Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bram Stoker's Rules for Cursing

I must tell you beforehand that Mr. Morris doesn’t always speak slang—that is to say, he never does so to strangers or before them, for he is really well educated and has exquisite manners—but he found out that it amused me to hear him talk American slang, and whenever I was present, and there was no one to be shocked, he said such funny things. I am afraid, my dear, he has to invent it all, for it fits exactly into whatever else he has to say. But this is a way slang has. I do not know myself if I shall ever speak slang; I do not know if Arthur likes it, as I have never heard him use any as yet. - Bram Stoker, Dracula
In that passage from Bram Stoker's Dracula, Lucy is writing to Mina. In it, she provides a wonderful peak into late-Victorian usage of colloquial language, from an upper-class woman's perspective. Her description reminds me of when I first had to describe to my daughter the appropriateness of swearing:
"Certain words have the power to hurt people, some of those words also seem to amuse other people, and some of them are appropriate to use some of the time, but you have to be careful when using them. Pay attention to who you are speaking with, and never say anything like that in front of grandma, a teacher, or someone younger than you."
That's why Mr. Morris never speaks slang to strangers. He knows Lucy finds it funny, so he does it to make her laugh. As of yet, Lucy is not sure she will ever find an appropriate situation to use slang.

As a guide to late-Victorian use of slang, this passage is informed by gender and class.

In Dracula, Stoker makes the old seaman speak in a phonetically-spelled Whitby accent, littered with colloquialisms.
“An’ when you said you’d report me for usin’ of obscene language that was ’ittin’ me over the ’ead; but the ’arf-quid made that all right. I weren’t a-goin’ to fight, so I waited for the food, and did with my ’owl as the wolves, and lions, and tigers does. But, Lor’ love yer ’art, now that the old ’ooman has stuck a chunk of her tea-cake in me, an’ rinsed me out with her bloomin’ old teapot, and I’ve lit hup, you may scratch my ears for all you’re worth, and won’t git even a growl out of me. Drive along with your questions. I know what yer a-comin’ at, that ’ere escaped wolf.” - Bram Stoker, Dracula
I've never enjoyed reading phonetically spelled dialects, but this passage adds to what Lucy has to say about colloquial language by offering a working-class male perspective. Even as a working-class man, he recognizes that some words are obscene, though he appears to have developed such a habit of using obscene words that he doesn't always remember to think about his audience when speaking.

Though this is just one late-Victorian writer's perspective on the use of Victorian language, it's something to consider when deciding whether a character you've set in the era would use the word 'fuck.'

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Riches to Rags: the Wilde Stories

Oscar Wilde, Constance Wilde, and one of their sons.
If you've ever been broke, you are probably familiar with the way that it makes you feel, like there's something wrong with you, and the world despises you. Academically, we know this isn't true. Not having money isn't a character fault in and of itself. As the saying goes: "You can't control what happens to, but you can control how you deal with what happens to you."

The Wilde Family make an interesting case study in this phenomena when we look at the lives and misfortunes of Speranza and her two sons, Willie and Oscar Wilde. Each lost a fortune, and each dealt with it differently, with different consequences.

Speranza was Dublin's most popular socialite. Her husband was knighted. She lived in the best house. She had the most interesting guests, and the best parties. She loved culture, history, art, and Ireland. Her fortune dried up when she and her husband got caught up in a scandal, the details of which are still controversial. Her husband soon died, leaving her with little money.

In response, she packed up her house, and moved to smaller quarters in London, where she could continue to pursue her art. She did what she could to continue to support her family. She got a little support from her sons for a while, but their lives weren't going well either. She kept trying, until she was too old to try anymore. She continued to host her famous salons, and the most interesting people continued to attend.

Her son, Willie, was an alcoholic though, and alcoholics tend to drag their loved ones down with them, which Willie did. Speranza died in a room full of empty gin bottles, and Willie blamed his brother.

Willie Wilde
Willie also made a noble effort to prevent himself from descending into rags. A few years after he went bankrupt, he married the richest woman in America. That didn't go so well because of his drinking, and he wound up living with his mother, and claiming to take care of her. As you know, from Speranza's story, he didn't do a very good job of that.

After his mother died, he had to find a new place to live. He sold off most of his brother's belongings. He sold his wife's wedding ring. Eventually he died from alcoholism, and few of the wonderfully successful people he once called friends ever mentioned him in their memoirs. The newspaper he was a lead reporter for, at one time, barely mentioned his passing.

Oscar, on the other hand, continually tried to make everyone happy. In a way, that's how he got his money. He became a celebrity before he did anything, just because people liked him so much. His wife had money, which was helpful, and he was good at earning his own money, which he promptly spent on his friends and lovers.

Oscar Wilde's downfall was very public. He went from being a darling to being a demon, and he definitely felt terrible about the impact that this had on all the people he cared about. Oscar realized that we never suffer in isolation, but our suffering impacts everybody around us. His imprisonment, and the backlash against him, hurt his family, his friends, and his business associates. For this, he expressed his remorse.

When Oscar was released from prison, he was broke, worse off than his brother or mother had ever been, but the love that he gave to other people came back to him. His good friends did what they could to help support him, and, though he never really recovered from the losses he sustained at that time in his life, he is remembered with fondness because of the love he spread.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Images of London in 1898

William Ewart Gladstone died in May 1898. As one of the icons of the Victorian Era, his passing brought the period nearer to its end. He had only been out of office for three years. Yet, the city moved on, post was delivered, the Earl's Court Exhibition featured big. Londoners were interested in all things Egypt.

Midland Railway goods offices at Poplar Dock, London, 1898.
The Mad Hatter's Tea Party from 'Alice in Wonderland'
with Rosa Hersee as Alice and Arthur Elliot as the Hatter
at the Opera Comique Theatre in London, 1898
The Mad Hatter in action (I think Johnny Depp got it right), 1898.
Gladstone's coffin entering Westminster Abbey, London 1898. 
Broad Street Station, 1898.
The Great Wheel, Earl's Court, 1898.
Robert Bosch's first shop outside of Germany. (Circa 1898)
The Great Northern Railway Station in 1898 (later renamed King's Cross).
Changing of the Guard at Tower London, 1898.
First foreign branch of the Swiss Bank opened in London in 1898.
Construction work on the Central Line of the London Underground, 1898.
Aubrey Beardsley 1898.
Acoustic location experiment in London, 1898.
A surgery at University College Hospital Medical School, London, 1898.
A horse hauling a railway wagon at the Midland Wharf at Victoria dock,
London, 1898. Coal was unloaded here onto barges waiting below.
An early recording studio set up in rooms of the Cockburn Hotel, 1898
Poster for the Earl's Court Exhibition, 1898.
The Midway at the Earl's Court Exhibition, 1898.
A zebra-drawn carriage, London, 1898.
London postmen, 1898.
Ella Skyes, photographed in London,
as "a Persian Lady," 1898.
Want more? Go further back to Images of London in 1889, 1890, 1891, 1892,1893,1894, 18951896, and 1897.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Jack the Ripper Found At Last!

The signature on a letter dated 29 October 1888
written by a person claiming to be Jack the Ripper
that was sent to Doctor Thomas Openshaw of
the London Hospital Whitechapel.
Don't clap all at once...

As I write this, there's still some speculation, but it seems pretty clear that, using DNA evidence, Russel Edwards and Dr. Jari Louhelainen have identified the Polish hairdresser Aaron Kosminski as Jack the Ripper. The Jack the Ripper killings had a strong influence on 1890s London. Learning who the killer is brought up two main issues for me.

My first thought, reading the head line that a friend forwarded to me, was that I hoped it was the suspect that I'd recently written about for a print publication. It wasn't. Maybe it was selfish for me to think that way. But with all of the fun and mystery of speculation around the Jack the Ripper case, did we really want to know who the actual killer was? If not, why not?

Clearly some people wanted to know. Edwards and Louhelainen wanted to know badly enough that they actually found out. But I will venture to guess that there are a lot of Ripperologists out there who groaned when they found out that it was the hairdresser.

Maybe, like me, they weren't thinking about or writing about the hairdresser, and most of us don't like to be proven wrong. But the second issue this brought up for me is: what does all of this say about our mistakes!

Francis Tumblety
For over a hundred years, history has identified these people as possible serial killers. Francis Tumblety actually fled to England, while under suspicion. Sure, the list of suspects is a list of some really messed up Victorians, but it sucks to find out that you've been pointing your finger at the wrong man. It sucks even more to see how finger pointing adversely affected their lives.

As we wait for confirmation that Edwards and Louhelainen's tests were correct, what are we really hoping the answer will be?

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

H.G. Wells and the OED

In honor of my side project, the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties, this post explores H.G. Wells contributions to the English language.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Wells is responsible for adding 53 words to the language, and he is sited excessively for demonstrating new or inventive uses of existing words. The most notable are as follows, in alphabetical order (of course!):

atomic bomb "Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive; indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth century the only explosives known were combustibles whose explosiveness was due entirely to their instantaneousness; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them." - The World Set Free (1914)

Wells learned physics by reading William Ramsay, Ernest Rutherford, and Frederick Soddy; who uncovered the disintegration of uranium. Soddy, himself, was impressed after reading Wells' novel, which might have even influenced the development of nuclear weapons. Wells's "atomic bombs" are no stronger than high explosives that existed at the time, and are crude devices in comparison.

eggless "Nor can we tell here at any length how these mournful spinsters, the two surviving hens, made a wonder of and a show, spent their remaining years in eggless celebrity." - The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904)

This novel is mostly remembered through its 1976 film adaptation.

gong (the verb) "He has just gonged, no doubt to order another buttered tea~cake!" - The Strand (1903)

inacta "Edward Albert attempted an ironical whistle, but Mrs Butter held her position, intacta." - You Can't Be Too Careful (1941)

This word is a short form of the Latin virgo intacta,  meaning a woman of tremendous chastity, but used as an adjective to mean she was unaffected.

leftish "At first they served only for amiable exchanges between the writers of the same and different countries, but the violent persecution of Jewish and leftish writers in Germany, and an attempt to seize and use the Berlin Pen Club for Nazi propaganda, raised new and grave issues for the organization." - An Experiment in Autobiography (1934)

Monkeys on parade (1950s?).
monkey parade "These twilight parades of young people, youngsters chiefly of the lower middle-class, are one of the odd social developments of the great suburban growths—unkindly critics, blind to the inner meanings of things, call them, I believe, Monkeys' Parades—the shop apprentices, the young work girls, the boy clerks and so forth, stirred by mysterious intimations, spend their first-earned money upon collars and ties, chiffon hats, smart lace collars, walking-sticks, sunshades or cigarettes, and come valiantly into the vague transfiguring mingling of gaslight and evening, to walk up and down, to eye meaningly, even to accost and make friends." - New Machiavelli (1910)

The New Machiavelli (1911) was serialized in The English Review in 1910. Because was about Wells's love affair with Amber Reeves, and satirized popular personalities, it was "the literary scandal of its day."

pre-atomic "The atomic bombs had taken him by surprise and he had still to recover completely from his pre-atomic opinions."  - The World Set Free (1914)

Well, if he was going to invent the literary atomic bomb...

teetotally "I lived through my Bohemian days as sober as Shaw if not nearly so teetotally." - An Experiment in Autobiography (1934)

'Teetotatally' sounds like something the class of Clueless would have said, if they were set in the 1890s.

time traveller "‘There,’ said the Time Traveller, ‘I am unable to give you an explanation. All I know is that the climate was very much warmer than it is now.’" - National Observer (18 April 1894)

And of course...

time travelling "Time travelling: possibility or paradox." - National Observer (17 March 1894)

utopographer "The Utopographer in the Garden." - Meanwhile (1927)

This means someone who describes a utopia.

The Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties has its own blog now, and will only include words invented before 1900, but I thought these words were worth looking at anyway!

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