It is snowing here for the second time in three days; definitely not our first snow of the season, then, but this image speaks to me on multiple levels. Our house dates to the time of this painting. I love her beautiful blue dressing gown and the wistful intimacy of the setting. The colors, the composition, the mood that so readily crosses the centuries–all are things that I find very relatable.
About: I just realized that this is the second book with the title ‘1900’ that I have profiled this year. They both set out to chronicle the massive changes that brought the Victorian Era gasping and screaming into the modern world. While the goal is essentially the same, the methodology is jarringly different. The clear victor in the battle, if a battle it be, is the sublime Rebecca West. She, of course, had the same advantage as the writers compiled in the later volume-that of living through the time and world that she wrote about (although she waited eight decades to do so). As an eight year old, she may not have understood things on an intellectual level but she had a child’s intuitive emotions; she experienced the excitement and unease that comes with the changing of the centuries. Her edge is the result of two things: of living long enough to have perspective and, as the sole writer of her book, a cohesion of intent and style. The 90-year-old Rebecca covers a wide swath of historical territory-arts, literature, science, psychology, music and politics-while maintaining clear-eyed yet evocative prose. The photographs spread throughout are stunning and add considerably to the book’s appeal.
Motivation: Repeat after me, “Rebecca West.” The turn of the twentieth century is also one of my favourite periods for literature, fashion, activism, plays and music.
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page 129: “My father guessed that the designer had probably been a man no longer young, impressed in his childhood by the sort of lectures which were given in mid-Victorian days at working men’s clubs such as the Mechanics’ Institutes. It was possible. The chiton and the amphora and the tag from Epictetus exemplified a curious tendency manifested by many of the new proletariat, which felt herself ill done and wanted a larger share of the best. They craved to be accepted in all the institutions which served the upper classes, though they did not think much of the upper classes.”
Title: The Victorian Visitors Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain
Author: Rupert Christiansen
Year Published: 2000 (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Year Purchased: 2001-2002
Source: History Book Club (I think)
About: It is exactly what it says it is, with each chapter devoted to the experiences and impressions of a noted foreign tourist (from Emerson to Wagner). I especially love the parts dedicated to Australian cricketers and Yankee Spirit-Rappers!
Motivation: I’m quite the Victorian-era connoisseur. I also love the strange niche that is the Victorian travelogue. This is a wondrous combination of both of those things, with a dash each of literary and cultural history added to the mix. Plus, it’s well-written and funny, the latter being an especial quality in this type of book.
Times Read: 2
Random Excerpt/Page 158: “But (Daniel) Home had departed before the spirits had reached the villas of Holloway and he passed over to the other side with his glamour unsullied by low associations. Today, he remains secure in his reputation as the supreme exponent of his art: it is his bust which presides over the library of the Society of Psychical Research in Kensington, defying the ghost-hunters’ theories and explanations as bafflingly as he did a hundred and fifty years ago. Spiritualism’s history would look completely different without him. His visit-his visitation-was without doubt the most consequential of any in this book.”
About: In the author’s words, he set out to “write a history of the world without leaving home”. He accomplished this by equating the rooms in a typical Victorian home with their worldly counterparts (i.e. the bedroom=sex, the bathroom=hygiene).
Motivation: I love Bill Bryson. ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ and ‘Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words’ are well-worn personal favorites. I am also a sucker for Victorian history; anything with a sociological aspect easily catches my fancy.
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page 181: “Not everyone got the hang of tea immediately. The poet Robert Southey related the story of a lady in the country who received a pound of tea as a gift from a city friend when it was still a novelty. Uncertain how to engage with it, she boiled it up in a pot, spread the leaves on toast with butter and salt, and served it to her friends, who nibbled it gamely and declared it interesting but not quite to their taste. Elsewhere, however, it raced ahead, in tandem with sugar.”