Aside from the fact that I am (at least partly) of German stock, I never thought I had that much in common with renowned composer Johann Sebastian Bach. At least not until I visited the Bach Haus in Leipzig several months ago, where I discovered that we had one surprising thing in common: Bach, like myself, was a dorm parent at a boarding school.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with American boarding-school terminology:
‘Dorm parents are adults who live in the dorms with students, taking on a parent-like role, or “in loco parentis”‘. [source]
I suppose the nearest equivalent in British English would be ‘boarding house master’.
This doesn’t sound like it has much to do with Bach, you may be thinking; usually we just associate him with fugues, cantatas, concertos and the like. Yet it turns out that as part of his duties as Music Director at the St Thomas Church in Leipzig, Bach had to spend one week in four acting as a dorm parent to the boys in the boarding school attached to the church, the aptly-named St Thomas School, which dates back to 1212.
It was literally part of Bach’s employment contract that, in addition to providing musical training for the boys and composing weekly cantatas for church services, he had to sleep in the school building, supervise the boys, and make sure that they were in bed when they were supposed to be, for one week a month. Not so unlike the duties of many a dorm parent at an American-style boarding school (including, until recently, myself)!
Further reading The only reference to Bach’s pastoral duties at the school which I could find, other than that in the Bach Haus itself, is on the German-language page bach.de.
By the time of his death in 1830, Thomas Lawrence was the most sought-after and celebrated English portraitist of his age. He had painted everyone who was anyone, establishing his own distinct artistic style, and has been labelled in retrospect the visual chronicler of the Regency.
For such a supremely successful artist, however, Lawrence came from humble beginnings, being the son of a West Country innkeeper. Fortunately as it turned out, he grew up learning most of the accomplishments necessary to fit in with English nobility; namely, boxing, dancing, fencing, billiards, and a little Latin and French. When Lawrence’s father went bankrupt in 1779, the family moved to Bath, where Lawrence found a congenial atmosphere for developing his artistic talents. He was soon supporting his parents by producing small pastel portraits, such as the one below, of local notables. Lawrence’s affability, charm and talent endeared him to Bath’s residents and visitors alike, and he received commissions from the aristocracy and encouragement from other artists.
At the age of 17, Lawrence moved to London where he became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the premier portraitists of the day. Although Lawrence soon dropped out of the school at the Royal Academy of Arts, he managed to exhibit several works at the Academy, earning him his first royal commission, a portrait of Queen Charlotte. Although the finished portrait was not favoured by its subject, it found critical success at a public exhibition. Also shown at the 1790 exhibition was Lawrence’s portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren, which was declared by the press to be ‘completely Elizabeth Farren: arch, spirited, elegant and engaging’.
Over the ensuing years, Lawrence went from success to success. In 1791, Lawrence was named ‘painter-in-ordinary to his majesty’ by George III, and he found in the Prince Regent a longstanding and generous patron. Lawrence was knighted in 1815 and commissioned to travel Europe in order to paint the allied leaders for what would become the Waterloo Chamber series, housed in Windsor Castle. His illustrious sitters included Emperor Francis I of Austria, Tsar Alexander, the King of Prussia, and a young Napoleon II.
Back in London, Lawrence was appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1820. This was the highest formal academic honour an artist could receive at the time. Yet for reasons which still elude Lawrence’s biographers, Lawrence spent his whole life deeply in debt. This despite the fact that he worked hard, earned the best commissions, and does not seem to have been an extravagant man. He despaired of his situation, complaining that ‘I have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money. Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it from me’. It seems likely that Lawrence’s money went on generous presents to family and his extensive collection of Old Masters, along with his apparent inability to keep accounts.
Like most portraitists of his age, Lawrence strove to flatter his patrons. He made the aristocracy of late Georgian Britain appear uniformly beautiful, elegant and fascinating. He even managed to mould the corpulent Prince Regent into a sort of byronic hero in his sketch for a bust portrait.
Yet even if Lawrence idealised his sitters, I love his portraits for their bold colours and outstanding vividness. His sitters’ gazes are often direct and piercing, and their whole figure radiates energy. I am especially drawn to Lawrence’s portraits of women, as their strong gazes, sparkling eyes and confident poise are quite different from the serene countenances of earlier 18th-century portraits, or from the dull sweetness of early Victorian female portraits. In this respect, Lawrence had the advantage of his time. Fashionable patrons, strongly influenced by Romanticism, wanted to be painted as windswept romantic figures full of life and passion. Lawrence’s genius came both from his technical talent and his ability to mould his sitters into figures which truly captured the Romantic spirit of the age.
Castle Ward, in Northern Ireland, is a remarkable building, though it is not known for architectural brilliance, opulent interiors, great artworks, or beautiful gardens. Instead, what strikes you when you visit Castle Ward is the overwhelming sense that the architect must have been deranged. This is because one half of the stone mansion is done up entirely in Georgian classical style, while the other half – right down to the furnishings – is constructed in eighteenth-century Gothic Revival style. One might suspect this to be some morbid joke on the part of the architect, or the wild frolic of some mad craftsman. However, the house’s dual aspect was in fact intentional and is, as far as I know, the only example of its kind.
Originally known as Carrick na Sheannagh and owned by the Earls of Kildare, Castle Ward had been the home of the Ward family since around 1570. The Wards were prominent Anglo-Irish gentry, elevated into the aristocracy when Bernard Ward was made 1st Viscount Bangor, in recognition of his political service. In 1747, Bernard married the widow Lady Ann Bligh and started building a new, grander edifice suitable for the dignity of his position.
However, Bernard ran into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in his quest to design the perfect house: namely, his wife. While Bernard favoured a cool and masculine classical style, Ann much preferred Georgian Gothic Revival, with its turrets, spires, fan vault ceilings and pseudo-medieval décor. It might be supposed that in the 18th century, the taste of the wife would have to be subservient to that of her husband; the building (along with the wife) was generally his property, after all. Clearly, however, Ann felt so strongly about the architecture and interior of the proposed house that Bernard was obliged to relent and allow her to have half the house built and decorated as she wished. Their subsequent joint efforts were mocked by the Bluestocking artist Mrs Delany, who visited in July 1762 and wrote in a letter that Bernard lacked taste and Ann was ‘so whimsical that I doubt her judgment’.
In her excellent book, Behind Closed Doors: At home in Georgian England, Amanda Vickery writes of the Wards and their house:
“…division was unmissable at Castle Ward in County Down in Ireland in the early 1760s, where marital disagreement over style resulted in clashing Gothic and classical wings. The Wards separated shortly after the building was completed – architectural incompatibility was prophetic.”
I suspect that Vickery is being tongue-in-cheek; notwithstanding their different architectural tastes, we don’t know whether Bernard and Ann were unhappy for a long time or whether the separation came on suddenly. Ann did stick around to bear her husband eight children, after all. In fact, some sources claim that Ann and Bernard never actually separated.
The entrance side of the building is done in Bernard’s preferred stern Palladian style, with columns supporting a triangular pediment. Ann was allowed to have the back of the house done up in the way she wanted, built in the Georgian Gothic style with pointed windows, spires, and even battlements.
The interior followed a strict division along these lines, with the front half of the house decked out in Palladian/classical style, and the back half in Gothic Revival, covering everything from ceilings to bookcases to stairwells. On the one hand it is noteworthy that Ann was allowed to decorate half of the house entirely in her own style; on the other, it is telling that she was given the back of the house, with its private sitting rooms, while the reception rooms were all done in her husband’s preferred neoclassical style.
The following rooms are from Bernard’s side of the house, and follow a cool neoclassical theme in both decoration and architectural features.
The following rooms, designed according to Ann’s taste, present a strong contrast. They are full of Gothic Revival decoration and furniture, and the overall effect is, in my opinion, much more domestic and warm. She must have found these rooms more comfortable to spend time in than the draughty neoclassical reception rooms favoured by her husband.
Interestingly, Ann’s architecture and furnishings somewhat resemble that of Strawberry Hill House, a Gothic Revival villa built from the 1740s-70s by author Horace Walpole. I don’t know for sure whether Ann was influenced by Walpole’s design, or just more generally by the Gothic Revival, but the similarities are striking.
Notwithstanding the recent diplomatic thaw between the US and Iran, most people in the West, if asked to envisage the Islamic Republic, would likely see in their mind’s eye a country of angry religious fundamentalists, full of oppressed women swathed in black robes.
While that picture has some elements of truth, what is perhaps not so well-known in the West is that for much of the 20th century, Iran was a secular regime in which women wandered the streets of Tehran in miniskirts. This, from a country where state television currently forbids showing musicians in the act of playing instruments, as it is supposedly damaging to public morals.
This is not to say that Iran was an ideal country; far from it. The Shah of Iran was unpopular and autocratic, using the country’s oil revenues to fund his lavish lifestyle. Political dissent was not tolerated. Great swathes of the country remained poor, conservative, and illiterate – in fact, one of the current regime’s greatest achievements has been in raising literacy standards so that literacy for women aged 15-24 now stands at 97.70%, as opposed to 42.33% before the 1979 Revolution.
Yet notwithstanding these caveats, Iranian society (especially in urban areas) became modernised and westernised to an extent unimaginable today. Echoing the spirit of Ataturk’s modernising reforms in Turkey after World War One, the Iranian shahs were determined to turn Iran into a nationalistic, militaristic, secular and westernised country by hook or by crook. To that end, women were actually forbidden to wear the veil in 1936, were granted suffrage in 1963, and attained high positions in government and the judiciary.
Below, I have collected a number of Iranian photographs dating from the 1930s to 1970s which capture something of the spirit of this brave new world.
While British troops were away fighting the French during the Napoleonic Wars, a concerted war effort was being carried out on the home front. These years saw a proliferation of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in many forms. The government needed to whip up patriotic fervour not only to promote a general spirit of resistance against the French, but also to inspire volunteer recruits for the army and navy, and to persuade people that raised taxes were necessary for Britain’s very preservation.
The genuine popular demand for anti-Napoleonic propaganda gave lyricists, dramatists and others a rich fund of material to work with. This was a good time in particular to be a talented caricaturist. Napoleon (also known as ‘Boney’ and ‘the Corsican Monster’) was lampooned in prints by all the leading illustrators of the day, including Gillray and Cruikshank. By all accounts, the publishers of these satirical prints did a roaring trade. One French émigréwrote to the journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan of the enthusiasm surrounding a new print, describing the ‘madness’ as ‘people box their way through the crowd’ to the print shop. Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, another French observer described ‘a large crowd that had gathered in front of a shop on the Strand. The meeting was a noisy one and the agitation suggested that some people were actually boxing. We soon learned that a new caricature was the reason for all the upheaval. What a triumph for the artist!’
The caricatures themselves veered between bold assertions of Britain’s superiority, staunchly supporting the regime, to personal attacks on Napoleon, condemning everything from his short stature (a complete myth, incidentally), to the colour of his skin (suspiciously dark), to his troubled private life. For the personal attacks, nothing was considered too vulgar, as the following few caricatures show.
The first night of my wedding, or, little Boney no match for an Arch Dutchess (1810)
Marie Louise: Still says sly old Hodge, says he, Great talkers do the least d’ye see. Well well there’s one hope left – I shall quickly carry him to his Journeys end
Napoleon: Mort de ma Vie I must I must brush off to Compiegne and order seperate Beds
This cartoon is clearly about Napoleon’s alleged impotence. Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife, quotes from Charles Dibdin’s comic opera, The Wives Revenged, while using a crown-shaped chamberpot as a footstool. Napoleon, looking rather the worse for wear, drinks some sort of reviving potion, has a bowl of ‘cock-broth’ on the table and plans to buy separate beds as soon as possible, presumably to save himself from the rampant sexual demands of his new wife.
The Arch Dutchess Maria Louisa going to take her Nap
Marie-Louise: My dear Nap. your bed accommodations are very indifferent! Too short by a Yard! I wonder how Josephine put up with such things over as long as she did!!!
Napoleon: Indeed, Maria I do not well understand you: the Empress Josephine who knew things better than I hope you do, never grumbled – Le Diable! I see I never will be able to get what I want after all!!!
This print mocks both Napoleon’s alleged stature and the fact that his first wife, Josephine, was sexually experienced when he met her, whereas Marie-Louise was meant to be the blushing virgin who would give him a healthy heir, a role she fulfilled admirably.
More politically-oriented cartoons spanned a broad spectrum, ranging from the brash trumpeting of British superiority to more subtle takes on Napoleonic foreign policy.
TIDDY-DOLL the great French Gingerbread-Baker, drawing out a new Batch of Kings. – his Man, Hopping Talley, mixing the dough (before 1806)
This 1806 cartoon mocks Napoleon’s political re-shaping of Europe. In the ‘New French Oven for Imperial Gingerbread’, Napoleon is baking three new rulers for the German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden. Below the oven lies an ‘Ash-Hole for broken Gingerbread’, which includes Holland and Italy; they have been swept there by the ‘Corsican Beson of Destruction’. The basket to the left contains ‘true Corsican kinglings’, referring to the family members Napoleon put on the thrones of other countries. The cupboard on the right contains drawers for ‘Kings & Queens’, ‘Crowns & Sceptres’ and even ‘Suns and Moons’, suggesting that Napoleon wants to reshape the universe itself.
Comparative anatomy or Bone-y’snew Conscripts filling up the Skeletons of the Old Regiments (1813)
An accurate representation of the floating machine Invented by the French for invading England. and Acts on the principals of both Wind & Water Mills, carries 60-000 Men & 600 Cannon (c. 1805)
Little Boney gone to Pot (1814)
This caricature was drawn towards the end of Napoleon’s career. It shows the defeated emperor exiled on the island of Elba with no-one to keep him company except the Devil. He sits on a chamberpot, the toy cannon is all that remains of his military ambitions, and he seems ready to commit suicide with the gun offered to him by his satanic tormentor.
Caricatures were, of course, not the only form of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in Britain. Handbills denouncing Napoleon and containing gruesome accounts of supposed French atrocities were manufactured almost daily and distributed throughout the kingdom, probably reaching even the illiterate sections of the population. Patriotic plays were put on to whip up national sentiment, and anti-French broadside ballads were common. Clergy thundered against the Corsican Monster from the pulpit, and millenarian preachers warned that Napoleon’s evil empire was surely a sign of the end time.
Eighteenth-century English men and women were characterised as ‘a polite and commercial people’ in Paul Langford’s contribution to the New Oxford History of England. When it came to anti-Napoleonic propaganda, the English were hardly polite, but some of them were certainly commercially-minded. Canny manufacturers took advantage of popular sentiment and produced all sorts of anti-French memorabilia. Perhaps the most remarkable example I have seen is a chamber-pot featuring a small bust of Napoleon in the middle. How edifying it must have been for those consumers who were now able to express patriotic sentiment even when exercising their most basic functions!
“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten”. Ecclesiastes 9:5
How will we be remembered we die? Will we be remembered at all? These are questions which occupied minds in early modern England just as much as now. Wealthy men and women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were very concerned about how they would go down to posterity. Although most of them probably believed in a Christian afterlife, they also hoped to prove the above Ecclesiastes verse wrong by ensuring that their memory lived on after death, thus ensuring an earthly quasi-immortality. This could be achieved most obviously through fame as a statesman, soldier or scholar, but one could also hope to secure remembrance via charitable endowments, building and portraiture, as well as through one’s offspring.
During the Middle Ages, paying for the singing of masses had been used by wealthy people as a means of shortening a soul’s stay in Purgatory, and also as a way of remembering and honouring their deceased kin. In post-Reformation England, however, paying for masses was no longer an option, so people had to venerate their family in more tangible ways. Robert Burton (author of The Anatomy of Melancholy) listed the things which well-off people did in the 16th and 17th centuries to commemorate their memory and the memory of their kin. They would dedicate “tombstones and monuments…epitaphs, elegies, inscriptions, pyramids, obelisks, statues, images, pictures, histories, poems, annals, feasts, anniversaries” and would “omit no good office that may tend to the preservation of their names, honours, and eternal memory”.
One notable development in post-Reformation England was the enormous proliferation of funerary monuments both inside and outside churches. Medieval kings and queens had, it is true, merited elaborate tombs, and some nobles and wealthy merchants had also built themselves funerary monuments, but it was really only in the 16th century that the building of monuments and memorial inscriptions great and small took off, cluttering up England’s churches in the attempt to obtain a lasting remembrance on Earth.
Building a memorial for oneself or a family member was, as well as a means of remembering the dead, a sign of piety and worldly status. Only the gentry and wealthy merchants had the money and the social standing necessary to go about erecting memorials in church. The antiquary John Weever wrote that “every man…desires a perpetuity after death, by these monuments”, and a Jacobean antiquary remarked that a man could “perpetuate the reverend memory of his honourable parents, ancestors, and much beloved friends departed” by building them funerary monuments.
It has been estimated that between 1530 and 1600, around five thousand carved stone monuments were set up in churches across England; there were also innumerable cheaper panels of engraved stone, brass or wood for those who were not quite important or wealthy enough to merit the elaborate stone memorials. In the later 17th and 18th centuries, funerary sculpture grew ever more ambitious, featuring portrait medallions, pictorial reliefs and dramatic figural groupings. One Jacobean antiquary described the “lively counterfeiting resemblance[s], effigies [and] pyramids” with which people decorated their memorials. A common “counterfeiting resemblance” seen on 16th and 17th century monuments is the depiction of the dead and their family, with children dutifully kneeling in a row at the bottom of the monument.
Post-Reformation memorial inscriptions frequently contained a moral message, though it was less often a memento mori than a stern exhortation to lead a virtuous life. One 17th century Berkshire monument, after enumerating the qualities of the various members of the Yate family, ended with “Reader, depart, imitate”. Reading about the supposed merits of the deceased was intended to edify the onlooker and encourage them to better behaviour. Archbishop Matthew Parker (1502-75) admitted that the eulogistic epitaph which he wrote for his own tomb had less to do with his actual merits than a desire to make readers aspire to the virtues attributed to him.
Not everyone approved of this: Alexander Pope had no time for such ideas and condemned much of what was written didactically on funerary monuments as “sepulchral lies” (his own epitaph read “[Here] lies one who ne’er cared, and still cares not a pin/ What they said, or may say, of the mortal within”). The poet Matthew Prior wrote in 1714 of memorial inscriptions, “Yet credit but lightly what more may be said/ For we flatter ourselves and teach marble to lie”.
“Sepulchral lies” or not, the past few centuries have bequeathed us a rich collection of funerary monuments in churches across the country, both large and small. On a recent trip to Winchester Cathedral and the nearby Romsey Abbey I was able to see many excellent examples of early modern memorial inscriptions, ranging from the dull to the witty, from the pompous to the pithy.
Some were poignant testimonies of the unpredictability of life in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I found many memorials dedicated to women who died in childbirth, sometimes just a year after getting married, along with inscriptions which reveal a high rate of infant and child mortality.
Near this place are interred
the remains of Mrs Ann Moody:
She Died January 14th 1780,
Aged 19 Years;
Also her infant Son,
aged 9 Weeks.
Look on this Monument,
Ye Gay and Careless,
think of its date,
and boast no more of to-morrow.
* * *
In Memory of Mary the Wife of John May
who died the 29th November 1781.
Also in Memory of all her children
Mary died in her Infancy
Ann died the 1st of May 1787 aged 17 Years
Mary died in June the same Year aged 11 Years
and Elizabeth died the 20th August 1791 aged 18 Years.
“If e’er the offspring of thy virtuous love bloom’d to thy wish, or to thy soul was Dear, this plaintive Marble asks thee for a tear”.
Although one always expects to find a certain amount of eulogising on the larger memorials, I was surprised by the very secular character of several inscriptions. They seemed more fit for the description of a heroine in an 18th century sentimental novel than for the remembrance of a dead lady, however highborn she might have been. Take, for instance, the memorial inscriptions for Frances Viscount Palmerston and Elizabeth Montagu:
In Memory of Frances Palmerston:
Her Sense was Strong her Judgement accurate,
Her Wit engaging and her Taste refined,
While the Elegance of her Form,
The Graces of her Manners,
And the natural Propriety
That ever accompanied her Words and Actions,
Made her Virtues doubly attractive,
And taught her equally to command
Respect and Love.
* * *
Daughter of Matthew Robinson Esquire
who possessing the united advantages
of Beauty, Wit, Judgement, Reputation and Riches
and employing her talents more uniformly
for the benefit of Mankind
might justly be deem’d an ornament
to her Sex, and Country.
Other epitaphs were simple yet touching; a welcome respite from the monuments which listed every last detail of a distinguished career, or eulogised the apparently endless Christian virtues of the dead. Romsey Abbey had an unusual memorial inscription commissioned by someone for a deceased family servant, “Honest Caspar”, and Winchester Cathedral featured a plaque dedicated to a charitable physician:
Whose Remains are near
this Place deposited under a black Marble Slab.
His many good Qualities, and
long and faithful Service in the Family he lived,
during Sixty Years,
Justly claim this Act of grateful remembrance
from his surviving Master
as also hereby to commemorate
to the rising Generation,
in his Line of Life, to
imitate his worthy Example
He dyed the 26th May 1785
Aged 72 Years.
* * *
To the Memory of William Widmore,
He was (which is most rare)
A friend without guile,
An Apothecary without Ostentation.
His extensive Charity in his profession
Entitles him to be call’d
The Physician of the Poor.
Let other inscriptions boast
Honours, Pedigree, and Riches,
Here lies an honest Englishman.
Who died the 19th Day of June 1756
Although unusual in the early modern period, witty epitaphs and inscriptions were not unheard of. A famous example is the epitaph of the judge John Strange (1696-1754), which reads “Here lies an honest lawyer – that is Strange”. I found a humorous inscription on a gravestone just outside Winchester Cathedral, erected in memory of Thomas Thetcher, a young soldier who died of a fever contracted by drinking small beer on a hot day:
Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.
——————— Further Reading
Nigel Llewellyn, Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England (2009)
Nigel Saul, English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation (2011)
Peter Sherlock, Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England (2008)
Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009)
Recently I came across two curious 1840s lithographs from the Library of Congress online image collection. Titled “Stages of Woman’s life from the cradle to the grave”, both lithographs portray the ideal trajectory of a woman’s life according to the prevailing European and North American social norms. The principal feminine virtues depicted are chastity, religion, philanthropy, wifely devotion and maternal love.
The first lithograph sets out a romanticised version of a woman’s life in which every stage has its own beauty and dignity. I have written out the accompanying text; poetry of dubious quality, which is otherwise rather hard to see at the bottom of the image.
A wailing infant, first she plays, Unconscious of her future days.
Her girlish pastimes reveal for show
The cares which woman’s life must know.
Her ripened beauty all confess
And wonder at her loveliness.
A husband’s arms, in hope and pride,
Enclasp her now, a lovely bride.
A mother’s anxious love and care
With toilful heart is hers to share.
Now to the poor her hands dispense The blessings of benevolence.
Absorbed in household duties now,
The weight of toil contracts her brow.
She now resigns all earthbound care
And lifts her soul to heaven in prayer.
At eighty years, her well-stored mind
Imparts its blessings to her kind.
The hoary head, us all should bless,
Who abound in ways of righteousness.
The body sinks and wastes away,
The spirit cannot know dismay.
The second lithograph is of a very similar design and espouses the same sentiments about childhood, marriage and motherhood, but, interestingly, it’s noticeably more pessimistic about the fate of older women.
In swaddling clothes behold the bud,
Of sweet and gentle womanhood.
Next she foreshews with mimic plays,
The business of her future days.
Now glorious as a full-blown flower;
The heart of manhood feels her power.
A husband now her arms entwine,
She clings around him like the vine.
Now bearing fruit she rears her boys
And tastes a mother’s pain and joys.
Like sparkling fountain gushing forth,
She proves a blessing to the earth.
A busy housewife full of cares,
The daily food her hand prepares.
As age creeps on she seeks for grace,
Always to church and in her place.
Now second childhood loosens all her tongue,
She talks of love and prattles with the young.
A useless cumberer on the Earth,
From house to house they send her forth.
Chained to her chair by weight of years,
She listless knits till death appears.
It’s unsettling to see life mapped out in this apparently simple way. The lithographs seem to say: this is exactly how a woman’s life should proceed, and any deviation is a sign of abnormality. Of course, we know that huge numbers of women did not fit into this neat pattern, whether by choice or necessity. Many never married, and some of those who did remained childless. By no means was every middle-aged Victorian woman busily engaged in philanthropic activity, as is suggested; the lithograph only portrays well-off middle class ladies.
The myth that all old women were exceedingly pious is also undermined by the unrepentant old ladies we know from diaries and literature, who blasphemed and drank gin until their dying day. That’s not to mention all those who never reached a particular life stage because of the dire mortality statistics for women during the Industrial Revolution.