Charles Dickens in Boston

On his second tour of the United States in the late 1860s, Charles Dickens took rooms at the Parker House in Boston. This hotel was his headquarters for five months between 1867 and 1868, during which time he traveled extensively among other cities. Next door at the Tremont Temple he gave the first American reading of A Christmas Carol—from memory—together with the trial scene from Pickwick, a perennial favorite with audiences.

The Parker House was torn down and rebuilt in stages during the 1920s, with the present building completed in 1927. Two artifacts related to Dickens and his residency can still be found on site. The first is a mirror in which he rehearsed. On stage he would seem to transform into the various characters from his books, not only in voice, but in body and mannerism.

If you find yourself at the Parker House, you will see his mirror on the mezzanine floor, to the left of the elevator bank.

The second artifact is the very door to the suite of rooms that he occupied, with the numbers 138 and 139 affixed. This was salvaged during the demolition of the original building and stands in a small gallery downstairs from the lobby.

See also: Dickens and the Stage.

Bocca Baciata

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two excellent paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in its collection. I have been in Boston this week and paid a visit to the MFA, as I always do on such trips.

The highlight for any admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites is Rossetti’s 1859 painting Bocca Baciata. This work marked a transition in the artist’s career, away from the narrative Medieval paintings of his youth and toward the sensuous female portraits of his mature period. The title comes from a line in Boccaccio’s Decameron, which is written on the reverse of the canvas:

Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna.

‘The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its good fortune:
rather, it renews itself just as the moon does.’

Bocca baciata means, “The mouth that his been kissed,” or “the kissed mouth.”

The model was Fanny Cornforth, who lived with Rossetti at the time. She also sat for the the second painting in the collection: Belcolore, or Girl with Rose, from 1863. It is a fitting companion piece as the subject is likewise drawn from the Decameron. The character of Monna Belcolore is a married woman who is courted by her village priest in one of the stories within the story.

A Spitalfields Tour

The Gentle Author is crowdfunding a walking tour of Spitalfields in East London. It draws from the centuries of cultural history documented on his blog, Spitalfields Life. The tour would challenge a market cynically dominated by Jack the Ripper. The Gentle Author writes,

I am appalled that educational institutions send classes of students and school children on the exploitative serial killer tours which display autopsy photographs of women in the street, indulging in ghoulish humour at the expense of these victims.

Instead, I am offering visitors the opportunity to meet a member of the local community and learn something of the infinite variety of life that has evolved in London’s first suburb over two millennia. For the past two years, I have been developing and road-testing THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS which I plan to launch this spring.

A donation of £100 or more includes two complimentary tickets.

Introduction to James Fenimore Cooper

JAMES FENIMORE COOPER: A LIFE
Paperback, 376 pp (Winchester, UK: John Hunt/Chronos Books, 2016)
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Prologue
New York City
February 25, 1852

It is five months since the death of James Fenimore Cooper, an evening in late winter. The island of Manhattan glows softly against the darkness. Some four-and-a-half thousand street lamps are blazing between the East River and the Hudson. Crowds in their multitude assemble outside Metropolitan Hall on Broadway opposite fashionable Bond Street. The great avenue is always busy with people. From the Battery to Union Square, Broadway is a carnival of shops, hotels, theaters, grand homes, and restaurants. A British tourist around this time likened the congestion of people here to all the traffic of the Strand and Cheapside in London squeezed onto Oxford Street.

Metropolitan Hall is a jewel of the avenue. The imposing theater is the largest in America. Only the opera houses of Milan, London, and Havana are larger. It anchors an entertainment district that spans south to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and north to the Astor Place Opera House. Tonight the traffic of Broadway, still a two-way street, seems to converge upon the theater. 

People arrive by horse-drawn carriages. They arrive on foot. The night is cold, coming off of a balmy day. Temperatures hang just above freezing. By morning the city will be blanketed in fog. The Hall is illuminated, inside and out, by modern gas lamps. The people now filtering in are bathed by warm light. They enter a vast space of brightness and ornament; they greet one another as they take seats. This is, an early biographer of Cooper would later write, “the most cultivated audience the city could boast.”

A number of famous men take seats upon the stage: Daniel Webster, the former senator from Massachusetts and sitting secretary of state; Washington Irving, the great essayist and author; Ambrose Kingsland, mayor of New York; and William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Post. At eight o’clock, Irving steps forward to address the crowd. He says only a few words, praising “the genius of one” who is entitled “to the love, respect, and admiration of every American.” He is speaking of Cooper.

The event is a public memorial for the late author of The Last of the Mohicans. It is, on the surface, unremarkable that such an event should be held. James Fenimore Cooper was America’s first novelist and one of its first celebrities. Over the course of a prolific career he created an enduring national mythology. Yet there is a deeper significance to this gathering.

Irving introduces Daniel Webster, who steps forward. The great orator praises Cooper for his “literary productions, taste, talent, and genius.” The audience applauds when he says that Cooper’s writings “were patriotic—American throughout.” Letters are read from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, honoring Cooper. 

The man is to be remade in marble—figuratively, through these accolades—and, perhaps, literally, as the proceeds of the evening will go toward the commission of a statue. All of this is natural, of course. But the man of flesh and blood and passion does not yield so easily to the transformation. There is a hint of controversy. In Melville’s letter, the author of Moby Dick writes of Cooper, “It always much pained me, that for any reason, in his latter years, his fame…should have apparently received a slight, temporary clouding, from some very paltry accidents, incident more or less to the general career of letters.”

William Cullen Bryant takes the podium. He was a personal friend and speaks at length about Cooper’s life. During the course of his address he names the controversy to which Melville had alluded. “Scarce any thing in Cooper’s life was so remarkable,” Bryant says, “as his contest with the newspaper press.”

Cooper had become embroiled in the politics of the Jacksonian period. Through a series of mutual provocations and misunderstandings, Cooper, a Jackson Democrat, embarked on a long, bitter, public war of words against the newspaper editors aligned with the rival Whig party. The field of battle advanced from the printed page to the courtroom. Bryant paints a flattering portrait of Cooper’s conduct and outcome in the affair: he “behaved liberally toward his antagonists,” while “vindicating himself to his readers,” and chastening the press into “docility” and “good manners.” In fact, Cooper lost much to the controversy. At the time of his death he had only just begun to repair a career that had been brought almost to ruins.

It is significant that Washington Irving and Daniel Webster are involved in the proceedings. Indeed, Irving is chairman of the memorial committee. Notwithstanding their national prominence the involvement of these two men is counter-intuitive. Cooper had treated Irving poorly in life, rebuffing his friendship and insulting him to mutual friends. It was a private matter, tangential to Cooper’s larger public battles, but well known within their literary circle. Although Cooper and Webster had no history, Webster was, is, and always shall be the most celebrated figure associated with the Whig party.

Some critics take issue with these speakers. Some find the selection of Webster unsuitable, dismissing his eulogy as commonplace or without substance. But the audience seems, by their applause, to understand the extraordinary gesture being made: Cooper is now reconciled with his country. The controversies of his life are put to rest, the wounds healed. Let there be no question of his genius or his patriotism.

The man begins to fade from memory. His books alone are left to posterity. Cooper’s vision of America was romantic and ambiguous, focused on the meeting point of wild places (forest, sea) and hard, persevering men. His greatest creation, Natty Bumppo, the frontiersman featured in his most enduring work, became a symbol of the American spirit. Natty, like his author, chafes against the limits of American life. Over the course of five novels Natty serves the cause of civIlization while retreating from its encroachment. His final bitter victory is to die with the frontier rather than submit himself to human law or join the company of his fellow men.

Cooper was at once a champion and critic of American society. While abroad in Europe he defended his country against foreign opinion with crusading zeal. At home he was the devil’s own advocate toward American democracy and culture. He opposed the great men of his day. Yet here they were, at Metropolitan Hall, to honor him. These contradictions cannot be untangled without losing some truth about the man and his age.  

What do we learn by studying Cooper? According to Daniel Webster, “we may read the nation’s history in his life.” Let us go back then to the beginning. The life of James Fenimore Cooper and the history of the United States begin, together, in a different, younger land.

Dickens at 210

“Then came the time when, inseparable from one’s own birthday, was a certain sense of merit, a consciousness of well-earned distinction. When I regarded my birthday as a graceful achievement of my own, a monument of my perseverance, independence, and good sense, redounding greatly to my honour.”—Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller.

The great Boz was born on this day in 1812. I commend to your attention the following excerpts from my book Victoriana:

Dickens and the Stage
A Ghost Story for Christmas

and assorted Dickensian posts:

London By Gaslight
A Map of Dickensian London
A Lost Portrait of Charles Dickens Rediscovered
A Portrait of Charles Dickens Returns Home
A Dickensian Shop Sign

See also:

Dickens at 209.

New Year’s Calling

Several Christmases ago I wrote about the bygone tradition of New Year’s Day “calling” in New York, when rounds of visits were paid to friends and acquaintances and every house was open to guests. It was the social highlight of the holiday season from the time of the Dutch settlers until the custom faded in the 1870s and 1880s.

This year I want to revisit the topic with some contemporary descriptions of the event. The first comes from Mrs T.J. Crowen, who offered instructions for hostesses in her 1847 book, The American System of Cookery. She wrote:

In New York City, where it is the custom for ladies to remain at home to receive the calls of their gentlemen friends, there is not time nor occasion for dinner; should it be desirable, it would be similar to that for Christmas, or instead—a cold roasted turkey (bone it if you can), cold boiled ham or tongue, a large glass salad-bowl of pickled oysters, or an oyster pie with dressed celery or a chicken salad, with jelly puffs and tarts and small mince pies, blancmange, de russe and jellies and ice cream and fancy cakes, with syrup water and orgeat or lemonade for temperance, or wines and punch. The manner of celebrating New Year’s day by calls, is a peculiarity of our own, and having so few which are ‘native here,’ many of our wisest and best, have wished that this might in no wise be slighted. Many a feud-divided family have been united, and misunderstanding friends have been brought together, under the all-pervading hospitality and genial influence which distinguishes the day.

Mrs Crowen’s book was obviously a primary source for the Lotus article I quoted in the aforementioned post, which lists many of the same dishes.

A number of first-hand accounts give us a sense of the experience of the day. In her diary for January 2, 1850, later published as Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, ten-year old Catherine Havens wrote:

Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and I had lovely presents. We had 139 callers, and I have an ivory tablet and write all their names down on it. We have to be dressed and ready by 10 o’clock to receive. Some of the gentleman come together and don’t stay more than a minute; but some go into the back room and take some oysters and coffee and cake, and stay and talk…The gentlemen dropping in all day and until long after I have gone to bed; and the horses look tired, and the livery men make a lot of money.

Mr. Woolsey Porter and his brother, Mr. Dwight Porter always come in the evening and sit and talk a long time. They are very fond of one of my sisters.

As the latter comment suggests, match-making and romance were part of the appeal for the younger generations.

The artist James Edward Kelly was a young teenager in the late 1860s. He reminisced on the tradition of calls at that time in an unpublished memoir, later released in the collection, Tell Me of Lincoln. He wrote:

There was great preparation on all sides for calling and receiving on New Year’s Day. Parties were made up and lists prepared. Those who had money hired a coach or sleigh, while others less fortunate footed it…New Year’s morning, with shutters closed, and blinds drawn down, gas lighted, the young ladies prepared to receive their guests. All seemed to reflect the glow and color of the pendant prisms on the chandeliers and candelabra…The girls in full dress with flowers in their hair, clustered around a long table. Its glistening silver coffee urn, liquors, etc., with the usual turkey and other substantial things, which they served to the groups of merry friends who had driven up in their cutters…Most of the guests seemed anxious to make a record for the number of calls they made—as the girls were anxious as to the number of calls they received by counting their visiting cards—but others evidently came to stay judging from the way they clustered around the beautiful young girls.

The end of New Year’s Day calling in Gotham can be dated definitively to the 1880s, with The New York Times recording the last vestiges of observance in 1888. An article entitled “A Very Quiet New Year’s; Very Few of the Usual ‘Calls’ Made Yesterday,” appeared on January 3rd. The Times reported:

But by far the most noteworthy circumstance in yesterday’s history was the almost complete death of the ancient custom of call-making.

Some of the ‘old boys,’ however, could be seen yesterday in their spotless kid gloves and shiny ties making the rounds as solemnly as they did 30, 40, or 50 years ago…In none of the brownstone districts yesterday were the familiar sights of other New Year’s Days to be encountered…Not even the acknowledgment of a basket for cards was shown either on Fifth or Madison avenue of the cross streets.

Few carriages were observed bearing the gentlemen about on a pilgrimage of good wishes, and as a matter of fact the ladies themselves did not even deem it necessary to inform their friends that they should not receive. It was taken for granted that they would not.

Pictured above: “New Year’s Calls—The Knickerbockers of 1650 and 1873” by Sol Eytinge. Published in Harper’s Weekly (January 4, 1873).

See also: New Year’s Day in Old New York.

The Snow Queen

The image above is taken from a print in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it is described as: “photograph of man making a snow sculpture resembling Queen Victoria, unknown photographer, ca. 1890.” The sculptor is quite talented. Can he be identified?

The only account of Her Majesty sculpted in snow that I could find was in The Harmsworth London Magazine from December of 1901. An article describes the “young art students of Brussels…moulding statues in the snow.” The previous year “some twenty-six different statues were on show at the Royal Park in Brussels.” The entries were judged and “the moulder of the statue of the late Queen Victoria was awarded a prize.”

Ratcliffe Highway Revisited

In Victoriana, I describe a piece of ink-black satire written by the Romanticist, Thomas De Quincey, entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”

“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.

The entire chapter, “Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre,” can be read here on the blog.

The Ratcliffe Highway murders took place two hundred and ten years ago this month. At Spitalfields Life, The Gentle Author has a serialized account of the events running roughly coterminously with the 1811 dates. So far he has published three chapters: “The Death Of A Linen Draper,” “Horrid Murder,” and “The Burial of the Victims.”

Fenimore Cooper in New York

For many years I lived on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. During that time I wrote a biography of James Fenimore Cooper. My office at the back of the apartment overlooked a charmless space behind the neighboring bars, restaurants, and apartment buildings. But as I was researching and writing the book I discovered that the room afforded me a view of Cooper’s own house. 149 Bleecker Street is one of two surviving city residences. Cooper, his wife Susan, and their children, moved into the house in 1833, after a seven year sojourn in Europe.

I describe their arrival in the following excerpt:

The Coopers disembarked on Manhattan Island along with four Swiss servants and a French tiger cat named Coquelicot, after the French word for poppy, the flower that had made such an impression on the family when first seen at Netley Abbey. From the docks they went directly to the City Hotel on Broadway between Thames and Cedar streets. A letter was waiting for them at reception from Susan’s sister Caroline. She informed them that lodgings had been rented for the Coopers in Greenwich Village. It was Samuel Morse who had made the arrangements. He selected for them a townhouse at number 4 Carroll Place, what is now 149 Bleecker Street. In 1833 the section of Bleecker between Thompson Street and LaGuardia Place (then Laurens Street) was named Carroll Place, after Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Susan’s sisters had taken it upon themselves to furnish and prepare the house. In a letter to Ann Pomeroy, her sister-in-law, Susan wrote that the DeLancey women “had every thing as comfortable for us, as it was possible, a good and bright fire, and tea ready—and were themselves on the steps waiting to welcome us—It was a happy moment, when I heard their dear voices, and pressed them to my bosom, after so long a separation”. Within an hour of their arrival the Coopers were joined at Carroll Place by James’s niece (Ann’s daughter) Georgeann, her husband Theodore Keese, and their son George Pomeroy Keese, as well another niece, Isaac’s daughter, Mary.

The Coopers also received a warm welcome from their oldest and dearest friends. Upon learning that they had returned, William Dunlap made haste to the house at Carroll Place. In his enthusiasm he arrived before the Coopers. As James Beard writes, Samuel Morse, who had preceded them across the Atlantic, “immediately resumed his intimacy with the Coopers”—as did James’s lifelong friend, William Jay, and Jay’s brother Peter, along with their families.

Viewed from the old office (below), the house in question is third from the foreground, with a black garret window. The taller building in the middle is part of the original terraced row with its neighbors, but was later extended by two storeys.

149 Bleecker Street has been occupied by Terra Blues for the past thirty years.

Rossetti’s Wombat

At his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a menagerie of exotic animals. This included peacocks, owls, parakeets, armadillos, kangaroos, a Brahmin bull, donkeys, and a raccoon who lived in a chest of drawers.

Most of the animals were purchased through Charles Jamrach, a dealer of wild animals with premises in Ratcliffe Highway. Jamrach was well known, mentioned by name in Dracula by Bram Stoker: a wolf that escapes from the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park is “one of three grey ones that came from Norway to Jamrach’s, which we bought off him four years ago.”

In September of 1869, Rossetti acquired the jewel of his collection: a wombat. His interest in the marsupials had evidently been cultivated at the same Regent’s Park Zoo, where several were exhibited. In a letter to Ford Madox Brown in July of 1860, he wrote, “Dear Brown: Lizzie [Siddal] and I propose to meet Georgie and Ned [Burne-Jones] at 2 pm tomorrow at the Zoological Gardens—place of meeting, the Wombat’s Lair.”

An early appearance of a wombat in Rossetti’s art can be seen in the frontispiece illustration he made for his sister Christina’s book, Goblin Market, in 1865.

The wombat that Rossetti purchased from Jamrach was short lived, as were many of his rather irresponsibly housed pets. Rossetti named the creature “Top,” in what seems to have been a reference to the plump, hirsute William Morris, whom Rossetti was cuckolding. Morris had long been known to friends by the nickname “Topsy.” A sketch by Rossetti of Jane Morris leading the wombat Top by a leash can be seen to underscore the point.

The wombat died on November 6, 1869. Rossetti commemorated the event with a sketch of himself in mourning. As Angus Trumble writes, the portrait “is satirical but was apparently prompted by genuine grief.”

Rossetti wrote a stanza of verse to accompany it:

I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tailless, he was sure to die!

Alas!