Wednesday 27 September 2023

Review: The Sylph by Georgiana Cavendish

 Back in July, when I read Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, I made a note that, fairly early into her marriage, she’d written a novel called The Sylph and decided to read it. Rather like her own life, it’s an anti-Cinderella tale, where the troubles really begin with the happily-ever-after marriage.

It’s an epistolary novel of rakes and high-life, and it’s hard not to imagine that Georgiana must have read some Richardson as inspiration. Interestingly, the first few letters are from the rake, Lord Stanley, which gains him some sympathy in the reader which he will then squander away, much as he squanders everything. At the beginning, however, he seems a little impetuous but certainly not a psycho like Lovelace. 

Stanley is holidaying in Wales and sees some beautiful women, with one in particular. In following these women, he falls off a rock and is taken in by them where he must rest. As he says; “reflection never agreed with me: I hate it confoundedly”, and to pass the time he discovers a growing infatuation for Julia. Unable to win her round any other way, he marries her and takes her into London and the ‘ton’. 

Julia is a little unsure of this new life. She’s aware that she’s not all that bright; “I am a wretched reasoner at best” so she writes to her sister, who is the clever one. She’s shocked at the ways of fashionable London, especially the way that people are always doing things but never seem to think about any of them. She’s shocked how little time she spends with her husband, only chatting at breakfast and sometimes not even then. 

Most intriguingly, she is appalled by London’s fashion. She things the clothing absurd and overly showy and is utterly distressed at the hairdressing. Now more are her “brown, silky locks”, she must have her hair powdered and piled on with “half a bushel of trumpery”, all kinds of head-worn nonsense including some radishes which were originally intended for the Duchess of Devonshire. It seems odd that the woman famous for playing with tall hair and outrĂ© hair decoration is mocking it so clearly. At one masque, she lets her husband pick her costume. “What character I assumed, I know not, unless I was an epitome of all the folly in the world.”

 Julia realises that “fashion makes fools of us all”, something that could be described as the thesis of the book. An interestingly unexpected thesis for a committed leader of fashion.

While her husband ignores her, other sharks circle the naive young wife. Most obviously and disgustingly, there’s Biddulph, who desperately wants a piece of her so he can get one over on Lord Stanley. Then there’s the Baron Ton-Hausen, who seems like a decent sort. In the distance there’s also Henry Woodly, who’s loved her since they were children. Half-way through the book, another man enters, the Sylph.

A Sylph is an air spirit, and this one appears in letters and offers advice. He suggests being careful of the baron and warns about her growing love of gambling, as that is nothing more than a debt-trap. This title figure doesn’t enter until half-way through the book and Julia quickly accepts this mysterious man and his advice. The book doesn’t encourage the reader to see this man in creepy in any way but I found something very menacing about an unknown figure claiming to have deep knowledge and understanding of her.

Again, it’s interesting that the book specifically mentions gambling as a danger. Georgiana was gambling at this time but it hadn’t spiralled into the inescapable trap it became. Once again, she seems to understand and recognise dangers in the book that would consume her in life. Stanley didn’t moderate his gambling though and he quickly burns through his money and hers. In the end, he sells a “commission for his own cuckoldom”, essentially allowing Biddulph to have her. Then he goes and kills himself, and Biddulph realises he has gone too far. I wander if husband-suicide was a daydream of hers?

The book also includes a number of interesting side-stories. There’s a lesser rake who starts his seduction by giving his target a copy of Pamela because he knows that her own lover will not stack up to Mr B. Really? Mr B… he’s one of the most pathetic lovers I’ve read in fiction. Works for that rake at least.

Another good side-story is the one behind Julia’s dad. A long-ish, action-packed story of love, where he joins the army and his lover disguises herself as a soldier to meet him and they both get captured. In terms of action, it has more than the main story, but maybe less in character and social comedy.

The Sylph is a smart, funny book with some decent character building. Especially given its author, it’s strange how clearly she sees her own problems and the idiocy she’s trapped in, and how little she did with that knowledge.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Trips - City Wall at Vine Street, Portraits of Dogs and The Postal Museum

 During the summer holidays, I discovered that I could get an Art Pass for £25 a year because I work at a school. I was very excited about this, because I’ve long fancied having an Art Pass. It allows a person to get into some museums for free and to see big exhibitions for half price. When I got back to London, I used it as much as I could.. and here is what I saw.

City Wall at Vine Street

My first visit wasn’t actually to an Art Pass venue. It’s a chunk of London’s Roman wall underneath a new student housing block. It’s free to visit, but booking helps.

The centrepiece is a chunk of Roman wall. It’s a lot like the other pieces of Roman wall dotted around the Tower of London; neat, solid and separated by bands of red tiles. Jutting out the front is a later addition to the wall, the foundations of a Roman bastion. However, that is not all. The Roman wall was incorporated into the mediaeval wall, and that included in 17th and 18th century houses, which was then included into Victorian and 20th century warehouses. Elements of all these time periods are visible on the wall, making it not only a remarkable existing piece of archeology, but a microcosm of the whole 2,000 year history of London.

Around the wall are display cases that show objects dug up around the wall. These include roman pots and tiles with cat footprints on, the usual stash of broken pipes and a lot of green glass bottles. All of these things are simple, quotidian, largely pretty smashed up. They aren’t particularly awe-inspiring to look at. But the write-ups are really good, there’s always a way of putting the objects in their everyday context and encouraging the visitor to reflect. Some of the best exhibition labelling I’ve seen.

There are also two focus cases that have a handful of objects found in the rubbish pits of two eighteenth century houses. The housing records are used to give the people who owned them a name and there are reflections on how the different things the two families threw away reflected on the families. Included in these cases was a rabbit skeleton, not butchered but thrown whole, it may have been a family pet and the rubbish pit was its last resting place.

City Wall at Vine Street is a great example of how to do a lot with relatively little and is very recommended.

Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney

This was an Art Pass venue. I’d visited to the Wallace Collection at the beginning of the summer and enjoyed it very much. I did, however, balk at visiting this special exhibition because as fun as it seemed, I wasn’t sure it would be £18 worth of fine. It was definitely worth the discounted price though.

Starting with some Roman greyhounds and a page of Da Vinci dog’s paw sketches, it then went to pictures by eighteenth century painter, George Stubbs. He actually painted 15 full length portraits of dogs, more then he did of horses. It’s fascinating how his pictures are of specific dogs, they live such relatively short lives, but are here mounted and present forever. There was Ringwood, the foxhound and Turk, a wonderfully floofy beast.

My favourite room was of Landseer dogs. He used them in allegorical and comical settings. Unfortunately, none of these dogs were playing cards (they missed a trick there) but there was a dog court, presided over by a poodle with ears like a judge’s wig. My favourite of these was titled, Dignity and Impudence, with dignity played by a bloodhound called Gryphon and impudence played by Scratch, who was, of course, a Westie.

There was a room devoted to toy dogs, which included two stuffed ones. Marie Antoinette was found of toy dogs, calling them names like Bebe and Mimi. There was a story (probably apocryphal) of a French farmer who came to Paris and learnt that the tiny, useless beasts were being sold for twenty-seven livres, and so rocked up to the city with a bunch of large dogs that he was shocked he couldn’t give away. I also learnt that Pekinese dogs were originally bred for the Imperial Chinese family, that no-one else was to own one and that it was protocol to bow to them as they scampered around the Forbidden City. I also learnt that the British came and nicked them, the first Pekinese in Britain being named Looty.

There was a Gainsborough picture, Tristram and Fox, which looked more alive than his human paintings. There was a portrait of one of Byron’s massive dogs, which he loved more than most people. There was a room of portraits of Victoria’s dogs, including many pictures by Victoria herself. This lead to Hockney’s cosy pictures of sausage dogs, which I felt looked slightly more sausage then dog.

Portraits of Dogs is probably not a sublime or grand experience, but it left me with a smile on my face. If I had a tail, it would have wagged.

The Postal Museum

This was another half price deal with the Art Pass. I mainly picked it because I’d never been before and it was close to the Unforgotten Lives at the London Metropolitan Archives. It also meant I could go to Grimaldi Park and visit the grave of Joseph Grimaldi.

The Postal Museum is in two parts, I think I accidentally went to the second part first. It was a ride on the mail rail, a narrow-gauge underground railway which used to zoom letters under the city. It was a little odd getting into the headspace of a package as I squeezed into the carriage and was whisked on a little loop. The audio commentary was really good, and there were projections at various stops telling the history of the service. Essentially, nearly all post found its way into London before being sent out to various directions - they’ve reorganised the system so it doesn’t work like that any more and the Rail Mail became defunct. I was surprised to find that Mail Rail boasts its appearance in the film Hudson Hawk, I didn’t mind that film but it’s not much to boast about.

The little museum afterwards has one of the pneumatic railway cars from 1869 (there’a a chapter about it in Barnvard’s Folly, the book that introduced me to Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates). I also learnt that it was illegal to post copies of Ulysses, and any copies found were burnt. Did you know that at one point there were railway sorting offices? They zoomed around the country, picking up letters with ingenious bag/hook apparatus and then passed them onto local stations by lobbing them into waiting nets. It’s a system that ended in the 1970s. Why is modern life so much more boring?

The Postal Museum itself is in a building a little further along. I learnt the post service was set up by Henry VIII and originally only took the King’s mail. However, later monarchs learnt they could make money by having other people to pay to use the service and so a regular postal system was set up. By the 18th century, they made more money by carrying passengers as well.

There was a good selection of stuff from the Georgian postal service, including guard uniforms and an 18th century mail coach. The best part was a section telling the story of a coach in 1816 which was attacked by an escaped lioness, which took out one of the horses before being shot. The post was only 45 minutes late.

The rest of the museum tells the more modern story of the postal service. There’s stuff about the development of stamps, post boxes, uniforms and different vehicles. My favourite being the ridiculous 5-wheeled cycles. The have the large ‘penny’ wheel of the penny-farthing, supported by four stabilising ‘farthings’. Another nickname for the ridiculous contraption was the ‘hen and chickens’. They were really only popular in Horsham, where they were invented.

It’s a museum very well set up for younger visitors, with lots of interactive elements and things to do at a more suitable height.

Unforgotten Lives: Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean Asian and Indigenous Heritage 1560-1860.

Another freebie without the Art Pass. I talked about this and a matching lecture last week.

Wednesday 13 September 2023

Trip: Unforgotten Lives at the London Metropolitan Archives


The London Metropolitan Archive has a brilliant free exhibition called Unforgotten Lives: Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean Asian and Indigenous Heritage 1560-1860. The title is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s a detailed and fascinating look at (essentially non-white) Londoners as revealed by London’s archives, including parish records, voting records, court cases and business records. 

It’s wonderfully nuanced, catching snippets of lives and telling a whole range of stories and emphasising that, by being in the city’s voluminous records, these stories can be seen for brief flashes. The exhibition shows how integrated people of colour were in London’s history, existing as real, striving individuals and not just an abstract mass - and that, although many are invisible to history, it’s more because most ordinary people were. 

Very few records even mention the colour of a person, because society was organised around parishes and place of origin. This means a record may note a person originally came from St Vincent, or Jamaica, or wherever, but doesn’t distinguish between a white or black person who came from these places. For simple administrative purposes, race was unimportant and not worth noting. As such, their invisibleness comes largely from integration. 

Of course, I was most interested in the lives of those who lived in the eighteenth century, and the exhibition doesn’t disappoint. I also watched a lecture by Kathleen Chater which was specifically about these Black Georgians. Taking the lecture and exhibition together, there were more stories then I can cover, but I’d like to talk about some of my favourites. 


Chater pointed out that for most people of a poorer background, life in service was a good entry position, which could be turned into a successful business. Many former servants, especially on marriage, were given money to set up a shop, inn or some other business and many did well out of it. This included black servants.

Any Johnsonian knows how Francis Barber recieved the bulk of his will and invested that into future projects, but he wasn’t the only person set up that way. There was Ignatius Sancho, a servant turned businessman who voted in a Westminster election because of his status of property holder. Were it not for a biography written about him after his death, it wouldn’t have been known that he was black, because the records simply don’t mention it.

Other businesses people include the Cranbrook family, who were greengrocers in Clapham. Their children has a varied careers; including a hairdresser who married a rich client, a porter, a presbyterian minister and an anglican vicar. Cesar Picton was in service before becoming a coaldealer. He had a house in Richmond and another in Thames Ditton. He once got in trouble for poaching in someone else’s land with an unlicensed gun, but his wealth and status got him off with a fine. 

There was a shopkeeper with the wonderful name of William Precious, but all is known about him are the deeds to his shop. The even more peculiarly named, Reasonable Blackman was a silk weaver. 

There were many black sailors, with every stereotypical group of sailors including at least one black face, there’s even a black sailor represented on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Black sailors were pensioners at the Greenwich Hospital, but only ones that had served in the Royal Navy. Injured merchant sailors were far more unlucky.  Joseph Johnson lost his leg on a merchant ship and became a beggar, particularly notable because he used to wear a model of The Victory on his head. 

There were many black soldiers and many of them were involved in regimental bands. It was a particularity in the army that flogging, for internal discipline, was often carried out by the drummers. As a result, it was noted that there was often an occasion where a person called see a black man flogging a white one, something deemed ‘extremely disagreeable’ to an American visitor, but a normal occurrence in the British Army. As promotion in the army mainly came from buying a position, there wasn’t a lot of promotion, yet James Goodwin, originally from Barbados did reach the rank of Trumpet-Major. 

Many mixed-race children of the West-Indian slavers were sent to England for education and a number became heirs. One of these was Nathaniel Wells, who became a Justice of the Peace, a Lieutenant in the local Yeomanry, a high sheriff and a master of the local hunt. As ‘respectable’ and integrated in the country hoity-toity set as anyone could be.

There were also black people with less salubrious claims to fame. Anne Duck is the person in the exhibition with the most appearances at the Old Bailey. She targeted lawyers, and was let off during her first four appearances but sentenced to hang on her fifth appearance. She was also brought before the caught and sentenced to another crime while she was awaiting her sentence to be carried out for the one before. Her brother was part of a flotilla that circumnavigated the globe but his ship was driven off course near Chile and he was never seen again.

It would be extremely silly to say that Georgian London was a haven or utterly safe place for people of colour. However, it would seem that most of their difficulties stemmed from the same class and financial difficulties experienced by the majority of Londoners. Racism was to come, especially with the growth of ‘scientific racism’ as the colonial activities of the United Kingdom grow ever more voracious. Yet, Georgian London, for all it’s bigotry and ignorance, does seem to have been (at least) not institutionally racist. People of colour could succeed in the same narrow ways any of the London poor could. 

There are so many other stories though; from the famous names like Oludiah Equiano and Dido

Elizabeth Belle, to people like Phillis Wheatley, a woman enslaved in America who came to Britain because nobody there would publish her poetry.

I recommend visiting, it runs until 27th March 2024.

Wednesday 6 September 2023

A Trip to Tattershall

 A few weeks ago, I visited the pretty Lincolnshire village of Tattershall, primarily to visit the castle there. It was a beautiful summer day and rather bucolic in its way. Cows mooched about a river like a Constable painting, we sat in the sun eating sandwiches near the shade of the castle as a Spitfire flew round the village from one of the neighbouring air fields. At other times, Typhoons from another airbase launched with resounding booms and flew straight up into the clouds. 

The castle itself is an interesting one. The original stone one being built without a keep in the pattern of Bolingbroke, birthplace of usurper king, Henry IV.  However, a few kings later, by Henry VI’s time, it was home to Ralph Cromwell, his Lord High Treasurer (and quite a successful one, considering his time in office and the fact he ended it both alive and not in disgrace). To reflect his new power, he built a keep in Tattershall, but built it out of brick. It took thousands of bricks, shipped down through an altered river. As such it’s quite an impressive sight. 

The castle’s history becomes quite checkered with Cromwell not having any children (he’s not related to any of the more famous Cromwells). The castle was passed about and was actually besieged during the civil war, with cannonballs demolishing the older stone parts of the castle but bouncing off the brick one. 

It was then left empty and the insides rotted out. It become a day out in the 18th and 19th century and the stairwells (which survived) were absolutely covered in graffiti - alas, no Merry-Thought style poems, just names and dates. In 1910, it was bought by Lord Curzon, who spent a great deal in doing it up and restoring the fireplaces, which had been sold to an American buyer. The fate of these fireplaces actually prompted improvements in legal protection to old buildings. He then gave it to the National Trust.

Near the Castle sits a large church. There was originally a large college around it, which was later dissolved. The church was started by Ralph Cromwell and looks huge, considering the small village it serves. It’s home to over a thousand bats, which flock around the cathedral at night, and even a little in the day. Everything in the church is covered up due to the batshit, which is everywhere. There aren’t only bats in the belfry, there are bats in every crevice. The church is also home to Tom Thumb’s gave.

Not a short person nicknamed Tom Thumb, but the actual fairy-tale figure of Tom Thumb. Reputedly 47cms tall and dying at the age of 101, his gravestone is one small paving slab. Nearby Lincoln Cathedral also used to have a Tom Thumb grave, but it has since gone missing - Tattershall’s is still there. It would seem that Lincolnshire really took the Tom Thumb story to heart. Interestingly, the date on the grave, 1620, is also about the time the character started appearing in chapbooks and the like. The town also claims to have Tom Thumb’s house, a small house-like structure on the top of a building in the market square. 

It’s actually something called a louvre or louver, a 14th century architectural feature designed to let in air and light but not rain (or evil spirits). Apparently, it used to belong on a different building before it was on the one it is currently.

Now the eighteenth century bit…and it’s something of an mystery, or possibly just an odd coincidence. In scrobbling around on the net, reading about Tattershall, I didn’t see anyone making the connection.

One of Henry Fielding’s most successful dramatic works, before he turned magistrate and novelist, was The Tragedy of Tragedies. That play was, in itself, a reworked version of an earlier play, Tom Thumb. It tells a version of the Tom Thumb story, with him going to King Arthur’s court and killing giants and being given the hand of the princess, Huncamunca. He is later reported dead, but it’s actually a monkey before being killed by being eaten by a cow. His ghost returns and is then killed by a court member, then everyone kills each other. Apart from being an important part of his development as a playwright, the play caused Jonathan Swift to laugh, a man who was known for never laughing.

I said earlier, that Tattershall Castle was left empty. Villagers kept their cows in the downstairs parts, people painted watercolours of it and more daring visitors climbed the stairs in the decaying structure and carved their names in the walls. On the third floor, above an archway, carved deeply and neatly, is the name Henry Fielding. Was it that Henry Fielding? Did he take a trip to Tattershall, carve his name in the castle and visit the church? Did he see Tom Thumb’s minuscule grave and decide to write a play where the character dies three times? There’s no way of proving it, of course, but I’d like to think so.