I’ve been expecting you: on James Bond

*Many, many spoilers alert*

On Wednesday I went to the very swish and very expensive PictureHouse central cinema and watched the new James Bond movie, Spectre. As a side note, the bar staff at PictureHouse didn’t know how to make a Martini, and had to look it up. The end result was predictably unpalatable. Poor effort. Everything else about the cinema is great.

PictureHouse Central cinema

Spectre starts with a terrific action sequence during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico city. Blofeld is re-introduced, along with his fluffy white cat, in a new incarnation. There’s a car chase in Rome, and a winter snow chase, involving vehicles other than the usual skis. There’s both fighting and sex on a train, and an unstoppable henchman.

There was plenty of humour in this movie, and the direction was exciting, but I felt the script was a bit lacking. Monica Belluci made a wonderfully glamorous, dignified and tragic Bond ‘girl’ at age 51. So icily brilliant was she, that I couldn’t help thinking she’d make a terrific Bond villain, and I also expected her to re-appear. It seemed a missed opportunity. The main Bond girl is so poorly characterised that she really could have been anyone at all. Bond gets surprisingly sentimental about her, but for no real reason. I honestly couldn’t have cared less whether she lived or died. Blofeld turns out to have a strong connection to Bond’s past, but this revelation was rather glossed over, instead of being turned to proper effect. Christopher Waltz is not a great Blofeld. When he first appears, hiding in the shadows, whispering instructions to his yes-men, he is terrifically mysterious and menacing. But then we see rather a lot of him, and he appears silly, rather than scary. The reactions of Bond and Blofeld don’t actually seem to fit their past relationship. In fact, the whole thing had an air of the Hollywood bingo school of scriptwriting about it. Some writers seem to think that vaguely alluded to past tragedy = characterisation. It doesn’t. Spectre, then, is long on exciting spectacle but short on emotional engagement. In fact, the only time I was really concerned for a character was when geeky little Q – the adorable Ben Whishaw – is menaced by some tough guys. He was all on is own and really wouldn’t have stood a chance – and who would have fed his two cats if he had died? Spectre is a decent Bond movie and good entertainment, but not nearly as good as Casino Royale or Skyfall.

Bond is one of longest-running franchises in movie history, with 24 films made over 63 years. This presents unique challenges for film makers. Bond is rather like Mills and Boon in that the audience has certain expectations that must be fulfilled – there is a distinct formula for a Bond film – but at the same time, it has to be kept fresh, relevant and surprising, or boredom sets in. Balancing tradition and innovation can be difficult. Umberto Eco sets out the Bond formula in ‘Narrative structures in Flemming’. It’s one of the most simultaneously wonderful and ludicrous literary essays I’ve ever read. I have a masters degree in English literature, so I’ve read a few. Eco breaks down the Bond books into a series of eight possible actions or scenes, and shows how they recur, sometimes in a different order, in each story. He summaries the Bond stories thus:

‘Bond is sent to a given place to avert a ‘science-fiction’ plan by a monstrous individual of uncertain origins and definitely not English who, making use of his organisational or productive activities, not only earns money, but helps the cause of the enemies of the West. In facing this monstrous being, Bond meets a woman who is dominated by him, and frees her from her past, establishing with her an erotic relationship, interrupted by capture by the Villain and by torture. But Bond defeats the Villain, who dies horribly, and rests from his great efforts in the arms of the woman, though he is destined to lose her.’

We might add to Eco’s desription of Flemming’s books a few things that are unique to the films:

There must be a pre-title action sequence, followed by a bombastic theme song accompanied by iconic imagery of dancing girls etc. Bond has to drink a Martini and the phrase ‘Bond, James Bond’ has to be shoe-horned in. There must be a really cool car, a gadget from Q that saves the day, at least two car chases and a selection of exotic locations. Because each movie is always the same, yet always different, they present a fascinating picture of British social history over the past 63 years.

A selection of Bond girls

The portrayal of women in Bond films has certainly changed. The early 1960s movies like From Russia with Love, feature beautiful women who appear helpless and feminine, but turn out to be surprisingly smart and capable. They are treated respectfully, and the amount of sex and scantily-clad-ness is quite low. In the 1970s the Bond girl went downhill and practically entered Benny Hill territory. The women are usually underdressed, thick, and useless. They exist to be simultaneously perved over and laughed at. This was obviously a reaction to the feminism of the era: women didn’t need to be portrayed as moronic until they were a threat. The 80s had some amazing Bond girls like Grace Jones: wild, crazy, and spends most of the movie wearing a thong leotard and high-kicking people. The 90s was all girl power and ladism: the women fly fighter planes and fight and shoot people, but everything has a jokey tone.

Grace Jones: predictably mad

Then we come to the Daniel Craig era Bonds of the naughties. Vesper Lynd is my favourite Bond girl. Not just because I love the wonderfully goth Eva Green, but because she actually has personality. We can see why Bond falls for her. Their flirting on the train has to be one of cinema history’s greatest flirting scenes, along with Bogart and Baccall in To Have and Have Not. Vesper is an accountant and therefore smart but deeply unused to violence, fighting and killing. She’s horribly traumatised by seeing Bond beat a man to death. That doesn’t make her weak. It’s not a cause for humour. It just makes her more realistic, and deepens their relationship. I love that this Bond girl doesn’t have to be a supergirl to be treated with dignity and respect in the film.

Nobody smoulders like Eva Green

The villains and the threats they represent have also changed, responding to contemporary world events and technology. As Eco points out, the villains are usually ‘foreigners’ of uncertain or mixed racial origins, and frequently disfigured or disabled – there are plenty of facial scars and mechanical arms. Eco suggests Flemming was not an outright racist, but simply a conservative with a black-and-white view of things, cynically creating stories to appeal to the instinctive fear of the ‘Other’ that most people have. In other words, he was happy to exploit racism to make a buck. The early Bond movie villains – Dr No, Goldfinger, Blofeld – are loosely connected with the USSR but are primarily out for personal profit. The agents of destruction are nuclear missiles, germ warfare, submarines, space rockets, diamonds, microchips, and heroin. In the 1990s the baddies are associated with China or Korea – though still really after the cash – and their evil technologies of choice are satellites causing financial breakdown (Goldeneye), oil, and a solar powered laser-thingy (Die Another Day). In the naughties Bond movies the motivation is simply money (Casino Royale), and thereafter personal vendettas against Bond, M, or MI5, through the mediums of surveillance, hacking, and causing an artificial drought in Bolivia. That one comes from Quantum of Solace – a really terrible movie, and painfully obvious that it was cobbled together in the midst of a screenwriters strike!


De Silva

Le Chiffre – spot the difference

Like Die Hard the Bond movies give us terrifying villains, who appear ideologically driven but in fact only want exactly what we all all want – to be rich. They would be impossible to defeat, and far more scary, if they were genuinely after communism, an Islamic state, or a more eco-friendly world. This way the threat is moved away from any uncomfortable or nuanced political discussions – Bond is just a game of cops of robbers. A simple tale of good versus evil. This is an essential feature of the Bond films – it really wouldn’t be a Bond film if at any point we felt ‘well, that Blofeld may have a point actually…’.

In the 90s Pierce Brosnan made a great Bond. Those movies were charming, totally tongue-in-cheek and completely ironic. They are fun, silly, and impossible to take seriously. Which was the point. But after a long break, it was obvious Bond could no longer be re-booted like that. Audiences had changed, and values had changed, and Bond had to change too.

The triumph of feminism: we get to oogle hot men now!

Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale was a triumphant comeback for the naughties. Bond is wounded, haunted, emotional and fallible – he’s actually human after all! The Bond girls are clearly traumatised victims of circumstances. They may be beautiful and scantily clad, but their fate is horribly clear, and no-one would want to be one. Bond’s callous disregard of the women is no longer something to aspire to. At best, his attitude to women shows that hardening yourself against collateral damage is part of the job. At worst we feel that Bond is a bit of a psychopath. The job itself – killing people for money – seems grotesque and thuggish, rather than sophisticated. There’s still glamour to Bond, but audiences can no longer buy into Flemming’s black and white view of the world. We are morally compromised, as is Bond, and it’s impossible to view his antics without ambiguity. That makes it harder to write a simple moral fable, and may explain why the villains all have ties to Bond’s past, or turn out to be one of us. People are less worried about ‘foreigners’ stealing all our money, and more worried that their own governments are siphoning off our cash to prop up the bankers. No amount of vodka martinis can help us there.

Craig is signed up for one more Bond movie. He’s said he doesn’t want to do it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes back for one more outing –  a re-make of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by the looks of things. There’s plenty of controversy about who might take over. Will there be a black Bond or a female Bond? that would shake things up a bit! One thing’s for sure – I’m really looking forward to seeing how Bond develops in the future, and it’s one franchise I hope will run and run. Imagine sitting down to watch a Bond movie in 2062 – 100 years of Bond! Then we can all say – and I know you’ll want to – ‘We’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond. What took you so long?’

Idris Elba – could he be the first black James Bond? I don’t see why not.

Or will Tom Hardy be the next Bond? A girl can dream….

What did the Victorians drink? A guide to boozing in the 1800s

One of the things I find most delightful about history is that, while the people of the past wore funny clothes and sometimes thought about the world in a startlingly different way, many things remain the same. I like a drink, and it gives me warm and fluffy feelings to think that British people 200-ish years ago also liked a drink. Or several.

Like all aspects of Victorian culture, drinking was strictly segregated on class and gender lines, partly on account of the expense of booze, partly through custom and preference.

Working class boozers

Working class men and women partook of two beverages: beer and gin. Wines and other drinks were not widely available and were out of their price-range, as they were imported.

Beer has been brewed in Britain for centuries, and until recent times formed a vital part of the British diet. It really was a staple food. Water was unsafe to drink, especially in towns, giving people everything from an upset stomach to cholera. Since water could be deadly, everyone drank beer. This was brewed at home, by women, or in small breweries. Even as a commercial concern, brewing was traditionally one of the few professions open to women. Typical beer had a low alcohol content – maybe 2 percent – and was drunk all day long from breakfast to bed-time by men, women, children, babies, pregnant women, everyone. It was often thick and nourishing, filled with vitamins and minerals from the grains.

Typical boozers

By the Victorian era increasing gender divides and the growth of industrial breweries pushed female purveyors of craft beer out of the market. Since the working classes lived in such cramped conditions in towns and cities, they turned away from home brewing and towards industrially produced beer, served in pubs. Where town-dwellers drank at home, they usually sent a child off to the pub with a tankard to fill up. Bottled beer was not available until later.

This meant that all working class districts were crowded with pubs, and they provided a friendly home from home. Plenty of gas-light and roaring fires made them often much more comfortable than people’s miserable hovels, and many men could barely be prised away from the pub.

‘Behind the Bar’ by John Henry Henshall

Gin was first produced in Britain after the Dutch King William of Orange took the throne in 1688. Years of excellent harvests had left Britain with a grain surplus and low prices. He took advantage of this by reducing taxation on distilling. The following year, British distillers produced around 500,000 gallons of neutral grain spirit. Now gin is in fact just neutral spirit – vodka – flavoured with juniper and anything else that takes the distillers fancy. The British flavoured their alcohol with juniper in honour of their King’s favourite Dutch drink, Jenever. And that’s how gin was born. By the 1720s London’s distillers produced 20 million gallons of spirits a year, as well as a staggering amount of illegal moonshine. In the mid-century around 1 in 4 London houses contained a working gin still, pumping out high-strength booze. Hogarth’s etching ‘Gin Line’, portraying the horrors of a city in the grip of an epidemic of alcoholism, wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Gin was called ‘mother’s ruin’ for a reason.

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’

The gin craze had died down by the nineteenth century, but it was still the widely available alternative to beer. Drunk neat or with a bit of sugar, it was still popular with working-class women in need of something fortifying. As there was little refrigeration and water was still unsafe, there was no ice for the working classes. Gin was drunk at room temperature, or warm.

But working class drinking culture came under threat during the nineteenth century from the temperance and teetotal movements. Temperance – moderation in drinking – was advocated by middle class philanthropists and evangelical Christians, while the teetotal movement was largely led by the working classes themselves. There was probably some truth in their assertions that drunkenness led to poverty, deprivation and domestic violence, especially for the women and children who bore the brunt of a man’s drinking. But on the other hand, the middle classes simply feared and hated mobs, rowdy and uncouth behaviour, and people making a public spectacle of themselves. They were trying to impose middle class values on people who were unlikely to gain any material benefit from adopting those codes of behaviour. Unfortunately, temperance also had side-effects. When people swapped nourishing Victorian beer for plain old water, levels of malnourishment and disease went up. Drinking plenty of beer was actually surprisingly good for you.

A poster for the temperance movement

Well, that’s told ’em!


Middle class tipplers

The respectable middle classes rarely went to pubs. Men might have gone to a gentlemen’s club though. Here they could eat, drink, meet for business or a chat with friends, and read the newspapers and periodicals. The middle classes stuck to wine, fortified wines like sherry and port, possibly a little brandy.

But the century brought an exciting new trend in drinking: mixed drinks. British people had long been used to spiced, sweetened, fortified punches, often served hot – think of mulled wine or mulled cider. But mixed drinks were an American novelty. Charles Dickens was one of the first to write about them, in his American Notes for General Circulation. Dickens visited America in 1842 and in Boston he gleefully partook of an array of newfangled mixed drinks, with strange names like “the Gin-sling, Cocktail, Sangaree, Mint Julep, Sherry-cobbler, Timber Doodle, and other rare drinks.”

The “Cock Tail” was a mixture of strong alcohol, such as American rye whiskey, mixed with sugar syrup, water, bitters and nutmeg.  Sangaree is essentially Sangria, the mint julep is still drunk today and contains whiskey, sugar, mint and water, and the sherry-cobbler is sherry, sugar and citrus with ice. The timber-doodle is anyone’s guess, though I desperately want one, whatever it is, just for the incredible name. Poor timber-doodle! Doomed to remain one of history’s unsolved mysteries.

The sherry cobbler, as featured in the Savoy cocktail recipe book

Dickens features the sherry cobbler in his novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). “Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop. ‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry Cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short.’” The most astonishing thing about it was apparently the drinking straw: they were pretty much unknown until then, and the sherry cobbler helped to popularise them. The Victorians were nothing if not lovers of novelty.

Notable Victorian drinker Charles Dickens

If you want to try a sherry cobbler at home, here’s a modern version of the recipe:

Muddle (that means squish up with a wooden stick) 3 slices orange and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a cocktail shaker; add 100ml of dry sherry and ice; shake until the outside of the shaker is cold and frosty; strain into a collins (tall) glass of crushed ice; garnish with an orange wheel and fresh fruit. For variety you can use any combination of citrus fruit, and you could add berries before muddling, or a little mint. You could also try adding a splash of a fruit liqueur.

A fancy, sexed-up modern version of the sherry cobbler

Mixed drinks were mainly drunk in American bars, for instance at the Savoy hotel, that catered for American expatriates. Gentlemen’s clubs and officer’s messes might also offer these kinds of drinks, and sometimes they were even drunk at home, though usually at large social gatherings.

The Victorians gained inspiration from How to Mix Drinks; or, the Bon-Vivants Companion by Prof. Jerry Thomas, published in 1862. Thomas’ book is a classic, featuring all sorts of punches, and well-known drinks like the Tom Collins, sours and flips. His signature drink was ‘the blue blazer’, which involved setting fire to whiskey and then pouring it, flaming, between different glasses. Better than Tom Cruise in Cocktail, eh?

Jerry Thomas’ classic guide



Jerry Thomas in action, with his ‘blue blazer’

Having said that gin was a rough and ready drink for masses, associated with alcoholism and working class debauchery, new gin-making methods actually led to its revival. Gin was no longer a rough, sweet drink, but was distilled in a new style, christened ‘London dry’. This rehabilitated the drink and gave it a new respectability. The gin and tonic originated in this era. Tonic water is made with quinine, which helps to ward off malaria. The drink was therefore very popular amongst the military and British colonialists in hot countries, especially India.

Indeed, gin became so respectable that recipes for gin-based drinks even appeared in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The ingredients for a gin sling were listed as gin, 2 slices of lemon, 3 lumps of sugar, and iced water.

Upper class quaffers

No grand dinner would be complete without it’s accompanying alcoholic beverages. Fancy dinners reached the height of ludicrousness in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, only to come crashing back down with the start of the First World War. In the meantime, dinner parties could have as many as 12 courses. Each course was accompanied by a different type of alcohol. White wine with fish and light dishes, red wine with meat, and Madeira, sherry or sweet wine with desserts. Champagne was often served following an entree.

The earliest British recipe book for mixed drinks is William Terrington’s Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks from 1869. Teddington’s recipes are mostly for what we would think of as punches, based on wine and sherry, mixed with herbs, fruit, spices, etc. Rather like an endless parade of different types of Pimms, and obviously all intended for large groups. Teddington mentions that these cups and punches are very popular at Inns of Court and the City Guilds: all-male gatherings, where everyone got sloshed, but with fancy drinks, using fancy cups, and with lots of toasts and ceremonial nonsense. That made the whole business of getting off you face terribly classy, you see.

A fancy silver punch bowl, the kind used at posh Victorian parties

Here’s a summary of one of his recipes for ‘claret cup a la Brunow, for a party of twenty':

Place a large bowl into a larger bowl full of ice and water to keep it cool, then mix:

lemon balm; borage; slices of cucumber; 1 pint sherry; 1/2 pint brandy; lemon peel; juice of 1 lemon and 3 oranges; 1/2 pint curaco; 1 gill ratafia of raspberries; 2 bottles German; seltzer water; 3 bottles soda; 3 bottles claret; sweeten to taste

Personally I think this sounds rather disgusting, and I won’t be wasting any wine on attempting this or any similar recipes!

Ladies who liquid lunch

Middle class and upper class ladies certainly couldn’t get drunk. They also couldn’t really go anywhere without a man, except each other’s houses or an alcohol-free tea shop. So they stuck to tippling at home. They might have drunk wine with meals, and had the odd glass of ladies’ favourites champagne and sloe gin, but they had to be careful to never appear sloshed – that was very vulgar, regrettable behaviour for the working classes only.

Heroes of History: Annie Besant?

My last post was about the ‘East End Women’s History Museum’ that turned into a Jack the Ripper museum, because apparently women are only interesting if they’ve been murdered. This got me wondering who you would include in a real feminist history of the east end. So I did a little investigation, and came up with the gloriously eccentric Annie Besant. She had a very interesting and varied life, but although she did some terrific things she also did some pretty questionable things. I’m not sure that she qualifies to feature as one of my ‘Heroes of History‘. Besant therefore gets to be a ‘hero of history – QUESTION MARK???’

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Archives and History News: Jack the Ripper Museum Special!

It’s all kicking off in east London! In October last year Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe gained planning permission for a new museum dedicated to the history of women in the east end. Last week the awnings were whisked down and – ta-dah!! it’s actually a jack the ripper museum. No suffragettes, no match workers strike, no Dagenham equal pay strike, no inspirational sisters doing it for themselves. Just victims of crime. How disappointing, how insulting, what a whopping lie.

The ripper ‘museum’

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The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream

Wrote Wallace Stevens, in 1923. It’s one of those notoriously difficult modernist poems, but all it really means is ‘don’t get all metaphysical now. Eat ice cream, because tomorrow you could be dead’. Seems like a good philosophy to me. Ice-cream is a sweet, delicious treat, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer’s day.

But who do we have to thank for first creating this amazing food? And who perfected it? Who made the greatest ever ice-cream in history? Who can we crown as the actual emperor of ice-cream?


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Mad Max: Fury Road and two rules for making great drama (plus some other reviews)

Spoilers alert!

I recently saw Mad Max: Fury Road. I must say I wasn’t too excited at first. Another tired old remake/sequel/prequel I thought – why can’t Hollywood come up with something new and original? But in fact this movie is really original! It’s about 2 hours long, and 1 hour 45 of that is one mighty car chase, in which monster trucks race across the desert and they all try to kill each other. The bad guy is accompanied into truck-based battle by a lorry full of drummers and a dude playing a frenzied guitar solo on a guitar that doubles as a flame thrower, swinging around off the top of a truck on a bungee rope. Insane guitar dude was quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. I mean, what evil apocalyptic warlord wouldn’t want a flame-throwing guitar player to accompany him into battle?

Mad Max’s crazy guitar dude

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Book reviews

I’ve been reviewing all the books I read this year. I was going to save this up until January, but that would make a monstrously long post. So here’s the top 5 books I’ve read in the last 6 months, and all the rest…



1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I’m a fan of Hustvedt’s brand of psychological post-modernism, but I think this is her best book yet. Harriet Burden is a grandmother and widow of a rich, famous art dealer, and also an artist in her own right. She’s long felt that her gender and her husband’s status excluded her from the art-world fame she truly deserved, and now she’s devised an experiment. She will create the art shows, and get three male artists to pretend it’s their creation, see how the critics react, and later expose them for the hypocritical bigots they really are. Of course, things don’t actually work out like that. Although to a certain extent this is a satire on the art world, that aspect is not that important. The novel is presented as an edited collection of Harriet’s own diaries and notebooks, interspersed with reviews from critics and interviews with Harriet’s, friends, lovers, children and collaborators. It’s a regular polyphonic spree that explores gender, identity, the media, robotics, the internet age, neuroscience, memory, philosophy and art. How do we know who we are, and how can we control how others think of us? Are memories to be trusted? Do we become many different people over the course of our lifetimes? Do straight white men really get a free pass in life? Do women sabotage themselves and each other? There are no answers here, but there are jokes about Freud and footnotes on Heidegger. It is all incredibly highbrow and quite a challenging read in some ways. Yet there is also a terrific story, which builds an incredible sense of menace, mystery and tension. There are unexpected moments of pathos, fistfights, and a refusal to shy away from bodily functions. The language, descriptions and constantly shifting characters are so vivid that I found this truly a blazing world. The ending was so totally unexpected and yet so perfect that I actually cried, which drew some funny looks at 8.30am on the district line, I can tell you. I suppose this is not something that will appeal to everyone, but it’s definitely my book of the year so far. I’m looking forward to re-reading this to discover even more that I missed the first time round. Continue reading

Cinematic reasons to avoid Australia…

During the many years I have spent watching films, I have discovered an odd sub-genre that no-one else seems to have noticed: films that make you terrified of visiting Australia. To watch these is to be slowly suffocated by a creeping dread that leaves you in numbed, leaden misery for days afterwards. You may find yourself pulling the duvet over your head and desperately hoping that continental drift won’t bring this dreaded land any closer to us. Back off Australia, you’re close enough!

I have excluded both straightforward horror films and torture porn-type movies. I mean, once you’ve grasped the concept of something like the human centipede, is there really any need to watch it?

Before we get started, I just want to note that the real Australia seems like a lovely place and if I spend enough time watching Crocodile Dundee and Strictly Ballroom, I may find the courage to visit one day. Also, I know many lovely people who live in Australia, and as far as I know none of them are serial killers…

NB probably loads of spoilers…

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Archives and History News: from Ireland to Nepal, Ukraine to Australia, and a debate about the European Union…

Good news for anyone doing genealogy research in Ireland – 40,000 records are going to be made available via a new website. The National Gallery of Ireland has digitised the catholic parish records dating from 1740s to the 1880s and the free website is going live in July.

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How to be a Victorian gentleman

According to this article, men are having a crisis. They no longer know how to be a man. Should they be metrosexuals, lumbersexuals or – *shudder* – spornosexuals?  There is a great deal of nostalgia for an earlier age, when being a man was a simple matter of having a job and keeping a stiff upper lip, preferably with a moustache on it. But was it really any easier for Victorian gentlemen? Trick question! Of course it wasn’t!

Robert Downey Jnr, masquerading as the finest of all Victorian gentlemen – Sherlock Holmes!

So what did it take to be a ‘gentleman’ in the nineteenth century?

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