whilst this wasn’t the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, it did explain that.

That’s two programmes I’ve seen about Queen Victoria within a few days.  Given how many programmes are being shown this month to mark the bicentennial of her birth, there will be lots more to come!

 

 

Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain – BBC 1

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This was an unexpected treat. Really entertaining!  I love the idea of Queen Victoria helping to popularise the “wicked waltz”, being serenaded by Prince Albert with songs he’d written himself, holding “impromptu jamming sessions” with Mendelssohn and being so obsessed with Jenny Lind (of Barnum fame) that she cut short a formal dinner with the Prime Minister to go and see her. Not to mention having her favourite celeb singers at her 16th birthday party – how cool is that? We even got brass bands and the Halle Orchestra – hooray!!  And the music halls. I think Lucy Worsley was pushing it a bit by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music; but, in this year which marks the bicentennial of their births, this was an interesting and original take on their lives and influence.

I was half-expecting Lucy to dress up as an opera singer and prance about on stage, but she actually managed to act like a serious historian for once. OK, she changed into a black dress when talking about Queen Victoria’s later years, but it wasn’t a particularly Victorian black dress! It’s usually Suzy Klein who presents the BBC’s musical history programmes, and I hadn’t realised that Lucy was so into music. We saw her playing the piano very impressively!

I’d never particularly thought of Queen Victoria in terms of music, either. Ask me to name a “musical monarch”, and I’d have said George II, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Young Victoria apparently found George II’s type of music boring, but was really into Italian opera. We got this rather lovely image of her, at a time at which she was given virtually no freedom by her mother and Sir John Conroy, being allowed to go to the opera and getting quite obsessive over some of the singers. Some of them came to sing at her 16th birthday party, and she took singing lessons from them. Lucy’s theory was that it was a way for an emotional person leading a very restricted life to express herself. I like that.

We’re all rather past the idea of Queen Victoria as a repressed and grumpy person who was “not amused”, and we know that she was into dancing. I didn’t know that Johann Strauss actually wrote a waltz for her, though. This was at a time when the waltz was still considered quite scandalous, so Victoria was out there at the cutting edge of things! It was rather pushing it to claim that it was Victoria who popularised the waltz, though, especially as she wasn’t actually allowed to waltz – all that bodily contact! – until she married Prince Albert.

Prince Albert did a lot of good things, but he was undeniably rather boring, and he wanted Italian opera and Viennese waltzes out and German classical music in. But he wrote his own love songs for Victoria, and serenaded her with them. That’s so romantic ❤ !! OK, it’d only work if you had a partner with a good singing voice, but Albert and Victoria both did have good singing voices. They played duets on the piano, as well. So sweet!

They did still go to the opera, as well – and I think it was a valid point that their presence helped to make opera-going, which had become associated with drunken posh blokes trying to seduce opera girls, respectable. And they held musical soirees at home. It was overplaying it to say that it was their interest in music which led to the increase in interest in musical entertainment generally, though! It was part of the general growth of leisure activities during the Victorian period, and, to be fair, Lucy did point out the importance of the development of mass production of musical instruments at more affordable prices. We got to see a brass band. Yay, I love brass bands! I’m not sure that Queen Victoria was particularly into brass band music, but, if she wasn’t, she didn’t know what she was missing! And we heard about the birth of the Halle Orchestra. Always nice to get some Mancunian history into any history programme 😉 . Lucy noted that Sir Charles Halle always made sure that some seats at the Free Trade Hall and anywhere else that the Halle were playing were made available at low prices. Music for all!  One thing that wasn’t mentioned was church music, but maybe that wasn’t particularly Queen Victoria’s thing.

Of course, Charles Halle was originally from Germany, and, as Lucy kept saying, the music scene in Britain at that time was dominated by Germans.  Mendelssohn notably spent a fair amount of time in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’d never realised that Victoria and Albert were so pally with him: the Queen’s patronage was a real boost to his career, and he even used to go round to see them and they’d all sing and play the piano together. That’s brilliant! And, whilst I’m vaguely familiar with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, I wouldn’t have thought to connect his interest in Scotland with Victoria and Albert’s well-known love of Scotland. Er, having just looked on Google to see when his Hebrides Overture was composed, I see that it was after a visit to Scotland in 1829, well before Victoria even came to the throne! So that’s another area where Lucy’s arguments were pushing it; but they did undoubtedly create interest in Scottish culture outside Scotland.

Going back to the subject of opera becoming respectable, Lucy then started talking about a Swedish opera singer – and I knew before she said the name that she meant Jenny Lind. How cultured am I?! Well, OK, not very, in fact – I only know about Jenny Lind because of the Barnum connection! But Victoria was apparently a huge fan of hers. She went to see her sixteen times in one season, threw flowers at her, gave her a dog, and cut short a formal dinner with the PM in order to go to one of her shows! She was really keen. And then Prince Albert died … and she never went to a public concert again. That’s really sad – and we got some poignant images, from things she’d written in her journals, of how it’d taken her a while even to listen to music again, but that, when she did, particular pieces reminded her of Albert. I think everyone can identify with that. We’ve probably all got songs/pieces of music which remind us of loved ones who are no longer with us. But she chose to have the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music founded in his memory – and that, as Lucy pointed out, says a lot about how important music was to both of them.

We then moved on to the music halls. Much more my sort of thing than German Lieder or Italian opera! And the “By jingo” song, which always annoys me because the peoples of the Balkans got a very raw deal due to the obsession with restricting Russian influence!  Anyway. Lucy then claimed that Queen Victoria wearing black all the time was partly an image thing, and facilitated the branding of the monarchy because everyone knew that she always wore black. I wasn’t impressed with that. It was mourning black, OK – she was in mourning for her dead husband, not trying to look cool l like I did when I was 14 and wanted to wear black because the Stone Roses did!  I’m not even sure what wearing black was supposed to have to do with music – although the idea seemed to be that it was all part of the idea of Queen Victoria as the face of the British Empire, and that music played a big part in promoting imperialism via both music hall patriotic songs and the music of Elgar. Hooray for Elgar – finally, a top-level British composer.  I take the point about music and imperialism, but trying to connect that with Queen Victoria wearing black wasn’t overly convincing!   Oh well.

The programme finished by talking about Wagner’s Lohengrin being played at Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday party, and how Wagner’s music was to become synonymous with the Nazis, and Queen Victoria would have been devastated to know what lay ahead for Anglo-German relations. Things had rather wandered off the point by this time, and topping it off by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music was definitely going over the top, but it was a very interesting programme. The bicentennial of Victoria and Albert’s birth, in addition to the popular ITV series about them, means that we’re going to be hearing a lot about them this year, and it’s going to be difficult to find different and original angles. The BBC managed it with this programme, and Lucy Worsley, who can sometimes be very irritating, did an excellent job with it. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “very, very amused”, with three underlinings, after one Italian opera performance. I was pretty amused by this programme!

 

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

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Martha Carrier was one of the nineteen people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.  She was also (born Martha Ingalls Allen) the first cousin seven times removed of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is apparently mentioned in Prairie Fires … which I might finally buy now that it’s down to £7.99 on Amazon.   And she was a direct ancestor of Kathleen Kent, the author of this book, who’s focused her writing on the effect of the trials on the families of the accused.  The Salem Witch Trials have been called the rock upon which theocracy in America was shattered (some people could possibly do with reminding about this).  But they also shattered the lives of the twenty people (one, an elderly man, was crushed to death for refusing to plead) who were killed, the many others who were also accused, and their families and friends.

The book’s told from the viewpoint of Martha’s daughter Sarah – who was also imprisoned, and forced to testify against her own mother – looking back as an adult on her childhood experiences. Sarah was actually only 7 at the time of the trials, but, for the purposes of the story, has been shown as being a few years older than that. Kathleen Kent hasn’t tried to eulogise her ancestors in any way: none of them actually come across as being particularly pleasant, and the book shows that Sarah only really came to appreciate her parents at the time of the trials, when she saw her mother’s great courage and her father’s love and loyalty; but I don’t think anyone could have been all sweetness and light in the harsh conditions of late 17th century Massachusetts (the family lived in Andover, near Salem). And the reader might not like the characters, but they’ll come to admire them – especially Martha, who refused to try to save herself by pleading guilty to witchcraft, but urged her children to say whatever would save their own lives.

It’s very hard to try to make sense of what happened. Witch hunts often happened when someone had fallen ill, or livestock had died, and crops had failed, and people were looking for someone to blame, and or an excuse to take revenge on someone they had a grudge against. But, in the Salem area, the accusations started after some young girls in the area started having fits. What caused that? Was it mass hysteria? It’s difficult to try to understand, but it does happen. The film “The Falling” is based on an episode of mass hysteria in Blackburn in 1965, and that’s just one example of many. It’s also been suggested that some sort of hallucinogenic fungus might have got into the food supply. No-one really knows.

And the book doesn’t really focus on that – it focuses more on the way in which bad feeling could spread in a small community, and the interaction between that and the mood of the religious or political authorities – pretty much the same thing, in Salem in 1692. The Carriers had never been popular, having been blamed for a smallpox epidemic which affected the area. They’d also fallen out with family members over an inheritance dispute, a neighbour in an argument over a trespassing cow, and a former servant whom they’d dismissed for misconduct. Being unpopular anyway, they were vulnerable to accusation at a time when hysteria was spreading through the area and allegations were flying about right, left and centre.

And how it all spiralled!  Over 200 people were accused.  Sarah and many other children were amongst those imprisoned.  The book chillingly and brilliantly describes what the conditions in the prisons must have been like – and shows how, even under those conditions, women like Martha tried desperately to preserve their dignity by keeping as clean as they could.  It also shows the struggles of the rest of the Carrier family – and there’s a strange sub-plot in which it turns out that Martha’s husband, Thomas Carrier, was the man who executed Charles I.  I don’t know whether that’s a legend in Kathleen Kent’s family or whether it’s something she came up with for the sake of the book.  Thomas and his children eventually got an apology and compensation for the execution of Martha.  Much good that would have done them.

The book does focus entirely on the times. Whereas The Crucible famously drew parallels between the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism, Kathleen Kent has written a true historical novel, about historical events, with no attempt to make veiled comments about modern-day attitudes. I like that. History teaches us many lessons which are relevant to the present day – the dangers of religious extremism, especially given the issues with Christian fundamentalism in the US, are particularly relevant to our own times – but it’s incredibly annoying when people only use history to make a point about modern-day events. I don’t particularly like the word “weaponise” because it’s an artificial word, but there is a tendency for people to “weaponise” history, and Kathleen Kent’s avoided that. Oh, and she never mentions Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the publicity it would have brought her, which is also admirable.  It’s not an enjoyable book as such, and it’s not something that you’ll want to read over and over again, but it’s a good one, and I’m glad that I’ve read it.

 

The King and I – Manchester Opera House

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Don’t you absolutely love the way Anna Leonowens is presented in this very Victorian story combining morality, romance, humour and (a not very accurate view of!) Thai history?  Abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, genteel but hard-working devoted single mother, confidante of one king and the inspiration behind the reforms made by another, friend to royal wives and beloved by royal children, promoter of East-West harmony, courageous, uber- principled, and beautiful and glamorous to boot?  She even sorts out arguments over the Bible!   I’d give a lot to have Mary Poppins’ ability to tidy up the house just by clicking my fingers, and I adore Maria von Trapp, but I’d love to be Anna Leonowens. If I was being a Victorian.  OK, there’s no way I’d ever get into the dress that Deborah Kerr wears in the “Shall We Dance” scene, and I’d probably do an Eliza Doolittle and forget to pretend to be posh at the most inappropriate moment, but even so. Shame that a lot of the story’s “romanticised” (not to mention didacticised) and has given people an inaccurate impression of not only Anna (which isn’t really a problem, I suppose) but of King Mongkut and mid-19th century Siam in general; but I love it as a story and as an incredible musical – and this is a great production of it.

There are so many wonderful, wonderful songs in it – not only Shall We Dance, but Something Wonderful, Hello Young Lovers and We Kiss In A Shadow which are all so emotional, Getting To Know You which is very sweet, and I Whistle A Happy Tune which I’ve always liked too. The broken English of Is A Puzzlement doesn’t work now as well as it did in the 1950s, but the actual lyrics, the confusion of a leader who desperately wants to do what’s best for their country but, in changing times, just isn’t sure what that is, works in any time.  The message of the song rings so true, and the king is such a fascinating character – even if the story doesn’t depict him very accurately.

Coincidentally, the Thai royal family’s in the news this week, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn, King Mongkut’s great-great-grandson, due to be crowned on Saturday and having just married his bodyguard (well, the deputy leader of his personal security detail), whom he apparently met whilst she was working as a flight attendant on a plane he was on, and made her queen. That’s a brilliant story, and it’s all true!  Anna’s is … well, the word I’ve used is a “romanticised”!

OK, she was employed as a schoolteacher (note the use of the word “schoolteacher”, never “governess” with its overtones of being an upper level servant rather than a “free and independent employee”) to the Siamese royal children. And King Mongkut was certainly interested in science, and in Western ideas and closer ties with the West. And, yes, he did have a lot of wives and concubines, and a lot of children (82). But he’s certainly not thought to have been cruel, and the Tuptim story’s caused a lot of upset in Thailand over the years. King Mongkut actually banned forced marriage, and freed a lot of the royal concubines.  Furthermore, he definitely wouldn’t have been dancing a polka with the schoolteacher – which is a shame, because I really love that scene. Nor was Anna at his deathbed: she wasn’t even in the country when he died, but on holiday in England!  Chulalongkorn, the crown prince in the film, abolished slavery (and prostration), but it’s a bit rich to claim that that was because of the influence of Anna Leonowens.

As for Anna herself, she lied about her maiden name and place of birth – quite possibly to cover up her mixed race heritage (see here if you wish to read my wafflings on that subject!) – and her late husband Tom Owens (who later merged his middle name and surname to create the posher-sounding “Leonowens”) was a clerk, not an army officer. It’s a very interesting tale of fake news, really. And her real story’s even more interesting – she travelled widely, tried to set up her own schools, was the great-aunt of Boris Karloff (seriously!), and genuinely was a feminist, and an opponent of slavery.

A lot of musicals have very serious messages.  Very few of them are just purely about entertainment. The King and I is one which combines morality, romance, humour and history.  OK, it’s not very accurate history, but most people seeing the film or the stage show will never have had the opportunity to learn much about Thailand, its history and its culture – I’ve got a degree in history, as well as a GCSE and an A-level, and Thai history never came up once in my struggles – and owt’s better than nowt.  We’re learning something about Siam/Thailand.  And, yes, it’s from a Western viewpoint, but we are talking about something set in the 1860s.  The stage show, unlike the film, includes the “Western People Funny” song, in which the Siamese ladies sing about how ridiculous it is that they’re being made to wear Western clothes, and about the Western “sentimental Oriental” idea, which does redress the balance.  And I think the story is respectful of Siamese culture – it’s certainly very respectful of Buddhism, and we’re clearly meant to hope that the king is able to stop Siam from becoming a British or French protectorate.

It also includes “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” which has that great line about being a “free and independent employee”.  That’s not an East-West thing, and nor are all Anna’s comments about respect for women.  Jane Eyre makes a similar comment, in a very different context, about being a free and independent person.  It’s a very important theme in The King and I. 

Of course, the issues of freedom go way beyond that, to the question of slavery, and the Tuptim story.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most important books of the 19th century in terms of raising awareness about slavery.  Read it, and the sickly religious language will probably make you want to throw up – it really is unbearable! -, but it was incredibly important at the time, and it’s interesting how it gets linked into The King and I … if rather misleading, because there were a lot of differences between slavery in the American South and slavery in Thailand. But slavery is still slavery.  Thankfully, this production of the stage show did not include Anna’s comments about how “Mr Lincoln is fighting a great war to free the slaves”, which always annoy me, though!  Lincoln fought the Civil War to bring the Southern states back into the Union, OK!   And, no, King Mongkut didn’t really offer to send him any elephants to help him win the war – although he did offer to send elephants to the US for use as beasts of burden.

I’ve got off the point now.  It’s quite irritating that the question of slavery has to be viewed through an American prism, but I suppose the idea was that it was one the audience’d understand.  And it’s the Tuptim affair that breaks the king.  He actually died of malaria, but, in this – and it was the first musical ever to kill someone off actually on stage, incidentally – he dies of heart trouble, not only physically but mentally, having realised that his time is up because Anna Leonowens made him realise that he couldn’t beat Tuptim.

But he dies knowing that Chulalongkorn is going to bring about reform. This production gave Chulalongkorn a bigger role than he gets in the film – it had a lovely scene in which he and Louis Leonowens sang part of “Is A Puzzlement”, about how grown-ups argue about things that they don’t really understand themselves. And he’s not a baddie. He’s a good guy. He tried his best. It’s not one of those horrible absolute Victorian religious stories in which everyone’s either right or wrong – one of the king’s last lines is about how what matters in life is to have tried your best.

It is a Victorian moral story, though. The king dies because Anna stopped him from beating Tuptim. And there’s this theme of honour all the way through it. Honour, whilst it’s a big thing in Girls’ Own and Boys’ Own stories, doesn’t always work that well in stories for adults. In Gone With The Wind, honour is a big theme but it’s all rather ironic, because the honourable Ashley Wilkes is really a complete loser. In The King and I, the keeping of your word is crucial. Siam cannot hope to take her place on the world stage if her king cannot accept that he has to keep his word about the schoolteacher’s living accommodation: she was promised a house, rather than an apartments within the palace, and she keeps on about this house until the king gives in.

It sounds so mad, put like that, but it’s the principle – the idea of truth and trust. In 2019, no-one trusts a word that comes out of any political leader’s mouth. In 1862, was it any different? Did any adults genuinely believe the idea of the wonders of British justice and spreading it across the world? 1862 was probably too early for that idea even to have been round, actually. And Abraham Lincoln certainly wasn’t the saint he’s now made out to be. (I’m just using Britain and America as examples because the story’s about a British woman and goes on about Lincoln.) Yet, somehow, the idea works here.

A lot of that’s because of the music.  Music can make most things work.  We’ve got all these great songs, and the unspoken attraction between two great characters.  The costumes are wonderful, too!  The dancing’s wonderful.  And it’s very romantic … but just the chemistry between Anna and the king, but the romance between Tuptim and her lover, Anna’s love for her late husband, Sir Edward’s unrequited love for Anna, Lady Tiang’s love for the king.  And the love between Anna and her son, the king and his children, the royal wives and their children, Anna and the royal children.  Not many things manage to combine morality and emotion well.  This does.  It really gets you.  Wonderful story, wonderful music, wonderful production.  Cute kids!

And I still want that dress …

 

 

 

 

Jamestown season 3 – Sky 1

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Inviting someone round for tea and then chopping their head off at the table’s a bit anti-social, really, although displaying severed heads on spikes was a tradition for centuries: London and York were particularly into it. This is one of those so-bad-it’s-good series – it’s certainly never going to win any awards for historical accuracy, but it’s entertaining; and I love the fact that most of the settlers have northern accents 🙂 . It’s also the perfect antidote to the “culture wars”. No demi-religious myths about founding fathers, no cringeworthy romanticised stuff about Pocahontas, no snowflakey suggestions that all male white settlers are bad.  Instead, we get diversity, with strong white, black and Native American characters, strong male and female characters, and, in this series, a disabled character (with a Lancashire accent) but without anyone (other than the troubled gay Puritan bloke who sadly lost his head whilst he was having his tea) being preachy. There should be Polish builders, though! The real Jamestown colonists brought in Polish artisans … who then launched the first ever labour strike in the New World. And without anyone getting their head chopped off.

The programme’s moved away from the original storyline of the three young women making new lives for themselves – and Alice has now departed … so that Sophie Rundle can marry Suranne Jones in this new historical drama series set in Halifax. I wish the BBC’d get a move on with showing that: it’s started in the US, but not here, which is rather strange. She (Alice, not Sophie) decided to leave because her husband Silas has run off to join the Pamunkey. Verity hasn’t had much to do yet in this series, but Jocelyn, the other member of the original trio, continues to play all the blokes off against each other and get her own way – go Jocelyn!  Although she’s being very nasty to poor little Mercy the maid, who, as if being bossed about by Jocelyn wasn’t bad enough, got clouted with a scythe-thing by the nasty Puritan Virginia Company secretary (before he lost his head) for snogging Silas’s brother. That’s the little brother, who used to be Sean in Emmerdale. Not the big brother, who’s Max Beesley.

OK, the whole thing’s a bit daft, but it does cover the serious issues of the positions of slaves, and of female settlers, in Jamestown society, and this series is going to tell us more about the clashes between the settlers and the Pamunkey. And, as I’ve said, it’s good to have a series which covers the arrival of settlers in what was to become the United States without making it look like either some sort of religious destiny thing, some sort of romanticised thing, or some sort of white supremacist thing. We’ve just got a variety of characters – some white, some black, some Native American, some nicer than others but that’s because of their individual personalities and not because of their ethnicity – trying to make lives for themselves.

It’s hardly the most historically accurate series ever, but it deserves credit for that. And it is very watchable! Oh, and the scenery’s lovely – it’s actually filmed in Budapest, not Virginia, and, having just been to Budapest and been on a nice boat trip up and down the Danube, I’m having great fun spotting bits of Margaret Island and the shores!  This is the last series, so enjoy it whilst it lasts.  I’ll kind of miss it once it’s gone, but not many programmes seem to last beyond a few series any more …