Posts Tagged ‘Victoriana’

We are still the Victorians

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Hello, friends. Today is Earth Day – a useful time to reflect upon what our environment is like, what might happen to our world in the future, and how things used to be. As you know, I think we’re a lot more like the Victorians than we’d prefer to believe. It’s so comforting to view them as boring, prudish, ignorant dinosaurs. It’s so flattering to congratulate ourselves upon how much we’ve changed and how modern we are. But I’m here, once again, to argue that we are much more like the Victorians than we might think.

 

I’ve written in the past about the Great Stink of 1858, which I chose as the backdrop for A Spy in the House. It’s satisfyingly revolting to think about it – all that sewage and waste in the Thames! – and I, like most people, am really glad we don’t live that way anymore. But the Great Stink of 1858 was also a major turning point. That summer, the citizens of London learned that they couldn’t expect the river to absorb all their waste and pollution. They were forced to build modern sewers, to reconsider the amount of waste produced by factories and, above all, to change their ways. Sound familiar? As we confront our own ongoing environmental crises – oil spills, climate change, flame retardants in our water and soil – we’d do well to address our problems as directly and effectively as Londoners have done, over the last 150 years. After all there are, once again, fish swimming in the Thames.

It’s also tempting to refer to “the Victorians” as a huge, undifferentiated group. (I do it all the time here on the blog, for the sake of convenience.) But we should remember that there were Victorian environmentalists, as well. They were outnumbered by industralists, of course, much as they are now. Still, here is the future poet A. E. Housman describing a lecture he attended in 1877, as an undergraduate at Oxford. The lecturer was the art critic John Ruskin:

This afternoon Ruskin gave us a great outburst against modern times. He had got a picture of Turner‘s, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river. He read the account of Wolsey’s death out of Henry VIII. Then he pointed to the picture as representing Leicester when Turner had drawn it. Then he said, “You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is like now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess.” Then he caught up a paintbrush. “These stepping-stones of course have been done away with, and are replaced by a be-au-tiful iron bridge.” Then he dashed in the iron bridge on the glass of the picture. “The colour of the stream is supplied on one side by the indigo factory.” Forthwith one side of the stream became indigo. “On the other side by the soap factory.” Soap dashed in. “They mix in the middle — like curds,” he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. “This field, over which you see the sun setting behind the abbey, is not occupied in a proper manner.” Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and red brick, and rushed up into a chimney. “The atmosphere is supplied — thus!” A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner’s sky: and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilisation amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now, as he has this term become immensely popular, his lectures being crowded, whereas of old he used to prophesy to empty benches. (quotation from Norman Page’s A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography, via the Victorian Web)

Despite Housman’s dismissive tone (“a great outburst against modern times”), he does suggest that, in 1877, Ruskin had caught the prevailing mood. The undergraduates “crowding” his highly emotional lectures are not so different from the curious, critical-thinking young people of 2015 wondering what their contribution to the world will be.

And, as this cartoon shows, Victorians got it: London was filthy.

Despite the clean-up of the past 150 years, it still is. Today, if you walk past Coram’s Fields, you can see sheep living in the heart of Bloomsbury and they are, indeed, quite dingy with accumulated soot. As we think about Earth Day and what lies ahead, let’s do so knowing what changes are possible, how much change is yet to come, and how close we are to our Victorian roots.

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The Victorian tattoo

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Hello, friends. Today is April Fool’s Day and I feel a certain amount of not-so-subtle cultural pressure to write a gag post. I believe I ought to document a Shocking Truth about the Victorians, or similar, which I later reveal as – surprise! – a prank. Joke’s on you, sssssuckers.

However, I’ve always felt a strange resentment of April Fool’s jokes and, for that matter, practical jokes in general. (Practical jokes rely on a few people being insiders, and laughing, while others are outsiders, and laughed at.) Also, our images and preconceptions about the Victorians are crude and hazy enough that I don’t think we need to cloud the atmosphere any further. So today, I’m going to write about something that sounds like it should be an April Fool’s Day gag, but isn’t. I’m going to write about Victorian tattoos.

In Rivals in the City, James jokes about body art: “‘Perhaps I’ll have your name tattooed on my arm so there’s no doubt as to whom I belong’, he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow and resuming their steady walking pace. ‘What would you say to your initials in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?'” I loved being able to include this moment of dialogue because it’s such a familiar cultural motif for us now. It’s another way of bringing the Victorians closer to us, one of the projects at the heart of my fiction. But it’s also rooted in a fairly well-documented tradition.

There are brief mentions of tattoos in Victorian literature. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sybil Vane’s brother, James, is identifiable as a sailor because of his tattoos. I believe Sherlock Holmes notices and assigns tattoos the same kind of cultural value. According to wikipedia, it was during Captain James Cook’s voyages to Polynesia from the 1760s to the 1780s that the idea of tattoo (from the Tahition word, tatau) was introduced into English culture.

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Apparently, the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, a member of Cook’s expedition, came back to England with a tattoo. (portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1773)

By the mid-nineteenth century, tattoos were firmly established as the domain of seamen and soldiers – working-class Englishmen who had travelled widely and come into direct contact with tattoo culture.

Tattoos, however, were about to make an interesting social transition. In 1862, when the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) toured the Middle East, he acquired a tattoo of the Jerusalem Cross.

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The Prince of Wales in Constantinople at the end of his Grand Tour (1862). Somewhere on his body, there is a fresh tattoo. (image via the Royal Collection)

By 1870, the trend had spread not only amongst the English aristocracy, but into the courts of Russia, Germany and Spain. And beginning in the 1880s, upper-class women also began to sport discreet tattoos. One of the most celebrated was Lady Randolph Churchill, who had a “dainty” and “elaborate” tattoo of a serpent entwining her left wrist.

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Lady Randolph Churchill, with her signature bracelet. (image via NYPL)

She frequently covered it with bracelets, but it was described in the New York Times in 1906. Tattoos were fashionable enough that Country Life magazine featured them in an article dated 27 January, 1900 – as if to kick off the new century. As you might expect from Country Life, it described “one of the most popular Masters of Foxhounds in England” who had “tally-ho!” tattooed on his forearm along with a fox’s head and brush and a hunting crop.

Like all fashion trends, however, tattoos were fairly swiftly brought down by mass imitation.

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Nora Hildebrandt claimed that she was forced by Indians to receive hundreds of tattoos. The truth was more mundane: her father was a tattoo artist. (image via the Human Marvels)

Once performers like Nora Hildebrandt began displaying her hundreds of tattoos for the horror and delectation of the masses (she travelled as part of P. T. Barnum’s American circus), aristocrats promptly lost interest in tattoo art.

I haven’t. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a tattoo, yet never been able to choose a single motif or image that I’d want to wear on my body forever. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading. May I suggest Margot Mifflin’s Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo? To start you off, there are some amazing images pulled from Mifflin’s book right here.

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Author Math

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

One of the things I find consistently surprising in historical fiction is how very long it takes to get from one place to another. The Agency novels are set in London between 1858 and 1860. They’re too urban to make use of the railways that criss-crossed England and a shade too early for the first intra-city underground trains (the steam-powered Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). Most of the travel in my books takes place either on foot or by horse-power: carriages, cabs, and of course, simply riding on horseback. By 1858, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses that, like our present-day buses, plied regular routes through the city.

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

The climax of Rivals in the City features a fair amount of running around between locations in central London. One of the first things I did when plotting it was create a chart showing the different sites, the distances between them, and how long it would take to move from one point to another. In order not to spoil the plot (Rivals will be published next week in the U. S. and Canada; it’s already available in the UK), I’ve renamed the locations after four of my favourite North American cities. This, of course, is a fiction upon a fiction; the real locations are London landmarks. Otherwise, here’s what my chart looks like:

Timing the final action

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 2.41.39 PMI assumed an average running speed of about 6 miles/10 km per hour – a pretty fast clip for a woman burdened with heavy clothes on slick, inconsistently paved, and poorly lit urban streets (it’s after dark). But I’m talking about the women of the Agency, an elite detective firm. Not only are they are in excellent physical form, they are responding to an emergency.

I assumed a horse trot of 7-8 mph, since poor road quality and night-time visibility again make it impossible to canter. With horseback, I also needed to allow tie-up time and the need to rest or change horses. Riding turned out to be not much faster than running, but riding made it possible for a character to arrive at an important location looking respectable.

As it worked out, the time elapsed for a series of important messages to be relayed was:

– 57 minutes: for a character to run from Vancouver to Toronto and back again

– 41 minutes, plus delays while tying-up a horse: for a character to ride from Toronto to New York, and then from New York to Montreal

– 30 to 35 minutes, plus time for marshalling and instructions: for a large group to walk quickly from Montreal to Vancouver

Rivals in the City, by Y S LeeThis left me with a space of 2 ¼ hours, the minimum period of time my heroine, Mary Quinn, would be alone in “Vancouver” after sounding the alarm. It turned out to be the perfect window of time to allow her to take action, imperil herself, yet receive help at just the right moment.

I love this kind of concrete plotting, and wonder if any of you do the same. How do you work out timelines, near-misses, and rescues?

(This post was also published yesterday at The History Girls.)

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Bikes, Bars and Bloomers

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is about the first bold women to ride bicycles, in the late 1880s.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

Juicy stuff! It’s up now at the History Girls.

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Inventing tradition

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate it! Right now, I am frantically wrapping presents and mumbling nasty things about my to-do list, so here’s a re-post from December 2009, about Victorian Christmas inventions. Hope you enjoy it, and have a wonderful holiday!

Quick: name three Christmas symbols.

If you’re like me, the first things you picture are Christmas trees, a red-suited Santa Claus (or in England, Father Christmas) and the now-endangered paper Christmas card. Did you know that all three are, in many ways, Victorian inventions or mashups of older traditions? If we were transported back to England, 1840, we’d be celebrating without any of these icons!

Take, for example, Christmas trees – the visual centrepiece of English-speaking living rooms. But the Christmas tree is actually a German tradition made popular in 1840s England by the royal family, who were of German origin. (Queen Victoria’s first language was German and her husband, Prince Albert, moved to England on his marriage at age 20). Victoria and Albert loved celebrating Christmas, and it was their enthusiasm that made the tree (Tannenbaum) popular in England. Oh, and those first Christmas trees were small, potted affairs placed on a table with the gifts beneath – like so (image from the BBC’s Ten Ages of Christmas):

Victoria & Albert's Christmas tree

Victoria & Albert’s Christmas tree

Santa Claus and Father Christmas are part of a tangled tradition, too. St Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian bishop much admired for his generosity – far from an elf! We get “Santa Claus” from the Dutch name for St Nicholas. Santa’s red suit is a recent revision, too: until the 1880s, he generally wore a long, green cloak. The most popular images of Santa Claus in a red suit were done for a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1930s, and they’re what we think of now, automatically. Even so… any bets on how long that red suit will endure?

What else would Santa drink?

What else would Santa drink?

And oh, the Christmas card: all that paper is harder to justify each year, but e-cards are so soulless. Yet paper Christmas cards are themselves an invention of convenience – a commercial product without much tradition behind it apart from not wanting to write a long letter. Sir Henry Cole commissioned this next image in 1843 and used it to print the first commercial Christmas card. Note the lack of Christian imagery, here – it’s a family drinking wine together – and even the kids are imbibing:

Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

Henry Cole’s first commercial Christmas card

Although we tend to think of Christmas as something solid, something that all Christian-influenced cultures have always celebrated, our modern Christmas is pretty new indeed. I find the flexibility and brash (relative) newness of these traditions exciting. For me, it means that Christmas is for adapting, for inventing, for personalizing for my family. How about you? And if you celebrate another holiday – Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Eid, Diwali – how have your traditions evolved?

Either way, I hope your holidays are splendid.

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Temples of Convenience

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Hello, friends. I have bodily functions on the brain this week. Let’s talk about public toilets, yay!

When Nick and I lived in Manchester, many years ago, one of our favourite after-work meeting spots was a pub called The Temple of Convenience. It was near my office, in the city centre. It was extremely cozy and atmospheric. It had good beer at reasonable prices. But the main reason I loved it so is because it was converted from a disused, underground, Victorian, public toilet. You entered by going down the stairs between spiky, wrought-iron railings. Here’s a picture:

I suppose, given my slightly obsessive interests in historical grit and the Victorian era, I was always going to love The Temple of Convenience. What’s also inevitable is that I’m very excited about Lee Jackson’s new book, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, which will be published here next month (it’s already out in the UK).

To celebrate its publication, Jackson wrote a series of blog posts called 30 Days of Filth (har har). I recommend reading them all, of course, but today I’ve picked out a few public-toilet-related excerpts for your, um, delectation. For example, did you know that the creation of public toilets was hotly debated in the mid-nineteenth century? People seemed to agree that they were necessary – otherwise there was the “continual annoyance” of “disused doorways” being used as urinals. Yet the Victorians were NIMBYs, too. According to Jackson, “Whenever [officials] created a dedicated urinal – even the self-contained, rather decorative iron structures which became relatively common in the latter half of the century – they were bombarded with yet more complaints from local residents… It was not uncommon for urinals to be erected, then removed within a matter of months, thanks to public pressure.”

Also, let’s remember that these public conveniences were for men only, at first. Jackson says that for poor women “there were common privies in the slums – but these were often abominably foul… Admittedly, middle-class females had more choice. They might make use of the private closet of a tavern or shop – if the owner permitted. Many a trifling purchase was made simply to obtain discreet access to an establishment’s WC.” Things haven’t changed that much, have they? It’s easier these days – any Starbucks will do – but I’d bet that most of us in North America still depend more on private toilets than public ones, when we’re out. According to Jackson, after the Ladies Sanitary Association began campaigning for public women’s toilets in the 1870s, one health official acknowledged it was “a selfish inequality” to provide public facilities only for men. Another “denied that women were physically better able to exercise self-control – a popular myth. Rather, he claimed, they were simply more uncomplaining of discomfort.” Even so, it was only in 1889 that authorities built “London’s first municipal ‘public convenience’ for women“, underground, in Piccadilly Circus. Finally!

Maybe it’s time to resurrect the Ladies Sanitary Association for the twenty-first century. My first request: more cubicles per washroom, to reduce wait times. Who’s with me?

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Lock up your pies!

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Hello, friends. I know I said I’d blog this week about the editorial process. But that was before we popped into Barriefield Antiques and I encountered my first-ever pie safe. Yes, that’s right: a circa 1850 pie safe. It’s just what you think it is: a secure cupboard in which to store your wealth of cooling pies, away from flies and grubby fingers.

1850s pie safe

This one is made of maple. The patterned inset panels on the doors are made of tin, and they’re as rusty as the photo suggests. And in the photo below, you can see a pattern of rings showing where hot pies were set down, some 150 years ago.

pie safe interior

I had no intention of buying this myself, but it delighted me to know that pie safes were, at some point, a recognizable item of kitchen furniture. And when I thought about it, I realized that I’ve seen the pie safe in a variant form.

Wikipedia points out that pie safes are also called kitchen safes or meat safes. When I visited Malaysia and Singapore a few years ago, I saw a couple of period kitchens which included food safes. They were frequently used to store meat (between its morning purchase at the market and the cooking of the day’s main meal), with one extra refinement for the tropics: each leg stood in a wide dish of water, to discourage cockroaches and other vermin. I’ve also seen a photo of a food safe designed to hang from the ceiling – although one would still have to deal with insects descending from above.

In any case, the pie safe/food safe is a brilliant reminder of how hard people used to work to keep food edible. It makes me look at my fridge (a basic Sears model, not at all special) with new appreciation for what a sophisticated bit of technology it is.

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After the Ice Storm

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Hello, friends. We made it! The Ice Storm of 2013 is over and it wasn’t nearly as severe or debilitating as some of us expected. In my neighbourhood, we lost power four times over three days, but never for more than a few hours. Really, it was just enough to give us a taste of pre-electric life before we had to do anything hardcore like melt snow for bath water.

A few observations:

– I am so very grateful to live in a place with strong infrastructure. An ice-laden branch from a neighbour’s tree fell on a power line at 3am, and there was a team out there with a bucket truck just five hours later, fixing everything. On a Sunday morning. The next time I see some Utilities Kingston workers in a coffee shop, I’m going to buy them all drinks.

– I am also deeply grateful for excellent neighbours. An hour after the power went out, we had a call from a neighbour offering us shelter, food, and company. Later that evening, a pair of friends went door-to-door in our area, checking to make sure that everyone was okay and asking if there were any frail or elderly people who needed special help.

– Doing without electricity for a couple of hours at a time was an adventure! There were some logistical considerations (“Let’s try to cook tomorrow’s food before we lose power again.” and “Let’s bathe the children now, so if the power goes out we have enough daylight to finish the job.”) and creeping around with flashlights. I had a shower by candlelight!

– You can’t bend a beam of light. After my delightful shower, I was walking down the hall holding my candles, feeling very adequately lit, when I tripped on a fallen sweater. What I learned: when you hold candles above waist height, anything below knee level is lost in utter darkness. (My friend Violette Malan experienced the first ice storm, in 1997, and she learned this same lesson in the kitchen: on that first evening without power, she had a pile of candles and felt ready to make dinner, but she couldn’t see anything in the kitchen drawers. This, she says, is why old kitchens had open presses (shelves) for utensil storage.)

– Candlelight favours small rooms with low, white ceilings. I now understand why rooms in old houses are so often small: unless people were extravagantly wealthy, they could never have lit them adequately.

– Similarly, reading after dark was an activity for the affluent. Wax candles and books were both very expensive, and you need several candles to read comfortably.

– Much as I love (and am obsessed with) the Victorian era, I am firmly a creature of the present. I love hot water on demand, bright lights, and refrigerators. However, this tiny sample of pre-electric life has made me curious. At some point, I’d like to try an extended unplugged experience. Have any of you tried this?

– Finally, is there anything more beautiful than a world enveloped in a thick layer of ice? Here are some shots from our walk this morning.

Dead flowers on a bush in our garden.

Storm clouds over Lake Ontario, and some very cold-looking pigeons on the beach!

Our local waterfront path

How was your week? Did you get hit with heavy weather? Do tell me! And finally, if you’re celebrating it, Merry Christmas! I hope it’s warm and peaceful, wherever you are.

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Kingston Penitentiary, Part 2

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Hello again, friends. Two weeks ago, I wrote about my recent tour of the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. It was an intense and memorable experience, and today I’d like to round it out with a few more photos and explanations. In my earlier post, I walked you through the main prison building and mentioned the native ceremonial grounds. Just past these grounds there is a second major building that was in daily use: the prison “shops”. This is the building in which inmates could work and learn.

There was a wood shop, a metal shop, and a furniture-maker – the clearest indication of the prison’s rehabilitative function. (It may seem hard to believe, but when Kingston Penitentiary was first built in the 1835, it was considered an enlightened and modern place.) Here, in the shops, inmates could learn skills that might change their futures.

Inmates who held jobs earned a small amount of money – according to our tour guide, David Stewart (pictured), the inmate wage topped out at $6 per day and was reduced in recent years, due to budget cuts. Inmates could spend their earnings at the canteen (which sold snacks and cigarettes). Prisoners who applied for extended visits with their families were also permitted to buy and cook their own food in the family units, using money earned in the shops.

Here’s an image of the metal shop, with its beautiful Victorian brick-arched ceilings.

It’s an interesting level of trust, to have a sole teacher working with a group of inmates using heavy machinery. According to someone who worked as a prison teacher, the consensus was that it was fairly safe: the teacher was seen as an ally, or at least a bystander. If any violence occurred, it was much more likely to be between inmates.

Up on the second floor, there was also a school. You can see the small sign below. Some of the inmates would have been working towards their high school diplomas or possibly university degrees, but many lacked even elementary reading and math skills.

After the cool gloom of “the shops”, Dave led us back outside. The prison grounds house a hospital with a permanent psychiatric ward, and there is also a gym. We didn’t see either of these but we got a strangely beautiful sight of the outdoor exercise area.

It’s hard for me to judge how large this space is – maybe three football fields put together? Dave said that in the 1970s and 1980s, it was quite common to have three hundred inmates in the yard, and two unarmed guards locked inside with them. There would also have been guards with rifles posted at two or three lookout points over the yard, but even so, it’s a daunting thought.

This next image is a closer shot of the guard tower. The entrance you can see is the old one; it was filled in some time ago and you now access the guard tower from outside the prison walls. If you’re a Kingstonian, these guard towers are iconic. Along with the front door, they are the only parts of the prison you can see from the outside.

As our tour neared its conclusion, we walked along the west wall towards the entrance. Again, I was struggling to capture the scale of the place but I remembered that there have been escapes from this penitentiary in which inmates have managed to climb the walls. Here’s what the climb would have looked like, over the west wall.

The final brief sight on our tour was of this neatly landscaped limestone building. It now houses the prison’s administration. Can you guess its previous function?

This was the Female Department: Canada’s first prison for women. I’m not sure exactly when it was built, but I believe that originally, female inmates were housed in a separate wing of the men’s prison. They were allowed to bring their children with them. The Female Department was used to hold prisoners until 1934, when the Prison for Women was built nearby.

At this point in the tour, we asked Dave how he’d managed to work in Corrections for thirty-two years. His answer was both encouraging and admirable: he said that the most important thing was to remember that each inmate was a person, and wanted to be treated as such. He emphasized the importance of always being watchful, because prisons are always potentially dangerous. He also said he’d been lucky because he had missed the 1971 riot at the Pen, when prisoners seized control of the building for four days, killed two inmates, and took a number of guards hostage. However, Dave finally said that he tried always to speak to inmates with respect, and to do what he said he would do, and he felt a similar respect from them in turn. I really admired his approach.

I know this is a lot of material to contemplate. But before I go, I want to leave you with a link to this CBC documentary about Kingston Pen, Tales from KP. It’s quite melodramatic but it offers a number of interesting insights into the prison. And it mentions that Charles Dickens toured the Pen in 1842! Dickens called it “an admirable gaol… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” Despite the suffering and injustices that must have taken place within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary, it is good to know that it was born of generous and progressive intentions.

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Mythological maidens

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Hello, friends. We were in Ottawa this past weekend and I spent several minutes staring, transfixed, at the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill. I had cleverly neglected to bring a working camera with me, so this image is ripped, with apologies, from the Public Works and Government Services of Canada website.

statue of Sir John A Macdonald by Louis-Philippe Hébert

I’m interested, specifically, in the slightly-larger-than-life-sized sculpture that adorns the pedestal: the regal-looking woman seated with a spear. There’s a much clearer image of her here, if you’re willing to click through. Or you can just take my word for everything I’m going to say.

I didn’t know who she was, at first: some generic Greek-mythological nymph, I thought. There’s quite a tradition of placing decorative female figures (which I’ll call FFs, from now on) below statues of male politicians. I had read somewhere, years before, that the FFs embodied aspects of the politician’s best-known leadership qualities. Well. If that is indeed the case, Macdonald (or “John A”, as he’s familiarly known in Kingston) was primarily celebrated for an imperious gaze, carelessly worn togas, and very large breasts.

The most striking thing about this statue (the woman is more than an embellishment; she’s a statue in her own right, and much more prominent than Macdonald himself, if you’re standing at ground level) is how extremely young, firm-bodied, and nearly undressed she is. She’s bare-armed, the thin fabric of her toga leaving nothing to the imagination. And she’s wearing very minimal sandals, so that her feet are essentially bare. This is an extraordinary state of public undress for 1895, the year of the statue’s creation by Louis-Philippe Hébert, and a year when respectable women dressed like this.

I suppose that’s the point: the FF is not meant to be a respectable woman, or any kind of real human being at all. She’s a decorative element, the spirit of a person or nation or movement personified. (This one is sometimes referred to as the Personification of Canada.) But it’s another startling reminder of just how casually the female body could be used, even in 1895. It’s also part of a long artistic tradition of male sculptors and painters evading the standards of the day by using “historical” costume to undress female bodies for visual pleasure.

I’ve been wondering how viewers in late-nineteenth century Ottawa responded to the FF. Did adolescent boys flock to view her, to their parents’ consternation? Did MPs pause before it for a few moments’ distraction, during a break in the House of Commons? Or was it simply another semi-nude figure scattered across Ottawa’s terrain? I would dearly love to know.

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