Archive for April, 2010

This book from Shire Classics describes the 19th-Century servant class in Great Britain in satisfying detail. Combined with another book I purchased at the National Portrait Gallery of portraits taken of the servant class, my DVDs of Gosford Park and Upstairs/Downstairs, and my recent viewing of Edwardian House and Regency House, I think that I am getting a fairly good idea about how a great house operated in days of yore.

The Victorian Domestic Servant reveals that the Duke of Bedford (died 1839) employed 300 servants and the Duke of Portland employed 320. These were excessive amounts to be sure, but most respectable Victorian households employed servants. An income of 250 a year allowed a family to employ a maid of all work, but an income of 100 would barely pay the rent, much less pay for help. As an aside, Jane Austen, her mother and sister were able to afford a maid of all work and a male servant on their modest income. After moving to Barton Cottage, the Dashwood women employed two servants as well. Yet both the Austen and Dashwood women, while not destitute, had to count every penny. People like Mrs. Smith from Persuasion and the Bates women in Emma could afford no help at all.

In 1851 domestic service represented the second largest occupation in England after agriculture, although the servant class was in constant flux. People frequently moved positions looking for higher pay or for promotions or for a way out. Although many servants felt professional pride towards their work, they often left service because the deference their employers expected wore them down. For the lower servants, the constant need for showing respect was even worse. The servant hierarchy Below Stairs showed as many distinctions as Above Stairs, with lower and upper servants rarely commingling. Lower servants were expected to remain silent unless spoken to at the table when dining, for example. They were expected neither to be seen nor heard as they worked.

Most of the work that servants performed had to be done out of sight of the family that employed them. This meant they had to rise early to do their tasks, stopping when the family arose and restarting late in the evening. Tasks were repetitive and laborious, such as filling a tub with water, which meant heating pails and pails of water and trudging up and down the stairs, or bringing coal to fireplaces and stoves and removing ashes. Much time was spent removing coal ash from fireplaces, and then dusting rooms and sweeping floors clear of the substance.

The preferred servant was raised in the country, for these people tended to show more respect and deference than their urban counterparts. A symbol of status was the footman, who wore livery and had actually not much work to do other than to look handsome and open and close doors, help the butler serve food at table, and sleep in the Butler’s Pantry to protect the family plate and silver from thieves.

While The Victorian Domestic Servant is only 32 pages long, I found so much information packed in its pages that I will have to read it again soon. For those who are curious about the servant class, or for writers of the Victorian Era, I cannot recommend this book enough. If this were a regency book, I would give it three regency fans. In this instance, I think I shall give it five out of five dust bins, broom sticks, and wash cloths.

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Paperback: 32 pages
Publisher: Shire; illustrated edition edition (March 4, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0747803684
ISBN-13: 978-0747803683

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Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, the Insight Edition from Bethany House is a lovely annotated version of this classic novel. The intended audience is obviously a young Christian girl or someone who is reading the novel for the first time. The notes sit in the margins; they are not too obtrusive or overly verbose, but they do add a dimension to reading the book. Symbols indicate what sort of comment to expect. For example, a feather tells us that we will learn a tidbit about Jane Austen’s life. A small cross will indicate themes of faith drawn from the novel or her life; a small crown leads to historical facts. (“Consumption: tuberculosis; once referred to as consumption because it “consumed” the body. P. 189.)  Smiley faces tell us about parts of the novel that make the reader smile, and frownies assure us that the character has become nothing but irritating. (On page 133, “ranking our dislike: 1. Fanny; 2. Lady “Passive-aggressive” Middleton, 3. ..”etc.)

Many of the annotations deal with scenes from film adaptations, which help to clarify them in relation to the book (look for the camera symbol). With the inclusion of these film annotations, Bethany House rightly assumes that many people reading Jane Austen for the first time seek out her novels only after seeing a movie based on her novel.

The foreword by Julie Klassen is short and to the point, and the book group questions in the back are neither pompous nor difficult to discuss. In short, this book provides a wonderful introduction to Sense and Sensibility, one of Jane Austen’s earlier novels and, next to Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, the most accessible to her new fans. Bethany House also offers a Pride and Prejudice edition, which I surmise must contain similar annotations and book group questions.

I highly recommend this book to new readers of Jane Austen, especially those who possess only a cursory knowledge about her life or the Regency era. Before purchasing the book for yourself or a friend or loved one, you should aware of the many notes that pertain to faith. The quotes are informative and not preachy, as on p. 145: “The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible…where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous…” C.S. Lewis, “A Note on Jane Austen, Essays in Criticism.” This edition of Sense and Sensibility points out how Jane’s faith informs her writing and her life, which is natural given that her father and two of her brother were men of the cloth.

In reading this book I am enjoying my revisit with Marianne and Elinor, and the shenanigans of the devious Lucy Steele and mean-spirited Fanny Dashwood. I still find Willoughby’s conduct reprehensible for a man in love, but Colonel Brandon, though a tad boring, makes my heart patter with his devotion and strength of character . The margin notes, written by Jane Austen fans (not scholars)  have enriched my enjoyment of this edition, and thus I give it three out of three Regency fans.

About Bethany House: Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group, has been publishing Christian fiction books for 50 years. Nearly 120 titles are published annually, including historical and contemporary fiction, Christian living, family, health, devotional, children’s, classics, and theology subjects.

Sense and Sensibility, insight ed. by Jane Austen
ISBN: 978-0-7642-0740-2
Price: $14.99
Format: Paperback
Division: Bethany House

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Gentle Readers: Don’t forget to join my book giveaway of Laurie Viera Rigler’s paperback version of Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. This is a rather fun contest on Jane Austen Today. You have until mid day on May 8th. Please click on link to enter!

My review sits here.

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Caroline Norton 1833

Until the mid 1800s, married women in England had no legal rights. By law a husband could prevent his wife from seeing their children. He also had control over all her income, including any earnings she might make. Caroline Norton (1808-1877), who was married to an abusive man and who had been barred from seeing her three sons after they divorced, successfully challenged these laws.

Caroline was the granddaughter of a playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the daughter of novelist Caroline Henrietta Sheridan. Caroline’s father died when she was eight years old, which left the family in financial straits. When Caroline had turned 16, George Norton, a Tory member of parliament for Guildford,  spotted her and asked for her hand in marriage. But she was too young to marry. Though a renowned beauty, Caroline had no dowry. Still, she hesitated to marry George Norton, but her mother eventually supported the match and thus she wed him at 19.

George Norton turned out to be a violent and unfaithful husband. He beat Caroline repeatedly, even in her third trimester of pregnancy. The marriage, though a failure, lasted long enough for Caroline to bear three sons. There were repeated estrangements and reunions, but the marriage finally ended in 1836. Caroline’s travails had just begun. Her reputation was in tatters as a divorced woman, and she was not allowed to see her sons. She was to write:

What I suffered on my children’s account, none will ever know or measure. “The heart knoweth its own bitterness,” and God knew mine! The days and nights of tears and anguish, that grew into the struggle of yearsit is even now a pain to me to look back upon; even now, the hot agony of resentment and grief rises in my mind, when I think of the needless tyranny I endured in this respect. Mr Norton held my children as hostages; he felt that while he had them, he still had a power over me that nothing could control. Baffled in the matter of the trial and damages, he still had the power to do more than punishto torturethe wife who had been so anxious to part from him – Caroline Norton, English Laws for Women in the 19th Century

Caroline’s story is more convoluted and complicated than presented here, and well worth reading. Suffice it to say that Caroline challenged the law that favored men over women, and her writing was instrumental in having The Child Custody Act of 1839 passed. Sadly for Caroline, her husband still denied her access to her children. Her youngest boy fell from a horse and died, and only after this tragedy were her two other boys allowed to live with her.

His cruel carelessness was afterwards proved, on a most miserable occasion. My youngest child, then a boy of eight years old, left without care or overlooking, rode out with a brother but little older than himself, was thrown, carried to the house of a country neighbor, and died there of lock jaw, consequent on the accident. Mr Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week,–indeed to be at death’s door,–before he sent to inform me. Sir Fitzroy and Lady Kelly were staying with Mr Norton in the country. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said–”I am here,–is my boy better?” “No,” she said–”he is not better,–he is dead.” And I found, instead of my child, a corpse already coffined.
Mr Norton asked my forgiveness then, as he had asked it often before; he sent his elder child to plead for him,–for well he knew what my children were to me; he humbled himself, and grieved for an hour, till he changed into pity the horror and repugnance I had expressed at the idea of seeing him;–and then he buried our child, and forgot both his sorrow and his penitence.

Caroline Norton

When George Norton caught wind that Caroline had been left a small legacy by her friend, Lord Melbourne and a small sum that her mother had left her, he stopped support payments for her and the children. Caroline fought him in court but lost. She campaigned to have the laws changed, and her victory resulted in the Matrimonial Act of 1857. Caroline remarried just months before her death in 1877, but not before two more crucial laws were passed that protected the rights of women and children, the Infant Custody Acts of 1873 (and 1886) and The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 (and 1882).

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Gentle Reader, Those of us who have read The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy know that Sir Percy Blakeney pretends to be an effete dandy. Unbeknownst to his wife, who cannot conceal her disappointment in her foppish husband, he smuggles people out of  France during the French Revolution and away from danger. Sir Percy, despite his heroics, is a bit of a clothes horse. Here, then, is his opinion of cravats after he accidentally on purpose spills wine on Monsieur Chauvelin, for whom the public admiration for the Scarlet Pimpernel was a source of bitter hatred.

Sir Percy Blakeney, Richard E. Grant as the Scarlet Pimpernel

Sir Percy Blakeney to Monsieur Chauvelin: “Sir, my most abject and humble apologies. I’ve completely drowned your cravat! How can I possibley make amends for such clumsiness?”

Martin Shaw as Monsieur Chauvelin

Monsieur Chauvelin, Ministry of Justice: “It’s of no consequence. It’s only a cravat.”

Richard E. Grant as Sir Percy aka The Scarlet Pimpernel

Sir Percy: “Only a cravat! Oh, my dear sir! A cravat is the apotheosis of all neckwear! A cravat distinguishes a man of refinement from the merely ordinary. It sneers at the severity of the stock. It is the only item of dress that expresses true individuality. And whether it be made of lace or silk or the finest lawn it thrives on ingenuity, on originality, and above all, on personality down to the last skilled twist of bow or knot.”

Jonathan Coy as the Prince of Wales

Prince Regent: “Bravo, Percy! Bravo!”

Bravo, indeed! More on the topic

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I love puffed and gathered sleeves on regency gowns. The Probert Encyclopedia defines a mamaluke sleeve as “a long full sleeve partitioned into five sections, each section being drawn and seamed to fit around the arm.” Romantic Fashion Plates defines Marie Sleeves as full to the wrist but tied at intervals. Which source accurately names the sleeves on these gowns?  The three dresses shown in this post show sleeves with more than the five sections. Could the number of sections determine what the sleeve is called?

Muslin dress with mamaluke sleeves

The first dress (1816) was featured in the Jane Austen Fashion Exhibit last fall in Melbourne. Note that in the second dress (1819-1820) the waist is beginning to creep down. The skirt during this time is conical in shape and stiffened at the bottom, whereas the earlier dress has a columnar-shaped skirt that drapes in soft folds from the high waist.

The dress below is described as having Marie sleeves. Adding another wrinkle to identifying these sleeves is this description found in a glossary from Nineteenth Century Fashions: A Compendium: “sleeve with multitude of puffs top to bottom” (romance).  I’m not sure how these differ from Marie sleeves.” In a description for Marie Sleeves, the site states:

“long gauzy sleeves gathered at intervals to make a series of puffs down the arm. I think I have also heard these referred to as “Juliet sleeves”; may also be synonymous with Gabrielle sleeves, the point being, I think, that they were perceived as vaguely Latinate and Renaissancy in origin.”

So, now we have these sleeves described as Mameluke, Marie, Juliet, or Gabrielle.

1820 dress with marie sleeves, V&A museum

I’ve scoured images of Mamelukes, none of which feature these segmented sleeves. Mamelukes are members of a former military caste originally composed of slaves from Turkey, that held the Egyptian throne from the mid thirteenth century to the early 1500s. They remained strong until 1811. Regency fashion took inspiration from Mameluke clothing, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the sleeves were also inspired by this group of warriors – if only I could find a painting of a Mameluke wearing a shirt with partitioned puffy sleeves.

Mameluke, early 19th c.

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Brock illustration of Persuasion

My book contest for Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen is closed, and the winner, Lesley-Ann Mcleod was announced. I was left with a legacy of Jane Austen quotes that I would like to share with my readers. The comments were outstanding and I loved every one of the quotes. For those who would like to read all 164 of them, click on this link. Every week, I will post another 5 – 10 until everyone has been featured.

keriluna: “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.” Catherine Morland to Mr. Tilney / Northanger Abbey :)

lydiane: “Dare not say that a man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.” – Captain Wentworth, Persuasion

QNPoohBear: We’re on the same wavelength Lydiane! That’s my favorite part of the whole book. That letter kills me every time! Here’s my line: “I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.” Captain Wentworth, Persuasion Chapter 23

Sherry Blackwell: In teaching literature to 8th grade gifted students, I often borrowed quotes from the author being studied. The following quote from Jane Austen was posted to encourage students to produce one work of quality rather than amass a quantity of mediocre work. We used the symbol Q/Q = Quality over Quantity. “The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.” Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 10

Cindi: “I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man.” Lizzie to Mr. Collins~ Pride and Prejudice

Lindsay: “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.” Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice….I love this part :)

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Whilst Mansfield Park is overrun by mummies and Fanny Price is being seduced by a princely corpse who was embalmed and buried 2,000 years ago, we join a select party playing whist at the Assembly Rooms in Bath. Sir Walter Elliot, Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Jennings are in deep discussion about the ghoulish goings on in Britain, for their Society has been decimated in the span of a few short years. Except for the demise of great swaths of the populace, Sir Walter would normally never have found himself spending two hours with people of such low connections. Not one to give up an opportunity to show off his fine gaming skills, Sir Walter graciously agreed to make up a fourth at cards.

Of the group, he had only made a tentative acquaintance with Mrs. Jenkins, an unrefined woman whose fortune was her only saving grace. The others were all unknown to him, which was not surprising. Mrs. Elton, although handsome of form and face, was even more vulgar than Mrs. Jennings, if such a thing were possible, for she also had the misfortune of being a mere clergyman’s wife. Mrs. Bennet’s behavior was beyond the pale. Although she could boast of some connections and had once possessed a beauty that would have attracted his connoisseur’s eye, he could only compare her mind to that of a simpleton’s. How Mr. Bennet could put up with her ceaseless and inane prattle was beyond his comprehension. Sir Walter’s only satisfaction at present lay in the fact that he was winning every rubber and that he looked resplendent in his new jacket and waistcoat.

He turned to Mrs. Jennings and asked politely, “How are the Miss Dashwoods and Mrs. Dashwood getting on?”

“Not well, my dear, Sir Walter, not well at all. A most unfortunate INFESTATION of deadly sea creatures and crustaceans has RUINED our ponds and waters, especially those around Barton Cottage. The ladies Dashwood must be ever vigilant against deadly tentacles wrapping themselves around an innocent limb, lest they be pulled into the waters and DROWNED. They must also guard their virtues from the murderous Colonel Brandon, whose face is designed to disgust. He is not what he appeared to be at first, I assure you.”

“WE do not have such slithery goings on in Highbury or Plymouth,” said Mrs. Elton primly. “In my opinion, these outbreaks must be in some way connected to LICENTIOUS behavior.”

Mrs. Bennet’s nostrils flared at this pronouncement. “Well, if it were not for my dear girls, whose fighting skills are legendary, Meryton must have succumbed to the undead plague long ago. T’is quite uncomfortable to be living in a region where corpses come to life and seek out one’s brain for sustenance.” Shivering delicately, she pulled her Norwich shawl around her. “I recall a dreadful ball at Netherfield Park where the cooks preparing dinner BECAME dinner. My poor Lizzie’s ball gown was torn to shreds as she lopped off the heads and limbs of those horrid creatures in order to save the rest of the assembly.”

“Nay, never!” Mrs. Elton could not contain her excitement. Gossip was her strong suit, and the sharing of it her vocation. Besides, she adored tales filled with blood and gore.

Sir Walter, concentrating on his cards, wished the conversation had not taken this deplorable turn. He was, however, a gentleman first and foremost, and thus he kept silent. If he played his cards right and allowed his opponents to continue to prattle, he would win this hand. If only Mrs. Bennet, his partner, would pay some attention to his discards.

Mrs. Jennings, who was in possession of a scrumptious scrap of knowledge that served no purpose until it was spread far and wide, crowed. “Indeed, t’is true. I understand from a dear old acquaintance, Mrs Norris, that mummies have overtaken Mansfield Park. It seems that her sister, Lady Bertram, evoked some ancient Egyptian INCANTATION and brought them to life.”

Thinking of her two remaining unmarried girls, Mrs. Bennet inquired a tad too eagerly, “Pray tell. what are the mummies’ backgrounds? How far do their families go back?”

“Thousands of years, my dear Mrs. Bennet. The pedigree of these creatures would put Sir Walter’s lineage to shame.”

Sir Walter bristled. No one’s lineage could touch the noble ancestry of the Elliots of Kellynch Hall.

“What of their lands? Their fortunes?” Mrs. Elton asked.

“I believe, said Mrs. Jennings, a closet Blue Stocking, “that their entire fortunes are entombed with them.”

“That is most regrettable,” Sir Walter said, thinking of his eldest unmarried, Elizabeth, whose good looks were withering and dessicating with every moment that passed beyond her prime. He despaired of her ever finding a husband who would suit the Elliots’ exacting standards.

Mrs. Jennings eyes gleamed with the cheap shine of a newly minted shilling. “I understand that the creatures have recently begun to stir again.” She reached for her reticule and retrieved a letter from Mrs. Norris, an odd woman whose acquaintance she had made in Lyme: ‘T’is the strangest phenomenon, my dear Mrs. Jennings,” she read aloud. “For whilst these creatures at first looked quite ungainly and ragged, and lumbered about the countryside walking into trees and emerging from the bushes like so many cavemen, they are starting to look better and better with each passing day. Whilst the mummies are coming to life, our servants have not fared half so well, some disappearing for hours and experiencing lapses in memory that puzzle us exceedingly. I find the Pharaoh startlingly handsome despite the unfortunate fact that his skin is as swarthy as, well, an Egyptian’s! His Eminence is apparently unmarried and looking for a CONSORT.”

The card players stopped playing. Silence lay as heavy in the room as the stone lid of a sarcophagus.

Sir Walter mentally began to formulate a plan that would place his Elizabeth in the path of this lofty, though foreign personage. Handsome, rich, and well connected were the only qualities he sought for a son-in-law. Who cared if his skin was tanned and leathery?

Mrs. Bennet’s shrill voice cut through the tomb-like atmosphere, “T’is a wonder that there are any eligible men left in England at all. My two middle girls are still unmarried, but those detestable zombies have eaten practically all the heads off every young male within three counties. Mr. Bennet and I have considered moving to the Colonies in order to provide for them, matrimonially speaking, of course.” Her thoughts automatically turned to Mr. Collins and that cheap golddigging Charlottte Lucas, whose behavior and manner of speech had become exceedingly strange of late.

Mrs. Elton’s silence did not go unnoticed by herself. She was accustomed to insinuating her opinion into every discussion, but neither Highbury nor Plymouth had been the destinations of choice for the ghouls, demons, and crustaceans that had overrun every nook and cranny of her beloved England! It went against her grain to be mum on any subject, and thus she spoke, “I and the Sucklings are Egyptologists of sorts. Mummy wrappings should be made of the most sturdy linen, for the cloth must survive untold generations of burial. I suggest, Sir Walter, that you meet with your tailor to discuss where you can obtain a cloth of a similar…”

A shriek pierced the assembly hall dance rooms. Above the din, Isabella Thorpe’s voice could be heard crying, “John, oh, John! What have they DONE to your head!? Where are your brains?”

Mrs. Bennet leaped up, scattering the cards on the table, which disconcerted Sir Walter to no end, for he was about to win the rubber …. “I must fetch Lizzie immediately! The zombies have arrived in Bath and we shall require her warrior skills!”

“But I protest!,” cried Mrs. Jennings. “We were speaking of MUMMIES!! T’is not fair that the zombies are taking center stage again! Why is it that they receive ALL the attention, whilst the mummies are getting none?”

Mrs. Elton turned to Mrs. Jennings, “According to Mrs. Norris, they are starting to GAIN GROUND. T’will be up to you, dear madam, to spread the word about Mansfield Park and Mummies as successfully as those Quirk Book upstarts, who have promoted the UNDEAD virally via Web 2.0. Perhaps you should solicit the aid of Vera Nazarian and that vulgar creature, Vic, who oversees that tasteless blog, Jane Austen’s World.”

“Well, if I must,” replied Mrs. Jennings, unhappy with the thought of having to exert herself on anyone’s behalf , especially after her experience with Marianne Dashwood, a most disastrous guest and watering pot. “One would think that people would be as intrigued with Mummies as with Zombies. It’s six of one or a half dozen of the other, if you ask me.”

Sir Walter scraped his chair back and bid his adieu. He would hie home to collect his Elizabeth, and whilst the assembly was preoccupied with staving off the zombies, he would take his daughter to Mansfield Park and place her in the Pharaoh’s way in a most COMPROMISING situation.

Gentle Reader: I have just finished reading Mansfield Park and Mummies and must admit that, much to my surprise, I kept turning the pages and reading the book. Goodness, but I enjoyed this fun romp. While I know that these kinds of books are not for everyone, I feel comfortable recommending Mansfield Park and Mummies to those who would like to take the PLUNGE and read their first Jane Austen mash-up. For those who have not read my interview with Vera Nazarian, please click here. She even made writing the novel sound like fun.

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I had never heard of the book Small Island or author Andrea Levy until PBS scheduled the film as the last presentation for Masterpiece Classic this season. The story follows two couples, one from London, England and the other from Jamaica, whose lives intersect at crucial moments. Against the backdrop of World War II and post war England, we learn about the dreams and ambitions of Queenie, Bernard, Hortense, and Gilbert.

David Oyelowo as Gilbert Joseph

The story is about the reaction of the British to the 492 men from the British Colonies who bought passage on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and emigrated to England. Prior to that event, 6,000 West Indian men had volunteered for the RAF during World War II. After the war, they wanted a better life and sought it in the motherland.

Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch)

As the story unfolded I was struck by the Jamaican islander’s view of their mother country. Their attitude towards England was  loving, deferential, and loyal. While the Jamaicans learned everything they could about English customs and history, the British knew or cared very little about the people they had exploited. Reality sunk in for the young Jamaican men who had signed up to fight alongside the British in WWII. They dreamed of fighting as pilots, but were assigned menial jobs, some not even at the front. Worse, they encountered racism designed to squash their pride and put them in their place.

Hortense (Naomi Harris) goes out shopping properly dressed

David Oyelowo plays Gilbert Joseph, a wonderfully optimistic and cheerful man, who aims to find a better life in the motherland. His dream was to become a lawyer, but in reality he became a postman for the Royal Mail. His scene on the park bench after being humiliated by other postal workers broke my heart. I think I fell a little in love with Mr. Oyelowo then.

Hortense and Gilbert

Hortense (Naomi Harris) dreams of becoming a school teacher in London. An orphan, she pursues her teaching degree in a Jamaican school and learns how to conduct herself properly. Her ambition prompts her to betray a friend and finagle her way into a marriage of convenience with Gilbert, whose passage on the Empire Windrush she finances. Their deal is that he will send for her as soon as he finds a nice place for them to live in London.

Ruth Wilson as Queenie

Queenie (Ruth Wilson)dreams of a more exciting life than on the pig farm that her parents own. We first meet her with her aunt in London, practicing elocution lessons – “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”. Queenie’s dreams are squashed when she makes a compromise after her aunt’s death and marries the dull colorless young man who has fallen in love with her. Her existence becomes lackluster and uneventful, and she chafes under her boring routine. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bernard in the unsympathetic part of Queenie’s husband. Sadly, Bernard has already realized his dream, which was to marry Queenie, who does not love him. He must confront his disillusionment and resistance to change if he is to hold on to his marriage to Queenie.

Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Then the war begins and suddenly life changes for Queenie, whose path crosses with Gilbert and Hortense, and a mysterious man named Michael, who (coincidentally) Hortense has loved all her life. Rather than spoil the plot, I encourage you to read a lovely synopsis at this PBS link along with an interview with the author, which I recommend highly.

Ashley Walters as Michael

These days we do not often encounter black ladies of the old school. Do you remember them? Their postures were ramrod straight. Their neat clothes did not allow for a single crease. Their hats were proper and decorous, and their purses were held just so in their gloved hands. Their language was grammatically correct, old-fashioned and Victorian, as if they had been taught from a 19th-century grammar book. I volunteered with such a lady, Miss Edna, who had been a school teacher since the 1930’s and who volunteered as a tutor well into her 90’s. Hortense reminded me of Miss Edna. I thought that Naomi Harris captured every aspect of Miss Edna, including her unassailable dignity.

Queenie and Michael

To my mind, Queenie, is the tragic character of this tale. As Andrea Levy said “She is a warmhearted person, a kind person, an open person.” Yet she is not perfect. None of the characters are. The author explains, “With all my characters, I never want them to be perfect, they have faults, just like us all.” Despite her imperfections, Queenie is the heroine who, when faced with a King Solomon decision, does not flinch from choosing the right course.

The acting is superb. There were scenes that caused me to hold my breath, they were that good, and there were times when I literally ached for the characters. When I cried, it was from sympathy, not from a contrived plot. Like real life, this drama is sprinkled with humor, which cuts the tension. At the end of the film, I wanted to see more. Rarely does this happen. PBS will air the first part of Small Island tonight, April 18th at 9 p.m., and the second part on April 25th. I highly recommend that you see it.

Hortense, Michael, and Queenie

If you have missed the first part, you can watch it online at this link starting April 19th through the 25th.

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Three years ago I wrote about the summer of 1816 in England, which was widely regarded as the year without a summer. Six months before, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia ejected over 19 million cubic miles of volcanic ash in the atmosphere. This ash traveled in the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun.

This week, an ash plume from a volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) volcano in Iceland has grounded air travel in Europe. As the debris travels around the world in upper atmospheric currents, one wonders if a colder winter than normal will affect the world next year. Will we also experience a year without summer? Or is this an eenie minie volanic eruption as far as eruptions go?

Icelandic volcano April 2010

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During the 18th and early 19th century, social satire prints were engraved and sold separately in print shops. By 1750, the term ‘caricature’ was applied to almost any comic cartoon or satiric illustration.

The ‘golden age’ when James Gillray (1756-1815), Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and George Cruikshank (1792-1878) were active, occurred between 1780 and 1830. Most satirical prints were produced in London and were sold singly by publishers and booksellers, such as S. W. Fores and William Holland, who also put together collections for clients and even hired them out. A wide range of prices reflected the very different sizes and degrees of sophistication of satirical prints. In 1807 the publisher Thomas Tegg started a business selling cheap, crudely coloured prints aimed at a wide market. – British Museum

“The Fashions of the Day, or Time Past and Present”, an 1807 caricature engraved by Charles Williams after a drawing by Woodward. It presents a contrast between “The Year 1740: A Lady’s full dress of Bombazeen (i.e. bombazine or bombasine, a heavy corded fabric. Black bombazine was worn by widows during heavy mourning) and “The year 1807: A Lady’s undress of Bum-be-seen.”  There are some fascinating details to observe about the fashionable regency lady, whose decolletage is so low that her breasts are practically popping out of their restraints. One can see her drawers under her thin muslin dress, and her stockings come up over her knee. They were held up by garters. (Click on this link to read a fascinating article about stockings and to see a pair of 1820 stockings and garters.  This link also leads to an article about 18th & 19th century hose.) Regency ladies as a rule did not wear drawers for the first 20 years of the 19th century. Those who did wore a modified version of men’s drawers, which tied at the waist and split in the middle. Chances were that, if she did not wear a petticoat or a chemise, her bum would have shown through the thin fabric!

The following comment about Williams’ caricature is from Wikimedia Commons:

Note that “undress” didn’t mean anything naughty — there’s a definition of it here.[1] In pursuing his goal of satirizing certain features of contemporary 1807 fashions, the caricaturist did not really draw a fair comparison between the styles of 1740 and 1807, since a young Regency fashionable is juxtaposed here to a sedate middle-aged pre-Regency lady (perhaps in mourning), and such features of mid-18th century dress as tight stiff stays with extremely low necklines were not included (also, the “1740” costume actually seems to be somewhat of a pastiche with 17th century styles).
(Women’s fashions of the Empire/Regency weren’t always “sensible”, but their excesses do seem to be more in accord overall with the spirit of the 21st century than the fashion excesses of most other periods between the 16th century and World War I, which tended to go in for such things as huge hoopskirts and tight corsets…)

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Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet

David Shipman wrote in his 1996 obituary for Greer Garson:

On her return to Hollywood she was forced into the studio’s chosen image – a New York sophisticate, jagged with sophistication in huge hats – squabbling and making up with Robert Taylor in Remember? But her Mrs Chipping was uppermost in executive minds when casting Pride and Prejudice (1940), based on a stage version which had been bought for Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. Garson and Olivier were much more sensible choices, even if Olivier later observed: “Dear Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth . . . she was the only down-to-earth sister but Greer played her as the most affected and silly of the lot”. However, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote that she had “stepped out of the book, or rather out of one’s fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be.” Nevertheless those who tend to Olivier’s view sighed for her presence during the recent BBC adaptation, in which Jennifer Ehle completely missed Lizzie’s sense of self-mockery.

Really, Mr. Shipman? I beg to disagree. For quite a few of us, Jennifer Ehle’s Ellizabeth Bennet was close to perfect. She had enough self-deprecating lines to make even a masochist envious. Greer Garson’s Elizabeth Bennet was all wrong, from costume, to her advanced age (she was in her mid-thirties when she made the film), to her interpretation of Elizabeth. I agree with Sir Laurence Olivier’s assessment – Greer was all wrong for the part.

Cheap Pride and Prejudice: Find other comments about this film, which is widely regarded as a classic. My opinion runs counter to that of many movie buffs and critics.

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