To walk, to meditate, to observe, to explore: these are simple but precious joys. The French have a certain type of man: the flâneur. This is translated as “stroller,” “saunterer,” or “lounger.” The flâneur is a man who walks—not, like the boulevardier, to make an exhibition of himself—but aimlessly, with cultivated leisure and openness to his surroundings. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets” and “botanist of the sidewalk.”
Writers are often flâneurs because flânerie—the act of strolling—is such a useful stimulant to the creative mind. The great writers of the nineteenth century were all heroic pedestrians. Dickens walked fifteen miles per day. His nightly perambulations around London provided him with characters, scenes, and bits of dialogue for his books. He once set out at two o’clock in the morning and walked the thirty miles from London to his country home in Gad’s Hill, Kent. Thomas De Quincey walked fifteen to twenty miles per day, in part to alleviate the effects of withdrawal from laudanum. Coleridge on occasion walked forty miles. Thomas Carlyle might have held the record at fifty four miles in a single day.
Many of these writers addressed flânerie in their works. Sketches by Boz consists in part of a long, lounging stroll across the length and breadth of London, as seen by Dickens. Arthur Machen wrote directly and thoughtfully on the subject. For Machen, flânerie was an almost religious experience: the attentive flâneur could see through the landscape to the genius loci, and to the various intersections of life and history and imagination and place. “For if you think of it,” Machen wrote, in The London Adventure, “there is a London cognita and a London incognita.”
Machen spent his formative years walking the fairy-haunted landscape of rural Wales. When he arrived in London he at first despaired of the change. But he found that he found by walking and exploring that he could move beyond the imposing and claustrophobic limits of the urban environment. In one of his earliest essays, “Rus in Urbe,” published in 1890, he writes of the imagination piercing “through the unlovely streets, the dark fogs, the grimey mists.” In the novella, A Fragment of Life, he gives a description of the city transfigured in the second sight of the flâneur:
London seemed a city of the Arabian Nights, and its labyrinths of streets an enchanted maze; its long avenues of lighted lamps were as starry systems, and its immensity became for him an image of the endless universe. He could well imagine how pleasant it might be to linger in such a world as this, to sit apart and dream, beholding the strange pageant played before him; but the Sacred Well was not for common use, it was for the cleansing of the soul, and the healing of the grievous wounds of the spirit. There must be yet another transformation: London had become Bagdad; it must at last be transmuted to Syon, or in the phrase of one of his old documents, the City of the Cup.
In his 1923 memoir, Things Near and Far, Machen insists, “it is utterly true that he who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find these secrets elsewhere.”
I love to walk. I walk everywhere. There are exceptions for practicality, of course. In the country I often bicycle. Over long distances I travel by train, plane, or boat. But I spend as little time as possible in automobiles. I think everyone would be happier if they walked more. The upheaval of our infrastructure, economy, and way of life to accommodate the automobile in the twentieth century was a tragic mistake.
Baudelaire, Charles, (1972) Selected Writings on Art and Literature. New York: Viking.
Machen, Arthur. (1923) The Works of Arthur Machen (Caerleon Edition). London: Martin Secker.
Machen, Arthur. (1924) The London Adventure, or The Art of Wandering. London: Martin Secker.
Machen, Arthur. (1992) Ritual & Other Stories. Carlton-in-Coverdale: Tartarus Press.
A shop’s sign in the likeness of a naval officer plays a central role in Charles Dickens’s 1848 novel, Dombey and Son. The offices of the titular firm are located “round the corner” from East India House, whose ornate façade is “teeming with suggestions of precious stuffs and stones, tigers, elephants, howdahs, hookahs, umbrellas, palm trees, palanquins, and gorgeous princes of a brown complexion sitting on carpets, with their slippers very much turned up at the toes.” In the vicinity are “outfitting warehouses ready to pack off anybody anywhere.” Dickens identifies, “little timber midshipmen in obsolete naval uniforms, eternally employed outside the shopdoors of nautical instrument-makers in taking observations of the hackney coaches.”
One such effigy is described in detail, thrusting “out above the pavement, right leg foremost, with a suavity the least endurable, and had the shoe buckles and flapped waistcoat the least reconcilable to human reason, and bore at its right eye the most offensively disproportionate piece of machinery.” Dickens places this figure outside the shop of Solomon Gills, a ship’s instrument-maker, and it reappears throughout the novel.
The sign of the little wooden midshipman was based on a real sign. It hung outside the chart-maker’s shop, Norie’s, at 157 Leadenhall Street in London. Dickens knew it well. In his 1860 memoir, The Uncommercial Traveller, he writes, “My day’s no-business beckoning me to the east-end of London, I had turned my face to that point of the Metropolitan compass on leaving Covent Garden, and had got past my Little Wooden Midshipman, after affectionately patting him on one leg of his knee-shorts, for old acquaintance sake.”
Louisa Price, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum, offers a concise history of the effigy, which was carved around the year 1800:
The first owner of the Midshipman was William Heather who, in 1793, opened a business at 157 Leadenhall Street selling charts, sailing directions and navigation textbooks.
He also ran a nautical academy from the premises. To advertise, he placed outside the shop this little wooden figure taking a nautical reading.
From 1812 the shop was named ‘Norie’s’ after its new owner, William Norie, who was an apprentice of Heather’s. The Midshipman (or ‘little man’, as he was known by the staff) stood over the door, but was later moved to street level.
Staff felt it an honour to be entrusted with the daily ritual of ‘taking out’ the little man in the morning and ‘bringing in’ when the shop closed in the evening.
At the end of the 19th century, Norie’s merged with other chart-making businesses, becoming Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson. The Little Midshipman took up residence on a pedestal outside the new shop.
In 1917, as air raids threatened, he retreated inside. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was moved to the countryside, narrowly escaping destruction as the shop he called home was bombed.
The company survives today and still operates as publishers of nautical charts and books with the Little Midshipman as their logo.
In 1946, Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson gave the sign on loan to the Charles Dickens Museum, which operates in the author’s former home at 48 Doughty Street in London. It remains in the collection to this day.
Dickens, Charles. (1848) Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. London: Bradbury & Evans.
Dickens, Charles. (1860) The Uncommercial Traveller. London: Chapman and Hall.
I have expanded my essay, An Account of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, with a lot of new text and images. But I thought the photographs deserved a post of their own. Here are some corners of the Cheese that were most familiar to Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith.
The German inventor Frederick Albert Winsor installed the world’s first gas street lamps at Pall Mall in 1807. By 1819 the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company had laid two hundred and ninety miles of gas lines in metropolitan London, feeding tens of thousands of burners. Two hundred years later there are still 1,480 gas street lamps in London, hidden among the far more numerous electric lamps that became standard in the twentieth century. The Royal Parks and Covent Garden are among the prominent parts of the city still lit by them.
Gas-light transformed the nightlife of nineteenth-century London, inside and out. Theaters that had previously been lit by candles rapidly transitioned to gas after Winsor successfully demonstrated the application of the technology to stage lighting at the Lyceum Theatre in 1804. Gas made possible brighter lighting, faster lighting changes, and more elaborate effects. In 1822, the ballet-master of the Paris Opéra wrote, “This light is perfect for the stage. One can obtain gradation of brightness that is really magical.” The effect on actors was noticeable, leading to a more naturalistic style of performance. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre notes that, “styles of acting, scenery, costumes, and make-up that had seemed acceptable under murky candle and oil lamp light now seemed overblown, vulgar, and garish.” There was an increased danger, of course. Open gas jets were often perilously close to flammable wood, curtain, and oil-painted scenery. Quite a few theaters burned down. But the benefits were judged to outweigh the inconvenience. Auditoriums installed increasingly ambitious systems.
Other businesses took advantage of the technology as well. A new type of tavern was designed around gas lighting. In these bright, gaudy “gin palaces” gas light was reflected through decorative glass, brass, and crystal. Dickens described the effect in Sketches by Boz, writing, “All is light and brilliancy…and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left.” Several of these establishments still exist with more or less original interiors, including the Princess Louise on High Holborn in the West End.
Of course it was the outdoor lamps which had the most practical and salubrious effect on London life, making the streets safer after dark. And it is these which can still be seen today. British Gas, which is the successor company to London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke, maintains and operates the nearly 1,500 remaining lamps. A team of five British Gas engineers are all that is left of the lamplighters of old. Their work consists of winding the timing mechanism in each lamp that turns the gas on and off, polishing the lanterns, and making any necessary repairs. The timers need to be wound every fourteen days.
Dickens described lamplighters as a band of outsiders with “old ceremonies and customs which have been handed down among them from father to son since the first public lamp was lighted out of doors.” That was long before the industrial production of gas. Lamplighters lit oil lamps in the eighteenth century and candles in the Middle Ages. It is nice to know that there are still men today carrying the torch, so to speak.
Banham, Martin (ed). (1963) The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
It is remarkable that the Tabard Inn mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales was still doing business on Borough High Street in Southwark as late as 1873. It was at the Tabard, then under the proprietorship of a man named Harry Bailey, that Chaucer’s pilgrims first met as they began the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Chaucer was writing between 1387 and 1400, at which point the Tabard, founded in 1307, was an established presence on the south bank of the Thames.
In the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes:
Befell that in that season, on a day, / In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay / Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage / To Canterbury with full devout courage, / At night was come into that hostelery / Well nine-and-twenty in a company / Of sundry folk, by adventure fallen / Into fellowship, and pilgrims were they all, / That toward Canterbury would ride.
The Medieval structure was destroyed in the fire that razed much of Medieval Southwark in 1676, ten years after the Great Fire of London. It was immediately rebuilt on the same foundations. We do not know how much salvaged materials from the original structure were incorporated into the second. Presumably some.
As Chaucer’s verse suggests Southwark was a point of entry into the City of London where journeys would begin and end. Many similar inns catered to travelers there. Next door to the Tabard was the George where it is said that Shakespeare drank and dined while he lived in the Borough. In fact the inn yards, often surrounded on three sides by the galleried façade of an inn, served as theaters in the Elizabethan period.
The rebuilt Tabard Inn and its neighbors would have enjoyed a brisk business as stagecoach lines were established in the seventeenth century. The word stagecoach refers to the “stages” by which the route was divided. A coach, normally pulled by four horses, would travel from one station to another, change horses, allow the passengers to rest, then continue to the next station. In this way a coach could maintain an average speed of about five miles per hour, traveling sixty or seventy miles in a day.
At each station would be a coaching inn. An innkeeper with capital, or a family of innkeepers, might run coaches between establishments in multiple cities. The American author James Fenimore Cooper traveled between four different inns kept by members of the Wright family on a coach journey between Canterbury and London in 1828. At coaching inns travelers found comfort and refreshment. Cooper praised the simple pleasures of tea “served redolent of home and former days. The hissing urn, the delicious toast, the fragrant beverage, the warm sea-coal fire, and the perfect snugness of everything, were indeed grateful.”
In the late eighteenth century mail coaches began to carry postal deliveries throughout Britain. This was brought about by the instigation of John Palmer, a theater impresario from Bath, who suggested and successfully demonstrated the idea to the Post Office in the early 1780s. Prior to that date mail was carried by relay riders on horseback. By coach the distances could be traversed in half the time. By 1785 there was service from London to Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead, and Carlisle. At first private contractors operated the mail coaches but by the early nineteenth century the Post Office had its own fleet.
Mail coaches carried passengers, but unlike regular passenger coaches they were not operated for the comfort of travelers, but for the swift delivery of the mail. This meant they traveled much faster. The experience of riding on a mail coach could be exhilarating or harrowing. That experience inspired one of the great literary essays of the nineteenth century, “The English Mail-Coach,” by Thomas De Quincey.
Robin Jarvis, a Professor of English Literature at the University of the West of England, Bristol, wrote an excellent account of the piece and its composition for The Public Domain Review:
In the last quarter of 1849 Thomas De Quincey published two separate essays in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a leading Tory periodical. These two essays, entitled “The English Mail-Coach, or the Glory of Motion” and “The Vision of Sudden Death,” were revised and amalgamated five years later to produce one of the author’s most memorable and idiosyncratic pieces. “The English Mail-Coach” is at once a celebration of that form of transport and an elegy for its demise, since by the time De Quincey published his essay the railways had already spread across the country and shunted the mail-coach into the sidings of history…
“The English Mail-Coach” is in four parts. In the first, De Quincey explains his fascination with mail-coaches and recalls his delight in using them – insisting always, against the grain of class preference, on an outside seat – to go to and from Oxford in his student days. He relates his obsession to the pleasures of unprecedented speed, with the thrill of “possible though indefinite danger”; the visual stimulation of “grand effects,” as deserted roads at night are momentarily lit up by coach-lamps; the sheer spectacle of “animal beauty and power”; the sense of participating in a great national system, akin to a living organism; and the additional excitement of bringing news, good or bad, from the battlefront (during the Napoleonic Wars) to local communities far and wide.
In the second section of the essay, “Going Down with Victory,” De Quincey elaborates on the adrenalin-fuelled experience of bearing tidings of war, kindling joy all along the route “like fire racing along a train of gunpowder,” and describes the more ambivalent experience of giving one woman a partial account of the “imperfect victory” at Talavera, a costly battle in which her son’s regiment has, he believes, been virtually wiped out. In the third section, “The Vision of Sudden Death,” he narrates an incident at night on the Manchester-to-Kendal mail in which the coachman nods off and, with De Quincey seemingly unable to seize the reins and take evasive action, the vehicle narrowly avoids collision with two lovers in an oncoming gig. It is only the young man in the gig who can avert disaster, and he responds with only seconds to spare. In the final section, the celebrated “Dream-Fugue,” De Quincey tells the reader how the figure of that same terrified young woman, glimpsed for just a few moments, subsequently entered into the “gorgeous mosaics” of his dreams, featuring in a variety of perilous or fatal situations. In the final, apocalyptic, dream-sequence De Quincey’s mail-coach becomes a “triumphal car” proceeding at supernatural pace down a cathedral aisle of infinite length; a female infant who temporarily obstructs its path somehow becomes synonymous with all the victims of war, past and present, while her apparent survival or exaltation stands not only for the material gains of “Waterloo and Recovered Christendom” but also for the spiritual end of resurrection and eternal life.
De Quincey mourned the passing of coach transport. He believed that trains had altered the rhythm of human life. “Out of pure blind sympathy with trains, men will begin to trot through the streets,” he predicted, “and in the next generation, they will take to cantering.” In his severe, though not humorless, judgement, “iron tubes and boilers have disconnected man’s heart.” One consequence of this revolution in transportation became apparent within decades of the publication of “The English Mail-Coach.” The inns that had served the old system would not survive.
In The Pickwick Papers, which contains many wonderful nostalgic scenes of coach travel, Charles Dickens describes the state of the inns in London at the end of the coaching era:
There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town; and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.
In the Borough especially, there still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough, to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.
Beginning in the 1870s developers began to tear down the coaching inns of London. The Tabard Inn was demolished in 1873. The Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, near St Paul’s Cathedral, was demolished in 1875. The King’s Head in Southwark was demolished by 1885. The White Hart in Southwark was demolished in 1889. The list goes on and on.
Today the only surviving galleried coaching inn in London is The George. Even this is a partial survival. Only one of its three sides is still standing. The other two were pulled down by the Great Northern Railway Company in 1889 to build warehouses. These were later replaced with modernist constructions. But the one side that remains is perfectly preserved and is still a working pub.
For my own part I share Sir John Betjeman’s love of railways but I think De Quincey makes a point well taken. The coach services were an economy and a society almost unto themselves. Passengers, coachmen, innkeepers, and tradesmen supported and linked together innumerable little communities across the country to an extent that no amount of efficiency can justify disrupting. But for all that the railway was a loud, smoking, violent shock to men and women of De Quincey’s generation, it operated along similar principles to the old coach lines, employed a comparable number of people, and linked communities in a way that was harmonious with the needs of society, nature, and the landscape.
Bruning, Ted. (2000) Historic Inns of England. London: Prion Books.
De Quincey, Thomas. (1889-90) The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. Edinburgh: A. and C. Black.
Dickens, Charles. (1837) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall.
The minor nineteenth-century poet and political figure Lord John Manners has long seemed to me worthy of reappraisal. That he was a minor poet was a matter of his own inclination. He published two significant volumes as a young man, England’s Trust and Other Poems, in 1841, and English Ballads and Other Poems, in 1850. But although he lived until 1906 he never returned to verse. That he was, in the end, a minor political figure is a loss for Britain.
Manners was a principle member of the conservative Young England group, which he co-founded with George Smythe (later Viscount Strangford) and Alexander Baillie-Cochrane (later Baron Lamington). At Cambridge together in the 1830s, these young men rebelled against Utilitarianism and the new priorities of the Industrial Revolution.
By the mid-nineteenth century industrialization had drastically changed the social order, economy, and landscape of Britain. The nation’s wealth had shifted from the countryside to the cities, taking with it vast populations. The sweet rural economy of manor, cottage, and craft was being undermined by policies that favored heavy industry. A decentralized society based on inherited rights and traditions, in harmony with nature, and built to the human scale was becoming increasingly centralized, mechanized, democratized, and dehumanized.
A generation earlier, Edmund Burke had written that civilization is a partnership between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Traditionalists of the nineteenth century viewed the modern project as an unraveling of that partnership. The delicate system of organic institutions and relationships that underpinned the old order could not be swept away without taking with it the civilization it had brought into being. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 a number of political figures, artists, philosophers, and theologians were contemplating how traditional society might be recovered. Largely independent of one another they found inspiration in the legacy of the Middle Ages.
Young England fought to restore power to the monarchy, the peerage, and the Church of England. Manners and his friends advocated a romantic revival of feudalism and agrarianism. They promoted the interests of the countryside, its rustic economy, landed gentry, and working classes. They opposed the consolidation of power by a bourgeois oligarchy which had brought with it Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” slum-cities, and class warfare.
The contemporary historian Edward Barrington de Fonblanque painted a charming prose-picture of the type of society that the Young Englanders wished to create:
The nobles of England were once more to occupy their legitimate place around the throne and in the order of chivalry; the Church was to become the revered guardian and benevolent educator of the masses; commerce and industry, literature and art, were to be fostered by generous patronage; and a grateful and contented peasantry, clustering for shelter under the shadow of lordly mansions, were to vary the monotony of their toilful lives by merry dances on the village green, and perennial feasts of roast oxen and barrels of ale provided by their munificent lords and masters, the hereditary owners of the soil.
In 1841, Manners published England’s Trust and Other Poems, dedicated to Smythe. In his book Young England, to date the only book-length history of the movement, Richard Faber described the titular poem as “the most complete manifesto of Young England’s basic philosophy” at that point. Manners recalled to mind “a nobler age”:
When men of stalwart hearts and steadfast faith
Shrunk from dishonour, rather than from death,
When to great minds obedience did not seem
A slave’s condition, or a bigot’s dream…
When kings were taught to feel the dreadful weight
Of power derived from One than kings more great,
And learned with reverence to wield the rod
They dreamed entrusted to their hand by God.
Each knew his place—king, peasant, peer or priest,
The greatest owned connexion with the least;
From rank to rank the generous feeling ran,
And linked society as man to man.
Must we then hearken to the furious cry
Of those who clamour for ‘equality?’
Have not the people learnt how vain the trust
On props like that which crumble into dust?
Are the gradations that have marked our race,
Since God first stamped His likeness on its face,
Gradations hallowed by a thousand ties
Of faith and love, and holiest sympathies,
Seen in the Patriarch’s rule, the Judge’s sway
When God himself was Israel’s present stay,
Now in the world’s dotage to be cast
As week pretences to the howling blast?
No! by the names inscribed in History’s page,
Names that shall live for yet unnumbered years
Shrined in our hearts with Crécy and Poitiers,
Let wealth and commerce, laws and learning die
But leave us still our old Nobility!
When Manners wrote, “leave us still our old Nobility” he did not, of course, mean that his own class alone should endure: he meant the whole system of hierarchy and heredity and mutual loyalty that ensured a place for every man and protected the ancestral rights of the dynastic farmer or craftsman every bit as much as the rights of the dynastic lord. The politics of “equality” not only disenfranchised the nobility but destroyed the protections that the working classes had inherited over generations.
By 1843, Manners, Smythe, and Baillie-Cochrane were all seated in Parliament. They represented a High Tory bloc within the larger Conservative party of which they were members. In a speech to the House of Commons on May 18, 1843, Manners staked out his position, extolling those “principles which, while they would render the Church triumphant, and monarchy powerful, would also restore contentment to a struggling, overworked and deluded people.” A contemporary summary, in Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, records the substance of the speech. He argued that,
As power was taken away from the mitre and the crown and transferred either to the people in that House or out of it, their physical and moral happiness had been lessened…He would extend the feeling of responsibility between the rich and the poor, and shorten the interval which in his opinion was growing too wide between those for whom wealth was made and those who made it.
Manners campaigned against the Mortmain Act of 1736 which put restrictions on the devising of property to charitable uses. He proposed lifting the law to encourage the establishment of religious houses. He argued that “it is inexpedient, in the present condition of the country, to continue the existing restrictions on the exercise of private charity and munificence.” Manners hoped that by overturning the Act the government could not only facilitate but encourage the founding of charitable religious institutions. “In an age confessedly devoted to money-making,” he said in a speech to Parliament, “I ask you to have the courage to believe in the nobler impulses of our nature; to appeal to the glorious spirit which built our cathedrals, our colleges, our convents.” Although he was unsuccessful in this initial campaign, the law was eventually superseded in 1888, in part through his advocacy.
Like Charles Dickens, in his pamphlet, Sunday Under Three Heads, Manners also argued that the working classes needed more leisure time. If civil society was to be nurtured it would require those conditions of leisure, festival, and camaraderie which were the natural expressions of a healthy community. In his 1843 pamphlet, A Plea for National Holy-Days, Manners asked: “Will the old parish church send out of its time-honoured portals and old men and women, the lads and lasses, to the merry green, where youth shall disport itself, and old age, well pleased, look on? Alas! no. Utilitarian selfishness has well nigh banished all such unproductive amusements from the land.”
In Parliament, Young England attracted the attention of the MP from Shrewsbury, Benjamin Disraeli, who saw its members as potential allies. Disraeli’s own philosophy of “one-nation conservatism,” which he represented in the novels Sybil and Coningsby, grew out of his intellectual relationship with them. It was Disraeli who marshaled the circle into a larger political faction. As the most experienced politician among them he became the de facto leader of the group.
They also attracted the attention of critics. The Morning Herald wrote of Manners and Smythe: “These two gentlemen are the prime movers of Young England; and that tomfoolery is the political offshoot of Tractarianism. Mental dandyism is its chiefest characteristic.” Tractarianism refers to the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. The Tractarians emphasized the broadly catholic inheritance of the Anglican tradition. At its best the movement inspired a revival of piety and ritual in the Church of England. Its apologists demonstrated that Anglicanism had an equal claim of descent from Ancient and Medieval Christianity as the ultramontane Roman Catholic Church, which had, for all intents and purposes, been created at the Council of Trent. (The Anglican Book of Common Prayer predates the Roman Missal by two decades). At its worst the movement displaced our authentic High Church Protestantism with the trappings of nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism; in this it may have done more harm than good.
The members of Young England were all High Anglicans of one school or another. Manners and Smythe in particular belonged to the Oxford Movement. Manners imagined the church engendering new quasi-monastic orders and institutions that would transform industrial cities, providing charitable services and cultural roots to increasingly atomized populations.
Clearly the Young Englanders were romantics. In later years, Baillie-Cochrane wrote that they had desired to lighten the servitude and add to the enjoyments of the people: “in fact, to restore ‘Merrie England.’” They did not accomplish anything so grand. The word “dream” appears often in assessments of the group. De Fonblanque described Young England as “a pretty and harmless dream.” They were not without realism or political skill, however.
During their Parliamentary careers the Young Englanders were engaged in the day-to-day business of government. They had successes and failures. The Factory Act of 1847 which limited the working hours of women and children was passed after years of advocacy by the group.
Young England was not opposed to industrial capitalism per se. Disraeli wanted to unite the “aristocracy of wealth” with the aristocracy of birth and instill in the former the sense of paternalism and noblesse oblige for the working classes that the latter possessed. Manners also wanted the great capitalists to take on a neo-feudal responsibility for their workers. He was impressed by the Grant brothers of Manchester, affluent merchants on whom Dickens had based the magnanimous Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby. But Manners doubted that the marketplace could ever produce the stability necessary for the emergence of an actual “aristocracy of wealth.” He wrote to his brother Granby, after a tour of Manchester cotton mills in 1841, “the worst of this manufacturing feudalism is its uncertainty, and the moment a cotton lord is down, there’s an end to his dependents’ very subsistence: in legislating, this great difference between an agricultural and a trading aristocracy ought not to be lost sight of.” In the 1840s the working population was divided roughly evenly between the traditional economy of the countryside and the new economy of the factory town. The Young Englanders were adamant that this balance not tip too far toward the city. Without the equilibrium of the unchanging rural economy they believed that the protean upheavals of the factory system would lead to social unrest. To this end, Baillie-Cochrane said, “The only way to arrest the march of revolution in this country was to decide at once against all concession…if the agricultural party were only true to themselves, no influence…would be able to destroy them.” Even long after the heyday of Young England, Manners was confident that with proper leadership the “agricultural classes” could “fight for the existing order” against “democratic Revolution.”
In truth the Factory Act was a rearguard action by the agricultural party. By 1847 laws were in place that would cripple the rural economy and put the industrial party firmly in control of Britain’s destiny. The first of these was the Reform Act of 1832 which had stripped parliamentary representation from small rural boroughs and doubled the representation of many industrial cities. The second was the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846; free traders finally achieved their long-held ambition to remove tariffs on foreign grain, tilting the market to the disadvantage of British farmers.
Young England was dormant by the end of the 1840s. Disraeli went on to political glory, becoming prime minister in 1868, and again in 1874, but by that time he had left Young England behind. Manners had a long, useful, and distinguished career in government under several Conservative administrations. He served as First Commissioner of Works under Lord Derby and Postmaster-General under Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. Disraeli offered him the viceroyalty of India but he declined. His last public office was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Lord Salisbury. In 1891, Queen Victoria knighted him to the Order of the Garter. By that point he had inherited his father’s peerage, becoming the seventh Duke of Rutland. Despite prominent careers, however, neither Manners, Smythe, nor Baillie-Cochrane ever controlled policy to the extent that they could advance the agenda of Young England.
de Fonblanque, Edward Barrington. (1887) Lives of the Lords Strangford. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin.
Faber, Richard. (1987) Young England. London: Faber and Faber.
Manners, Lord John James Robert. (1841) England’s Trust and Other Poems. London: Francis & John Rivington.
Michell, John. (2005) Confessions of a Radical Traditionalist. Waterbury Center [VT]: Dominion Press.
Whibley, Charles. (1925) Lord John Manners and His Friends. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons.
In the late summer or fall of 1848, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt met to discuss their common interest in art. They had already begun this dialogue as students at the Royal Academy, and as members of a sketching circle, the Cyclographic Club. Nineteen year old Millais was by far the most accomplished, having entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1840, at the age of eleven. There he earned a string of prestigious prizes. Rossetti, a year older than Millais, but lacking his precocious talent, was still developing technique. His commitment to a career in the arts was often distracted by a calling to poetry. Nevertheless he studied painting first at Sass’s Academy, then at the Royal Academy, before dropping out in March of 1848, to join the atelier of Ford Madox Brown. Holman Hunt was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1844 on his third attempt. There he befriended Millais and with him shared certain frustrations with the way painting was taught.
Millais and Hunt believed that English art as practiced under the auspices of the Academy was too often lax in detail, removed from nature, and clichéd in theme and composition. This they attributed to the rigid Neoclassicism of the curriculum. The Academy’s late founder, Sir Joshua Reynolds had, according to Hunt, “thought it expedient to take the Italian School at its proudest climax as a starting-point for English art.” Hunt believed that this focus deprived young artists of “the training that led to the making of Michelangelo.” Instead of learning to draw precisely from nature, students learned to repeat certain formulas and compositions.
The method of instruction practiced at the Academy came from the Mannerists of the Italian High Renaissance who learned by copying Raphael and, in turn, systematized Raphael’s intensely personal style into a school of art. Even in nineteenth century England, Raphael’s dramatic poses, dynamism, elongated and simplified forms, and distorted perspective were standards of narrative painting. Millais and Hunt believed this method to be entirely artificial, producing inferior copies of copies, deprived of the genius that had animated the original.
Hunt was quick to emphasize that “Pre-Raphaelitism is not Pre-Raphaelism.” The genius of Raphael himself was not in question. Nor, for that matter, was the genius of Reynolds, who had been the preeminent portrait painter of his day. Reynolds is often remembered as a bête noir of the Pre-Raphaelites, but their objection was more to his pedagogy than his art. “The rules…which he loved so much to lay down were no fetters to him,” Hunt wrote, “because he rose superior to them when his unbounded love of human nature was appealed to.” What they rejected was the notion that the genius of an artist or an art form could be broken down into certain axioms or stereotypes and thus learned by rote. Hunt’s criticism of Reynolds and the Royal Academy was that the “independent genius of the first President could not be transmitted, but his binding rules were handed on.”
Neoclassicism had been the universal language of high art in Europe since the Renaissance. With its simplicity, grandeur, and strict geometry, it had supplanted the more personal, decorative, variegated art of the Middle Ages. Medieval art had possessed its own universal language, Gothic, but it also accommodated the vernacular. High art and low art were woven together with golden threads of sanctity, earthiness, Christian piety, color, abundance, light and darkness, strangeness, whimsy, mystery, transcendence. The rational, top-down, organizing principle of Classicism, for all its beauty and orthodoxy, rarely acknowledged the vernacular or the local, or touched the roots of a culture. The English gardens and terraced houses of the Georgian period are two fine examples of Neoclassical vernacular.
Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the French art critic Robert de la Sizeranne observed that, “Until 1848, one could admire art in England, but would not be surprised by it. Reynolds and Gainsborough were great masters, but they were eighteenth-century painters rather than eighteenth-century English painters. It was their models, their ladies and young girls, rather than brushwork, which gave an English character to their creations.” In looking back to an earlier art form it is clear that the Pre-Raphaelites were seeking a technique and aesthetic that would give expression to the English imagination. Hunt was unequivocal in later life, writing, “every student of art in past was loyal to his own nationality, and that in these days men of British blood, whether of insular birth or of the homes beyond the seas, should not subject themselves to the influence of masters alien to the sentiments and principles of the great English poets and thinkers.” It was Rossetti more than either of the other founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement who advanced Medievalism as a vehicle for spiritual, local, and personal revelation.
In 1847 Holman Hunt had his painting, The Eve of St Agnes accepted by the jury for the Royal Academy Exhibition. At the show, Rossetti approached him, as Hunt later recalled, “repeating with emphasis his praise, and loudly declaring that my picture . . . was the best in the collection. Probably the fact that the subject was taken from Keats made him the more unrestrained, for I think no one had ever before painted any subject from this still little-known poet.” Hunt invited Rossetti to his studio where Hunt showed him his latest paintings and drawings. “I rejoiced to display [them] before a man of his poetic instincts,” Hunt wrote, “and it was pleasant to hear him repeat my propositions and theories in his own richer phrase.” He showed Rossetti a painting inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Rienzi in which Hunt was “putting in practice the principle of rejection of conventional dogma, and pursuing that of direct application to Nature for each feature.”
The seeds of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic were thus established before the three artists decided to form a group. To their first meeting they invited the writer William Michael Rossetti, Dante’s younger brother, who was to be the chronicler and organizer of the group; Thomas Woolner, a sculptor; and the painters James Collinson and Frederic G. Stephens. It is unknown if the seven young men attempted to establish a credo or manifesto at their first meeting. They did produce a broad statement of principles:
1: To have genuine ideas to express.
2: To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them.
3: To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.
4: And most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
This rather vague manifesto suggests that at the beginning the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lacked a uniform direction. The members had diverse approaches to art, varying depths of familiarity with art history, and unequal technical skills. They all, as William Rossetti noted, “belonged to the middle or lower-middle class of society.” None of them with the exception of William and Dante Rossetti had the kind of liberal education which included the study of Latin and Greek. During their monthly meetings, which were held with some regularity from late 1848 to the middle of 1850, they discussed their opinions on art with as much clarity as could be expected from individuals who were then just beginning to frame the general outlines of their practices. The most voluble of the three principle members, and the most adept at formulating his ideas, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He had, so his brother recalled, “an abundance of ideas, pictorial and also literary, and was fuller of ‘notions’ than” Millais or Hunt, with a “turn for proselytizing and ‘pronunciamentos.’” He was the most defiant of the group, according to William, and, with a kind of adolescent verve, he held “art-sympathies highly developed in one direction, and unduly or even ignorantly restricted in others.”
At the first meeting of the Brotherhood, Millais exhibited a book of engravings that he kept in his studio. It contained poorly drawn reproductions of the frescoes at the Campo Santo in Pisa. Despite their limitations the engravings allowed the young artists to acquire some knowledge of fourteenth century Italian painting. This they supplemented with trips to the National Gallery, to view its collection of thirteenth and fourteenth century paintings, and no doubt by reading Anna Brownell Jameson’s Memoirs of the Early Italian Painters, recently published in 1845.
Another volume that Millais shared with his colleagues was perhaps even more important to their project. This was a book of engravings by Joseph Ritter von Führich, illustrating the dramatic poem, Life and Death of Saint Genevieve, by the German Romantic poet, Ludwig Tieck. The Medieval style and themes would have stirred the interest of all who attended the meeting. Von Führich was a member of a group of German painters who styled themselves, the Brotherhood of St Luke. They were known also as the Nazarenes. They established themselves in Rome in 1810, where, dressed in biblical costume, the “brothers” lived communally in an abandoned monastery. Like the nascent Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood they abandoned Neoclassicism for the spiritual values and aesthetics of the Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Although the Pre-Raphaelites did not formally pattern themselves after the Nazarenes, the influence of the latter on the former is visible in early Pre-Raphaelite drawings. Examples of this influence can be seen in Millais’s Two Lovers by a Rose Bush, and Rossetti’s drawing, The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice.
The three principle members of the newly formed Brotherhood began to prepare works for exhibition in 1849, Millais and Hunt at the Royal Academy, Rossetti at the Free Exhibition. Rossetti chose as his subject The Girlhood of Mary the Virgin. None of the young artists had sufficient funds to hire models at this point so Rossetti turned to his mother, Frances, and sister, Christina, to sit for St Anne and the Virgin, respectively. They modeled for him periodically at Holman Hunt’s studio, which Rossetti shared. This working arrangement was fruitful, though it necessitated some measure of compromise. Hunt liked people around and Rossetti preferred solitude. Both profited from discussions on art and pursued their goals independently.
For his piece, Hunt completed the scene from Bulwer-Lytton that he had earlier previewed for Rossetti, titled, Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions. Hunt’s composition followed a tradition of heroic battlefield death scenes established in the eighteenth century by Benjamin West in his Death of General Wolfe.
Millais was the second of the group to try his hand at illustrating a scene from the poetry of John Keats. His painting, Lorenzo and Isabella, was an adaptation of Keats’s poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, itself an adaptation of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Both poems concern a young woman from a wealthy family, Isabella, who falls in love with one of her brothers’ retainers, Lorenzo. Her brothers, who plan to marry her to a rich man, learn of the romance. They lure the hapless Lorenzo to an out-of-the-way place, and there, murder him. Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream and leads her to his body. She digs it up and cuts off the head, which she plants in a pot of basil. Watered by her tears, the plant thrives. Her brothers grow suspicious and steal the pot, only to discover the rotting head of their victim. Horrified by what they have done the brothers leave Florence in self-imposed exile. Isabella, having lost both her lover and the solace of the pot of basil, descends into madness and dies.
For his painting, Millais chose to depict the moment that the brothers become aware of the romance. The scene is set around a table, at which Isabella, her brothers, and their guests are dining. Lorenzo is seated beside Isabella. He offers her a blood orange, cut in half, as if to foreshadow his own severed head, while the brothers watch from across the table. There are two focal points in the composition. The first is the young couple: Lorenzo, bowing to offer his plate, regarding his lover with gentle, even reverential, concern, but also conspiracy, and the hardness of resolve; Isabella, accepting the orange, but looking down, aware of the danger, resisting the urge to acknowledge him, her body tense with the effort of self-denial. The other focal point is one of her brothers, seated in the foreground, across from them. He is an extraordinary, brutish character, leaning forward to kick a dog who cowers in Isabella’s lap. In an outstretched hand he cracks a nut with a levered nutcracker.
Curator Carol Jacobi, in a 2012 essay on the painting, draws attention to a shadow cast on the table by the brother’s arm. It appears to rise diagonally from his groin in the place of a phallus. Jacobi connects this to the “salt cellar spilling its contents,” which, together with the “shadow and groin,” she describes as “an unambiguous equivalent for ejaculation.” Millais has created a sort of moral manifesto, contrasting these two models of manhood: the chaste, modest, chivalrous Lorenzo with the vulgar, murderous, and sexually incontinent brother.
All three paintings revealed a Medieval influence, whether in subject matter (Hunt’s Rienzi), style (Rossetti’s Virgin), or both (Millais’s Isabella). Rossetti in particular captured elements reminiscent of an altarpiece in his domestic scene. Despite the ambiguousness of their initial statement, the clear meaning of the Brotherhood’s name was reflected in each contribution.
The initials P.R.B. appended to the signatures of Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti, apparently went unnoticed on the paintings they exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere in 1849. This was not the case the following year when they caught the attention of Charles Dickens. The meaning of the enigmatic letters had been revealed to the public before the opening of the Royal Academy show. On May 4, 1850 a columnist, who was not an art critic, wrote in The Illustrated London News, that for those confused by the letters P.R.B., the secret was that they stood for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of “ingenious gentlemen who profess themselves practitioners of Early Christian Art.” Dickens wrote a scathing critique of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings for his journal, Household Words. In the edition of June 15, 1850, Dickens began his review of the annual Royal Academy show with a warning: “You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves…for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.”
The target of this criticism was a painting by Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents. As the title suggests, the work depicts a scene from the boyhood of Jesus. The setting is Saint Joseph’s workshop, which Millais based on a real carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street in London. The composition is rich in Christian symbolism. Jesus has cut His hand on a nail. Blood runs from the center of His palm to the foot beneath it, prefiguring the wounds of the crucifixion. The Virgin Mary kneels before Him, as though at the foot of the cross. A young John the Baptist brings water to clean the wound, foreshadowing his baptism of Christ. A white dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, watches from a ladder in the background. A triangle on the wall above Christ’s head suggests the Trinity. Outside a flock of sheep is gathered, anticipating His mission as shepherd of men.
If Dickens saw any of this he did not recognize it. He accused Millais of portraying the savior as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy,” and the Virgin Mary as a “Monster” who would stand out “in her ugliness” from the company of “the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England.” Sweeping the rest of the company into his critique, he wrote, “Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed.”
When we look at the painting today we see none of the depravity that Dickens portrays. The religious subject is treated with reverence. The figures are rendered with great tenderness. The naturalism, though striking, was hardly novel, having a precedence going back to Caravaggio. What could possibly have elicited such contempt?
Dickens was clearly reacting to something other than the technical merits of the painting when he wrote his review. We do not have to search far to learn what that was: Dickens found the notion of a backward-looking art movement plainly shocking. He compared the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to a hypothetical “Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood” for those who objected to being bound by the laws of gravity, a “Pre-Galileo Brotherhood” for those who “refuse[d] to perform any annual revolution round the Sun,” a “Pre-Gower and Pre-Chaucer Brotherhood” for those who would revive the old idiosyncratic English spellings, or a “Pre-Laurentians Brotherhood” for those who would abolish printed books in favor of painstakingly copied manuscripts.
The progressive outlook which dominated liberal thought in the Victorian period, as it does today, held that the arrow of time moves only and ever forward toward a distant perfection of human society. The suggestion that we might restore modes of life from the past threatened the idealism that underpinned so many of the endeavors of nineteenth-century modernity. A progressive like Dickens would have understood the conservative implications of Pre-Raphaelitism perhaps better than the young artists themselves.
Holman Hunt’s contribution to the Royal Academy exhibition was intended as a companion piece to Millais’s, and was, in composition, even more ambitious. The subject, and title, was, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids. In the foreground Hunt depicted the interior of a simple wooden fisherman’s shed on a riverbank, where the titular missionary has collapsed into the arms of the mother of the family, while the men guard the door, and the children succor him. In the background, seen in part through the windows at the top of the hut, a mob of pagans, commanded by a Druid priest, chase down a second missionary to his inevitable martyrdom. Although the scene has its own dramatic narrative and tension, Hunt’s composition suggests an episode from the Gospels: the Deposition of Christ, when the Savior’s body was lowered from the cross. Here the postures of the missionary and the woman holding him from behind clearly evoke the Pietà, the traditional artistic representation of Mary cradling the body of Jesus. On the wall above them is a red cross roughly drawn by the persecuted Christians for their worship. One of the daughters removes a thorn from the missionary’s robe, representing the crown of thorns, while another prepares to bathe his face with sponge and water.
Exhibited together, the relationship between Hunt’s painting, and Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, would have been readily apparent. Both works depicted a primitive Christianity. Both employed traditional, iconographic details. In portraying scenes from Christian history before and after the crucifixion, both placed Christ’s passion at the center of the narrative. Hunt judged his painting to be among the best of his own work. Appraising it more than two decades later, he wrote to Edward Lear, “sometimes when I look at the Early Xtians I feel rather ashamed that I have got no further than later years have brought me, but the truth is that at twenty—health, enthusiasm and yet unpunished confidence in oneself carries a man very near his ultimate length of tether.”
Both Hunt and Rossetti had benefitted in their education from a trip to the Continent in the fall of 1849. They visited France and Belgium. In Paris they toured the large public galleries, studying canvases by Titian, da Vinci, Veronese, and van Dyck. At the Louvre they were awestruck by The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, which was, according to Hunt, “of peerless grace and sweetness in the eyes of us both.” In Antwerp they admired the paintings of the Early Netherlandish artists, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, as well as those of Rubens and van Dyck. They were prepared for their encounter with the brilliant, detailed works of the Early Netherlandish painters, having already studied van Eyck’s 1434 work, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, at the National Gallery. It was the graphic quality, almost brittle composition, and absence of free, painterly brush strokes in the paintings by van Eyck and his followers that became the goal of Hunt and Rossetti for their own works.
Of all the paintings exhibited by members of the Brotherhood in 1850, the most influential on the development of Pre-Raphaelite style and technique, was Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), shown at the National Institution, formerly the Free Exhibition. The painting had begun with a preliminary sketch in late November of 1849. This process was recorded by Rossetti’s brother William in his journal. He described the work-in-progress as depicting the Virgin in bed, “without any bedclothes on, an arrangement which may be justified in consideration of the hot climate, and the Angel Gabriel is to be presenting a lily to her.” The painting was to be almost entirely white, with contained uses of one color at a time: a red embroidery in the foreground, a blue curtain in the background, yellow halos, a window opened on a blue sky.
In mid-December, Rossetti began to paint the Virgin’s head, using his sister Christina as a model, and later in the month drew the head of the Angel, with his brother William modeling. By mid-January he was busy working on the drapery and in early-February had moved on to the red cloth embroidery in the foreground. On March 29, William recorded that his brother had painted the feet and arm of the Angel from a model, had another, Miss Love, sit for the Virgin’s hair, and a third to finish the Angel’s head. The execution was a protracted process as Rossetti, now working in the studio of Ford Madox Brown, struggled to achieve the level of technical mastery possessed by his colleagues. The finished product was a painting of exceptional tenderness and beauty, in some ways less mature that Hunt’s or Millais’s work, but in others, particularly the figure of the Virgin, entirely developed.
With this painting Rossetti introduced what would become a signature Pre-Raphaelite technique. Whereas most artists prepared their canvases with a coat of neutral, solid color, called a toned ground, Rossetti painted his canvas bright white. As one modern curator writes, “The particularly luminous white ground…made the pure colors brushed over it seem illuminated.” Beginning in 1850 both Millais and Hunt adopted this practice, amplifying the effect by using a wet white ground. Millais used the technique to depict sunlight on faces in his painting, The Woodsman’s Daughter, completed the following year. Its application can be seen to great advantage in Hunt’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, titled, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, also completed in 1851. In this painting particularly, Hunt achieved what has been described as “an almost preternatural luminosity.”
Experimentation with color had been an ongoing interest of all three artists. Hunt recalled a visit to the Royal Academy by the painter Claude Lorraine Nursey during one of Hunt’s first terms there. Nursey had given a lecture and then stayed to watch the students work. At the time Hunt was copying Sir David Wilkie’s painting, The Blind Fiddler. Nursey had once been a pupil of Wilkie and explained the latter’s practice of applying all his paint, whether for a section of a painting or an entire work, in one sitting. In this way he never painted over dried paint, as most artists did, which tended to dull the colors. For Hunt this had been a revelation. “I tried the method,” he wrote, “and I now looked at all paintings with the question whether they had been so executed. I began to trace the purity of work in the quattrocentists to the drilling of undeviating manipulation with which fresco-painting had furnished them, and I tried to put aside the loose, irresponsible handling to which I had been trained, and which was nearly universal at the time, and to adopt the practice which excused no false touch.” Hunt seems to have arrived at the technique that he used in Valentine Rescuing Sylvia by combining the innovations of Rossetti and Wilkie. By painting on a wet white ground he was able to achieve more luminous colors even than Rossetti had, but only because he had rigorously adopted Wilkie’s constraints. As Hunt observed, “Painting of this kind cannot be retouched except with an entire loss of luminosity.”
Millais had been experimenting with similar methods around this same time. Hunt remembered both Millais and himself arriving at the use of a wet white ground independent of one another. This would seem to suggest that the various influences that informed the technique were being discussed among the members of the Brotherhood during their meetings leading up to the various individual applications. Once it had been perfected, Millais proposed that they should keep the process “as a precious secret” amongst themselves, which they did. When Millais and Hunt revealed the secret to Ford Madox Brown, years later, Brown recognized it as a technique of the late-Medieval and early-Renaissance fresco painters. According to Hunt, Brown “enlarged on the mystery as nothing less than the secret of the old masters, who thus secured the transparency and solidity…valued so much in fresco, the wet white half dry forming an equivalent to the moist intonaco grounds upon which the master had to do his painting of that day while the surface was still humid.”
The subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures varied from artist to artist but clear commonalities were visible by the time they had submitted their works for exhibition in 1851. In addition to shared techniques, the artists shared a preference, though not exclusive, for Biblical and Medieval themes over Classical and mythological, for character and mise-en-scène over landscape, and for bright color over the popular preference for smoky browns. Within this broad consensus was a great range of influences. Rossetti was particularly fascinated with Dante and Medieval devotional art; Holman Hunt with Biblical themes; Millais was more or less encyclopaedic in his references, sometimes turning to Shakespeare, at other times contemporary daily life, the Bible, English history, or contemporary Regency and Victorian poetry.
Millais produced three pictures for the Royal Academy show in 1851: Mariana, The Return of the Dove to the Arc, and The Woodsman’s Daughter. The first was taken from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In Millais’s rendering, the character of Mariana looks plaintively out of large Gothic windows. She has been rejected as a bride because of the loss of her dowry in a shipwreck. The caption to the picture is from Tennyson’s 1830 poem:
She only said, ‘My life is dreary, / He cometh not,’ she said; / She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead!’
Tennyson was a particular favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. Undoubtedly the finest English poet of his generation, Tennyson had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1850, with the support of Prince Albert, an early admirer. The same year Tennyson published “In Memoriam,” a tribute to his late friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The work was a sensation. William Rossetti, as a reviewer for The Spectator, received an advance copy. Upon reading it he rushed home and passed the book to his brother. Although it was after midnight Dante read the entire poem aloud. Thereafter the Pre-Raphaelites hung on Tennyson’s every word, illustrating many of his works, most notably episodes from his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King.
All three of Millais’s pictures in the Royal Academy show of 1851 were accomplished with deftness of drawing, flatness of surface, and minimal use of modeling in the three dimensional forms. The same may be said of Holman Hunt’s submission, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus. Hunt drew his subject from the climax of Two Gentlemen of Verona. In Shakespeare’s early comedy, Valentine and Proteus both love Silvia, though her heart belongs to Valentine. After rescuing her from outlaws, Proteus threatens to rape Silvia, if she will not consent to love him. Valentine intervenes. Proteus repents and gives his love to Julia who has disguised herself as his page boy.
Reviewing Hunt’s adaptation for The Spectator, the Rossetti brothers were, of course, effusive, calling it, “the finest we have seen from its painter.” Dante drew the reader’s attention to the two female figures. Silvia, he wrote, “nestles to her strong knight, rescued and secure; while poor Julia leans, sick to swooning, against a tree, and tries with a trembling hand to draw the ring from her finger. Both these figures are truly creations, for the very reason that they are appropriate individualities, and not self-seeking idealisms.” William used much of the column to rebuke the hanging committee of the Royal Academy for its poor job in highlighting such an important work.
The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates at the Royal Academy show of 1851 received largely negative reviews. The critic of The Times condemned them for “the puerility or infancy of their art,” their “monkish style” and “monkish follies.” A “morbid infatuation” with ancient art, had, he wrote, caused them to sacrifice “truth, beauty, and genuine feeling to mere eccentricity.” Clearly Charles Dickens had set the tone and terms of public debate in his review of the previous year. Detractors of the new movement shared a common rhetoric and a few common points of opposition.
The seemingly impenetrable wall of critical resistance to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would soon break, however, with the emergence of an extraordinary ally. John Ruskin was a formidable art critic whose opinions held great weight among both scholars and collectors. The first two volumes of his monumental work, Modern Painters, had been published between 1843 and 1846. In them, Ruskin laid the philosophical groundwork for an art closer to nature. He idealized late-Medieval and Renaissance art in terms of the convergence of truth, beauty, and religion. Ruskin argued that the job of the artist was to convey “truth to nature,” by which he meant “moral as well as material truth.” By this measure he judged the contemporary landscape painter J.M.W. Turner to be the greatest artist who ever worked in that field, elevating him above the Old Masters of the Baroque period. He was deeply critical of the contemporary historical painters who, he wrote, were “permitted to pander more fatally every year to the vicious English taste, which can enjoy nothing but what is theatrical, entirely unchastised, nay, encouraged and lauded by the very men who endeavor to hamper our great landscape painters with rules derived from consecrated blunders.” Here was the very language that the young Pre-Raphaelites were using to articulate their dissatisfaction with the prevailing wisdom of the Academy. If anyone could understand the aims of the Brotherhood, they had to hope it would be Ruskin. Indeed, his defense, when it came, was swift, authoritative, and generous.
On May 13, 1851, The Times published a signed letter from Ruskin expressing “regret” that the “tone” of the paper’s critique of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings had been “scornful as well as severe.” He wrote that the “labour bestowed on those works, and their fidelity to a certain order of truth (labour and fidelity which are altogether indisputable) ought at once to have placed them above the level of mere contempt.” He insisted that the young artists were “at a turning point, from which they may either sink into nothingness or rise to very real greatness.” On May 30, Ruskin followed up with a second letter, in which he concluded that the Pre-Raphaelites, “may, as they gain experience, lay in our land the foundations of a school of art nobler than has been seen for three hundred years.” With these words the fortunes of the members of the Brotherhood changed forever.
The Pre-Raphaelites were emerging as integral drivers of the Medieval artistic revival that would come to define the Victorian age, largely thanks to the advocacy of two men: Ruskin and His Royal Highness Prince Albert.
The same year that Ruskin penned his defense of the Pre-Raphaelites he published the first volume in his monumental study of Venetian Gothic architecture, The Stones of Venice. Here he began to lay out a philosophy of Gothicism over and against the prevailing Classicism. In subsequent volumes he would elaborate on this philosophy, defining six characteristic elements of Gothic design: savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance. Ruskin wrote with irresistible enthusiasm, praising Gothic ornament for its “prickly independence, and frosty fortitude, jutting into crockets, and freezing into pinnacles; here starting up into a monster, there germinating into a blossom; anon knitting itself into a branch, alternately thorny, bossy, and bristly, or writhed into every form of nervous entanglement; but even when most graceful, never for an instant languid, always quickset; erring, if at all, ever on the side of brusquerie.” This was not the language of archeology. Ruskin was not describing relics or museum pieces. In his poetic prose he conjured a vital, living, irrepressible, even inevitable art form.
No one did more to midwife that art form than Prince Albert. When he married Queen Victoria in 1840 the young German prince became an influential patron and advocate for the arts in Britain. One of his first official duties was to lead the Royal Commission tasked with designing the interior of the new Houses of Parliament. He brought to this appointment a vision entirely sympathetic with the Gothic Berry-Pugin architecture. The Prince possessed an informed taste for Medieval and Medieval-revival aesthetics. He collected everything from Tuscan trecento primitives to contemporary German romantic painters. Under his guidance, Clare Willsdon writes, “the wall-painting, sculpture, and stained glass used as a matter of course by the medieval builders” were adopted for the new building. Prince Albert advised the artist William Dyce to draw from Arthurian legend for the murals of the Queen’s Robing Room.
To a certain extent the Prince became involved in arts and culture because he lacked a formal outlet for his talents. Parliament had been opposed to granting any political power to a foreign prince. Not only was he denied the title of King Consort, he was also denied peerage and military rank. Although in time he did take on responsibility for the affairs of state, it is a credit to his genius that, for most of his short career, he had a greater influence on British culture than any other man of his age, despite having little practical power.
Beginning in 1850, the Prince, together with members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, organized what would be the first World’s Fair. The Great Exhibition, as it was known, opened in 1851 in the Kensington district of London, housed within a custom-built “Crystal Palace” of cast-iron, steel, and glass, large enough to enclose full-grown trees. The exhibition showcased rich displays of traditional culture and ultra-modern technology side by side. Visitors encountered the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India and the Daria-i-Noor from Persia; a stuffed elephant bedecked in the livery and howdah of an Indian rajah; porcelain, tapestries, and silk from France; decorative arts, furs, sledges, and Cossack armor from Russia; an Egyptian Court with towering statues and pillars, mummies, and antiquities. At the same time they could marvel at Stevenson’s hydraulic press, adding machines, a state-of-the-art printing press, folding pianos, carriages, and velocipedes.
To represent Britain in this grand evocation of the Victorian future, Prince Albert invited A.W.N. Pugin to create a Medieval Court. Pugin had previously collaborated with Sir Charles Berry on the Gothic Revival design of the new Houses of Parliament. He was now in the last year of his life. This would be his swan song, what Paul Atterbury called, “his final consuming project.” Pugin designed stained glass, furniture, sculpture, and textiles in the Gothic Revival style. He had these fabricated by the various firms of craftsmen with whom he had long collaborated, in what Jeffrey Auerbach describes as a “preview of the team-oriented craftsmanship that would characterize William Morris’s Arts and Crafts productions.” The effect, in the words of one art historian, was “to create a phantasmagoric realm for spectators.”
As the Pre-Raphaelites became part of a broader Medieval revival the Brotherhood itself became somewhat redundant to their needs. The last public exhibition of their works as a group occurred in 1852. Two of Millais’s pictures hung in the Royal Academy Exhibition that year: A Huguenot and Ophelia. The former depicts a young couple in France meeting in a garden during the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when Roman Catholics killed tens of the thousands of Protestant Huguenots, over several weeks in 1572. The girl is pleading with her Protestant beau to wear an armband signifying he is a Roman Catholic so that he can escape the slaughter. While he holds her, gazing tenderly into her worried eyes, he gently removes the armband that she has tied around him, choosing martyrdom over even pretended apostasy. Millais had initially sketched this scene as a simple meeting of lovers in a brick-walled garden but on the advice of Holman Hunt he added the historic context, which he took from Mayerbeer’s opera Les Hugenots.
The wonderful, meticulously rendered flowers and foliage in the garden are typical of the kind of botanical illustration that was immensely popular, particularly among watercolorists, in the Victorian era. The most famous of these was Marian North whose skill at rendering flowers was honoured with the opening of a gallery in Kew Gardens permanently dedicated to her works in 1882. Millais’s passion for setting his subject in rich, verdant, floral surroundings is nowhere more apparent than in his Ophelia.
Drawn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tragic story of Ophelia was ideally tailored to fit Victorian and specifically Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Spurned by Prince Hamlet, she has fallen into a river, while picking flowers, and as she floats away, temporarily buoyed by the air trapped in her clothing, she sings. But as her clothes become saturated, the weight of the water pulls “the poor wretch from her melodious lay” down to a muddy death. In his depiction of the scene, Millais painted flowers mentioned by Shakespeare floating downriver with Ophelia, but he added a red poppy as a symbol of sleep and death. Millais based his gorgeously overgrown riverbank on the Hogsmill River in Surrey where he painted for several hours a day, six days a week, for five months to capture the background. In the end he had to work inside a kind of duck blind to protect himself from the cold weather.
Millais finished the painting over the winter at his studio on Gower Street in London. He based the figure of Ophelia on the newly discovered model Elizabeth Siddal, who would go on to sit for, and later marry Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She would also become an artist in her own right. Ophelia remains one of the most iconic of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It hangs today in the Tate Britain in London and must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Even the most detailed reproduction does not convey the awesome effect of glittering light captured by Millais, in particular where the lace of Ophelia’s dress floats on the surface of the water.
Holman Hunt’s painting for the 1852 exhibition was The Hireling Shepherd. Its subject was the neglect of duty, in this case by the titular shepherd, who ignores his flock to woo a pretty red-haired maid, showing her a death’s head hawkmoth. Hunt meant to symbolize the retreat of churchmen into theological debate while their flocks were led astray for lack of moral guidance. The title is a reference to the Biblical allegory of the Good Shepherd. Hunt achieved considerable success with this painting as it was awarded a prize when exhibited at Birmingham in 1853 and sold to a collector for 120 pounds. Hunt later observed that with Millais’ picture of the Hugenots also winning a prize at an exhibition in Liverpool, “the double success of our School . . . [indicated that] the recognition of our claims was thus proved to be growing.”
After the amicable dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the three artists who had been the primary force behind it, continued to discuss art with each other and to explore common aesthetics, but they pursued their careers separately. They began to inspire a number of other artists. These included Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, William Morris, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick Leighton, Frank Dicksee, Frederick Sandys, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Simeon Solomon, and John William Waterhouse, among others.
The Pre-Raphaelite conquest of the Victorian and Edwardian art world was eventually formalized with honors. Millais and Burne-Jones were given baronetcies; Leighton was given a barony; Holman Hunt received the Order of Merit as a personal gift from King Edward VII; Dicksee and Alma-Tadema were knighted.
In fact, there had long been affection for the Pre-Raphaelites at the palace. In the midst of the early controversy surrounding Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, Queen Victoria had arranged for the painting to be shown privately for her at Windsor Castle. This was unprecedented. “I hope that it will not have any bad effects upon the Queen’s mind,” Millais joked nervously to Hunt. Gordon Fleming in his biography of Millais suggests that it did not. The following year Prince Albert gave a speech to the Royal Academy in which he reminded the members of their obligation to encourage developing artists in terms unmistakably similar to Ruskin’s defense of Millais.
A more private, but in its own way equally momentous, embrace of the Pre-Raphaelites came earlier, in 1855. In January of that year, Millais and Charles Dickens met for the first time at a dinner party given by their mutual friend, Wilkie Collins. After dinner they had a long conversation. The following day, Dickens wrote Millais a letter, and sent it, along with an article from Household Words, about the London fire brigade, which was the subject of Millais’s work-in-progress, The Rescue. The letter read:
If you have in your mind any previous association with the pages in which [the article] appears (very likely you have none) it may be a rather disagreeable one. In that case I hope a word, frankly said, may make it pleasanter. Objecting very strongly to what I believed to be an unworthy use of your great powers, I once expressed the objection in this same journal. My opinion on that point is not in the least changed, but it has never dashed my admiration of your progress in what I suppose are higher and better things. In short, you have given me such great reasons (in your works) to separate you from uncongenial association, that I wish to give you in return one little reason for doing the like by me.
Millais accepted the olive branch. Thereafter they became true friends. When Dickens died in 1870 it was Millais who was summoned to his death bed to draw the final portrait of the great author.
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Every December we find ourselves in thrall to Charles Dickens and his seasonal classic, A Christmas Carol. Whether you read the novel every year or encounter it in one of its many adaptations and pastiches for stage or screen, there is no avoiding it. It is one of those rare stories that everyone knows, whether they have read the book or not: the miser Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by ghosts and apparitions who show him visions of his own past, present, and future, and those of the people with whom his life is intertwined, rekindling in his heart the warmth of Christian charity.
Dickens was a great keeper of Christmas. Among his earliest writings, the newspaper columns collected in 1836 as Sketches By Boz, there is a commemoration of the holiday which contains many of the themes he would later revisit in A Christmas Carol. He writes, “Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas…Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers.”
In the first half of the nineteenth-century, Christmas was not universally or extravagantly celebrated in England. Of course midwinter had been a time of revelry in northern Europe since pagan antiquity, marking the beginning of the return of the sun, and the retreat of darkness. But Christmas was never as significant as Easter in the Christian liturgical year. And while a history of merrymaking endured, especially in the countryside, where the rhythms of nature were better felt, in the busy commercial hub of London it was for many people just another day of work.
By the time Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 there were signs of a revival of Christmas in the popular culture. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert introduced the Christmas Tree to England from Germany in 1840. Two decades earlier, American author Washington Irving had recorded the surviving traditions of Christmas in rural England during his long residence in the country. “Old Christmas” was published in 1819 in Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which also contained “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”
Dickens himself included a marvelous description of Christmas festivities in his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, or, The Pickwick Papers, published in 1837. This great sprawling comic novel follows Samuel Pickwick, retired businessman and philanthropist, who, together with members of his eponymous London club, sets out on a series of misadventures to enlarge “his sphere of observation, to the advancement of knowledge and the diffusion of learning.” In one episode Pickwick spends Christmas at the manor of the rough, generous country squire Mr Wardle. Here family, friends, tenants, and servants gather together as one social body, undisrupted by the class warfare of the industrial revolution, under the benevolent lordship of Wardle. There is dancing, kissing under the mistletoe, a raucous game of blind man’s buff, quaffing of wassail, feasting, and storytelling.
It is interesting that both Dickens and Irving relegated Christmas festivities to the countryside, where the holiday and the great old manor houses in which it was still kept, were depicted as survivals of a bygone age. In the early nineteenth century this was probably accurate enough.
A Christmas Carol changed the way Christmas was celebrated in England. Dickens had intended it to do as much. He did not merely want to glorify the folk traditions of the season. The immediate impetus for the novel was his sympathy and concern for the poor, in particular children. It was a passion nearer to his own heart than anyone could have guessed at the time.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 during a period of maritime build-up at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His good-natured but improvident father, John Dickens, kept the family in middle-class comfort with a well paid job at the Navy Pay Office. For the first ten years of his life Charles Dickens thrived in an atmosphere of love and encouragement. He romped in nature. He read voraciously: The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding. He wrote stories and staged drawing room theatricals. But John Dickens found himself increasingly in debt. He moved the family to London in 1822 where they struggled to make ends meet. In 1824 he was prosecuted by his creditors and sent to the Marshalsea debtors prison. The entire family lived with him at the Marshalsea except for twelve-year old Charles who was put to work. A job was found for him at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, near the present-day Embankment tube station. He was paid six shillings per week to work ten hour days glueing labels to cans of boot polish in appalling conditions. He never spoke of the experience but he gave an account of it to his friend and biographer John Forster:
The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again.
In time, John Dickens paid off his creditors and was released from the Marshalsea. Charles was allowed to leave the blacking warehouse and return to a semblance of a normal childhood. But the experience changed him forever. Feelings of abandonment and betrayal and loneliness and fear haunted him long after.
The success of Dickens’s early novels made him a very rich man. He relished the role of a celebrity and a gentleman and spent lavishly on himself and his family. But the wretched children whose lives he had briefly and traumatically shared were never far from his mind. He always considered it his duty to employ both pen and purse toward a remedy for the ills of society.
When he wrote A Christmas Carol, he became, in the words of the actor and author Simon Callow,
a spokesman, not just for the oppressed and the disadvantaged, but for the essential integrity of a nation in the throes of radical transformation. There was a widespread unease at the way in which capitalism was evolving, at the loss of community and the inter-relatedness of the groups within it. The writing of the book sprang directly from his horror at the condition of children in the mines. Christmas, Dickens insisted, was mocked unless the absolute dregs of society were rehabilitated and the root causes of their rejection and elimination by society addressed.
This was something that Dickens believed could only be accomplished by the changing of hearts—and a changing of the way that business was done. He was no proto-Marxist. Callow notes, “Dickens didn’t believe you could fob off your personal responsibilities on to the state. He…didn’t believe in a welfare state, but in absolute direct human action.” How different money is in the hands of Scrooge than it is in those of Mr Wardle, or Scrooge’s first employer, the magnanimous old Fezziwig.
It is no coincidence that Dickens’s greatest call to charity was in a book that also called readers to feast and festivity. All of these are expressions of an expansiveness, an overabundance, a pouring forth, of the heart. One cannot exist without the other.
The monstrousness of Scrooge, as we find him at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, is in his stinginess of heart as well as money. Likewise, his reformation at the end of the novel is a conversion of the heart. Charity and benevolence and festivity and love and joy pour forth in equal measure. He becomes the Dickensian ideal: a “whole” man.
It was a stroke of genius on the author’s part to bring about this transformation with the aid of the supernatural. There is an atavistic power to the evocation of ghosts at this time of year, much as there is to the reenactment of the ancient feast.
I have always liked the English custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. It is not as popular as it used to be. We think of it as a Victorian custom, largely because of A Christmas Carol, but it is much, much older. Like other folkways it has receded from the forefront of the culture but we still encounter it.
Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).
The telling of ghost stories has a corollary in other customs that cast an eerie mood over the Christmas vigil. The parlor game snap-dragon was mentioned by Shakespeare and Dryden, and has an entry in Dr Johnson’s dictionary. It was already an old game in the nineteenth century when Dickens wrote of it in The Pickwick Papers. Snap-dragon is played with a bowl of raisins, soaked in brandy. The lights are dimmed and the brandy is set on fire, producing an uncanny blue flame. Participants attempt to snatch raisins out of the fire and extinguish them by popping them into their mouths and eating them. Writing in his journal, The Tatler, in the eighteenth century, Sir Richard Steele explained, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.”
In Pickwick Papers Dickens connected the playing of snap-dragon and the telling of “old stories” in his depiction of a Christmas Eve revel at Dingley Dell Farm, the Kentish manor house of Mr Wardle. After the dance, when the mood of the assembled guests had settled, Dickens writes:
[T]here was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.
“This,” said Mr Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”
“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.”
I think these traditions serve a ritual purpose similar to the antimasque in a masque. They are part of a performance, a folk ceremony, outside the formal liturgy of the church, that commemorates the triumph of Divine order over the fallen world.
The masque was a form of entertainment popular in Jacobean England. It was partly theater and partly dance. It would begin with an antimasque: a short vignette that represented the world in chaos. This might involve portrayals of drunken disorder, witchcraft, or war. The masque proper would then begin with the arrival of the king and queen and courtiers, disguised as ancient gods. They would conquer the antimasque and bring order to the symbolic universe of the hall—a transformation represented by a formal dance.
In the Christian liturgical year, the season of Advent that leads up to Christmas, is a time of fasting and preparation. It is a solemn season. We are given the opportunity to reflect on the hope and hardship of those who lived in the world before Christ was born into it: a world of darkness, confusion, and chaos. Every year we reenact the vigil of those who waited faithfully for the Savior through dark days. When Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas, and we remember the arrival of God in the world, darkness gives way to light, solemnity to celebration, fast to feasting, ghost stories to carols, chaos to Godly order.
The manuscripts of all five of Dickens’s Christmas novels, including A Christmas Carol, are on display together for the first time at the Morgan Library in New York where Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas runs through January 14, 2018.
Callow, Simon. (2012) Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. London: Harper Press.
Dickens, Charles. (1836) Sketches By Boz. London: John Macrone.
Dickens, Charles. (1837) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall.
Dickens, Charles. (1843) A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hall.
Forster, John. (1872-4) The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman & Hall.
Steele, Richard. (1887) Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer. London: Cassell & Company.
Arthur Machen (1863-1947) left a broad body of work. In addition to his superlative tales of the outré (The Great God Pan, The Hill of Dreams, “The White People,” et. al.), Machen was a prolific Fleet Street journalist. Given the length and breadth of his career it is somewhat surprising that almost no recordings of him exist. In 1934 he wrote to friend Montgomery Evans, “nor do I imagine that the B.B.C. has heard of me.”
He did eventually record at least one program for the BBC in March of 1937. A three-and-a-half minute fragment of the broadcast survives. It may be the only surviving record of Machen’s voice. On the program he discusses Charles Dickens, of whom he was a great admirer. It is a remarkable treasure for anyone who loves Machen as I do. Listen here.
Charles Dickens always wanted to be an actor. As a teenager in the late 1820s he was working in London as a lawyer’s clerk and a courtroom stenographer. In his free time he attended the theater with devotion. Dickens later wrote that he “went to some theatre every night…for at least three years.” Actors like William Macready, Charles Kean, Thomas Cooke, and Charles Mathews dominated the stage of this period. Dickens was particularly fond of Mathews, a veteran actor famous for his “monopolylogues,” one man shows in which he played all of the characters. Dickens would go wherever “there was the best acting; and always to see Mathews, whenever he played.” The monopolylogue was a form that naturally appealed to Dickens, who would entertain his coworkers by mimicking various London types, and who, later, as a prolific novelist, would recite his dialogue out loud, in character, as he wrote it.
By 1831 Dickens had begun to think of a career as an actor “in quite a business-like way.” That year he wrote to George Bartley, manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, to ask for an audition. Dickens told Bartley that he possessed “a strong perception of character and oddity, and a natural power of reproducing in my own person what I observed in others.” Bartley agreed to see him. When the day of the audition came, however, Dickens was sick with a cold. He rescheduled for the following season. By then the moment had passed. In the interim he was hired as a reporter for his uncle’s newspaper, The Mirror of Parliament. So Dickens went on to become the most celebrated writer of his age, instead of the most celebrated actor. And yet, he was never fully rid of his early ambition.
Beginning with his first novel, that magnificent, hilarious, deeply humane portrait of English life, The Pickwick Papers, almost all of Dickens’s novels were adapted for the stage. Often they were produced immediately upon publication, sometimes before the serialized chapters had finished running in the magazines that published them, and as often as not without the author’s permission. Within weeks of the publication of A Christmas Carol eight different adaptations were on stage in London. Dickens at least had authorized one of them.
These stage productions were invariably successful at the box office, so hungry was the public for the author’s work. The theater of his day must have been a perfect mirror for Dickens’s stories. He had drawn so much of his style of writing—the larger-than-life characters, the layering of dark melodrama and light comedy (what he called “streaky bacon”), the phantasmagoric set-pieces—from the theater. Simon Callow, in his superb biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, writes that, “Every episode of Pickwick introduced new editions of old stage characters; the spirit of Charles Mathews was everywhere in its pages.”
At the beginning of his career as a novelist Dickens also wrote for the stage. While he was writing The Pickwick Papers he composed the libretto for The Village Coquettes, an operetta by John Hullah, that was staged in 1836. The following year, while he was writing Oliver Twist, he wrote a farce for the St James Theatre called Is She His Wife? Callow believes that Dickens was too stage-struck, too reverent of the theater to make it his own: the plays “suffered from his abject adoration of the theatre of his day, which he dutifully reproduced. It would be hard to find a sentence in any essay, novel, story or letter of Dickens’s that does not have some authentic flavour, but you will search the plays in vain for a single Dickensian turn of phrase.”
By 1838 Dickens had largely sublimated his theatrical imagination into his novels. That year he was writing Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously, releasing monthly installments of each. For the next twenty years he kept to this pace, publishing as many as three books per year. But he continued to seek out any small opportunities he could find to be involved with the theater.
In 1845 Dickens and a group of literary and artistic friends staged a production of Ben Johnson’s play, Every Man in his Humour, for charity. Dickens took on the role of the great blustering braggart, Captain Bobadil. Performances were held in Soho and West End theaters. At one performance Queen Victoria was in attendance. Dickens went on to play Sir Epicure Mammon in Johnson’s The Alchemist and Justice Shallow in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor for similar charity productions. In 1856 he collaborated with Wilkie Collins on an amateur production of Collins’s new play, The Frozen Deep. The word amateur is used only in the strict sense that no money was recouped. The play was staged at Tavistock House, Dickens’s home in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London. In order to accommodate a thirty-foot stage and seating for around a hundred people, Dickens spared no expense to renovate the house. Sets were created by Clarkson Stansfield, who, Callow writes, “as well as being the most distinguished marine painter of his time and an RA, had earlier been the chief scene-painter at Drury Lane. Costumes came from Nathan’s, the premier theatrical costumiers, new gas-lines (to the disapproval of the fire office-surveyor) were laid down, machinery and props were loaned from the Theatre Royal Haymarket.”
The impetus behind Wilkie Collins’s script for The Frozen Deep was a controversy that had recently arisen over the doomed Franklin Expedition of the previous decade. Captain Sir John Franklin and a team of 128 men had set out in 1845 to chart the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Sea. Their ships became icebound in the Victoria Straight and all men were lost. In the early 1850s the first discoveries of their fate were made by search parties. A report to the Admiralty that was made public in 1854 suggested that the stranded party had resorted to cannibalism. Lady Franklin protested vigorously against this calumny on her husband’s memory. Like many members of the public, Dickens was incensed at the report, and devoted many words to defending Captain Franklin and his crew. The Frozen Deep portrayed the noble character of British men in a similar situation. Dickens would play the tragic hero, an explorer stranded in the arctic, who sacrifices himself to save another man, his rival for the love of a woman no less.
The first performances were played to audiences of friends, including members of Parliament and government ministers, in January of 1857. This was followed in July by a command performance for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, their family, and guests, including King Leopold of Belgium and Prince Frederick William of Prussia. In July and August six public performances were staged, at the Royal Gallery of Illustration in London, and Free Trade Hall in Manchester, for paying audiences, to benefit the widow of Dickens’s friend, playwright Douglas Jerrold.
By all contemporary accounts Dickens’s performance was excellent. A reviewer for The Leader wrote that what he accomplished “might open a new era for the stage, if the stage had the wisdom to profit by it.” There was not a dry eye in the house by the end. “[I]t was a good thing,” Dickens wrote, “to have a couple of thousand people…in the palm of one’s hand.” Twenty-five years after missing an audition at the Covent Garden Theatre, Dickens had finally tread the boards, and proven himself as an actor. When the engagements were over, he felt “shipwrecked.”
Shortly afterward Dickens gave a series of public readings from his own work, to benefit Great Ormond Street Hospital, which proved very successful. He began to see in the medium of staged readings a natural outlet for his theatrical ambitions. He planned what would be an ongoing and lucrative speaking tour. For ten months between April of 1858 and February of 1859, he held 129 readings across the United Kingdom.
“Readings” is not really a sufficient word for what Dickens did at these appearances. He transformed himself into his characters—into David Copperfield, into Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, Fagin from Oliver Twist, and countless others. Charles Kent, who was in the audience, wrote:
Fagin, the Jew, was there completely, audibly, visibly before us, by a sort of transformation…Whenever [Dickens] spoke [as the character], there started before us high-shouldered with contracted chest, with birdlike claws, eagerly anticipating by their every movement the passionate words fiercely struggling for utterance at his lips—that most villainous old tutor of young thieves, receiver of stolen goods, and very devil incarnate: his features distorted with rage, his penthouse eyebrows (those wonderful eyebrows!) working like the antennae of some deadly reptile, his whole aspect, half-vulpine, half-vulture-like, in its hungry wickedness.
Standing alone on the stage, behind an unobtrusive desk that he had designed himself, Dickens shifted mercurially between characters as he conjured stories for the audience. Simon Callow quotes Thomas Carlyle telling Dickens, “you carry a whole company under your hat.” The effect could be frightening or funny or both. A reviewer for The Times called it a “return to the practice of Bardic times.” A more immediate association might have been to the theater of Charles Mathews—these were monopolylogues.
Throughout the last decade of his life, despite increasingly poor health, Dickens continued to mount major speaking tours. He visited America in 1868, giving 76 readings in New York, Boston, and other cities, then returned to launch a final tour in Britain. In the 1860s, he added a sensational and horrifying segment to his stage repertoire: the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. Charles Kent left a record of the performance:
As for the Author’s embodiment of Sikes—the burly ruffian with thews of iron and voice of Stentor—it was only necessary to hear that infuriated voice, and watch the appalling blows dealt by his imaginary bludgeon in the perpetration of the crime, to realise the force, the power, the passion, informing the creative mind of the Novelist at once in the original conception of the character, and then, so many years afterwards, in its equally astonishing representation.
It was in the portrayal of Nancy, however, that the genius of the Author-Actor found the opportunity, beyond all others, for its most signal manifestation. Only that the catastrophe was in itself, by necessity so utterly revolting, there would have been something exquisitely pathetic in many parts of that affecting delineation. The character was revealed with perfect consistency throughout—from the scene of suppressed emotion upon the steps of London Bridge, when she is scared with the eltrich horror of her forebodings, down to her last gasping, shrieking apostrophes, to “Bill, dear Bill,” when she sinks, blinded by blood, under the murderous blows dealt upon her upturned face by her brutal paramour.
Then, again, the horror experienced by the assassin afterwards! So far as it went, it was as grand a reprehension of all murderers as hand could well have penned or tongue have uttered. It had about it something of the articulation of an avenging voice not against Sikes only, but against all who ever outraged, or ever dreamt of outraging, the sanctity of human life. And it was precisely this which tended to sublimate an incident otherwise of the ghastliest horror into a homily of burning eloquence, the recollection of which among those who once saw it revealed through the lips, the eyes, the whole aspect of Charles Dickens will not easily be obliterated.
These nightly displays took an immense toll on the author. He was already suffering health problems. By the time of the farewell tour he had to lie down for half an hour after every performance to bring his pulse back to normal. There was swelling in his extremities. He slurred words and had difficulty reading. Nevertheless he pressed on and by some miracle or force of will his stage presence did not seem to suffer at all.
Dickens gave his final reading on March 15, 1870, at St James’s Hall in London. He performed A Christmas Carol and the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers. When it was over he addressed a few closing remarks to the audience. His speech ostensibly marked the end of his performing career and the resumption of his writing. But as Callow notes, “it was a sort of swansong, and everyone knew it.” Dickens said:
Ladies and gentlemen—It would be worse than idle—for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling—if I were to disguise that I close this episode in my life with feelings of very considerable pain. For some fifteen years, in this hall and in many kindred places, I have had the honour of presenting my own cherished ideas before you for your recognition, and, in closely observing your reception of them, have enjoyed an amount of artistic delight and instruction which, perhaps, is given to few men to know. In this task, and in every other I have ever undertaken, as a faithful servant of the public, always imbued with a sense of duty to them, and always striving to do his best, I have been uniformly cheered by the readiest response, the most generous sympathy, and the most stimulating support. Nevertheless, I have thought it well, at the full flood-tide of your favour, to retire upon those older associations between us, which date from much further back than these, and henceforth to devote myself exclusively to the art that first brought us together. Ladies and gentlemen, in but two short weeks from this time I hope that you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series of readings, at which my assistance will be indispensable; but from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.
Dickens died of a stroke at his home in Kent less than three months later, leaving his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.