By Patricia Treble - Monday, February 11, 2013 - 0 Comments
In a season full of weird episodes, this was one of the strangest—look Mr. Bates is released from prison! Lady Edith has yet another inappropriate suitor! Everyone is just fine with Sybil’s baby being christened a Catholic and Thomas’s homosexuality! Indeed, the only common element in the episode was the cast’s mourning clothes. Yup, there was so much black, grey and purple that Downton Abbey could have been mistaken for a Goth convention, minus the tattoos and piercing.
The Crawleys were grieving for Lady Sybil, who died in childbirth. While tears were repressed—so not the British way—they could show their distress by wearing a lot of dark, dismal colours. Mourning rituals had grown increasingly elaborate during the Victorian era. As Helen Rappaport wrote in A Magnificent Obsession, her wonderful book about the Queen’s over-the-top reaction to Albert’s early death, “Mourning protocols then current in Britain demanded 12 months of black for a parent or child (with only a retreat to half-mourning in the final three months); six months for a sibling, three months for an aunt or uncle; and six weeks for a first cousin.” Victoria extended and codified them for her court, and thus huge swathes of her nation. Full mourning started by wearing dull crape—the fabric version of tightly pleated crepe paper—before shifting to shinier black satins and silks. After that half mourning colours of grey, white or the newer shades of lilac, mauve and purple could be worn. So when Princess Alice, Victoria’s daughter, married a year after Albert’s death, all her honeymoon dresses were black. The rules applied to everything. Houses were draped in black cloth and mirrors were covered. All jewellery had to be black or white (jet or diamonds and pearls). There was such a trade that the trade in jet, centred around Whitby on the coast, expanded from 35 workers in the 1830s to more than 1,000 skilled workers in the 1870s.
By Brian Bethune - Friday, December 7, 2012 at 10:10 AM - 0 Comments
This slim and beautifully illustrated tome is less a history—Brunner cheerfully admits to his subject’s murky origins—than an ode to the Christmas tree’s astonishing and continuing evolution. It’s one thing to find sparse references to the tree within the records of medieval German guilds—the Freiburg Fraternity of Baker’s Apprentices seems to have had one up, complete with apples, gingerbread and tinsel, as early as 1419—and quite another to see an unmistakable Christmas tree in a Japanese print from 1920. In it, a traditionally dressed family eats Japanese food in front of this weird-but-cool foreign thing, hung with origami, lights and paper fans.
It’s hardly surprising that the Christmas tree’s more ancient roots grew among the German guilds—close-knit associations that had money, common indoor space, traditions of communal celebrations and (crucially) nearby coniferous forests. It was a much slower, and occasionally resisted, process to bring it into private houses. First, those homes had to get bigger, and the German upper classes obliged in the 18th century with houses containing purpose-built rooms, like parlours, suitable for family trees. The less well-off responded by hanging their trees, sometimes upside down, from the ceilings of their smaller dwellings, a practice still followed in some German churches. Continue…
By Alan Parker - Friday, May 18, 2012 at 3:47 PM - 0 Comments
The ‘May Two-Four’ long weekend is as distinctively Canadian as the two-four with which it is often celebrated
Many Canadians may have the idea that Victoria Day is an internationally observed event that connects us — however quaintly and tenuously — with other remnants of the old British Empire as we collectively celebrate our colonial heritage by pulling up lawn chairs and raising a glass or a beer bottle to the tubby little Empress of Canada, India, Australia, Britain and points between.
Couldn’t be further from the truth.
Canada is the only country in the world to celebrate Victoria Day, and the ‘May Two-Four’ long weekend is as distinctively Canadian as the two-four — a case of 24 bottles of beer — with which it is often celebrated.
There is a Victoria Day in Australia — but it’s a completely different critter, a localized event marking the founding of the southern Aussie state of Victoria (as a separate colony in 1851) and it’s celebrated, coincidentally, on July 1.
Our Victoria Day does mark the real birthday of Queen Victoria on May 24, 1819, and Canada (then a rump colony called the Province of Canada) was the first part of the young queen’s ramshackle realm to officially recognize her birthday as a day of honour in 1845.
By Patricia Treble - Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 4:43 PM - 0 Comments
Neglect is nothing new to Kensington Palace. For centuries it’s gone through phases of being ignored, then gussied up only to sink back into its backwater position, albeit one with one of the poshest addresses in London. Now, a huge renovation of the palace’s public spaces has transformed it from one of the biggest tourist rip-offs in London to one of the hottest tickets in town.
Originally the earl of Nottingham’s mansion, Kensington Palace became a royal residence after William III bought the starter home in 1689 and set his favourite architect, Christopher Wren, loose. The result was a residence fit for a sovereign, complete with royal apartments, state rooms and even an exclusive chapel. However, by George II’s reign, it had fallen on hard times. Half the building was shuttered and the rest was in disrepair. His son George III spent much of his time at his other London residence, St. James’s Palace—not to mention a stint at Kew Palace, locked up. In the meantime, relations moved into Kensington Palace; as with every family, there are always members looking for a nice crib. One was his son, the duke of Kent.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, September 5, 2010 at 6:28 PM - 0 Comments
I’ve been trying to put the “Edmonton bureau” into more civilized order the last few weeks. This mostly involves decreasing the total entropy of my books and restoring them to shelves and boxes, which inevitably leads to the discovery of a couple dozen books I never finished and many others I’d like to read again. This in turn, tends to delay the tidying. Among the books I’ve unearthed and re-read is From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel about Jack the Ripper.
Moore’s “theory” of the case is a modification of an old Ripperologist favourite: the Ripper, goes the story, was the instrument of a royal/Masonic conspiracy to eliminate a handful of Whitechapel prostitutes who had been blackmailing the Prince of Wales’ son, Albert Victor. In a postscript that is one of the most remarkable parts of a dazzling book, Moore and Campbell, giving an overview of Ripperology and the lonely kooks who have practiced it, show exactly how crazy you’d have to be to accept this. It took an inconceivable amount of research, shuffling, and fudging on Moore’s part to contort the theory into fitting the details of the case.
But it seems unfortunate that he never stops to ease his Ripper candidate—Sir William Withey Gull (1816-1890), head of Guy’s Hospital and Physician-in-Extraordinary to the Queen—totally off the hook. Gull became a subject of interest to Ripperologists because some investigators felt the murders displayed evidence of advanced surgical knowledge; doctors and butchers alike were under a cloud of suspicion in London at the time of the killings. (Modern cops, of course, are still occasionally known to attribute “surgical skill” to cattle mutilations perpetrated by coyotes.) In Moore’s hands, Gull becomes one of the great literary monsters: a talented, ultra-bourgeois physician and teacher who is assigned an unpleasant secret task and loses control, deranged by Masonic blasphemies, mild cerebral strokes, fantasies of patriarchal vengeance, and the menacing, phallus-studded mise-en-scène of East London.
For better or worse, even if they are sensible enough not to accept Moore’s fiction as truth, future generations are likely to picture a predatory misogynist when they hear the name “William Withey Gull”. This seems a shame, one doubled by Moore’s failure to provide some apology for it: the real Gull fought for women’s right to receive a medical education, and coined the term “anorexia nervosa”. Gull seems to have been a scrupulous and gentle practitioner, one who raised himself through hard work (in the classic 19th-century manner) from childhood penury to a baronetcy. He died with what some, at the time, considered the largest personal fortune ever amassed wholly through doctoring.
From our vantage point, we can hardly help regarding most Victorian doctors as anything but striving bunglers. One shudders, for instance, reading about Gull’s stubborn insistence that diabetes mellitus was certainly a disease of the liver. But Dr. Gull probably did do some genuine good. From youth onward he was notable for a combination of amiability and trustworthiness that made a powerful impression on everyone who knew him. “Not many years ago,” one friend recalled, “we heard an old student of Guy’s [Hospital] descant on his beautiful lectures, and especially those on fever. On being questioned as to what Gull said which most struck him, he said he could not remember anything in particular, but he would come to London any day to hear Gull reiterate the words in very slow measure, ‘Now typhoid, gentlemen’.”
The friend added, “When Gull left the bedside of his patient, and said in measured tones, ‘You will get well’, it was like a message from above.” This self-consciously inspiring bedside manner, far more than anything he actually prescribed, seems to have been responsible for Gull’s success in treating the future Edward VII for typhoid, which made him a permanent royal favourite. Gull was a strong advocate of the Hippocratic principle of doing no harm—and, if possible, doing absolutely nothing at all. He was controversial in the profession for “Gull’s treatment of rheumatic fever by mint water”—that is, by means of placebo. (“Being dissatisfied with the treatment of this disease by so many remedies, he wished to try the effect of abstinence from all medicines, and to satisfy the patients’ minds he ordered mint water.”) A biographer writes:
He had the greatest hatred of the charlatanism which has a remedy for every malady, and therefore was conscientiously opposed to the homoeopathic system of affirming the existence of a medicine for every symptom. He once showed the writer a note-book in which cases were recorded, and he said how strangely this would be regarded by anyone who did not unravel its meaning.
For example, “Name, Mr. _____; disease, loss of favourite dog; treatment, Isthmus of Suez.” The explanation was, that a gentleman of no occupation came to him complaining of his wretched state of health, and Gull soon found on conversation that his mind had been much worried by the loss of his favourite dog. Gull saw that he wanted some distraction, and as just at that time all the world was hastening to Suez to inaugurate the opening of the Canal, he advised his patient to go there.
In the context of his time—or, indeed, of any earlier time in the history of Western medicine—Gull’s conservative prescribing and reassuring manner represented the best possible care a patient could expect. And one can’t help thinking that today’s MS patients who are travelling to Poland or India for venography are probably giving themselves a good strong dose of Isthmus of Suez.