All about those ballads (ft. Oskar Cox Jensen)

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen is an Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the History Department at QMUL, an expert in British song of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a novelist. And that list isn’t even exhaustive… Importantly, he is also a singer of ballads: and he’s recorded a couple for us – make sure you click the links below to listen! Here I (CC) talk with him (OCJ) about the intersections between balladry and nineteenth century notions of health.

OCJ curious 2to3

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen. Photo: Niina Tamura

 

CC: Now while I’m happy with what ‘ballads’ are, Oskar, I was wondering if you could define ‘broadside ballads’ for us?

OCJ: OK! That sounds like a simple question, so I’ll pretend it is, and say: any set of singable verses printed on a single-sided piece of paper. In Britain, these began in 1550 and continued until around 1900. The songs of the people, in short, made accessible by cheap print – you could buy a single song (on a ‘slip’) for a halfpenny, and a ‘broadside’ sheet, often with several songs printed on the same side, for a penny – a price that remained stable for centuries. Crucially, we’re talking about a medium here, not a genre, because all kinds of songs found their way onto these sheets.

 

CC: Where would these ballads be performed and who would likely be in the audience?

OCJ: In the first instance, on the street, by ballad-singers. This was how people learnt the tunes: by ear, from the person – man, woman, or child – who was selling it. In cities and towns, and in the country, especially at fairs, races, and markets, groups of pedestrians would gather round singers on street corners, first to listen to, and then to buy the song. These printed sheets thus became the blueprint for amateur performance: in the pub, at home, at work . . . Of course, many of these songs had begun life in other contexts before becoming broadsides, so many of the words – and the vast majority of the tunes – had already been performed in theatres or pleasure gardens, or even less likely occasions such as the church, the parade-ground, the opera, or the country dance. Records indicate that, although the bulk of street audiences was made up of the poor of both sexes, and the young in particular, ballads were also heard and purchased by the middling and the elite – though these people would be far less likely to admit it! The same songs could often be accessed in other ways too, so that a street ballad might be encountered in a respectable journal or a concert programme. We’re really talking about an almost universal musical culture here: ‘pop music’ in its widest sense, something I’ve come to think of as ‘common song’.

 

Hear Oskar sing ‘In a Fog’!

 

CC: I think of ballads as often comic, or bawdy, but Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ is poignant and quite heart-rending. The woman ‘Plying her needle and thread – / Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!’ put me in mind of William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (1789) who ‘Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’. In your work, how far have you found that ballads have more of a political or social purpose than we might first think?

OCJ: Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ is a great example – there are lots of ‘broadside ballad’ editions, but the first edition, published with the musical score for voice and piano written by one J.H. Tully, appeared in an 1844 issue of Punch magazine, and was subsequently sold on its own for two shillings and sixpence, a price that put it out of reach of the masses, few of whom were musically literate anyway. And yes, it’s heart-rending, though I’ll admit that, for me, the original tune rather overdoes the sentimental tone in a very typically Victorian way!

But, to answer your question: so far as professional historians have been interested in ballads, at least since the 1960s and the work of E.P. Thompson, it’s been for their political and social purpose – academics have always been drawn to the ‘issues’ addressed in these songs. My own work on ballads began with a political question: in Napoleon and British Song, my first book, I look at more than four hundred ballads and their culture to try and get at popular politics at the lowest level during the Napoleonic Wars. And since the sixteenth century, ballads have always been used to contest the controversies of the day. In the Victorian period, this is still going strong, so everything from cruelty to animals to Catholic emancipation is written about in song – often very, very badly. One thing political activists rarely learnt was that a song was neither a sermon nor a stump speech, so that the best and most affecting political songs are those that tell a personal story, rather than advancing an explicit argument. That’s something both Hood and Blake sometimes got right: start with the individual, not the abstract.

 

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The Beggar Girl 1802
2010,7081.835,
AN962980001. Credit: The British Museum

 

CC: Thomas Hardy grew up with a knowledge of local ballads, but also saw them slipping out of the dominant culture. In this famous passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he marks the contrast – the chasm, even – between Tess and her mother, Joan:

‘Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.’

Oskar, what do you see as the place of ballads within Victorian society and culture, and why do you choose to perform historical ballads today?

OCJ: Hah – instinctively, I cringe when I read Hardy setting up that dichotomy: no offence to the guy, but he’s buying into this typical later-nineteenth-century fiction of the oral tradition and the rural peasant that the famous song collectors (Cecil Sharp, Francis Child, Lucy Broadwood et al.) fashioned into something of a political ideology that, taken to its extremes, ends up in dangerously fascistic-sounding territory. There was no such thing as purely oral transmission of ballads, at least not after the Elizabethan era: songs circulated in print and by ear together, and flowed endlessly between the town and the country. Probably Joan’s folksy old ballads began on the London stage, even if that was the Jacobean stage, and in that sense nothing had changed by the Victorian period.

But I’ve strayed off-topic again. For Victorians as for previous generations, ballads acted as an essential, lowest-common-denominator form of cultural transmission, enabling all classes in all places to access the same products, in its most basic possible form: cheap print on cheap paper, with an orally-transmitted vocal melody. But as literacy levels increased, technologies developed, ‘stamp’ taxes on newspapers were abolished, and the general standard of musical proficiency rose, ballads became less necessary. Once everyone could engage with politics in the more in-depth form of newspapers and meetings, and get their music from the halls, street bands, domestic pianos and the tonic sol-fa movement, the broadside ballad lost its purpose: there were simply better, cheaper ways to access both music and information, and I see this as a very good thing!

So the last thing I want to do is be nostalgic about broadside ballads: when it comes down to it, they were a compromise born of necessity, not an ideal form of song. By choice, I personally write and perform my own songs, accompanied by guitar or piano, informed by the amazing musical developments of the last two hundred years . . . I perform historical ballads, then, because I study them. They were incredibly important: for fully three hundred years, they constituted the dominant form of cultural participation for the majority of British people. And I don’t believe we can begin to understand what that meant without singing and listening to them: they weren’t simply words on a page, but dynamic, interactive things, to be performed and heard. They come alive in performance, it’s the only way to grasp their strengths and limitations, and get a sense of how people might have reacted to them. Also, I will admit: the best of them, the ones that could cut through the noise of a busy street and electrify a crowd, are really, really satisfying to sing.

 

Hear Oskar sing ‘The Wonderful Pills’!

 

CC: I guess that ballads, or street songs in general, can tell us about how medical or scientific culture filtered down into popular culture and general parlance. Is there a noticeable trend as to when health concerns become more or less prevalent among the ballads you’ve studied?

OCJ: A good question – and a tricky one! Firstly, I’d take issue with that phrase ‘filtered down’, it’s far too passive. Ballads aren’t about things slowly and neutrally trickling down to the consciousness of the masses: they’re provocative, active instances of popular engagement with important issues. If they’re top-down, then that’s because someone has made the decision to take a cause to the masses, and either thinks it will interest enough people to sell, or is important enough to subsidise by printing thousands of songs for free. If they’re written at street level, then they’re indications of the populace demanding to be part of a more elite discourse.

If there’s a chronology here, then it’s one of terminology: you say ‘health concerns’, which is really interesting. Since the Tudor origins of ballads, there have been songs about plague, disease, quack doctors, miracle cures, and dodgy doctors. What distinguishes the Victorian period is probably the vocabulary: the shift of this discourse from a fundamentally superstitious to a scientific basis. That was a slow process, of course, and certainly medical language was adopted in song before an informed medical attitude took hold, so that a lot of Victorian ballads in this area are really reactionary, employing old conventions of quackery, suspicion of experts, and spurious anecdotal evidence, in order to resist what people saw as authoritarian, imposed innovations in public health. But then, you could say that remains the same to this day, with the songs replaced by blogs and tabloids . . .

 

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The Young Ballad Singers c.1790-1798
2010,7081.2456,
AN1018624001. Credit: The British Museum

 

CC: When does balladry begin to disappear as far as you can see? Does it get chased out by such things as advertising jingles and the rise of recording technologies?

OCJ: I suppose I’ve already touched on this, in that the Victorian period really is the end of balladry as a significant cultural form, though some street singers persist into the early twentieth century, especially in rural areas, the north of England, and Ireland. It’s less about being chased out than natural evolution: into music hall songs on the one hand, prose journalism on the other, and, as you suggest, advertising jingles, on the – well, the third hand, I suppose? Recording technology has little to do with it: by the time that has any sort of mass impact, the street ballad is long gone. But – to advance a really tenuous analogy – if it were a dinosaur, the ballad wouldn’t have been wiped out by a meteor, so much as turned into a bird . . .

 

CC: Our project focuses on – as the title suggests! – the diseases which not just medics, but ordinary people felt lumbered with by modern life. What are the major ills or scourges of modern life which feature in the ballads you’ve read? What’s the most popular social complaint?

OCJ: I must admit, I had to go looking for this answer – most successful songs tend not to dwell on mundane, unpleasant issues; they tend to be escapist, or aimed at really specific problems. Most people who die tragically do so of broken hearts, drowning, or in battles. The major ‘ills’ are often money-related, with generic ‘poverty’ the biggest culprit. And in general there’s a tendency to avoid the modern – songs aim for a more timeless aesthetic – unless it’s in order to satirise something. Railway disasters, for example, get incorporated within the same epic language as a shipwreck, or the cave-in of a mine.

Ironically, this means the most popular social complaint doesn’t change with the centuries: it’s ‘the times’, with titles like ‘A Touch on the Times’ or ‘The Present Fashions’ cropping up generation after generation, always complaining about how things were better in the old days.

A theme of this blog, of course, has been the gradual decline of balladry, and ballad-singers didn’t necessarily go quietly! So one favourite example of mine is the song ‘The Organ Grinder’. The story is an old one: the singer loses his true love, who goes off with another man. But that man’s identity is topical: he’s an organ-grinder, the ballad-singer’s noisier, new-fangled, more successful rival. The villain of the piece within the song is the meta-villain too – representative of the new technology and accessible music that was making the ballad-singer redundant. For once, the ballad-singer was in sympathy with the great and the good, as the song alludes to Charles Babbage, and the campaign led by him and the M.P. Michael Thomas Bass that led to the Street Music Act of 1864, designed to outlaw the newly-noisy musicians of the London street that epitomised, to these indignant elites, everything wrong with vulgar modernity!

 

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A ballad seller looks longingly at some dumplings in a shop window; a fragment of a larger sheet. c.1830s Hand-coloured lithograph c.1839
1951,0411.4.51,
AN891693001. Credit: The British Museum

 

Thank you so much for talking to us, Oskar, and for sharing both your insights and your singing voice!

Victorian Speed – Time Flies When You’re Having FUN!

On Thursday 18th October, the Museum of the History of Science threw open its doors for its first ever ‘late’ – Victorian Speed: The Long History of Fast Living. With six separate activities based on our postdocs’ research interests and a Victorian photo booth to boot, we had a riotous evening of nineteenth century hijinks.

Here, the Diseases of Modern Life team reflect on their individual activities.

Dr. Hosanna Krienke

My “Timing the Victorians” quiz invited guests to try to guess the speed of various aspects of life in the 1800s. Many quiz-takers were amazed by how fast some things were (it took only 9 minutes to send a telegram from London to Bombay!), but were also caught off-guard by the slowness of other aspects of Victorian life (convalescent homes let patients stay by the seaside for a month or more to recover their health). I enjoyed hearing the ways people reasoned their way through the questions, and some even gasped or cheered when they discovered their hunches were correct. In the end, my aim was to help people imagine more concretely what life was like in the 1800s, so I was really pleased when one person reported that the event made her “reevaluate a nostalgic view of the Victorian era.”

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Hosanna Krienke, in Victorian dress, letting participants know they’re running out of time to answer! Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Eager to find out if they are correct! Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Jean-Michel Johnston

My ‘telegraphic tweeting’ activity introduced visitors to the full experience of sending an ‘instant’ message in the Victorian age. After considering many of the practicalities of sending a telegram, from the limitations of post office opening hours to the relatively high cost of sending a mere 20 words, they were then encouraged to have a go at sending their chosen message to another visitor ‘across the line'(or, rather, table) using one of the replica telegraph apparatuses. It was great to see that people from a wide range of age groups had fun trying out this activity – some of the children who attended were natural ‘Morse coders’, and some of the adults enjoyed trying to bemuse their counterparts across the table by sending messages in foreign languages!

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Tapping out a Morse message. Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Receiving and decoding – the effort is palpable! Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Alison Moulds

‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ introduced visitors to the pressures of retail work in the late nineteenth century. The title was drawn from Thomas Sutherst’s 1884 book about the plight of shop assistants, and I used pie charts to explore the long hours worked by those in retail, drawing on case studies from fiction, periodicals, autobiographies, and polemical writing. People were particularly surprised and aghast to hear about the demands placed on teenaged apprentices and the pressures of the ‘living-in’ system, which blurred the boundaries between work and leisure time. Visitors used blank pie charts and colouring pencils to plot their own average working day, and shared their retail work ‘horror stories’ on our interactive board. There were common themes between then and now, namely the long hours, the expectation to stand rather than sit, and the perennially rude customers. One women told me how, when working in a supermarket, a customer threw broccoli at her after hearing they’d run out of brie! In the feedback, several visitors suggested the activity had prompted them to find a new appreciation of our modern work-life balance.

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Alison Moulds looks on as participants colour in their own ‘A Day in the Life’ charts by the ‘Retail Horror Stories’ board. Photo: Ian Wallman

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One member of the public shades in her ‘work time’. Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Sally Frampton

In the ‘Emergency’ quiz we introduced visitors to the history of first aid, as we got people sorting fact from fiction and past from present by testing them on first aid trivia. The development of the first aid movement was an important aspect to people’s growing awareness of the health risks of modern life in the nineteenth century, as organisations like the St. John Ambulance Association trained up railway workers, miners, police officers and others to deal with the accidents and illnesses that seemed to arise from new technologies and industries. For the game, visitors were given ten statements relating to first aid. They then had to decide whether they related to first aid practices in the past, current day first aid practice…or whether we had made it up! The idea was to get people thinking about how ideas and practices can come in and go out of fashion, and how even the strangest practices from the past were based upon theories that appeared valid at the time. For example, ‘Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious person will revive them’ (past) introduced people to the use of tobacco smoke enemas in the nineteenth century for resuscitation, a medical technology which seems completely bizarre now but which had its roots in the belief that quickly administering warmth and stimulation could be effective in to reviving the near dead. The tobacco enema also led to conversations about early attempts by doctors to find effective resuscitation techniques. The statement ‘a snakebite can be treated by sucking the poison out from the wound’ was another one that generated debate. Until relatively recently the practice was recommended in first aid manuals, but it today considered ineffective, and yet most people thought it a ‘present’ day practice, because it is still seen in TV and films. This led to discussion about how even when new medical evidence proves a medical idea is not right, the idea can linger on in wider culture.

Visitors enjoyed learning weird and wonderful facts about first aid and emergency medicine and the game proved a good way to get people thinking about first aid and to need to keep up-to-date with the current advice about what to do in an emergency!

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Our resident Victorian nurse, Dr. Sally Frampton, administers advice to players. Photo: Ian Wallman

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Who knew Victorian First Aid could be so fun?! (We had a hunch). Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown

My exhibition, ‘Gastric Time’ started with a story. It was the story of Alexis St Martin, a Canadian man who was shot in the abdomen in 1822, which left him with a hole in his stomach through which the workings of digestion were made visible! People were intrigued and disgusted in equal measure as I recounted how American army surgeon William Beaumont carried out a series of experiments on St Martin which involved dipping bits of food into his stomach on a silk string and timing how long they took to break down! The language of ‘digestibility’ that was produced from the experiments led to a new way of thinking about food: in terms of time. After discussing how Victorian meals and dietetic rules differed from their modern experiences, they were keen to put their own hands in my oversized woollen stomach to choose their meals and try to beat the clock-time dice. If they succeeding in “digesting” 5 meals within 24 hours—symbolised by a giant steam-punk clock face—they were rewarded with a “good digestion” sticker, if not they were diagnosed with chronic indigestion! People enjoyed thinking about food in relation to broader ideas about standardising and controlling bodily processes and were not too shy to sit on our Victorian commode! My advertisement for a “rocking horse” cure for indigestion gave one man a new outlook on the French phrase “aller à la selle” (to have a bowel movement), while the exhibition as a whole purportedly changed many attitudes to dietary choices and even inspired a new MPhil project!

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Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown engaging her audience. Photo: Ian Wallman

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Happy game players – some already wearing stomach stickers! Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Sarah Green

‘Clusters of hard wart-like growths around anus, causing considerable discomfort’. This was the kind of symptom that those visiting the Victorian Sexual Diseases Tombola were (hopefully) surprised to be presented with. And things didn’t get much better from there. In an age without antibiotics, chances of recovery from syphilis, gonorrhoea, and a whole host of other nasties were slim. By dipping into the tombola drum, visitors had assigned to them a variety of treatments that were at best useless, and at worst downright painful. Fancy a urethral cauterization? A spiked ring to wear round the penis at night? A washing out of the intimate parts with champagne? No, me neither. And that, as visitors came to realize, was the slow, tedious and repetitive nature of Victorian sexual disease treatment. As one visitor commented, ‘I’m glad I got my STI in 2018!’

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Sarah Green explains how the Sexual Health Tombola works. Pick a card, any card… Photo: Ian Wallman

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One of the more horrifying treatments for problems of a sexual nature. Photo: Ian Wallman

 

We also had an extremely popular Victorian photo booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. (We may have got in on the action ourselves at the end of the evening…).

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They’ve got props at the ready and poses sorted… Photo: Ian Wallman

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…e voilà! Photo printed (a bit more instantaneously than in Victorian times). Photo: Ian Wallman

 

None of this would have been possible without a collaboration with colleagues at the Museum of the History of Science, especially Robyn Haggard: thank you for lending us your space to us – it formed the perfect backdrop for our research! For our Victorian get-up, we kindly thank the Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe, and for our wonderful props, The Prop Factory

Most of all, thank you to our photographer, Ian Wallman, for capturing all the different facets of #VictorianSpeed so beautifully!

Thank you to everyone who came

or, in Morse Code,

– …. .- -. -.- / -.– — ..- / – — / . …- . .-. -.– — -. . / .– …. — / -.-. .- — .

 

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

PS. I got caught taking twitter photos by our fabulous photographer, Ian Wallman…

On the Subject of Speed… Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy in statue form, presiding over the Top O’ Town, Dorchester. Photo: C. Charlwood

 

Born in 1840 in rural Dorset but writing up until his death in 1928, English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy witnessed dramatic social, scientific and technological changes. Though perhaps not the obvious place to look for evidence of Victorian speed, Hardy’s poetry indicates his perception that the pace of modern life had increased drastically – and that he was out of joint, the ‘time-torn man’ of his poem ‘A Broken Appointment’.

In the poem ‘Places’ – from the ‘Poems of 1912-13’, written on the sudden death of his first wife, Emma – Hardy ends by noting that ‘one there is’ whose ‘mind calls back’ past experiences, and plays the past off against the present by claiming that past occurrences have

a savour that scenes in being lack,

And a presence more than the actual brings;

[…] to-day is beneaped and stale,

              And its urgent clack

              But a vapid tale.

from ‘Places’ (1913)

‘Scenes in being’ are robbed of meaning and depth here, with only the past offering the rich experience for the senses that ‘savour’ indicates. Hardy deliberately uses the archaic ‘beneaped’ to characterise ‘to-day’, satirising modernity’s progress with an image of a ship left aground by the tide: the modern is caught in an old-fashioned linguistic predicament. ‘To-day’ is sonically characterised by an ‘urgent clack’, a mechanised noise which noticeably rhymes with ‘lack’, and whose consonant clusters sound ugly and disrupt the supposed enjambment.

The very early poem ‘She, to Him III’, from 1866, hears the speaker feeling ‘Despised by souls of Now, who would disjoint | The mind from memory, making Life all aim’. Forty-seven years before Hardy wrote ‘Places’, the present (here anthropomorphised into ‘Now’) is already ‘urgent’, insistent in its the alliteration on ‘all aim’. While the enjambment preserves the continuity with ‘memory’ and the past, the line break visually enacts the ‘disjoint[ure]’ the speaker feels.

The forward progress inherent in ‘all aim’ is mirrored at the end of Hardy’s poem ‘Old Furniture’, when, after stanzas of reminiscing about ancestors who’d previously handled these objects, the speaker berates himself with

Well, well. It is best to be up and doing,

              The world has no use for one to-day

Who eyes things thus – no aim pursuing!

from ‘Old Furniture’

‘To-day’ is again revealed as a time which does not allow for stationary contemplation, where the mind is busy but the body inactive. Despite the jaunty exclamation, the gross instrumentality of society is glimpsed in its faux horror at ‘one’ who is currently ‘no aim pursuing’. Citizens are of ‘use’ only when engaged in ‘doing’ something.

While ‘doing’ in part fits the rhyme scheme, it also bears on modern notions of an overworked, busy life. There’s been an increased uptake of mindfulness, a therapeutic practice which brings one’s attention back to the present moment. Guided mindfulness meditation explicitly tries to bring people back to a state of simply being, rather than the ‘doing’ that defines our waking hours – and that Hardy felt under pressure to socially perform. The need for mindfulness, and the popularity of mindfulness apps such as Headspace, shows that – for us as for the Victorians – one of the diseases of modern life is the disease of always doing, with its related problems of stress, anxiety and sleeplessness. Learning to do, and feeling under pressure constantly to be productive, leaves us struggling to be in the moment, be human, and ultimately be happy. That is why I’ve always found the end of ‘Old Furniture’ so devastating: the speaker turns from his individual, helpful reflections, back to those actions deemed socially appropriate.

However, if you’re thinking of writing Hardy off as an old stick-in-the-mud who grumbled in the face of modernity, it’s not so simple. Inviting Edmund Gosse down to Dorchester on 18th August 1886, he promises to show him ‘one or two curious places in the neighbourhood recently opened up by the railway’, allowing for the advantages of the railway network in ‘open[ing] up’ previously inaccessible terrain. Hardy recognises the convenience of the trains, even if they didn’t have the same aesthetic qualities as former modes of transport:

I fear that the old type of country waggon, curved & painted on the front & back with conventional flowers, tendrils, &.c, has nearly disappeared, if not quite. A person might find a decrepit one by penetrating into the recesses of the country, away from railways.

Letter to Edward Hudson, April 1921

The technology of the train pushed local, homelier features into obscure countryside according to Hardy’s estimate, and even the most intrepid will still only find ‘decrepit’, rather than working, wagons. Only ‘away from railways’ can one encounter ‘the old’.

Hardy also travelled to London to see the newly-opened London Underground system and reported by letter to his sister on 19th February 1863 that ‘I tried the Underground Railway one day – Everything is excellently arranged’. As a claustrophobe and crowd-fearer, I can only guess that the Underground was a much more palatable experience in those days!

Society’s speeding up had its advantages and disadvantages. While Hardy was sensitive to behavioural changes – when his pace and practice of considered thought was deemed outmoded and unproductive – he more than conceded the benefits of the technological changes which made travel quicker and no doubt more comfortable.

 

Please comment to tell us where you have noticed speed changes in Victorian fiction, non-fiction and poetry!

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The Hardy statue, letting the world get on as he sits in the sun. Photo: C. Charlwood

Sneak Preview of Victorian Speed!

VictorianSpeedBanner2On the evening of Thursday 18th October, the Museum of the History of Science will be throwing open its doors for a special event – Victorian Speed: The Long History of Fast Living. Enter an entertaining world of games, interactive exhibits, and short talks as our own Diseases of Modern Life researchers introduce you to the new technologies and sometimes bizarre medical treatments of the Victorian age.

This is a free, ticketed drop-in event. There are two time slots for the event to help reduce crowding. These run 6-7.30pm or 7.30-9pm. We recommend you pre-book ticket. It may be possible to turn up on the night if space allows. Book your place here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/victorian-speed-the-long-history-of-fast-living-registration-49259062181 and join in the anticipation on our Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/341302476615098/

Below are tasters of the activities that await!

Timing the Victorians, with Dr. Hosanna Krienke: Victorians thought their world had sped up, but how fast were they going? This trivia game introduces Victorian timescales: both the shockingly fast and the surprisingly slow.

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Apparatus for Stimulating Nerves. Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Emergency! with Dr. Sally Frampton: With industrialisation, new technologies and a rapid pace of life came accidents. Lots of them. Try your hand at first aid trivia. In this game, you will encounter strange methods of first-aid. Your task will be to sort out fact from fiction, as well as historical techniques from today’s best methods.

Death and Disease Behind the Counter, with Dr. Alison Moulds: Long hours and living-in meant that Victorian retail work was associated with ill-health and exhaustion; come explore the parallels between the plight of shop assistants then and now and share your own horror stories of working on the shop floor.

Murder

Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Telegraphic Tempo: High-Speed Communication in the 19th Century?, with Dr. Jean-Michel Johnston: The Victorians believed the electric telegraph would transform their lives–for better and for worse. Instant messaging could bring the world closer together, but would it also unnecessarily accelerate life? Discover the reality of high-speed communication in the nineteenth century by trying out some telegraphic tweeting!

Digesting the Modern World, with Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown: Vegan, vegetarian, low carb, no dairy, sugar-free, paleo, clean eating, and the 5:2… we live in a world obsessed with diet, but we have the Victorians to thank for our interest in digestion. From how long it took to digest a meal, to what time one should eat supper, to when to use the loo…come and learn about how the Victorians experienced “gastric time”!

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Reconstruction of Alexis St. Martin, Medical Museion, Copenhagen. Credit: Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown

The Slow Road to Nowhere: Victorian Sexual Diseases Tombola, with Dr. Sarah Green: So your fast modern living has landed you with some worrying symptoms down below – what are your options? Enter the surprisingly slow, tedious and painful world of Victorian VD treatment with our sexual health tombola.

There will also be a photo booth provided by the wonderful Decadent Times (https://www.decadenttimes.com/photobooth), so that you can share your new-found historical look as swiftly as social media allows you to! #VictorianSpeed

And don’t forget to use your map to find objects related to the different activities placed around the museum!

If you would like to be added to the Museum of the History of Science’s mailing list, please visit http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/join/e-newsletter/

We look forward to welcoming you to Victorian Speed – in full period dress, no less!

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The Museum of the History of Science’s Education Officer in Victorian garb

Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars in Michaelmas Term 2018

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Tuesday 23 October 2018 (Week 3)

 Dr Lauren Weiss and Prof Kirstie Blair, University of Strathclyde

 Science and the Mutual Improvement Society

Victorian Britain had hundreds, if not thousands, of societies devoted to the cause of self-improvement, many populated by aspiring working-class men (and, later in the century, women). Scientific discussion and debate was very important to these associations. This talk will focus on the little-known archive of their meetings records and the magazines that they produced, showing that these give us significant insight into how, why, and when societies discussed key scientific debates and development, and the ways in which scientific education was perceived as vital to the cause of mutual improvement.

This talk is delivered by Dr Lauren Weiss, whose PhD and postdoctoral research has focused on literary societies and mutual improvement magazines, and Prof Kirstie Blair, whose current research is focused on Scottish and Northern working-class literature and culture.

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

 

Wednesday 7 November 2018 (Week 5)

Dr Imogen Goold, University of Oxford and Dr Catherine Kelly, University of Bristol

Psychiatric Injury and the Hysterical Woman

In this paper, we examine the development of the English courts’ approach to negligently-inflicted psychiatric injury claims from an historical perspective, first tracing the development of the English court’s approach to psychiatric injury claims. We then offer an overview of how mental injury has been understood over the past two centuries, and the notion of the hysterical woman within this framework. We posit the idea that the current law can be best understood as a sympathetic reaction to the notion of the ‘hysterical woman’. We argue that this approach can both explain the early resistance to recognising such claims, but also the enthusiasm for compensation in others. We further argue that the rather confused and conflicting approaches in English law can be understood as a result of the lack of a clearly developed normative basis for compensation. This failure, we suggest, has arisen as a result of the reactive nature of the way in which the law has developed, which has undermined the courts’ development of a more ethically coherent and reasoned approach. We argue that an understanding of the background to the current law can aid in improving the coherency of this area of law in the future.

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

 

Tuesday 20 November 2018 (Week 7)

Dr Megan Coyer, University of Glasgow

Literature and Medicine in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: The Literary Doctor in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

In the early nineteenth century, Edinburgh was the leading centre of medical education and research in Britain. It also laid claim to a thriving periodical culture. This paper explores the relationship between the medical culture of Romantic-era Scotland and the periodical press by examining the work of two key medically-trained contributors to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the most influential and innovative literary periodical of the era. I argue that the Romantic periodical press cultivated innovative ideologies, discourses, and literary forms that both reflected and shaped medical culture in the nineteenth century. In the case of Blackwood’s, the magazine’s distinctive Romantic ideology and experimental form enabled the development of an overtly ‘literary’ and humanistic popular medical culture, which participated in a wider critique of liberal Whig ideology in post-Enlightenment Scotland. The construction of the surgeon, sentimental poet, and prolific Blackwoodian contributor, David Macbeth Moir (1798–1851), as a literary surgeon within the magazine is briefly examined. Samuel Warren’s seminal series, Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician (1830–37), is then read in its vexed original publishing context – the ideologically charged popular periodical press – in terms of its inception and reception, as well as its initiation of a new genre of popular medical writing. The paper concludes by reflecting upon the need to further situate the writings and reception of nineteenth-century literary doctors in relation to specific cultural and textual contexts to unpack both the history of medical humanism and the broader relationship between medical and literary cultures during this period.

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

 

Drinks will be served after each seminar. All welcome, no booking required.

Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Resuscitation, Reanimation and the Modern World

Oct 5

The conference will be held at Maison Française d’Oxford (2-10 Norham Road, OX2 6SE) on Friday 5th October (1pm-6pm) and Saturday 6th October (9.30am-4pm).

The conference seeks to explore the social, cultural, political, and medical aspects of reanimation and resuscitation from the early modern period to the present. From the emergence of societies ‘for the recovery of persons apparently drowned’ across Europe to the setting up of first-aid medical services, the subject of resuscitation has social and medical significance. Changing views about the obligation to save lives may also be indicative of a shift regarding the nature of death and the value of human life, involving both an increasingly secularized conception of the possibility of resurrection (famously explored in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1818), and the development of a society characterized by its understanding and management of risk.

‘Resuscitation, Reanimation and the Modern World’ will consider how these phenomena appeared as key concerns of the Enlightenment – initially as miraculous moments, then as displays of medical prowess and manifestations of civic responsibility. The aim of the meeting is to explore how these ideas and practices have developed through time in literary, popular, and medical narratives, as new technologies both ‘medicalised’ resuscitation and extended its practice beyond the medical arena. As a result, we aim to develop new insights, not only into the development and dissemination of medical knowledge but also into broader cultural issues such as citizenship and civic duty, the perception and management of risk, and changing notions of what it means to be human.

More information and the conference programme are available at:

http://www.mfo.cnrs.fr/fr/calendar/resuscitation-reanimation-and-the-modern-world/

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/workshop-resuscitation-reanimation-and-the-modern-world-tickets-50166729037

The conference is free to attend, with all refreshments provided, but please register your attendance via eventbrite (above). The venue is wheelchair accessible.

Resuscitation, Reanimation and the Modern World is organized by Marie Thébaud-Sorger (CNRS/Maison Française d’Oxford) and Jennifer Wallis (Imperial College London). We are grateful for the support of the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS), the Diseases of Modern Life project and the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford, the Maison Française d’Oxford (MFO), the Society for the Social History of Medicine (SSHM), and the Royal Historical Society (RHS).

EVENT – Victorian Speed: The Long History of Fast Living

Venue: Museum of the History of Science, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3AZ

18th October 2018

Stressed out by modern life? So were the Victorians! Enter the world of Victorian England in this museum ‘late’ for a fun evening of games, interactive exhibits, and short talks as you explore with researchers from the “Diseases of Modern Life” project the new technologies and sometimes bizarre medical treatments of the Victorian age.

Sessions run 6 – 7.30pm or 7.30 – 9pm.

This is a free, timed event. We strongly recommend you pre-book at ticket as spaces are limited. It may be possible to turn up on the night, but only if space allows. Book now at: https://if-oxford.com/event/victorian-speed-the-long-history-of-fast-living/

The Magic Mango

Written by Amelia Bonea Illustrated by Ioan Balcosi

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Amelia Bonea’s story The Magic Mango, published by Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver, is now available in 7 languages on the StoryWeaver website https://storyweaver.org.in/stories/27150-the-magic-mango

  1. এক টি জাদু আম (Bengali – L4)
  2. जादुई आम (Hindi – L4)
  3. ಮಾಯದ ಮಾವಿನ ಹಣ್ಣು (Kannada – L4)
  4. जादूई आंबा (Marathi – L4)
  5. மாயாஜால மாம்பழம் (Tamil – L4)
  6. A la recherche d’une mangue magique (French – L4)
  7. Sâmburele de mango fermecat (Romanian – L4)

Pratham Books is a not-for-profit publisher based in India, a spin-off of one of the largest non-governmental organizations in the country, whose mission is to put ‘a book into every child’s hand’. The StoryWeaver platform is part of their efforts to achieve this by publishing multilingual stories on a great variety of topics, from fantasy to science and nature, life skills, history and folktales. The platform currently features 9,060 stories in 118 languages from India and beyond. These can be used in classrooms as educational material (including for translation exercises) or read at home; they can also be saved to an offline library for those who do not have constant access to the internet.

Amelia and the book

Amelia’s collaboration with StoryWeaver began two years ago, when she volunteered to translate some of the stories on the platform into her mother tongue, Romanian. She was soon inspired to write her own story, which is loosely based on her first monograph about the history of telegraphy and journalism in colonial India. The Magic Mango is the outcome of her love for history and children’s books. It is the story of two siblings, Tara and Arun, who discover an old newspaper in their grandmother’s attic. They open it and embark on a historical adventure about a magic mango seed and a little boy who tried to telegraph it from India to London at the end of the nineteenth century.

Recently, Amelia ran a workshop for children at the local library in her hometown Satu Mare in Romania. She used this opportunity to read the story, but also to talk about what historians do and to show the children the only telegram she has ever received: a birthday message from her uncle, sent way back in 1989, about three months before the Romanian Revolution! The children then learned to send telegrams in Morse code, a skill they put to good use by sending messages to their family members, pets and various imaginary friends!
Story telling

‘Sanitation in the Shop’: Health and Retail Work in Late Victorian Britain

Alison Moulds, our new Postdoctoral Research Assistant, introduces her project on ill-health in the late Victorian retail industry.

In 1892, the Lancet launched an inquiry into the dangers of retail work. With the medical journal’s characteristic campaigning zeal, ‘Sanitation in the Shop’ exposed a raft of social and medical concerns about shop work. These included the long hours, lack of seating available, poor-quality meals and cramped sleeping accommodation, as well as the lack of exercise and recreation, poor ventilation, and difficulties accessing toilet facilities and drinking water.[1] For working- and lower-middle-class men and women, retail may have seemed a modern and desirable occupation, but this report intimated that it often entailed primitive conditions.

Punch

In this illustration for Punch magazine (1880), George du Maurier shows a customer passing a chair to an overworked shop assistant.

My new project explores representations of overwork and ill-health in the retail industry, at a time when consumer culture was booming. I am looking at the living and working conditions of shop assistants in both large department stores and smaller shops. My research engages with the overarching themes of Diseases of Modern Life, including occupational health and the conditions of modernity. It draws on depictions of retail work in both medical and popular writing.

For the Lancet’s campaign was part of a much broader concern about the conditions of shop work which emerged in the medical and popular press and literature. Other professional periodicals such as the British Medical Journal also expressed anxieties about the long hours and lack of seating available, while fictional portraits of shop work similarly emphasised its physical hardships in graphic detail.

George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893) depicts working life in a drapery establishment, where the assistants work 13½ hours every weekday and an average of 16 hours on Saturday. Shop-girl Monica Madden relates that one of her colleagues has been hospitalised with varicose veins. On Sundays the workers are ‘strongly recommended’ to use their vacation for ‘bodily recreation’, yet this supposed freedom represents endangerment for unchaperoned young women.[2] Early in the novel Monica is shown rebuffing the advances of her male colleague, Mr Bullivant, who follows her from the shop. In both medical and popular writing, fears about the physical conditions and moral character of shop work often coalesced and Gissing’s narrative blurs the boundaries between the retail and sex industries, highlighting the shop girl’s vulnerability and self-commodification. Monica marries her grotesque suitor Mr Widdowson to escape her working life but finds herself in a loveless marriage with a man who disgusts her.

Recent scholarship on retail work has primarily focused on gender, examining the sexualisation of Victorian shop girls. In Consuming Fantasies, Lise Shapiro Sanders reveals how the construction of the ‘shop girl’ came to ‘embody a set of cultural assumptions about class, gender, and sexuality’.[3] Katherine Mullin’s Working Girls examines how female shop assistants were variously represented as sexually energised and emblems of modernity or as ‘enervated, demoralized workers’. She highlights the medical profession’s concern about the effects of shop work on women’s (reproductive) health, touching on how the Lancet deployed images of ‘depleted nubility’ in its 1892 inquiry.[4]

Commentators were also concerned about the health of male shop workers, however. The Lancet inquiry declared that something ‘must be done to prevent the physical degeneration of the million or so of men and women who in England work as shop assistants’, and shared the experiences of male and female workers.[5] While the medical profession fashioned itself as the masculine ‘protector’ of endangered young womanhood, its anxieties about the stresses and strains of shop work went further.

I am particularly interested in how the retail industry was represented as unsanitary, as a threat to public health. The Lancet’s report was framed as an investigation by the ‘Sanitary Commission’ and it began by expressing surprise that the issue had not received greater attention given that the public came into ‘daily contact’ with the ‘large class of [retail] workers’.[6] The journal suggested that the health of shop assistants should arouse the public’s concern, though the comment also seems to imply that disease-addled shop assistants might pose a health risk to their middle-class customers.

Today, the retail industry is once again being transformed by modernity and technology, as staff are replaced by self-service checkouts and more shoppers turn online. Retail work is an increasingly vulnerable occupation – a report by the Centre for Retail Research predicted that 552,500 high street jobs would disappear between 2017 and 2022. Whereas live-in shop assistants were common in the Victorian period, today’s shop floor workers face the prospect of zero hours contracts. Yet long hours and low pay remain key concerns, as do extended opening hours at Christmas. In 2016, a change.org survey petitioning for shops to close on Boxing Day to give retail workers a rest received over 200,000 signatures.

The move towards online shopping has pushed many retail jobs behind closed doors, and health risks are repeatedly exposed in the popular press. This year, an FOI request revealed that ambulances had been called out 600 times in three years to Amazon’s UK warehouses. Meanwhile, a BBC investigation found that delivery drivers for agencies contracted by the retailer claimed that they were working ‘illegal’ hours, receiving less than the minimum wage, and were unable to access toilet facilities while on the job. As in the nineteenth century, conditions in the retail industry are represented as unsanitary and exploitative for male and female workers.

[1] ‘Report of the Lancet Sanitary Commission on Sanitation in the Shop’, Lancet, 27 February 1892, pp. 490-92; and 12 March 1892, pp. 600-02.

[2] George Gissing, The Odd Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 31.

[3] Lise Shapiro Sanders, Consuming Fantasies: Labor, Leisure, and the London Shop Girl (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006), p. 2.

[4] Katherine Mullin, Working Girls: Fiction, Sexuality, and Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 111-12.

[5] ‘Report of the Lancet Sanitary Commission’, 12 March 1892, p. 602.

[6] ‘Report of the Lancet Sanitary Commission’, 27 February 1892, p. 490.

Creative Health; or, what would Vernon Lee have to say to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing?

This post is contributed by Sarah Green.

‘The time has come to recognise the powerful contribution the arts can make to our health and wellbeing.’

Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, Short Report (July 2017)

It was Mental Health Awareness Week last week, and I’ve been looking back at the July 2017 Inquiry Report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (#ArtsHealthWellbeing). The report makes two interesting claims: that the arts could make a significant positive impact on public health and wellbeing, and that this impact needed to be made now to counteract the circumstances (stress, loneliness, aging populations, increasing numbers of people living with long-term conditions) of modern life.

My first thoughts were ‘what would Vernon Lee have made of all this?’ Perhaps this wouldn’t have been everyone’s primary reaction, but for anyone working on the connections between aesthetics – the study of art and beauty – and health in the late Nineteenth Century, the similarities are initially striking. Many late nineteenth-century aesthetes would have wholeheartedly concurred in both of these conclusions, and none more than Vernon Lee. Once again, what is now being presented as the newest thinking has historical roots in the nineteenth century.

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Portrait of Violet Paget (Vernon Lee) by John Singer Sargent (1881) and Vernon Lee and C. Anstruther-Thomson, Beauty and Ugliness (1912)

Vernon Lee (the penname of Violet Paget, 1856-1935) was a prolific writer on art and aesthetics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and had a life-long interest in the healthiness of art. Like many others she was convinced that all art had a distinct and, she increasingly felt, directly observable effect on the body, and that our aesthetic responses were traceable to this impact. Her 1912 book Beauty and Ugliness, written with Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, recorded their joint efforts to identify the precise nature of these bodily responses, from changes in breathing, stance and heart rhythm to less easily described effects. Her essays on aesthetics, morality, and social questions frequently dwelt on the impact of art on health and what we would now call wellbeing, especially in an increasingly pressured and over-civilized world.

The 2017 Inquiry report, entitled Creative Health (online here) similarly finds that the arts have a (to a certain extent) measurable influence on the body, and therefore on both physical and mental health. But it is less interested than Lee in determining precisely why this should be the case. Its focus is on the practical application of this knowledge in a National Health Service struggling under the pressures of an ever expanding and aging population that suffers from an increased level of long-term health issues, including stress. ‘The evidence we present’, it claims, ‘shows how arts-based approaches can help people to stay well, recover faster, manage long-term conditions and experience a better quality of life. We also show how arts interventions can save money and help staff in their work’.[1] It recommends a range of interventions, from group art therapies to museums on prescription.

So what would Lee have made of this? While it is likely that she would have concurred with the report’s broader claims and ambitions, even its plans to use art as generalised therapy, she would almost certainly have been distressed by its generous definition of ‘the arts’. Under this heading the report includes ‘the visual and performing arts, crafts, dance, film, literature, music and singing’, as well as gardening, cooking, attending concert halls, museums, galleries, theatres, heritage sites and libraries (whatever they contain), and the importance of built environments. ‘In this report’, it says, “the arts” is used as shorthand for everyday human creativity, rather than referring to a lofty activity which requires some sort of superior cultural intelligence to access’.[2] Creating or experiencing the arts are treated as the same kind of activity, regardless of what is created or what is experienced.

Lee would be the last to object to the grouping together of so many activities under one banner (her theories of art also encompassed visual art, music, literature, and sense of place). But she would surely have considered the report’s disinclination to distinguish good art from bad to be a public hazard. For Lee, if art’s effect on the body could be restorative and health giving, it could equally be damaging and dangerous. Good art, she wrote, was ‘fresh and wholesome food’ for body and soul, but bad art was ‘mere highly flavoured, spicy or nauseous drug-stuff’ (Child in the Vatican).[3] Beauty, she says in Beauty and Ugliness, is rightly ‘associated with all our notions of order, of goodness, of health, and of more complete life’, and ugliness ‘with everything by which the life of body and soul is diminished and jeopardised’ (30).[4] Careful education was required in order to discriminate between the two.

Lee was motivated by very nineteenth century concerns, not least the relationship between physical and moral health. But her example throws up interesting questions concerning the boundaries of ‘art’ and its impact upon wellbeing. Does everyone receive the same benefit from creating or experiencing art? Are these two activities as healthy as each other? Is Wagner as beneficial as Metallica, or does this differ from person to person? Does that benefit increase or decrease based on the person’s ideas concerning art? Can anything be done to increase one’s susceptibility to art, and if so, what? If these questions are difficult, perhaps impossible to answer, nevertheless the Report’s findings show the necessity of asking them.

I like to think that, despite concerns, Lee would have been especially cheered by the Report’s generous sense of ‘wellbeing’ as something that goes beyond, and yet includes and is profoundly affected by bodily health; and encouraged by its feeling that this cannot be achieved, either now or in the future, without working together as a community. ‘There is no life’, she writes, ‘a man may lead with one or two others which does not spread and affect the life of all and every one’.[5] The short report of the Inquiry ends with an appeal: ‘we ask all those who believe in the value of the arts for health and wellbeing to speak up’.[6] It is an appeal that Lee surely would have applauded.

[1] The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, Short Report (July 2017), 1, http://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry.

[2] Creative Health, 4, 19.

[3] Vernon Lee, ‘The Child in the Vatican’, in Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions (London: W. Satchell & Co., 1881), 17-48; 23.

[4] Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, Beauty and Ugliness, and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics (London: John Lane, 1912), 30.

[5] Vernon Lee, Althea: Dialogues on Aspirations and Duties (London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co, 1894), 234.

[6] Creative Health, 11.