July 26, 2021 • No Comments
There aren’t many historical figures I want to fangirl over, but Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman 1864 – 1922) makes the list. An American reporter, she pursued investigative stories at a time when women were doomed to penning fluff pieces. Bly soon tired of the society pages and insisted on challenging subjects. Danger was no deterrent – among other assignments, she covered the European Eastern Front during WWI.
Around 2019, I read Ten Days in a Mad-House, Bly’s expose of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She got herself committed and posed as one of the female inmates to discover what went on inside. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. Her revelations of abusive living conditions and the casual cruelty of asylum officials shocked the New York public of 1887. Eventually, it led to reforms at the asylum. Her steady, detailed narrative stands up today as readable reporting.
I returned to Bly’s story in my research of Victorian-era asylums. When I learned there was a film adaptation, I quickly found it on Hoopla. Timothy Hines wrote and directed this 2015 production (10 Days in a Madhouse). Caroline Barry is charming as Nellie, but I question her chirpiness in places. And unfortunately, where the true story is dark enough, the movie gilds the lily in places. As a result, the tone comes out as spunky and sordid at the same time, making me wonder what audience they were aiming for.
That said, the movie worked well enough as a recap. The unsanitary conditions, bad food, inadequate heating, and casual cruelty are all part of the original. So is the maddening truth that institutions silenced the inconvenient far more often than they cured them.
Unruly women were deemed most inconvenient indeed.
October 25, 2019 • No Comments
I’m fascinated by cosmetics from past ages and cultures. Since the Georgian Age is one of my particular interests, I’m naturally intrigued by their makeup. The sensibility is so distinct, it’s impossible to mistake for anything else. It’s not that I want to replicate the look. To me, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Goth and Barbie.
Rather, the attraction lies in the conflict between beauty and corruption. In the eighteenth century, painting one’s face was an artifice that only the wealthy could indulge in. The major exception was the demimonde, who catered to the appetites of the monied class. Needless to say, most of their careers burned bright and brief, until drink, pox and hard living had their way.
The white and pink face was meant to capture the unspoiled looks of youth. Sadly, the cosmetics of the day were poisonous. The more a person painted, the more their natural good looks would be damaged. Some of the ingredients in common use were lead, mercury, and arsenic. Eventually, that stuff could kill you.
Here’s a thankfully toxin-free version of “the look” from a respected source:
June 5, 2019 • No Comments
Jack the Ripper is a favorite subject for fiction writers for many reasons and the notion that the sinister drama is true ranks high among them. However, we don’t know the killer’s name or occupation, if there were one or several killers, and even the exact number of victims. The number of suspects is staggering. Despite the amount of ink spilled on the subject, the undisputed facts of the crime fill only a slim volume. So why, in a time and place where murders were common, did the Ripper case garner so much public attention?
One might say the media co-created the crime, both intentionally and by reflecting the Zeitgeist of the era. While the residents of Whitechapel were justifiably terrified by the murders, the wider public was served up the villain their imaginations demanded.
The dark side of London fascinates those able to view it from a safe distance. By the time of the Ripper, public hangings, complete with printed confessions sold for a penny, had long been entertainment. Relics of famous crimes were sold in the streets, tourists went to the mental hospitals to gawk, and Madame Tussaud created her waxwork Chamber of Horrors, depicting the true crimes of the day. Plays and novels followed where the newspapers led, presenting melodramatic versions of famous murders—or entirely bizarre urban legends, like Spring-Heeled Jack. On top of this was a fascination with the duality of the human psyche—just before the Ripper’s arrival came Stevenson’s smash hit Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By 1888, the public appetite for Gothic drama was prodigious.
A climate of social unrest underscored this mood. The Ripper murders are generally agreed to begin in April or August of 1888. Scant months before, soldiers mounted a bayonet charge against jobless protesters in Trafalgar Square. In simplistic terms, the incident reflected the deep division between the prosperous ruling class, who lived mostly in the West End districts like Mayfair, and the impoverished areas of the East End, such as Whitechapel. The East End also housed the migratory population of the docks, abused factory laborers, and immigrant populations. Is it any wonder the bogeyman of the day sprung from those desperate streets? The Ripper was a personification of middle-class fears.
And then there were the police. They had been increasing their numbers over the past few decades, but rather than increasing a sense of safety, public attention was fixed on a series of scandals that undermined their credibility. Missteps during the Ripper investigation gave the public ammunition to criticize, and the press lovingly documented every moment of the train wreck.
As mentioned above, one of the difficulties with the Ripper case is knowing when it began and ended. Prostitutes were frequently murdered, and despite general indignation at police inaction, not much ever got resolved. Were Emma Smith and Martha Tabram Jack’s victims, or those of another? They both had violent deaths—Tabram was stabbed 39 times—but were not mutilated on the scale of later victims. It was those breath-taking excesses that signaled something new was afoot, and the press got to work.
Delicious Gothic horror. Simmering social anxiety. An excuse to air grievances against whoever came to hand—corrupt officials, suspicious radicals, unionists, foreigners, and an unpopular and inept police force. Jack the Ripper’s crime spree was an editor’s dream moment, ripe for endless titillation. Crime sells papers, and the presses ran around the clock during peak carnage. With improved printing technology, illustrated depictions of crimes could be reproduced in greater detail than ever before. Concerned citizens worried that such graphic displays might unbalance the minds of readers, much like the complaints about modern video games. Such quibbling stopped no one—the papers kept the Ripper Murders in the public eye as long as they possibly could.
Much of what we know about Jack the Ripper–including the name–came from a series of notes written by Jack to Scotland Yard and the Central News Agency. The true origin of these letters is doubtful, and their timing perhaps calculated to revive public interest during a slump. The grammar and word usage suggest a forger attempting to appear uneducated. Did the press write the letters themselves? It’s a popular theory, and if that’s true, the version of Jack we carry in our imaginations—taunting, cannibalistic, almost cheeky—is a pure fabrication. The media put a face on the most famous serial killer of all time to boost circulation.
Is that what actually happened? As with so much of the case, we don’t know the truth. There is even some uncertainty over who was the last victim—Mary Jane Kelly, or another murdered prostitute. What we do know is that sometime around 1889 the murders stopped and Jack’s audience moved on. In 1890, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared, summing up the public’s troubled self-reflection.
Popular attention is fickle, and even Jack the Ripper couldn’t hold center stage forever. Another fascination was pushing Gothic melodrama aside—the clear-eyed rationality of the consulting detective. While the genre was not new, its popularity rose, giving readers the opportunity to solve crimes from the comfort of their firesides. Times had changed and, after the Ripper’s confounding chaos, certainty, justice, and the ever-increasing power of science held appeal.
It was time to invent a new avatar.
August 18, 2017 • No Comments
Those who follow me on Instagram (RowanAshArt) will know that I have a great interest in plants and flowers. It’s not just because the botanical world is photogenic enough to overcome my poor photography skills. Somewhere in the distant mists of childhood I decided I wanted to become a herbologist. Why? Maybe it was all the herbal healers that showed up in the fantasy books I read. Anyhow, herbology got laughed right out of the career counsellor’s office and I took an English degree instead because, y’know, we have to be practical.
Fast forward to the present. I’m still interested and have done some learning along the way. I’m in a pitched battle with Things That Munch in the garden, but have had a few victories, including a very healthy bay tree and a rosemary that will eventually take over Vancouver Island. With luck, I may even have tomatoes this year. It’s all about figuring out what plants go in what location and how many plants it takes to yield enough material to be useful once the deer, bugs, and rabbits help themselves.
But beyond all that, I’ve grown interested in the history and literary applications of gardening. There’s the whole murder mystery connection, with Brother Cadfael and his herbarium. There’s also the metaphor of gardening and the mind. I’m in the very early stages of developing a character with an exceptional garden, but it’s as much an expression of her past and her aspirations as of her green thumb. It’s a historical setting, so the extravagant Victorian glass houses and hand-drawn etchings of botanical specimens are part of her world. That Victorian mix of science, superstition, and adventure—not to mention their mania for collecting and codifying everything—are intoxicating to me. It’s great fun to have something in common with a character because we can both enjoy ourselves during the research process.