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Are there Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden?

Are there Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden?

If you live in country Victoria or have the means to get there (I may have discovered the real reason why Airforce 2 dropped Hilary Clinton in Melbourne instead of our capital Canberra) then you have until this Saturday the 28th of November 2010 to see a fabulous exhibit of Australian Fairy Art from the Victorian era at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

After stopping in Castlemaine recently to visit Tute’s Cottage I drove onto Bendigo especially to see this exhibit – it was well worth the drive.

Beautiful Bendigo

Bendigo is an extraordinarily gorgeous town. The Victorian architecture surrounding Queen’s Park, at its heart, shows the amazing wealth and opulence of the goldfields at their peak. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I only had enough time to see the exhibit and get on my way back to Melbourne. I have been eagerly anticipating this exhibit since February as it promised to explore the transposition of the English Victorian Fairy Art craze into an Australian context – very pertinent to our interests at TQS.

The exhibition was beautifully mounted with works from national collections, ‘never been seen before’ works from private collections (fancy how special a family would feel to own their very own fairy art) and illustrations from period books. I loved it but left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

For me the best works of the exhibit were the two beautiful painting by the Australian painter Frederick McCubbin. Frederick’s work is well known to many Australians as his triptych called ‘The Pioneer’ has graced many a lounge room wall, biscuit tin and tea towel.  It is a stunning work that subtly shows the impact of settlement on the bush. As time passes from left to right in the triptych more and more of the bush is cleared until you can just see a hint of a city in the distance. Unfortunately familiarity has bred contempt for McCubbin’s work and I get the sense that we don’t love his painitings as much as we could – too sentimental for modern sensibilities perhaps.

McCubbin’s fairy paintings have the same sombre mood as ‘The Pioneer’ until you begin to catch glimpses of the winged creatures hidden in the bush. The only clue to finding the fairies quickly is following the gaze of the small children in the paintings. In a way McCubbin is encouraging us to look through the eyes of childhood to see the bush in a new way.

Another highlight of the exhibit was a chance to see new prints of the ‘Cottingley Fairy Photographs‘. These faked photographs from 1917 show two young girls and fairies frolicking in a garden. If you haven’t ever read about the Cottingley Fairy Scandal and the role of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creater of Sherlock Holmes, it is worth following the link above. Given that the girls cut the fairy images out of a popular children book of the time – it is a wonder that anyone thought they were real. I suppose sometimes we just need to believe – and that might be why I love the Cottingley Fairy Photographs. The Cottingley Fairies are also behind the plot of the 1997 fantasy film – Photographing Fairies.

So why did I leave unsatisfied? While the craze for fairy art was an English Victorian era phenomenon it didn’t really take off in Australia until the Edwardian period – so not so much Australian fairy art of the Victorian era. The catalogue to accompany the exhibition is OK but not great. I was left disappointed by the lack of Australian context provided in the curator’s notes. Here there is a brief discussion of Victorian England’s representation of the fae as mischievous, wanton and dangerous as a salve to the taming of the wild by the industrial revolution, when an enormous proportion of the population forsook the rural life for cities. In Australia the burgeoning of fairy art in the Edwardian period is seen as a retreat from the horror of war.

I think that Australian fairy art of the Edwardian period is another version of the ‘Lost in the Bush’ myth of Australian settlement. It might surprise non-Australians to know that in Primary School we are all read and re-read the story of three young children who stray from their parents and become hopelessly lost in the bush. The children become increasingly frightened, the older sister (my hero) snaps gum of Eucalypt trees for her brothers to eat and covers them with her skirt to keep them warm at night until eventually at the point of no hope they are rescued. This is our ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and our cautionary tale about the wild wood, nature as savage and unknown. Europeans decided very early on after drought and flooding rains that the bush was out to get us. Fairies are a way of making the Australian bush safe. They are chubby cherubs looking out for us or as the Australian Girl Guide rhyme says of the bush spirit the Melluka,  ’I'm a Melluka but you will find, though I play tricks, I’m always kind’.

The answer to the question is of course ‘Yes’!

Purple King Climbing Bean and Fairy

Victorian fairy folklore is full of cautionary tales about farmers who failed to heed the warnings of fairies: don’t plant your potatoes here, don’t call your cows without using their proper name, don’t use all the milk without leaving us a saucer by the front door (so like living in a share house) and the ever popular don’t forget to leave us a corn-dolly from your new harvest. Ruin, failed crops and disappointment in love follow all who don’t do as they are bid.

As a gardener I am fully prepared, if the fairies at any point tell me where they want the carrots planted, I will do as they say (actually I would do pretty much anything to get carrots growing properly)!

Pollen pants means that it is both 'Hammer Time' and a Bee - so not a fairy!

If you look carefully through my posts you will see that on a number of occasions I have been lucky enough to accidently capture images of the fairies that live in my garden – I could tell you how many there are – but the fairies don’t want me to spoil the fun.

Hello Sculleryteers

Hello Sculleryteers

Hi! So as the year is rapidly drawing to a close, we are trying to figure out how to have some kind of grand finale. If you have anything you would like to hear or see from us, please let us know.

The Lady’s Horse – Part I

The Lady's Horse - Part I

“It was so cheerful to be trotting and cantering all together that it always put us in high spirits. I had the best of it, for I always carried the mistress; her hand was so little, her voice was sweet, and her hand so light on the rein that I was guided almost without feeling it.” Black Beauty 1877

Ah yes. The lady’s horse. If you were a lady in the Victorian Era, not just any horse would do. Ladies couldn’t just throw their legs up over any ol’ mount that ambled down the trail, if you know what I’m sayin’. They had to protect their delicate sensibilities and the right horse was essential to maintaining a lady’s grace and demeanor.

So Many Horses- Which Is Appropriate for The Lady?

In this and the next few posts, I am going to use two primary resources written in the Victorian era to discuss how the equestrian experts of the day viewed a couple of topics. The first being, as mentioned above, the type of horse suitable for a lady. I will deal with The Lady’s Horse in two posts, so that I can examine both books individually, while at the same time attempting not to lose all readers of this blog by making my post too long.

The first book, Riding: on the flat and across country: A guide to practical horsemanship, was written in 1882 by Matthew Horace Hayes. Hayes devotes a whole chapter (Chapter 6 to be exact) on “Ladies Riding” and he actually surprised me by how confident he seems in the ability of women to ride effectively. This is not to say that he’s a champion of Equal Rights! On Horseback!, but for a 19th century man writing on the horsemanship of women, he’s more complimentary than I expected. In other words, he’s a little more confident in a lady’s ability to ride as well as a man without “special allowances”. He refrains from giving overall rules based solely on the rider being a woman, but instead gives instruction on the different circumstances a rider might encounter based on the talent of the equestrienne.

For example, he writes:

As the object of this book is to teach the theory and practice of riding in a “workmanlike” manner, I shall not touch on the artificial rules and varying fashions of park or school equitation, but shall devote my space to the special points of horsemanship which concern ladies, and which hold good for all time.

(Or “hold good” until women ditch the sidesaddle and start riding astride in the twentieth century, but we won’t hold this lack of premonition against poor  Mr. Hayes.) The first section in his chapter on Lady’s Riding is on The Lady’s Horse , which was very convenient for the purposes of this post. Let’s read shall we?

A Lady’s Horse.—The question of man or woman being able to ride and control a horse, supposing him to be properly bitted and saddled, resolves itself into the more or less perfect possession by the rider of the following requisites : good hands; strong seat; firm nerves ; even temper, and physical strength. If a lady lack somewhat the last-mentioned gift, she amply makes up for the deficiency by a tightness of grip unobtainable in a man’s saddle; while it is but bare justice to say that in touch, courage, and patience she is at least our equal. Mere brute force has little to do with the capability of holding a puller.

See, right off the bat Hayes surprised me with this no-nonsense look at women riders. Pretty progressive for a Victorian dude, I thought. He goes on:

Ladies who have had equal opportunities, with men, of learning, ride quite as well as they. But, as a rule, they don’t get the chance of excelling, nor are they ” set right” by unpalatable home truths being told them without favour or affection, unless, indeed, they have hard-riding, and, may be, jealous brothers.

Very interesting, Hayes!  I’m listening…

A fine horsewoman, therefore, may be satisfied with any horse which is fit for a man, provided he is fairly steady to mount, goes up to his bit, and does not require an unusual amount of ” collecting.” I have the pleasure of knowing several ladies who could ride anything that has ever been foaled, yet it is not desirable, even with one of them, to have a horse ” dance about” when he is being mounted, or one which ” sprawls all over the place ” and requires constant pulling together, when the rider is up.

So. Pretty complimentary I’d say. After this introduction, he goes more into detail about what kind of horse would be desirable for a Victorian lady. Just for fun, I am going to subject Cinder to Victorian scrutiny. Let’s see how she fares.

The ordinary lady rider ought to have a horse which is perfectly steady to mount; is light in hand ; goes in a natural collected manner, and is safe and easy to ride.

Ok, well, Cinder aces the first requirement. She’s steady to mount- stands nicely without “dancing about” (poetry!). One point for Cinder. She’s relatively ‘light in hand’- in other words, she doesn’t pull her head down against the reins constantly. Another point for Cinder.
Now for the last point. Hmmm…“safe and easy”….well, most of the time she’s safe and easy. As long as there’s nothing strange brushing against her legs, she’s not in a large open field, and there’s no geese flying overhead. On the other hand, since she’s great with traffic, motorcycles, and large farm equipment, we’ll give her half a point. Half the time she’s safe and easy.
Two and a half out of a possible 3 points for Cinder. She’s well on her way to becoming the perfect Lady’s Horse.

Thanks for the points, folks.

He should not be rough or high in his action, lest he might fatigue her unnecessarily. All ladies, except those who are nervous, like light-hearted showy horses, though, unless they are really good riders, they naturally desire the fire and gaiety to be well under control. The plucky hard-riding sort love to steer horses which other ladies would be ” afraid of their lives ” to mount.

Well, Cinder’s not what I would call ‘light hearted and showy’. It just ain’t her personality; but as she’s not a total grouch, she has a touch of diva, and since she looks divine in purple (which is a decidedly showy color), we’ll give her another half a point.

In the next section, Hayes deals with the qualities necessary for a horse to carry a sidesaddle. I will deal more thoroughly in a future post about the sidesaddle itself, but we’ll read what he has to say in relation to a sidesaddle-carrying equine.

In order to give plenty of room for the saddle, a lady’s horse may be longer in the back than would be desirable in one for a man. He should be quite twentyone pounds, taken from a man’s point of view, above the weight he has to carry, as extra fatigue is entailed on him by the rider having to sit so far back. The side position naturally causes an unequal distribution of weight. Besides this, a lady cannot ease her horse by standing in the stirrups or getting off and on as a man may often do during a long ride. The far back position of the seat, however, enables a lady to ride a horse which is uncertain on his fore legs better than a man can do. A lady’s horse may, with advantage, have a fairly high forehand, so that the saddle may not shift forward, and that he may not jolt his rider too much.

As Cinder is half Clydesdale and therefore quite large, I think she’d do fine carrying the extra weight of a sidesaddle. Another point for her. (That’s four points out of a possible five for those who are keeping track.)

So, you know how I was talking about how surprised I was that Hayes seemed pretty progressive? Well, progressive had its limits in the Victorian Era, and no chapter in any lady’s riding manual, progressive or not, would be complete without style pointers. No matter how Workmanlike! the author intends it to be.

The style of horse should, if possible, be in thorough keeping with the style of rider. A young lady with a slight pretty figure will look best on a horse which is all blood and quality; while a portly and dignified matron will be best suited with one of the weight-carrying hunter stamp.

Make sure your horse doesn’t make you look fat!

Since we’re dealing with Cinder here, and since I am Cinder’s only rider, for this section we will judge her in relation to me. That’s right ladies and germs, I shall put myself up for Victorian Scrutiny. Does Hope’s horse make her look fat? Let’s find out!

First: Am I a ‘young lady’?  By Victorian standards no, that ship has sailed.

Second: Do I have a ‘slight pretty figure’? I don’t think that my figure and the word ‘slight’ have ever been used in conjunction.

Ok then, we have now determined that I am a lady neither young, nor possessing a slight figure; so that means I must fall into the second category of Portly and Dignified Matron.

Good grief, are those the only choices? I don’t really consider myself portly (and those who know me personally would certainly never call me dignified), but I suppose I fall on that side of the Victorian Lady Spectrum, so we’ll roll with it- bringing us to the horse required for such a lady: one of the weight-carrying hunter stamp. Cinder is half draft horse, and draft crosses are often used as hunters, so DING DING DING, we have a winner! Another point for Cinder. This is even funnier to me, because I have a bumper sticker that says “Ride a draft, it makes your butt look smaller”. I guess my car is partying like its 1877 and I didn’t even know it!

The next section of the chapter is especially interesting, because Hayes breaks down the method used to find the proper height ratio between lady and horse; Victorians apparently, were very thorough.

15.1 is a nice height for a horse to carry a lady five feet high. We may add an inch in height for the horse for every four inches by which the lady exceeds five feet.

Let me break that down for the non-horse people reading this. Horses are measured in ‘hands’ and a hand is four inches. So 15.1 means 15 ‘hands’ plus one inch. So, since Victorians add one inch to the horse for every four inches a woman is over 5 ft, and I am 5’4″, it means I should have a horse that’s 15.2 hands high. Cinder is 16.2. At least. So she’s a good 4 inches too tall for this portly matron. No point for you there Cinder, sorry. Horizontally you qualify, vertically not so much.

Next we have a Very Important Tip for Serious Riders. So listen up y’all.

Grey horses are objectionable for ladies, as the hair which comes off their bodies shows very much on the habit. Besides this, they are difficult to be kept clean.

Don’t want a grey horse, ladies! Their hair might come off on your clothes. Cinder is not grey, Cinder gets another point.

Nope, no grey here!

Last but not least, we have the last piece of advice on horse selection for Victorian Lay-deez.

Geldings are always preferable for ladies to either mares or horses. The former are especially objectionable in India, the latter in England.

Geldings are castrated males horses. Uh oh. Cinder’s a mare. Sorry Cinder. Another Victorian FAIL. It’s interesting to note that even in 2010, mares still get a bad rap for being moody and difficult- I know several modern lady riders who ‘can’t stand mares’. I however, love mares- I understand their hormonal plight and love them for their varying emotions.  So, since in this case I am the lady in question, and mares are my preference, I will give Cinder half a point.

Hayes’ last two tips regarding the color and sex of the horse are decidedly un-Workmanlike! and I dislike the Section for Portly Matrons (like me!) but overall, Matthew Horace Hayes is pretty balanced in his evaluation of the horsemanship skills of the Victorian lady rider and I found that pretty cool. Go Team Hayes!

Oh dear, I almost forgot about poor Cinder. Let’s tally her results! Will Cinder take home the much coveted title of Lady’s Horse?! Drum roll please….

Cinder received 6.5 points out of a possible 9.

Not 100%- but since she’s the only horse playing- she wins by default!  Congratulations, Cinder! You are now an honorary Lady’s Horse of the Victorian Era!

Stay tuned for The Lady’s Horse- Part Deux, where I will be looking the other primary source I found and what it has to say about the proper horse for a Victorian lady. Don’t fret gentle readers, it had less to say, so it will be a shorter post.

Allow myself to introduce…myself.

Allow myself to introduce...myself.

Greetings gentle readers of the Queen’s Scullery!

I have signed on for the remainder of the year to discuss the ins and outs of riding and horsemanship in the Victorian Era. I am really excited to do more research on this topic- I have a degree in History and loved All Things Equine since I was small (like many little girls, I just never grew out of it), but have never tried to combine the two interests. I will attempt to do so here.

Since the methods of horsemanship, equipment, and apparel for men has changed comparatively little since the nineteenth century, I will be concentrating on women of the era. The differences between then and now are legion and I will have a lot of fun researching them. For example, consider for a moment the image below:

Typical apparel for Hope and Cinder

Now compare it to the caricature below depicting Elizabeth the Empress of Austria published in Vanity Fair in 1884:

Different, no?

Also, you’ll notice in my picture there’s no groom present to ‘help the lady gracefully into the saddle’- the absence of such would have been a big no no for good Victorian ladies. Not that I was riding that day, which is why I’m not wearing a helmet (another difference between then and now- Victorians did not require brain protection), but even if I was, alas, I would not have had a male hand to guide me onto my noble steed.

So as you can see, there is a lot to delve into!

Serving as the springboard for my research will be Black Beauty, the novel written 1877 by Anna Sewell. The book is largely thought of now as a book for children, but Sewell a actually wrote it to bring awareness to the conditions endured by riding and working horses in England at the time. It’s useful for my purposes, because Sewell is very thorough in her descriptions of a wide variety of horsemanship and animal husbandry practices of the era. The ideas I find interesting in this work of Victorian Era fiction will provide the basis to then find the historical documentation in non-fiction riding manuals of the same era.

Cover of the first edition published in 1877

When I can feasibly do so, I will be using my trusty assistant Cinder to try things out or as a model for explanation.

Thrilled I'm Sure.

Aspects of Aspic*

Aspects of Aspic*

I. Aspic, or Ornamental Savory Jelly

Have you ever had aspic? At one time it was a handy way to coat and preserve foods. Also, it is just fancy as heck. If you’ve never had one or read about them, a quick image search will give you the idea of what it is–savory gelatin with just about anything you can imagine suspended in it–veggies, hard-boiled eggs, meat bits. A creamy aspic is a chaud-froid. Modern recipes often call for packet gelatin, rather than boiling down cow bits for hours, I can’t imagine why. Mine turned out rather ridiculously, you’ll see.

Aspic starts with feet and flavoring. Beeton’s calls for calf heel, but this was labeled as cow foot, which should do, I suppose.

Cow Foot

As an aside, I love ripping open packages of feet, marrowbones, and soup bones–there is this lovely buttery cow-y perfume that comes rising up that completely makes my mouth water.

After making the stock and clarifying it using egg whites, I decided to add celery, hard boiled eggs, olives, chicken cubes, and rinsed cubes of the beets I had pickled a couple of weeks ago. This is where things went from a lovely light tea color to, well. Pink.

Getting ready to unmold

What was I thinking? I will tell you: Pickled beets, yum yum.

Aspic Turned out of the Brain Mold

At first I was dismayed to lose the pale color, and then I realized I liked it a lot! The beet juice did not seem to affect the flavor at all, which was subtle and savory. We had some spread on crackers.

II. Three Things to Do with Pork

I decided to try something simple for the weekend–How to Boil a Ham to Give it an Excellent Flavor. You sort of create a stock around it as you simmer it, by filling the pot with vegetables and spices. Beeton says that if your ham is dried out, you must soak it in vinegar and split it open to see if it’s bad-stinky and whatnot. Modern hams, at least ones I have access to, are pretty much ready to go and injected with various flavor enhancers already, but I thought I would give it a try.


Still, it was nice in the end and kind of falling apart. I thought I would be game and give it the 3 hours it called for, but next time, less.

Of course there was leftover ham, since this one was massive. I minced it up and POTTED it, which results in a creamy pink paste very much like modern deviled ham, but with more of a mace overtone, of course, and it about a fifth lard. It’s incredible on sandwiches or with cream cheese and a little berry jam or fig paste on crackers.

The Way We Live Now

If you would have told me a year ago that I was going to be going through buckets of lard like water and hoarding every scrap of grease I could, I would have laughed my head off at you. I thought maybe I could fudge things and use butter, or, GASP, olive oil. I was a vegetarian in college and I was gifted a copy of White Trash Cooking, (a thoughtful present that was a nod to the trailer park parts of my upbringing) to which I made hundreds of lame edits so I could have a spinach onion pie without lard in the crust. I SUBMIT TO YOU, LARD.

You know what the really crazy part is? I eat like this all the time now, weird meaty thingies and pickled eggs with a glass of whiskey and so forth and I am losing weight. Probably unrelated, but I was quite certain I was going to transition to muumuus doing this this year. Is this a diet? NO. I assume I will have a coronary and drop dead in January. But by Trollope will I be an attractive corpse with shiny hair and nails.

Jarring the ham, pre-lard seal

There’s just something so sexy about how luridly real grease glistens at you. Do I want to eat this food or rub it on myself? I can’t decide. I think my children are the only ones on the block who eat nutmeg and mace almost every night of the week and go “MMMM” when that smell fills the kitchen.

Potted Ham, That Will Keep Good for Some Time [814.]

To 2 lbs. of lean ham allow
1/2 lb. of fat (bacon grease, duck fat, or other drippings)
1 teaspoonful of pounded mace
1/2 teaspoonful of pounded allspice
1/2 teaspoonful of nutmeg
1/2 teaspoonful of cayenne
pepper to taste
clarified butter or lard

Mode.—Mince the ham and stir together the softened or melted fat in the above proportion, seasoning it with cayenne pepper, allspice, pepper, pounded mace, and nutmeg. Grind to a smooth paste in a food processor. Press the mixture firmly into potting-pots or a jar to prevent air pockets, pour over clarified butter, and keep it refrigerated. This receipt produces about 3 pints. If well seasoned, it will keep a long time in winter, and will be found very convenient for sandwiches, &c.

Time.—1/2 hour.
Seasonable at any time.

III. Fowl and Rice Coquettes

I like fried food a lot, and I like how Beeton’s offers recipes that are both elegant and at the same time, fried grease wads. I made Croquettes of Fowl last Christmas, but I was curious to see what the rice option was like. It was pretty simple–stuff minced fowl mixture into rice balls, coat with crumb, and fry. Kind of like onigiri but much worse for you. I am working on browning them uniformly, but I like them. I did not make any sauce to go with them this time, but served them with “Carrots in the German Way” and pickled eggs.

One ball asplode due to being mishandled.

The innards

The rice is cooked in stock, which produces extra yum. I made a note to add more salt next time, but it is easy to sprinkle it on.

Speaking of pickled eggs:

Note brown outside

They are WONDERFUL, absolutely my most favorite pickled thing so far. I am loving them with an icy glass of whiskey or scotch and the promised intestinal distress has not come to pass, so I guess they are not weapons for me. Next time I will eat two and report back.

Next on the docket: steak frites a la Beeton, and homemade Devonshire cream, made with unpasteurized milk. GASP AGAIN!

* Hey, I almost called this post Apsic: Bold As Love. Maybe I should write terrible greeting cards for a living or something.

Bringing in the May!

Bringing in the May!

In the northern hemisphere the 1st of May is celebrated as the arrival of spring and a harbinger of summer to come. There are many folk traditions across Europe, that are still practiced today, that relate to this time of the year and all seem to have their origins in ancient celebrations of the Earth’s burgeoning fertility. We know that the Victorians were avidly interested in folklore but how did they interpret and incorporate fertility celebrations into their world view and its obvious associations with sex, intemperate behavior and fecundity?

What does Mrs Beeton have to say?

May, the Milk-month of our Saxon Ancestors, is said to have derived its name from the pastoral custom of English maidens – the Mays of our older authors – of rising early on May morning, and proceeding to the meadows to milk the cows, and elect the most beautiful of their companions as the Queen of the Mays. In process of time, when the name was established, and the custom in which it originated had become a tradition, another Mayday custom had crept in, when, according to old Herrick, Not a budding boy or girl that day, But is got up and gone to bring in May. Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.

In this quote Mrs Beeton is referring to two country traditions that the Victorians, with their love of all things floral, were keen to embrace and promote.  The first custom is the tradition of electing a local ‘Queen of the May‘.  The May Queen is usually a young girl dressed in white and crowned with a wreath of spring flowers. The Queen presides over a village festival or local celebration for the day. In folk tradition the May Queen represents the Earth Goddess in her aspect as the Maiden. Maia, Mary, Flora and Persephone and the multitude of other virginal spring goddesses relate to this tradition across many cultures. From what I have read it seems that the Victorians promoted this aspect of the traditional Beltane celebrations as it is less ribald than many others (shagging a stranger by the local bonfire, spilling the blood of the May Queen to promote summer crops or getting stonking drunk and dancing around dressed as a horse). Dressing up like the Goddess of spring seems to have appealed to Victorian aesthetics (the internets are full of Victorian pictures of girls dressed as the May Queen) and obvious love of dressing up (Mmmm not a very scholarly conclusion but I’m going with it).

The second tradition that Mrs Beeton alludes to is ‘Bringing in the May’.  Bringing in the May means to rise up early on the first of May and collect flowers and greenery from woodlands for personal adornment, decorating houses and village streets.  In large Victorian households this meant that the Head Gardener would be expected to put on an extra fine show around the house in early May. In present day Cornwall this tradition is still honored in Padstow where the whole village is decorated with branches of greenery in preparation for the Obby Oss celebration.

Padstow Obby Oss Maypole - 1st May 2002

In Helston on May the 8th villagers collect Lily of the Valley from the surrounding countryside to wear as buttonholes during Flora Day celebrations. In the Victorian language of flowers the Lily of the Valley symbolizes the ‘return of happiness’. On Flora Day only people born in Helston are entitled to wear the Lily.  Men wear the Lily in its upright position and women wear their buttonholes pointing down (this might be to allow ease of telling gender once all the ale has been drunk).

Flora Day is believed to be a very ancient tradition where villagers dance and sing through the main street and each others houses all day.  Historians differ on how old they think the tradition is – most talk about this festival going into abeyance during the Victorian era due to the influence of the temperance movement on quietening down the drunk revelries.

The Victorian’s seem to have embraced Maypoles with maidens dancing around winding and weaving ribbons back and forth but were less keen on anyone talking about their obviously phallic associations with fertility.

The Obby Oss (Hobby Horse) at Padstow is a festival that I have watched twice and it is really something to experience in person. The crazy looking horse puppet rolls and stumbles into the crowd, the villagers dance, drink and sing all day as the ancient ‘heart beat drum’ leads the Oss round and around the village. The whole day feels very pagan but much of its tradition and custom are impenetrable to outsiders like myself.  The Obby Oss is documented back to the 1300′s; it may be older!

Historians mention that it has undergone a number of revivals with its popularity waxing and waning from era to era. In Donald Rowe’s book Padstow’s Obby Oss and May Day Festivities he talks about the Maypole being removed from the celebrations during early Victorian times. He portrays the Victorians as being in two minds about the Obby Oss festival on one hand idealizing it as an example of English rustic charm and on the other hand deriding the locals for the debauchery and drunkeness.

May Day Down-under!

In Australia by contrast May is the turning of Autumn into frosty winter weather. As you would expect European settlement did not transplant May day spring celebrations into the culture of white settlement. The thing that I find really interesting about colonial culture is how little of English folklore became incorporated into Australian culture – actually white Australia has very little folklore beyond Ned Kelly (bushranger), football (intensely boring) and mateship (?).  Spring for us Aussies is September and the 1st of September is Wattle Day.


Wattle Day has its origins in the surge of nationalism that seems to have occurred late in the Victorian era in Australia. I can imagine that my Cornish ancestors, waking in a canvas tent, on a cold and frosty May morning on the gold-fields in Ballarat in 1852 perhaps feeling a little bereft at not being able to find Lily of the Valley.  I wonder if they walked into the bush and picked sprigs of green and tucked them into their buttonholes. I can imagine that they felt along way from home in a very alien land.

Unite and unite and let us all unite, For summer is acome unto day, And whither we are going we all will unite, In the merry morning of May. Padstow Morning Song.

The First Mitten Is Done, & Now I’m All Fired Up

The First Mitten Is Done, & Now I'm All Fired Up

The first thing I have to report is that I finished the first mitten.  I have to say, other than wishing I could have used different yarn (I can’t afford to buy 100% silk laceweight yarn right now, so using what I already have is necessary at this time) because the alpaca fuzz obscures the pattern too much for my taste–I’m pretty happy with how it came out.  It’s so delicate and airy and not at all what would have come to mind when thinking of mittens. I guess these kinds of mittens were worn for fashion reasons, because I’m not sure if these would actually keep my hands warm if it were below freezing.

The palm side of the Lady's Fancy Mittens.

The top side of the Lady's Fancy Mittens.

Now that I’m done with the first mitten, I’m on the prowl for a new project.  I’ve done some preliminary internet searches, and I came across what I consider to be a quite decent sized list of Victorian pattern books that people have taken the time to scan in every single page of each book and they are now available to download as pdfs. Genius!  All the books are ones that are in the public domain, probably because they’re so old. I also managed to find a  handy needle conversion chart, so now I know exactly which needles to use when I read the pattern instructions.

The last thing is that I went ahead and ordered two more sets of needles. I chose to order the two smallest sizes.  The needles arrived in the mail on Friday, and Holy Crap!

The penny is there for scale.

The top needle is the smallest size I’m used to using (size #1), and I like to make socks with them. It’s 2.25mm in diameter. The last two needles are the new ones. The middle one is a size 000-000 and it’s .75mm in diameter. The bottom needle is the one that’s really freaking me out. I am completely and utterly terrified by it. It’s a size 0000-0000 and only .5mm!

Also, I just want to say how glad I am that I decided to become part of this blog.  I’d never really given much thought to Victorian patterns before, but now that I’ve decided to go all in I find my interest in knitting has skyrocketed. Not that I’m not always excited to knit, but it’s like the heady excitement I had when I first learned how to knit and knit successfully is back!  I’m happily spending hours pouring over Victorian patterns and daydreaming about making delicate silk undergarments. I’m so excited about all the knitting projects that will be ahead of me this year and I’m even starting to think about continuing on with Victorian knitting even after 2010 is over.

The Citrus Saga Continues

The Citrus Saga Continues

This past week was spent babysitting lemons as a part of my lemon pickling experiment.  I periodically turned over a salted lemon without a peel and regularly stirred two brining lemons with peels, looking for signs of some magic alchemy taking place.  Sadly, none was immediately evident, which was not surprising but was disappointing, nonetheless.  Still, I put my faith in Beeton and dutifully tended my citrus for six days.

As soon as I had free time this weekend I sprang the lemons from their respective brines.  There was little obvious change, but I did notice that the lemons with the peels on were slightly heavier than they had been before brining, and their peels were slightly smoother.  The one without the peel on had shrunk a bit, as if it knew what awaited it.  And (spoiler alert!) what awaited it was not good.  I tackled this one first, following Mrs. Beeton’s instructions to heat the lemon to dry the salt.  Not having a fire in the same way I imagine she’s describing, I put the lemon in a heavy lidded pot over a very low flame on my gas stove.  Since the idea is, as I mentioned, to dry the salt – for what reason I’m not exactly sure, as the next step has you pouring boiling vinegar over it all – I think it would have been wiser to do this in a low oven.  But I’m apparently more of a trial and error cook and in this case that was pretty much exactly as it turned out – I tried it and it was an error.  Insert rim shot here.   The problem was that, even on a super low flame the salt on the outside burned before the rest of the salt was even remotely dry.  Eventually, the entire business got brown and stuck to the pan, and when I tried to get it up the lemon pulled apart and it all went to hell.

poor, sad lemon

I didn’t bother continuing with the process, because there was so little left to keep and it really needed to be put out of its misery.  RIP, pickled lemon without the peel.

On the plus side, the lemons with the peel on fared much better.  I boiled them, as instructed, and can recommend this as an air freshener, too.  The lovely, lemony smell almost covered the boiling vinegar smell that preceded it.  After boiling, the lemons were even heavier and smoother than before.  Who knew how much liquid a lemon could absorb?  Once they were cool I popped them in sterilized jars (Mrs. B doesn’t specify that you must sterilize the jars but the USDA canning site has scared me so deeply that I fear I will soon be sterilizing our silverware and plates and anything, basically, that comes into contact with our mouths) and watched the cloves and other spices swirl around.  It was kind of dazzling, to be honest, even if it’s not the most amazing culinary feat ever attempted.  I have just been kind of skittish about canning in any way (picking, fermenting, whatever) because of the aforementioned site o’ horrors.  It’s a great site, really, a deeply informative site, but the underlying message I pick up is that if I don’t do everything just right I will die.  The minute the jar is opened, instant death.  So you can see how spending a week with a couple of lemons and finally wrangling them into what I assume is a fairly disease-free environment for what I hope is about a year or so might bring a measure of satisfaction.

Lemons pickled (or, pickling), I decided to end the Beeton-related activities for the weekend.  I’ve got my eye on some more comfort food recipes for this week, though (bread and butter fritters, for example?), and the sawdust quest from my first post continues.   And – prepare for another rim shot – the picture I grabbed of my pickled lemon includes, I kid you not, my favorite uninvited guest…  Eggs, anyone?

Hello, my little friend in the background.

The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton – The First Domestic Goddess by Kathryn Hughes A Review in Pieces and Parts – Part One

The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton - The First Domestic Goddess by Kathryn Hughes A Review in Pieces and Parts - Part One

Having watched “The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton”, a 2006 BBC production that I procured from the library, and still feeling a need for more detail and less theatrical conjecture on Isabella Mary Mayson Beeton’s enigmatic and short existence, I thought I’d read the above-referenced biography by Kathryn Hughes and get right down to the nitty-gritty.

Hughes is also the author of The Victorian Governess and George Eliot: The Last Victorian, and has a Ph.D. in Victorian Studies from Oxford. In short, her Victoriana credentials are thick, plus she had full and unhindered access to the entire Mayson/Beeton family archive. Access that no other Beeton biographer had been granted to date due to her descendant’s fear of not only airing some eccentric and scandalous editorial choices Mrs. Beeton’s husband made after her death involving tight-lacing and whipping, but also the speculative specter of assumed venereal disease that hung heavily over both Isabella and Samuel Beeton’s deaths and now hangs over this biography.

I will try to avoid the whole re-telling of Isabella’s life, but I do want to share some of the history and I think Hughes has ably drawn this portrait of Mrs. Beeton as a product of and an influence on the very long Victorian Age. So, in an effort to save this post from tl;dr, I’m going to break it up into installments.

Let’s start with Isabella’s ancestry, as it shows some general class transitions occurring just prior to the Victorian Age and the movement of masses of rural people to the City of London. I’ll try to keep this simple, as I get muddled with all the paternal/maternal tralala.

Isabella’s father was Benjamin Mayson born in 1801 to Reverend John Mayson, a vicar at St. Andrew’s, Thursby and Isabella Trimble, a maltster’s (or brewer’s) daughter. Records from Benjamin’s youth are gone, but he shows up at 30 as a “Manchester Warehouseman”, or linen wholesaler in London helped by his mother’s connections to cotton and flax mill families in Thursby’s neighboring village of Dalston.

Isabella’s mother, Elizabeth Jerrom was born in 1815 in the Marylebone district of London to Isaac Jerrom and Mary Standage. Both parents were domestic servants at the time of her birth, but would leave service by 1820 with her father becoming a livery stable owner and her mother running a lodging house. Mary Standage’s father, William had been “headhunted by the horse-mad Duke of Richmond to work as a groom at Goodwood “, his estate and racetrack in West Sussex and the author notes that Mary and her sisters all married men who worked with horses since “You can only marry someone you’ve already met, and a groom’s daughter in the early nineteenth century met an awful lot of grooms.”

Benjamin Mayson kept his residence in the Marylebone district and was friends with a Henry Dorling, who lodged with the Jerroms. After Benjamin’s death, Elizabeth would marry the widower Henry Dorling, so keep that kernel of trivia handy. Benjamin Mayson and Elizabeth Jerrom married on May 2, 1835 and Isabella Mary Mayson, our Mrs. Beeton, was born March 14, 1836 in Marylebone. The author is kind enough to point out that “She was fifteen months too early to be a Victorian.” Since she lived and died within the Victorian Age, I found this reasoning rather fastidious.

Benjamin then moved his wife and daughter into central London to live above his business and soon buys a house on Milk Street where Isabella’s siblings, Elizabeth Anne, John and Esther, were born. Benjamin Mayson died in 1840 of “apoplexy”, which could mean anything from epilepsy to heart attack, when Elizabeth was a few months pregnant with Esther. Hughes explains that “Death may have been everywhere in early Victorian England, but to find yourself pregnant with your fourth child and suddenly responsible for a highly capitalized business was unlucky by any standard.”

Elizabeth Mayson totally rallied as a 25-year-old widowed mother of four and ran the business in her name for three years. She shipped Isabella and Elizabeth Anne off to relatives, her widowed mother, Mary Jerrom , moved in to care for the two babies, she hired a maid and manservant and is listed in the trade directories as a “warehouseman”. The author clarifies that “it was not unusual for widows to take over this way, and the directories show many heading up pubs, livery stables, and every kind of shop from baker to jeweller.”

In the next installment, Elizabeth Mayson hooks up with Henry Dorling, a widower with his own 4 children (cue Brady Bunch music) and everyone up and moves to Epsom, of Downs and Salts fame.