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?

9 Babette’s feast

A woman flees Paris and is taken in by an poor and austere religious community in windswept nineteenth century Denmark. Years later, she wins the lottery and celebrates by preparing a spectacular, decadent gourmet feast for 12 of the villagers. The guests worry that it’s all so luxurious that some kind of devilry may be involved. The agree to eat the meal out of politeness, but never to praise the food or show any sign of pleasure in it. But the food isn’t devilish at all: it heals old wounds, elevates the human spirit, and brings the diners together. This humorous, wonderfully acted  film is subtly religious and a wonderful hymn to friendship and to cuisine as an art form.

8 Wilde

This movie charts Oscar Wilde’s successes and final fall from grace. Stephen Fry and Jude Law are perfectly cast as Wilde and his childish, petulant lover Lord Alfred Douglas or ‘Bosie’.  It’s like watching Greek tragedy or a car-crash in slow motion: we all know that Wilde has only got one place to go and that it’s Reading gaol. Character is destiny, and Wilde just can’t help pursuing a totally lost cause, despite the protestations of his friends, despite Bosie being awful, despite all common sense. A moving and complex portrait.

7 The elephant man

David Lynch directs and John Hurt and a massive amount of prosthetic make-up star in the story of Joseph Merrick, a man disfigured and disabled by a mystery illness. Merrick is rescued from a freak show by surgeon Frederick Treves. It’s beautifully shot in black in white, but like many films dealing with disability it tends towards the sentimental and *cringe* ‘inspirational.’ We don’t know much about Merrick’s life or feelings. We’re not even sure whether he was called John or Joseph. Was Treves exploiting Merrick even more than the freakshow, just in a more respectable way? Do we keep on exploiting him by re-telling his story in our words? For all that, it’s an interesting and affecting film.

6 The Age of Innocence

Martin Scorcese, more usually associated with ganger films, makes a fine job of adapting Edith Wharton’s novel about the repressed upper classes in late nineteenth century New York. The word ‘sumptuous’ is often bandied around in relation to costume dramas, but in this case it’s deserved. The costumes and sets are incredible, and the camera lingers on every beautiful surface. And that’s what’s this story is all about: the extreme disconnect between the beautiful, respectable surfaces of society, and what truly lies beneath.

5 Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law obviously had the most fun ever in this crazy, silly, souped-up steam punk version of the great detective’s adventures. It’s set in a very contemporary pastiche version of the nineteenth century and played half for laughs, half for action. The fight  and chase scenes are brilliantly inventive, there’s a dark, sexy edge to it, and an amazing bit of slapstick when RDJ falls off a horse. I was quite literally ROLFing.*

*For the benefit of my Dad, that means ‘rolling around on the floor laughing’.

4 A room with a view

This is cheating, because it’s set in the Edwardian period, but what’s a few years between friends? Merchant Ivory’s lavish 1985 version of EM Forster’s novel is lush and romantic. Helena Bonham-Carter takes the lead role, torn between two men. She is engaged to boring, uptight Daniel Day-Lewis, who wears a monocle, read a lot and won’t even attempt to play tennis. She has a secret passion for a holiday fling who snogs her so passionately in a field of flowers above Florence that her hat flies off. He’s pretty good at tennis and likes to swim naked in rivers. No prizes for guessing which one she ends up marrying!

3 Dean Spanley

Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam star in this odd little film. Northam is the put-upon son of cantankerous O’Toole, and Sam Neill is clergyman Dean Spanley, who only has to be plied with a rare Hungarian wine (Imperial Tokaiji) to get total recall of his past life as a dog. A whimsically bizarre but heart-warming movie.

2 The Piano

Jane Campion’s 1993 film stars Hollie Hunter as a mute Scottish woman sold as a mail-order bride to a repressed Sam Neill in nineteenth century New Zealand. She brings her grand piano, and her daughter, who acts as her interpreter, with her. Full of passion, mystery, evocative images, and with a memorable piano score, this film is more than the sum of its parts. It questions the nature of communication, love, violence, and what it really means to be truly alive. Hunter won the best actress Oscar for her silent role, played the piano herself during the film, and taught sign language to 11-year old Anna Paquin. Paquin was the youngest ever winner of the best supporting actress Oscar, and Campion won the Oscar for best screenplay.

1 The Prestige

This dark tale of rival magicians in Victorian London is one of my all-time favourite movies. Christopher Nolan brings gothic flair to the direction, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johanssen bring brooding sexiness. Michael Caine just brings Michael Caine. The film features murder, madness, magic, obsession, passion, David Bowie as Tesla, a twisty-turny plot and an incredibly clever script build that builds towards of climax of pure, existential horror.

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!

Nowadays we’re encouraged to ‘move on’ as quickly as possible. If anything, death is treated rather as an affront to the terribly important business earning more money so that we can all of instagram our expensive restaurant meals. We’re so caught up in our FOMO* that we just haven’t got time for grief – our own, or other people’s.

Most of us look at the elaborate Victorian culture of death as ghoulish, macabre and perhaps even a little bit kinky. But what if the Victorians were on to something? What if their mourning traditions were actually a better way to cope with bereavement than the modern ‘oh carry on as normal – it’s what he would have wanted’ approach?

* For the benefit of my dad, FOMO = fear of missing out.

Mourning clothes

Mourning clothes on display at the New York Met’s exhibition ‘death becomes her’

Middle class Victorians followed an impossibly elaborate sartorial system relating to death. There were strict rules on what to wear and how long for, depending on who had died. Women’s magazines covered the topic in the same way Cosmopolitan might discuss appropriate work-wear today. For widows, ‘full mourning’ involved a non-reflective black fabric called bombazine, or more expensive silk, trimmed with a scratchy, stiff lace called crepe. For the first three months women wore black bonnets, and veils of black crepe that concealed their faces – after that the veil was pushed back. After a year the crepe accessories might be removed. At the end of the second year the colours gradually lightened to grey and mauve, called ‘half-mourning’. Those mourning a child or parent only wore mourning for a year. Grandparents got six months, while cousins got a mere 6 weeks!

Gentlemen had an easier time of it, as they so often do in fashion: they simply adapted their usual dark clothes to include more black accessories.

It’s all terribly goth, isn’t it? But the Victorians themselves put forward sensible arguments in favour of mourning clothes, with one etiquette guide writing: ‘A mourning dress is a protection against thoughtless or cruel inquiries. It is also in consonance with the feelings of the one bereaved, to whom brightness and merriment seem almost a mockery of the woe into which they have been plunged.’ Mourning clothes may have been cumbersome, but having an outward marker of one’s mental state to remind others not to bother you seems incredibly practical.

Full mourning dress – not very practical, is it?

Today, we have all the same personal problems the Victorians did. This recent article gives some pertinent advice on ‘how not to say the wrong thing in a crisis’. It boils down to supporting those closest to the epicentre of the crisis, and only seeking support from those further out. In other words, John’s pals should never, ever, say ‘I can’t believe John is dead! I just can’t cope with it!’ to John’s widow. Save that for John’s work colleagues. But imagine how much easier it would be to behave appropriately if everyone’s clothing carefully marked out their place in the grief hierarchy and their stage in the mourning process! After all, six weeks after a cousin’s death, you might be feeling ok, but six weeks after your husband’s death? Not so much.

An advert for a shop dedicated to mourning clothes

Social etiquette

Mourning clothes corresponded with social etiquette. You couldn’t go to a party or big social event in full mourning dress, so mourners’ social lives were limited to gatherings at home for up to two years. It was, however, acceptable for mourners to go to concerts, and the guidelines might be relaxed for younger people. One commentator noted the ‘young suffer intensely, but it is a wise provision of nature that it is not as lasting as the grief of maturer years. They should pay a suitable respect for the relatives they have lost; but do not ask them to seclude themselves until their lives are lastingly shadowed.’ Mourning was subject to guidelines, not strict rules. One writer kindly noted ‘There are some natures to whom this isolation long continued, would prove fatal. Such may be forgiven, if they indulge in innocent recreations a little earlier than custom believes compatible with genuine sorrow.’

The Victorians knew by instinct what recent psychological researchers have found out. The intense grieving period for someone close to you really is about two years. After that the pain lessens, allowing people to move on with their life. Some people find it hard to move on, even after two years. Following the death of her beloved Prince Albert, Queen Victoria wore mourning clothes for the rest of her long life. Her subjects were quite suspicious and intolerant of this, and came to think of their Queen as rather morbid. Nowadays we would be expressing concerns about her mental health.

Queen Victoria in Mourning dress

The formal rituals of mourning, then, served a useful purpose. They allowed people to wallow in grief for a time without anyone trying to inappropriately jolly them along. Mourning even marked out the period of bereavement as, in some strange way, special. The pain and suffering experience was not to be trivialised or repressed, but rather elevated to an art form and treasured. But after two years, that period would come to an end, and it was time to slowly, gradually, transition back into normal clothes and normal life. This seems infinitely kinder and more understanding than today’s haphazard and embarrassed approach. Victorian mourning was a shared, visible, communal event. It was easier to see what others had suffered before you, and to realise that there was indeed light at the end of the tunnel.


The Victorians loved mementoes of their dead loved ones. Most of us find this horribly macabre. Sad little bronze casts of the hands of a loved perched on stately home dressing tables. Jewellery made from dead people’s hair. All of it makes me shudder. Many people had photographs taken of the dead body of their child or relative. Sometimes this was taken to extreme lengths. Daddy’s corpse might be propped up and posed to look lifelike, with the whole family ranged around and a toddler perched on his dead knee. These photos might be coloured in, giving the deceased rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes. The Victorians thought these photos were a lovely memento: nowadays we’d be calling social services. But these kinds of objects served a purpose. Few people had any photographs or portraits of their loved ones, and needed some way of remembering the physicality of the deceased. They didn’t want their children to forget what daddy had looked life.

A mother poses with her life-like dead child in a post-mortem photograph

A brooch made from the hair of the deceased

As most of us have more than enough photographs we don’t need to bring back the custom for mementoes. Thank goodness for that!


Previously, bodies had been wrapped in a simple shroud for burial, but the Victorians started dressing their dead and putting make up on them, to make them appear alive. One etiquette manual wrote ‘we see the dear ones now lying in that peaceful repose which gives hope to those who view them. No longer does the gruesome and chilling shroud enwrap the form.’ This marked a stark change from previous centuries, when people were pretty matter of fact about the physical realities of death, not having much choice in the matter.

Queen Victoria’s funeral

The wake was also phased out – it was associated with drunken tomfoolery, and was considered quite vulgar. However, a friend of the family usually stayed with them until after the funeral. They might help to organise practical details and fend off unwanted visitors. Clocks were stopped at the time of death, and the doorbell or knocker was muffled in black crepe, to warn off all but essential callers.

Funeral services were often carried out in the deceased’s home, before the body was taken to the Churchyard for burial. Anyone could attend a funeral, but maintaining the family’s dignity was important. They were ushered in at the last possible minute, and sometimes even remained in a separate room to listen to the ceremony, to spare them any embarrassment from crying in public. This was one of the strange contradictions of mourning: it was both an incredibly public display and something that demanded privacy and solitude.

The Victorian period was in many ways a curious transition between the pragmatism of previous eras, and the extreme taboos of our own. The Victorians distanced themselves from the physicality of death, but at the same time elevated the surrounding emotions. We have distanced ourselves from both the physical and emotional side of the death, to the point where it is very difficult to acknowledge death at all. Indeed, our culture has been labelled ‘death phobic’.

And yet the uncomfortable fact remains that we’re all going to die, and so are all our loved ones. Wearing veils and creating weird mementoes certainly won’t help us to cope with that. But I can’t help feeling that a return to ritual and carefully observed social etiquette might make the experience of bereavement just a little bit simpler, if not any less painful.

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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La Rentre: Ten books about the Victorians

We’re now well and truly into September, the nights are drawing in and it’s starting to feel a little autumnal. As the French would say, it’s la rentree – that time of year forever associated with going back to school after the holidays.

So why not make the most of that back-to-school feeling by brushing up on your knowledge? Here are ten wonderful books about the Victorians, to ease you back in to historical studies! Continue reading

Archives and History News: beetles, beer and black heritage!

The dress that actress Ellen Terry wore to play Lady MacBeth at the Lyceum theatre in 1888, has been restored by the National Trust. The dress was covered in the wings of iridescent green beetles. It’s horribly fascinating and suitably gothic!  Here she is, her famous performance and dress immortalized in fine Pre-Raphaelite style by John Singer Sergant. You can see the original at Tate Britain.

Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth

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Archives and History News: First World War commemorations and child abuse cover-ups in the archives

Of all the First World War commemorations happening at the moment, this is the loveliest: a sea of 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for every British soldier killed in the conflict, pouring of of the Tower of London.

Commemorative art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’

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Happy one-year blogoversary to me!

Today marks one year since I started this blog!

Happy birthday to!

Thanks to everyone who’s been following my ‘rather peculiar blog’, in the words of one reader.

In case you missed them, here are my ‘greatest hits’ from the past year:

Mysteries of the Mind 1: Mesmer’s Miraculous Magnetism

Animal Magnetism

Mysteries of the Mind 2: Mesmerism Mania in Britain – hundreds of people have read these posts. I suppose that’s because mesmerism is really wierd and fascinating!

Heroes of History: Grace Darling – this post is read by about a hundred people a month – I suspect they’re all GCSE students doing their research. I hope they get a good mark!!!

Image from the RNLI museum

How to Get Admitted to a Victorian Lunatic Asylum – again it’s the darker side of history that people love, and this was my chance to set the record straight on all those myths about asylums.

V0029708 Photograph: portraits of three female