A Very Victorian Valentine’s Day

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is inescapable.  For some, its the ultimate chance to treat your loved one, to kindle or re-kindle romance. For others, it’s a tacky, over-commercialised, over-priced, inauthentic display, making a mockery of true love.  For some its even worse – a painful reminder of their single status.

Where did this festival of romance originate? Valentines day’s roots are obscure, and stretch back into the mythic past. There are several Saint Valentines, but none of them has an obvious connection with romantic love.  Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ notes that birds choose their mate on Saint Valentines day.  As birds do not mate until the spring, some have suggested that the romantic St Valentine’s day might have been celebrated in March or April in the medieval period.

However it began, like many so-called ‘traditions’ in Britain today, Valentines day as we know it was really invented by the Victorians. Valentine’s day cards really took off in the Victorian period,because of two things: a reliable, cheap postal service, and new paper-making and printing technology. There were a huge variety of Victorian cards: fancy lace-papers, embossed papers, and cards adorned with ribbons, dried flowers and perfume sachets.  There were all kinds of delicate 3D and pop-up cards, some with moving parts. Cards came with sentimental poems printed inside, or a blank space for your own.  As well as these beautiful and sincere Valentines, comical Valentines were also popular, as well cards featuring puzzles, games and novelties such as fake money from ‘the bank of love’.



There were also numerous little books called ‘Valentine’s Writers’. They provided a selection of verses and messages that people could chose from to write in their cards, if they did not quite have the time, imagination or confidence to make up their own.  They had incredible titles such as The New Cupid’s Bower; Being a Poetical Garden of Love, abounding with Original Valentines calculate to convey the Sentiments of the Heart in language neat, chaste, and expressive. They messages were supposed to make the writer sound romantic, creative and original – ironic, since they were just copied out from a book.

One Victorian tradition has died a death though, and for that we should all heave a sigh of relief: the ‘Vinegar valentine’.  Imagine rushing to greet the postman, paying a penny to receive your card and eagerly tearing open the envelope to reveal a cruelly insulting card, jilting you instead of admiring you.  Vinegar Valentines were usually cheap and crude, both artistically and in sentiment.  They poured scorn on perceived defects in appearance, character and social standing. No doubt they were sometimes sent as a joke amongst friends, but it must have been heartbreaking to receive one sent out of malicious spite.

The Victorians put a huge amount of effort into their Valentines cards, but they did not send flowers – they didn’t have heated greenhouses or air-freight, and nothing much grows naturally in Britain in February. Wealthy people sometimes sent other love tokens, especially gloves. Gloves were expensive, and symbolised asking for someone’s ‘hand in marriage’.  This coded message also made hands and gloves a popular theme on Valentines cards.  Chocolates did not seem to be a popular Valentines gift in the nineteenth century, and couples could not go out on romantic dates together as they do now: unmarried middle-class women were carefully chaperoned, and restaurants were confined to hotels and gentlemen’s clubs – certainly not the sort of places a gentleman could take his wife for the evening.

We may feel that the quaint Valentine’s cards of the Victorian period are far removed our current celebration, a slew of commercial pink novelties and technological innovations like e-cards, but in reality our feelings about the day remain much the same as 150 years ago. The Victorians had mixed feelings too, revelling in new technology and commercial products, whilst also looking back with nostalgia to a simpler age.

Book reviews: 2014

I know its a bit late to be reviewing 2014, but I’ve only just got round to it… Here are some interesting books I read last year.


Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Relates the history of North Korea, especially the famine of the 1990s, as told to the journalist by defectors who managed to flee to the west. The book carefully avoids descending into a kind of pornography of horror, and dwells instead on the subtler, psychological side of surviving traumatic times. I was sort of pleased to learn that as a not very tall woman aged between 30 and 50, I would probably be amongst the last survivors of a famine. But only sort of.

The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean

This easily-readable book sits somewhere between narrative history and popular science. It describes what we currently know about how the brain works by detailing how those discoveries were made. This usually involved bizarre head injuries that led to people behaving in startlingly odd ways, or hideous experiments on animals. It’s funny and surprising and humbling and slightly awful to think about the little grey cells, working away in our heads.

Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers by Mary Roach

This tells you everything you ever wanted to know about dead bodies but were too afraid to ask. Decomposition, embalming, funeral homes, cremations, burials. And, more excitingly, useful cadavers: organ donation, forensic body farms, weapons testing, medical research. It’s one of the funniest, most uplifting and comforting books I’ve ever read. No, really! When I’m gone, I want to make a practical contribution to science. I quite fancy being a crash test dummy or something. Because as the book says: just because you’re dead, you don’t have to be boring.


Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Rice’s vampire world is vivid, tangible and wildly erotic – despite featuring no actual sex at all. Sometimes it got on my nerves though. I wanted to say ‘give it a rest Anne! All this sensuality is exhausting!’ It’s like all vampires are DecadenceBot from Futurama. Rice also breaks creative writing rule 101: never have a passive protagonist. But Louis the Vampire basically does nothing except wring his hands and get pushed around until the very end of the book. Somehow Rice makes that work. The final twist is a bit of pure gothic genius. If you read this, make sure you keep a wet flannel at hand, to pop over your face if you get a bit swoony. Otherwise you may never recover.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell 

I’m a huge fan of Mitchell but I was a bit disappointed by this novel. As with all his books it has a very clever plot. His amazing skill at writing in the first person and creating unique voices is as strong as ever. But I felt this was a bit disjointed, with some of the sections feeling shoe-horned in. I didn’t care for the full-on fantasy elements either. I prefer fantasy to contain an element of mystery – when everything is spelt out loud and clear it can get a bit star-trekky. The ending was moving though, and almost brought it all together for me – but not quite.

Consider Phlebas by Ian M Banks

This is the first of Banks’ ‘Culture’ series novels. The Culture is a socialist-anarchist, galaxy-spanning, hedonistic utopia, portrayed in Phlebas mainly from the point of view of its enemies. It’s interesting to see what’s wrong with utopia – e.g. liberal democracy – according to the religious maniacs and despots who oppose it. But it’s mainly a picaresque adventure story, zipping through various world and locations for some action-packet set pieces. Banks has an amazing imagination, and I think this would make a terrific film now the CGI is up to it. However, I got tired of all the torture and brutality. It’s a bit American Psycho in space. I didn’t hate this, but it was something and nothing – neither a philosophically thought-provoking novel, nor just a well-plotted bit of fun.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

To be honest, I’d decided to hate this before I even started it. It won the Booker prize in 2004, the same year that Cloud Atlas and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell were nominated. I’d decided nothing could beat those two favourites of mine. It’s also heavily modelled on the writing of Henry James. I went through a phase of reading James and pretending I liked it, but in fact James is boring as hell. So I was pretty prejudiced against this book, and I didn’t find anything to change my mind. In terms of plot, The Line of Beauty is effectively Brideshead Revisited with additional cocaine and gay sex. It’s supposed to be a satire on the tories of the 1980s, but it doesn’t have much to say other than ‘oh, weren’t they awful and awfully rich’? Quite. In the end I think this won a prize out of sheer blandness.

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

This novel sees Count Dracula marrying Queen Victoria, and Britain becoming a nation of Vampires. The Jack the Ripper killings are re-imagined as Vampire slayings. The main interest, however, lies in the total geekery of this book. Newman is a horror aficionado, and mainly writes on horror films. Here he shoe-horns in every vampire character that’s ever appeared in anything before, from folk tales and obscure 18th century novels to porn and Blaxploitation parodies. He further populates the novel with a mixture of real and fictional characters from the 19th century. Trying to spot who’s who is pretty fun, and has made the book a cult amongst a certain kind of reader.

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

I’m obsessed with the apocalypse, and I love Louise Welsh’s gothic thrillers, so I was very excited about this. It features a murder investigation conducted as London is decimated by a deadly virus. I liked that the main character is a bimbo with a slightly ludicrous job as a presenter on a shopping channel. Books about people who are writers/academics/journalists are a pet hate of mine – like novelists think that nothing interesting could ever happen to a plumber. The descriptions of the plague and its effects felt thrillingly real and cinematic, but the mystery plot was a bit ho-hum. It’s the first in a trilogy though and I’ll probably read the others.

The Skull and the Nightingale by Michael Irwin

I picked this up purely because I liked the cover. It turned out to be my favourite read all year! It’s a book that operates on two levels. The first is as a critique of Richardson’s Clarissa and other 18th century epistolary novels. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t matter if that goes over your head – it’s pretty unobtrusive if you’re not looking for it. On another level, this novel is a great little rake’s progress. A young man makes a Faustian pact with his godfather. He will lead an exciting life and write to the old man, telling him all about it. Naturally, he is encouraged to descend to morally dubious territory. But what really impressed me here, was that the Irwin avoids the temptation to give us full-blown goth. Instead we get interesting characters, moral dilemmas and psychological insights about what happens when you start recording you life for the consumption of others, rather than experiencing it. Although set in the eighteenth century, it feels strangely relevant to the digital age. All the characters are sympathetic –  even the scandalous old godfather is a tragic figure, for all the damage he does. The plot is terrific, and builds to a completely unexpected ending. This is a great read, but also moving and thought-provoking.

Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire

This is the story of a teenager seduced by her teacher. When teacher leaves, she sinks into sex addiction, always trying to recreate that magic she originally found with him. Then he reappears into her life, and they take up a relationship even more violent and destructive than before. Maguire challenges the familiar feminist narratives of child abuse and battered women, by writing solely from her protagonist’s point of view. And Sarah Clark doesn’t see herself as abused in any way, or psychologically damaged – she sees herself as a woman with a passion, deeply in love, and outside the normal constraints of bourgeois society. It’s sometimes hard to agree with that – and Maguire seems to want to provoke her readers, pushing you to say ‘really love, I think you need to go to a women’s refuge right now‘. There’s a lot of sex in this book, but 50 Shades of Grey it ain’t. Much of the plot is quite ropey, and the writing isn’t great. But still, it was hypnotically weird and disturbing, and I really didn’t know what to make of it.*

*While googling the cover image, I came across a weight-loss book called ‘tame the feast beast!! Kill the voice of inner fatness!’ Seriously, what a title! Can you imagine anyone actually buying that??!!!

Fight! Fight! Fight! – Victorian Style!

Everyone loves a good fight, right? But how did the Victorians do it? Predictably, they turned good old-fashioned bare knuckle prize-fighting into the proper sport of boxing, with the introduction of the Queensberry rules. Less predictably, they loved female fighters and invented their own wacky martial art called Bartitsu.

A spot of fisticuffs

In the early nineteenth century, prize fighting, often called ‘fisticuffs’, was all the rage. The name may sound childish and charming, but the ‘sport’, if you can dignify it with that name, was anything but. Village prize fights took place outside the pub on Sundays, locals made up the rules themselves, and they generally involved two young men bashing each other until one of them gave up.

Formal prize fights, on the other hand, took place in rings, with umpires and seconds. There were large sums of money at stake. Fights went on for as long as the men could continue.The longest recorded fight took place in Australian and lasted 17 rounds, or a crazy 6 hours and 15 minutes. Wrestling, kicking and striking below the belt were acceptable, though weapons or striking an opponent when he was down were not. This virtual free for all, coupled with the length of the fights, meant they often descended into a bloodbath. Disabling injuries and even death were not uncommon. Here’s a description of a particularly nasty fight between John Camel Heenan and Tom Sayers in April 1860:

“the latter drew blood in the first round and went on to so batter the American’s face that by the time the fight ended, Heenan, unable to see his opponent, hit one of the seconds in the face, knocking him down. Sayers, in the early rounds, had also been injured by a blow to his right arm and although the fight lasted a full thirty-seven rounds before the ring was broken, and an additional five thereafter, he never regained its use during the match”.

A popular Victorian boxer named John Sullivan. I bet he used that tache as a secret weapon…

Naturally, all the fighters were tough working class guys and the spectators were bloodthirsty louts or toffs attempting to bring a frisson of danger to their lives. Throughout the century society got more refined though: public executions were banned and punishments got less bloody. At the same time, people started to have qualms about boxing. It was too brutal for the middle-classes, and other sports and entertainments got more popular, so interest in boxing waned.

All this changed with the publication of the Queensberry rules in 1867. They were actually written by a Welsh sportsman named John Chambers, but the Marquess of Queensberry publicly endorsed them, and so took all the credit. Queensberry’s other great contribution to British culture was persecuting Oscar Wilde, leading to his imprisonment. Charming fellow, really. Just like the rest of the aristocracy. Anyway, the rules persuaded boxers that “you must not fight simply to win; no holds barred is not the way; you must win by the rules”. Rounds were limited to three minutes, wrestling moved were banned, and boxing gloves had to be worn. Alarmingly, the rules also banned kicking the opponent with spiked shoes, suggesting that this had previously been a common practice. Cripes!

The new rules and introduction of boxing gloves made boxing more humane, sportsmanlike and socially acceptable. Boxing could now be taken up by athletic gentlemen as a hobby, and it surged in popularity towards the end of the century.

Boxing for the middle classes

Ironically, we now know that, while gloves protect from immediate injury, they increase the risk of brain damage. With the hands protected by gloves, the head is a major target, and can be hit hard. Every time it’s hit, the brain wobbles about inside the skull and sustains a little damage, which builds up over time. The moral of the story is, don’t take up a sport that involves people hitting you on the head.

Although boxing was sometimes called ‘the manly art of self-defence’, women did it too. In addition to the prize fighting ‘men’s techniques’, women could scratch, bite and hair-pull. Female boxers fought stripped to the waist, like their male counterparts. The fights could last just as long, and be just as brutal. Female boxers were often prostitutes, and fighting each other may have been a good way to supplement their income. Sometimes, the fights were simply grudge matches. Where gentlemen who felt their honour had been stained could have a genteel duel with pistols or swords, women resorted to challenging each other to fisticuffs. Where the argument related to money, the women would sometimes hold the money in their hands while fighting. The first to drop the cash lost it to the victor. This was a pretty clever ruse, as it limited the potential for scratching and gouging, and meant the fights would finish more quickly.

There was also at least one aristocratic female boxer in the nineteenth century. Lady Barrymore, the wife of a notorious gambler and all-round bad boy, boxed for fitness and ‘to amuse her husband’. Inevitably, she became known as ‘the boxing baroness’. But after her husband’s early death (hardly surprising given his lifestyle) Lady Barrymore had to actually earn her living as a prostitute and fighter.

The boxing baroness

As well as boxing, men and women also challenged each other to matches involving weapons like swords and sticks, and sometimes paired up to fight in husband and wife mixed doubles. Now there’s a sport I’d be interested to see revived! We could pit British royalty Wills and Kate against American royalty Kanye and Kim. We could make it a proper family occasion and get baby George and little North to take each other on as well. I’d put my money on the Americans.

While poor people were bashing each other until they were blind, bleeding hunks of meat, rich people of course preferred the far more elegant – but let’s face it, probably useless – sport of Bartitsu. Bartitsu was created by Edward Barton-Wright, a British engineer who had worked in Japan. On his return to London in 1899 he created a mixed martial art combining bits of judo, jujitsu, and other eastern martial arts with British boxing, and fighting with walking sticks. Britain was in the middle of craze for all things Japanese, and Barton-Wright’s ‘Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture’ was embraced by fashionable ladies and gentlemen. It was a very brief flash in the pan, as in 1902 the club suddenly closed. But it captured the imagination.

A poster for Bartitsu

In The Mystery of the Empty House Sherlock Holmes claimed he used the technique to beat Moriarty and escape certain death at the Reichenbach Falls. The Holmes films featuring Robert Downey Junior draw heavily on a re-imagined version of Bartitsu for their fight scenes. The idea was to use the element of surprise, use the opponent’s strength against them, keep them at a distance, and then if necessary, finish them off with a few punches, or by whacking them with your walking stick. Those movies do have terrific fight scenes, and I think you can really see the mix of old-school boxing and martial arts techniques in them.

A gratuitous photo of Robert Downey Jnr topless

Women got involved with Bartitsu as well as boxing. The suffragettes famously had a troupe of 30 jujitsu-trained bodyguards, who were also pretty handy with sticks. They offered much-needed physical protection to other women at suffragette meetings. They hid cudgels in the bustles of their dresses, and gave the police a good hammering on several occasions. If you think I’m making this up, I assure I’m not – there’s a brilliant and mind-boggling article all about the Jujitusu suffragettes here.

All things considered, the history of combat sports in nineteenth century mirrored general social changes throughout the century. They started off unregulated, DIY, working class bloodbaths, but were appropriated by the upper and middle classes and hemmed in with rules of safety and style. In the end, the Queensberry rules and Bartitsu were only ever a parody of the earlier, more horrific, fight to the finish.

Archives and history news: festive edition!

The Victorians invented most of our most cherished Christmas traditions, but what was Christmas like for those excluded from these family-centred rituals, banished to workhouses, asylums and prisons? You can find out in my piece on Victorian Christmasses behind locked doors in Discover Your Ancestors magazine.

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Happy Christmas! The mysterious and delicious history of Mince Pies…

I love a mince pie, but they are a bit weird, aren’t they? I’ve often wondered just why we eat such strange things at Christmas – and now I’ve found out why!

Back in Ye Olde medieval times, everyone loved a pie. But I’m not talking about your regular pasty from Greggs. I’m talking about some serious pie-age. Meat pies could be stuffed with pretty much anything – beef, pork, game, poultry, offal, four and twenty blackbirds…. Pies were often very elaborate in appearance, designed to be the centrepieces of a banqueting table. Most were savoury, but some were seasoned with honey, or contained dried fruit, fresh fruit or Seville orange juice, for a sweet and sour taste. Meat is still often served with fruit – like cranberry sauce – so it’s not such an odd idea.

mince pie designs from foodhistory.com

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Archives and History News: First World War collections under threat, Downton Abbey, and digital asylum records

In case you hadn’t noticed, some kind of global conflict thing started 100 years ago. The Tower of London’s moat became a beautiful sea of ceramic poppies to commemorate British soldiers who died during the First World War. The Imperial War Museum re-opened its revamped galleries to much fanfare. Then the government decided to slash the museum’s funding by £4 million! The museum will absorb these cuts by closing its library, slashing or shutting down education services, and cutting jobs. So now we can see exactly how our government really feel about this important aspect of our history. It’s all right for people to enjoy art installations, as long as they don’t start actually, you know, learning anything, doing any research, or finding things out for themselves. Heritage is lovely – as long as we don’t have to pay for it, and everyone involved is a volunteer. This is a shocking scandal. Yes I know we could spend our money on far more worthy things than heritage, blah blah, but it’s the sheer hypocrisy of the thing that makes my blood boil. If you feel as strongly outraged as I do, please sign this petition to prevent the funding cuts. Please also publicise this, and urge others to sign the petition.

The Imperial War Museum

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My top ten nineteenth century movies!

10 The Muppets Christmas carol

Because Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a Victorian novella turned into a musical featuring jolly brightly coloured puppets, would it?  Christmas also wouldn’t be Christmas if Dickens hadn’t more or less invented it. He decided it was a family time, mainly about giving presents to children and feeling vaguely charitable, and that we should all eat a specific meal. And we’ve carried on like that ever since. That’s even freakier than Michael Caine’s singing, eh? Continue reading

Happy Halloween: Should we bring back Victorian mourning rituals?

Funerals aren’t what they used to be. Twenty-first century funerals have sealed coffins, pop songs – Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ are two of the most popular – and a ‘celebration of life’. You might be instructed to wear colourful clothes instead of black. One of the strangest ‘celebrations of life’ I’ve ever been to was a fancy-dress wake in an incredibly classy beach house. Drunk Mexican wrestlers and Che Guevaras were clutching each other and crying on the cream leather sofas.

We certainly don’t do this anymore!

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Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

Exhibitions at the Museum of London are always beautifully designed, and Sherlock Holmes: the man who never lived and will never die is no different. You sneak in through a secret door embedded into a ‘bookcase’, and immediately enter the world of Holmes’ London. There are films of London from the 1880s, all swirling crowds of franticly rushing people, traffic jams and advertising. There is a huge array of photographs, maps and paintings of nineteenth century London. One feature bound to excite Holmes nerds is the maps with Holmes’ journeys in each of Conan Doyle’s novels traced out with coloured string, matched with high-speed films retracing his steps today.

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Archives and History News: October 2014

On Thursday 30th October you can come to the Natural History Museum and hear me give a talk on Piltdown man – the greatest scientific hoax in history! In 1912 scientists at the Natural History Museum discovered Piltdown Man, the supposed missing evolutionary link between apes and humans. Forty years later the remains were found to be fake. Delve into the archives to uncover what really happened and decide who you think is the fraudster in this unsolved mystery…

This is part of the Halloween-themed trick or treat night safari of the museum. It should be a great night if you like to geek out about science and the natural world!

And there’s more science in the archives this month.

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