Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Irish Wife

So many of our writers in London in the 1890s were terrible lovers, cheating on their spouses and harbouring secret loves for another, but not all were so.

The Irish-born writer, Katherine Tynan seems to have shared a long and happy life with her Irish-born husband, Henry Hinkson, even if little seems to be said about it.

A literary biography of the couple, Katherine Tynan, states that:
A well-bred woman of her class cannot speak to openly of love, even conjugal love. If Mrs. Tynan Hinkson had for her husband feelings comparable to Elizabeth Barrett's for Robert Browning, she was too inhibited to write them down.
I could never prove that her romance was not so tender and satisfying, but she was too inhibited, too well-bred by her own definition, to verbalize it.
She did, however, publish a collection of love songs. I like to imagine her looking on and smiling as Henry Hinkson sang this one for her.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love Doodles

H.G. Wells second marriage was unconventional, but I think most things that writers did with their hearts in the 1890s were unconventional. What stands out about this one is that Wells married Amy Catherine Robbins, "Jane," in 1895; the couple had a turbulent, but fun and open marriage until her death in 1927.

Ok, maybe it wasn't fun, but The Picshuas of H.G. Wells: A Burlesque Diary make it difficult to imagine it was all that terrible, when he communicated with her so frequently through cartoons. I'm collecting some of them here for your enjoyment.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

For Love and Ireland

W.B. Yeats joined the Irish nationalist cause as much for his love of Maud Gonne, a beautiful young Irish feminist, as he did for his politics. Though Gonne liked and admired Yeats, this was a story of unrequited love.

The pair met on 30 January 1890. Biographies on Yeats call Gonne "an actress whose great beauty would haunt (Yeats) for the rest of his life." Her passionate work for the nationalist cause in Ireland and her reckless destructiveness in pursuit of her political goals plagued Yeats. Thought he tried to support those goals in his own way.

Yeats focused on drama, trying to spark a revival of Irish literature and culture. Gonne liked this, but regularly refused to marry him (between 1890 and 1901) and they remained close friends through many estrangements, including her marriage to Major John MacBride. In his poetry, Yeats compared her to Helen of Troy, whose capriciousness led to the destruction of a civilization.

In her autobiography, Gonne wrote a great deal about Yeats, including the following:
While we were still at dinner Willie Yeats arrived to see me and we all went into the drawing-room for coffee. Kathleen (Gonne) and I sat together on a big sofa amid piles of soft cushions. I was still in my dark clothes with the black veil I always wore when travelling instead of a hat, we must have made a strange contrast. I saw Willie Yeats looking critically at me and he told Kathleen he liked her dress and that she was looking younger than ever. I was on that occassion Kathleen remarked that it was hard work being beautiful, which Willie turned into his poem Adam's Curse.
Gonne actually includes the poem in its entirety here, but I trust that you can look it up, if you haven't read it.

Next day when he called to take me out to pay my customary visit to Lia Fail, he said:
"You don't take care of yourself as Kathleen does, so she looks younger than you; your face is worn and thin; but you will always be more beautiful, more beautiful than anyone I have known. You can't help that. Oh Maud, why don't you marry me and give up this tragic struggle and live a peaceful life? I could make such a beautiful life for you among artists and writers who would understand you."
"Willie, are you not tired of asking that question? How often have I told you to thank the gods that I will not marry you. You would not be happy with me."
"I am not happy without you."
"Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. I will tell you one thing, our friendship had meant a great deal to me; it has helped me often when I needed help, needed it perhaps more than you or anyone ever knew, for I never talk or even think of these things."
Like Gonne, I believe that some loves are meant to inspire and carry a person through hard times. Indeed, we should be grateful for every love we've ever had in our lives, no matter how happy or unhappy they make us.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Poor O

One of the most romanticized stories of Oscar Wilde's life is that of his relationship with Bram Stoker's wife, whose maiden name was Florence Anne Lemon Balcombe. The story goes like this: Wilde and the future Mrs. Stoker were sweethearts; Wilde's mother asked Stoker to tutor Wilde in his studies at Trinity college; Stoker stole Wilde's girlfriend; brought her to London; and ran the most successful theatre in town, while Wilde wrote plays and married someone else, then started having sex with men.

Some suppose that Wilde began writing plays to renew Mrs. Stoker's affection for him because he knew she fancied herself an actress Sadly, so many pieces of the puzzle are missing, but I don't like how contemporary scholars demonize poor Florrie. Just now, I read in Barbara Belford's book that:
At the time of Wilde's trials in 1895, Florence was vainly preoccupied; her portrait by Walter Frederick Oscborne, a well-known Dublin artist, was shown at the Royal Academy's summer exhibition. "One of the very best portraits of the year, if not really the best,"The Atheneaum noted, "is that of Mrs. Bram Stoker, sitting upon a white bearskin, with a warm grey background and mainly in half-tone." Draped in fur, Florence looks positively feral. Stoker accepted congratulations all around: for Irving, for his brother, for his wife. For Wilde there was only silence.
Some details that I think are important, when we judge Mrs. Stoker on her treatment of Wilde, are:
  • She was only seventeen, when both Wilde and Stoker were courting her. Her family was dirt poor and she had no dowry. Wilde was still in college and Stoker was 28, with a steady job that paid good money. I've heard speculation that her parents probably pressured her to marry Stoker.
  • The Stokers' marriage was passionless, platonic basically. The couple stopped having sex when their son was born. Mrs. Stoker had her own room, which her friends claim, was adorned with mementos of "Poor O." She called him "Poor O," acknowledging the impropriety of a married woman thinking of another man. 
  • We know, through a letter that Wilde wrote to their mutual friend, Ellen Terry, that Wilde was very covert in communicating with Mrs. Stoker, not wanting to cause any unhappiness, embarrassment or scandal, as much as he was still in love with her.
  • The last written evidence of communication between the two was in 1893.
  • The night before his trials began, Wilde considered having his own portrait done.
  • Their friends speculated that if Wilde had married Mrs. Stoker, instead of Constance Wilde, he might not have got into any of the trouble that he did, fooling around with men.
I'm certainly not going to speculate or comment on that last point, except to say that I think that it acknowles that Wilde and Mrs. Stoker would have been a love match. I accept the premise that Mrs. Stoker was a vain social climber, but so was Wilde and nothing is ever that simple. Remember, Wilde almost had his portrait painted the night before he went to trial! It is a picture worth a million pounds!

I'll just linger a moment longer to imagine there is any significant correlation between the timing of Mrs. Stoker's portrait and the trials of Oscar Wilde. In today's world, bad news means high profits for the cosmetics industry; lipstick sales go through the roof, when people are depressed. Lipstick is an easy way for one to feel better about oneself, especially if you are a girl. If Mrs. Stoker was sad, don't you think having a portrait done for the Royal Academy's summer exhibition would cheer her up? I think it would.

I think it's possible that Poor Florrie's poor heart was breaking for Poor O and she had no way of expressing it. The trials themselves were an example of what could happen when one engaged in a love that dare not speak its name.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Some Old Ideas About Birth Control

Today, I'm looking at two writers. I don't suspect they were ever in love, but they did work togather to produce one of the more interesting reads on birth control methods that I've seen from the decade. I'm speaking, of course, about Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant's Fruits of Philosophy, A Treatise of the Population Question (1832).

Annie Besant was a socialist, women's rights activist, writer, and public speaker. While the Fruits of Philosophy was being written and/or published, she was developing a close friendship with the religious scholar, Helena Blavatsky. The two were very interested in Theosophy. Charles Bradlaugh, on the other hand, was a famous atheist.

Though I'm still not certain what compelled the pair to work together on the Fruits of Philosophy, the following passages provide a lot of insight into how Victorians were making love.
There have been several means proposed and practiced for checking conception. I shall briefly notice them, though a knowledge of the best is what most concerns us. That of withdrawal immediately before emission is certainly effectual, if practiced with sufficient care. But if (as I believe) Dr. Dewees’ theory of conception be correct, and as Spallanzani’s experiments show that only a trifle of semen, even largely diluted with water, may impregnate by being injected into the vagina, it is clear that nothing short of entire withdrawl is to be depended upon. But the old notion that the semen must enter the uterus to cause conception, has led many to believe that a partial withdrawal is sufficient, and it is on this account that this error has proved mischievous, as all important errors generally do. 
First, I love the use of the word mischievous there. Second, I'm pointing out that even 122 years ago they didn't even believe that the body could repress conception, the way that some American Republicans do today!
It is said by those who speak from experience that the practice of withdrawal has an effect upon the health similar to intemperance in eating. As the subsequent exhaustion is probably mainly owing to the shock the nervous system sustains in the act of coition, this opinion may be correct. 
The only way I can reconcile that misconception is with the myth of blue balls. Really, the myth that one suffers from the premature interruption of sex should have been exploded by the fact that Victorians didn't believe that loads of women were sexually deranged... oh, never mind, they did. But that, at least, gave us the vibrator! 

Fruits of Philosophy continues later to say:
Another check which the old idea of conception has led some to recommend with considerable confidence, consists in introducing into the vagina, previous to connection, a very delicate piece of sponge, moistened with water, to be immediately afterward withdrawn by means of a very narrow ribbon attached to it. But, as our views would lead us to expect, this check has not proved a sure preventive. As there are many little ridges or folds in the vagina, we cannot suppose the withdrawal of the sponge would dislodge all the semen in every instance. If, however, it were well moistened with some liquid which acted chemically upon the semen, it would be pretty likely to destroy the fecundating property of what might remain. 
Even though it's a terrible form of birth control, I love that they were using it in Victorian England. Women needed something other than that reusable condom that was available to some Victorian men. I've also read that sponges dipped in brandy were used in seventeenth-century France. The Fruits of Philosophy goes on at great length about different kinds of concoctions the authors think will act as safe spermicides, but I don't imagine that those mixtures were any safer than sticking a sponge covered in brandy up there. 
It consists in syringing the vagina immediately after connection with a solution of sulphate of zinc, of alum, pearl-ash, or any salt that acts chemically on the semen, and at the same time produces no unfavorable effect on the female.
In all probability a vegetable astringent would answer— as an infusion of white oak bark, of red rose leaves, of nutgalls, and the like. A lump of either of the above-mentioned salts, of the size of a chestnut, may be dissolved in a pint of water, making the solution weaker or stronger, as it may be borne without any irritation of the parts to which it is applied. These solutions will not lose their virtues by age. 
Yuck, yuck, and yuck!
I know the use of this check requires the woman to leave her bed for a few moments, but this is its only objection...
It's certainly not the only objection! Like I tried to say before, that just sounds disgusting! What I do like, however, is that the Fruits of Philosophy promote their methods as affordable; it's good that was important to them, even if it was because they had their minds set on stopping poor people from reproducing. 

More positively, as Slip Into Something Victorian observes:
Douching had several benefits. First, of all it was legal through the entire period. While the Comstock laws made pretty much anything related to reproduction “obscene” and could therefore not be transported through the mail, douching was considered by most doctors as an important part of women’s health. Secondly, the more acceptable method of method of birth control, withdrawal, depended upon the male and his willingness to practice it, whereas douching put the control in the hands of the wife, who, after all, paid the most for the outcome.
As Bradlaugh and Besant go on, it seems that douching after sex was the most popular way of preventing pregnancy for the woman. I've certainly seen that to be true through literary evidence from the beginning of the twentieth century.

Thank you to Susan Ives for finding this!

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Friday, February 8, 2013

A Single White Snowdrop

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very secretive in his memoirs about his romance with Jean Leckie. That might be because he was plagued with guilt for falling in love with a beautiful woman, fourteen years his junior, while his first wife was very ill. In his defense, contemporary scholars claim that he conducted the romance with the upmost propriety.

His secretiveness makes it difficult to know all of the details, but he never forgot the day he met. His daughter later claimed that he saw her mother before that notable day, which would make sense because their meeting was prearranged.

According to biographer, Andrew Lycett:
Arthur first met Jean Leckie on March 15, 1897. ... Although, inconveniently, he still had an invalid wife, he had found a striking younger woman with whom he fell passionately in love.
Jean had a trim figure, searching green eyes and cascading golden hair, her only blemish being a small, downturned mouth that brought a pinched quality to her features. Blessed with a fine mezzo-soprano voice, she was studying to be a singer, which meant that, for the time being, she lived with her parents in Blackheath, south London...
Their daughter recalled hearing that her father became smitten with her mother after watching her play a game of rounders.

Lycett suggests that "a lot of planning" may have gone into Doyle and Leckie's first encounter, which occurred the day after her 23rd birthday. The two attended a popular concert by the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim and his quartet.

Doyle would celebrate the anniversary of that day every year afterwards, by giving her a single white snowdrop.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The First Romantic Movie Ever Made

Movies were a brand new thing in the 1890s. Originally, movies weren't very long. The first romantic movie ever made was an 18-second sensation called: "The May Irwin Kiss." It became the most popular film of the year and became the first in a long line of romantic cinema.

As Yet Another Movie Blog observes, the film itself is like a home movie because you are thrown into the scene without any information about the characters or the setting, but the assumption was that, if you went to the theatre to see this film, you already knew what it was and all of the background information, which was the climax from the play, The Widow Jones.

May Irwin is the actress in the film. She was Canadian and worked primarily in the United States, but this is a blog about Writers in London in the 1890s, so I've done a little extra work to link her to our literary stars.

According to the notes on the May Irwin Collection at the Whitby archives,
In 1883, Irwin acted with Augustin Daly’s company and spent several seasons at Toole’s Theatre in London, England. She returned to New York for the 1891-92 season and in 1893 she played Ophelia in a burlesque production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan.
I would love to see a burlesque production of Lady Windemere's Fan, even today!

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Cigarette Case

The following is one of my many favorite scenes from the Importance of Being Earnest.
Algernon. Bring me that cigarette case Mr. Worthing left in the smoking-room the last time he dined here.
Lane. Yes, sir. [Lane goes out.]
Jack. Do you mean to say you have had my cigarette case all this time? I wish to goodness you had let me know. I have been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it. I was very nearly offering a large reward.
Algernon. Well, I wish you would offer one. I happen to be more than usually hard up.
Jack. There is no good offering a large reward now that the thing is found.
[Enter Lane with the cigarette case on a salver. Algernon takes it at once. Lane goes out.]
Algernon. I think that is rather mean of you, Ernest, I must say. [Opens case and examines it.] However, it makes no matter, for, now that I look at the inscription inside, I find that the thing isn’t yours after all.
Jack. Of course it’s mine. [Moving to him.] You have seen me with it a hundred times, and you have no right whatsoever to read what is written inside. It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case.
Algernon. Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.
Jack. I am quite aware of the fact, and I don’t propose to discuss modern culture. It isn’t the sort of thing one should talk of in private. I simply want my cigarette case back.
Algernon. Yes; but this isn’t your cigarette case. This cigarette case is a present from some one of the name of Cecily, and you said you didn’t know any one of that name.
Jack. Well, if you want to know, Cecily happens to be my aunt.
Algernon. Your aunt!
Jack. Yes. Charming old lady she is, too. Lives at Tunbridge Wells. Just give it back to me, Algy.
Algernon. [Retreating to back of sofa.] But why does she call herself little Cecily if she is your aunt and lives at Tunbridge Wells? [Reading.] ‘From little Cecily with her fondest love.’
Jack. [Moving to sofa and kneeling upon it.] My dear fellow, what on earth is there in that? Some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself. You seem to think that every aunt should be exactly like your aunt! That is absurd! For Heaven’s sake give me back my cigarette case. [Follows Algernon round the room.]
Algernon. Yes. But why does your aunt call you her uncle? ‘From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.’ There is no objection, I admit, to an aunt being a small aunt, but why an aunt, no matter what her size may be, should call her own nephew her uncle, I can’t quite make out. Besides, your name isn’t Jack at all; it is Ernest.
Jack. It isn’t Ernest; it’s Jack.
It's even a more interesting read, now that I know that Oscar Wilde really was writing about himself and his brother in this play. In writing it, Oscar saw himself as Jack and his brother, Willie, as Algernon. It's interesting, to me, that Oscar paints himself on the receiving end of a cigarette case as a present, when he was known to give them as gifts, especially to his male lovers. Interesting too that the cigarette case that he was given exposes his secret.

Before Importance of Being Earnest went on stage, Oscar had to testify about cigarette cases before the courts, during his infamous trials. 
Mr. C. F. Gill--You made handsome presents to all these young fellows?
Oscar Wilde--Pardon me, I differ. I gave two or three of them a cigarette case: Boys of that class smoke a good deal of cigarettes. I have a weakness for presenting my acquaintances with cigarette cases.
Mr. C. F. Gill--Rather an expensive habit if indulged in indiscriminately, isn't it?
Oscar Wilde--Less extravagant than giving jewelled garters to ladies. (Laughter.)
Oscar's weakness for presenting people with cigarette cases was performed as a sign of affection. It's a quiet aim of mine to keep all of this month's posts on the romantic side and I do like this idea that Oscar had a sort of trademark gift for his friends.

It's also nice to know that some people gave him cigarette cases in return. Two years ago, the cigarette case Oscar got from Bosie was displayed at the BADA Antiques and Fine Art Fair and is pictured (below).

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