What did Victorian bachelors think of marriage?

We know from letters, diaries and novels that Victorian bachelors expended much thought and worry on the issue of marriage. When confronted with a potential match, they had to weigh up both the financial and personal aspects of the married state.

Financially, Victorian marriage was an expensive business. Among the very poor, perhaps, neither party expected to get much material benefit out of the union. For the lower middle classes and up, however, it was considered essential that a man was able to offer his wife-to-be an adequate establishment – whether that meant a townhouse in Grosvenor Square with ten servants, a carriage and an account with a Paris dressmaker, or a poky semi-detached on the Holloway Road with one frazzled maid-of-all-work. Men of a certain class were expected to move out of their cheap bachelor lodgings, rent (or more rarely, purchase) a family home, spend money doing it up in a suitable style, and ideally earn enough to make their wives ladies of leisure. Given these expectations, marriage presented a significant drain on male finances and may even have put some men off the idea, at least until they were better situated in life.

Along with the financial considerations came the personal, many of which would resonate today. Questions asked by men in the nineteenth century included: Do I love this woman? Will she make me happy? Can I make her happy? Can I bear to spend every Christmas until death do us part with my parents-in-law? Will I still be able to spend time at my gentleman’s club/favourite tavern, or will I be trapped at home, sucked into domestic drudgery?

Victoria and Albert: the ultimately 'happily married couple'
Victoria and Albert: the ultimate ‘happy couple’

Such concerns about money, love and more are reflected in a note which Charles Darwin penned when he was considering marriage. Like the thoroughly logical chap he was, Darwin drew up a list of pros and cons on the subject, which touchingly reflects the concerns of many of his fellow bachelors:

MARRY [pros]

Children – (if it Please God) – Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, – object to be beloved and played with. better than a dog anyhow. – Home, & someone to take care of house – Charms of music & female chit-chat. – These things good for one’s health. – but terrible loss of time. – My God, it is intolerable to Think of spending ones whole life [sic], like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. – No, no, won’t do. – Imagine living all one’s day solitary in smoky dirty London house. – Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with a good fire, & books and music perhaps – Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

NOT MARRY [cons]

Freedom to go where one liked – choice of Society & little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs – Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. – to have the expense & anxiety of children – perhaps quarreling – Loss of time. – cannot read in the Evenings – fatness & idleness – Anxiety & responsibility – less money for books &c – if many children forced to gain one’s bread. – (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much). Perhaps my wife wont like London [sic]; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool.

Charles Darwin, family man (1842)
Charles Darwin, family man (1842)

‘Lisztomania’: Franz Liszt, sex, and celebrity

The 19th century witnessed the rise of the celebrity musician. Previously, musicians were wholly dependent on aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons, and their output was determined by the wishes of these sometimes despotic individuals. Bach, for instance, was a mere Kapellmeister, and Haydn was not much more than a court servant. Even Mozart was unhappily dependent on patrons such as the Archbishop of Salzburg. Beethoven could perhaps be credited with starting the cult of the musician, but it was not until Paganini appeared on the musical scene in the early decades of the 19th century that a performer achieved celebrity status.

Niccolo Paganini, an Italian violinist, was renowned for his outstanding talent. His gripping performance style was an important influence for Franz Liszt, who attended one of his concerts in 1832, saying afterwards, “what a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What suffering, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!…As for his expression, his manner of phrasing – they are his very soul!” But Liszt’s meteoric rise would eclipse even Paganini’s bright star. As one observer remarked in 1832 of Liszt, “when he appears, he will eclipse all other like a sun!”

Franz Liszt was a musical genius, undoubtedly one of the greatest pianists of all time. He could boast of extraordinary technique and immense powers of expression, and was already delighting audiences at the age of twelve. At his first public concert in Vienna, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that some audience members had cried out “A miracle!”, while others suspected some sort of trickery, until the piano was turned around so that the audience could see that he was really playing himself. Professional musicians were just as impressed with Liszt’s talent. In 1832, Liszt performed Mendelssohn’s incredibly difficult new piano concerto with brilliance and entirely without error – even though he had never seen the score before. Awestruck, Mendelssohn hailed this as a miracle.

Liszt in 1837, aged 26
Liszt in 1837, aged 26

Musical ability was, however, not the only reason for Lizst’s success and rise as a celebrity. He was blessed with an extraordinary charisma which mesmerised audiences, sending them into hitherto unknown frenzies of ecstasy, a phenomenon for which Heinrich Heine coined the term ‘Lisztomania’. In 1837, one observer described how “when I first heard him I sat speechless for a quarter of an hour afterwards, in such a stupor of amazement…Such execution…no one else can possess. He plays sometimes so as to make your hair stand on end!” In 1840 Robert Schumann described Liszt’s extraordinary power of “subjugating, elevating, and leading the public”, noting that audiences were “overwhelmed by a flood of tones and feelings”. Hans Christian Andersen, who attended another of Liszt’s recitals in 1840, touched on a common idea that Liszt was divinely inspired: “When Liszt entered the saloon,  it was as if an electric shock passed through it…the whole of Liszt’s exterior and movements reveal one of those persons we remark for their peculiarities alone; the Divine hand has placed a mark on them which makes them observable among thousands”.

Liszt was, furthermore, a master of self-promotion, augmenting his talent by projecting an almost superhuman image; a musician with mysterious, otherworldly abilities. Upon checking into a hotel in Chamonix in 1836, he listed his profession as “musician-philosopher” and his travel route as “in transit from Doubt to Truth”. Heine noted wryly of Liszt’s self-presentation that “the whole enchantment is to be traced to the fact that no one in the world knows how to organise ‘successes’ as well as Franz Liszt – or better, now to stage them. In that art, he is a genius”. Certainly, Liszt carefully cultivated his image, taking full advantage of new artistic mediums. His early depictions are traditional oil portraits, but he soon saw the utility of the lithograph, which could be produced and distributed quickly and cheaply. Liszt also took well to the new medium of photography, for which his pensive air was ideal, and he sat for Europe’s leading photographers from the mid-1850s onwards.

Lithograph of Liszt in 1846, aged 35
Lithograph of Liszt in 1846
Liszt in 1858, aged 47
Liszt in 1858, aged 47

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liszt became so famous that he soon had royalty and nobility at his feet. Liszt was from quite a humble background; his father had been a clerk-musician employed by Prince Esterházy, However, he himself was exceedingly intelligent and well-read, and liked to project a cultivated image, mixing with luminaries of the Paris literary world such as George Sand, Victor Hugo, Heine, Dumas and Balzac. With this successfully augmenting his musical talent, wherever Liszt went in Europe (and he appeared more than 3000 times in public between 1838 and 1846), the nobility clamoured to meet him and hear him play. Liszt did not stand on ceremony with anyone. Observers were astonished when, at the end of concerts, he would step into the front row and casually converse in French with the members of high nobility as if he were a close friend.

 Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, George Sand and Marie d'Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a portrait of Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.
Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840). The imagined gathering shows his aristocratic, literary and artistic connections; seated are Alexander Dumas, George Sand and Marie d’Agoult, and standing are Hector Berlioz (or Victor Hugo), Paganini and Rossini. There is a bust of Beethoven on the piano, a portrait of Lord Bryon on the wall, and a statue of Joan of Arc on the far left.

Royalty were also keen to meet Liszt, and they showered him with honours. When Liszt left Berlin in 1842, King Friedrich Wilhelm gave him a coach pulled by six horses, accompanied by a procession of thirty other carriages and an honour guard of students. As the music critic Ludwig Rellstab put it, “he left not like a king, but as a king”. The Austrian authorities gave him a passport on which simply stood Celebritate sua sat notus (“sufficiently known by his fame”). By 1845, Liszt’s star was so high that rumours flew around that he was going to marry the fifteen-year-old Queen Isabella II of Spain, who had supposedly created the title of Duke of Pianozares for him. However, all this adulation didn’t make him more respectful to royalty, to whom he could on occasion be downright rude. When Tsar Nicholas I turned up late to a 1840 recital and started talking, Liszt stopped playing and sat motionless with head bowed. When Nicholas inquired why the music did not continue, Liszt said coolly, “Music herself should be silent when Nicholas speaks”.

An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I (Note the flowers strewed around him)
An older Liszt performing in front of Kaiser Franz Joseph I. (Note the flowers strewed around him)

Although both men and women admired his performances, Liszt held a particular attraction for women. He was very good-looking, with strong features, luxuriant hair and a brooding air. Women wore Liszt’s image on cameos and brooches, fought to collect the dregs of his coffee cup, tore his handkerchiefs and gloves to shreds, wore his cigar butts in diamond-encrusted lockets, turned his discarded piano wires into bracelets, and so on. A contemporary caricature of a Liszt concert in Berlin in 1842 depicts an audience of frenzied women variously screaming, swooning, trying to storm the stage, observing him through binoculars (from the front row) and throwing flowers at him. Heine once consulted a specialist in womens’ diseases about ‘Lisztomania’; the specialist smiled knowingly and talked at length about the mass hysteria caused by a musical aphrodisiac in a confined space.

Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842
Caricature of women at a Liszt concert, 1842

And Liszt was by no means immune to all this feminine adulation. He enjoyed numerous affairs, evincing a preference for ladies of the highest social rank. Among his early conquests were Countess Adèle Laprunarède and Countess Pauline Plater. When the latter was asked to rank the three great pianists who had performed in her salon, she judged on decidedly non-musical criteria, saying that Hiller would make the best friend, Chopin the best husband, and Liszt the best lover. Liszt’s most enduring relationship, however, was with Countess Marie d’Agoult, the daughter of a wealthy German banking family who had married into one of the oldest families in France. Together they had three illegitimate children, one of whom, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner.

Alan Walker, Liszt’s biographer, describes what was probably Liszt’s greatest achievement, completing the transition of the musician from servant to master: “Beethoven, by dint of his unique genius and his uncompromising nature, had forced the Viennese aristocracy to at least regard him as their equal. But it was left to Liszt to foster the view that an artist is a superior being, because divinely gifted, and the rest of mankind, of whatever social class, owed him respect and even homage”.

Liszt in 1847, aged 36
List in 1847, aged 36

The Victorian watercress girl

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London’s working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations describing their lives from the people themselves. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London’s forgotten underclass. One of the most famous and heart-wrenching profiles is of an eight-year-old watercress seller from the East End. She is unkempt and emaciated when Mayhew interviews her, and wears nothing more than a thin dress, a ragged shawl and carpet slippers even in the severest weather.
Idealised depiction of a young watercress seller ~ Frederick Ifold, 1867
Idealised depiction of a young watercress seller ~ Frederick Ifold, 1867

Here is what the ‘ watercress girl’ had to say about her life:

“I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, ‘Four bunches a penny, water-creases’. I am just eight years old – that’s all, and I’ve a big sister, and a brother and a sister younger than I am. On and off, I’ve been very near a twelvemonth in the streets. Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. No, it wasn’t heavy – it was only two months old; but I minded it for ever such a time – till it could walk. It was a very nice little baby, not a very pretty one; but, if I touched it under the chin, it would laugh.

“Before I had the baby, I used to help mother, who was in the fur trade; and, if there was any slits in the fur, I’d sew them up. My mother learned me to needle-work and to knit when I was about five. I used to go to school, too; but I wasn’t there long. I’ve forgot all about it now, it’s such a time ago; and mother took me away because the master whacked me, though the missus use’n’t to never touch me. I didn’t like him at all. What do you think? he hit me three times, ever so hard, across the face with his cane, and made me go dancing down stairs; and when mother saw the marks on my cheek, she went to blow him up, but she couldn’t see him – he was afraid. That’s why I left school.

“The creases [watercress] is so bad now, that I haven’t been out with ’em for three days. They’re so cold, people won’t buy ’em; for when I goes up to them, they say, ‘They’ll freeze our bellies.’ Besides, in the market, they won’t sell a ha’penny handful now – they’re ris to a penny and tuppence. In summer there’s lots, and ‘most as cheap as dirt; but I have to be down at Farringdon market between four and five, or else I can’t get any creases, because everyone almost – especially the Irish – is selling them, and they’re picked up so quick. Some of the saleswomen – we never calls ’em ladies – is very kind to us children, and some of them altogether spiteful. The good one will give you a bunch for nothing, when they’re cheap; but the others, cruel ones, if you try to bate them a farden less than they ask you, will say, ‘Go along with you, you’re no good.’

Fleet Market, the predecessor to Farringdon Market where Mayhew's watercress girl plied her trade
Fleet Market, the predecessor to Farringdon Market where Mayhew’s watercress girl plied her trade

“I used to go down to market along with another girl, as must be about fourteen, ‘cos she does her back hair up. When we’ve bought a lot, we sits down on a door-step, and ties up the bunches. We never goes home to breakfast till we’ve sold out; but, if it’s very late, then I buys a penn’orth of pudden, which is very nice with gravy. I don’t know hardly one of the people, as goes to Farringdon, to talk to; they never speaks to me, so I don’t speak to them. We children never play down there, ‘cos we’re thinking of our living. No; people never pities me in the street – excepting one gentleman, and he says, says he, ‘What do you do out so soon in the morning?’ but he gave me nothink – he only walked away.

“It’s very cold before winter comes on reg’lar – specially getting up of a morning. I gets up in the dark by the light of the lamp in the court. When the snow is on the ground, there’s no creases. I bears the cold – you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts ’em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes ’em to the pump to wash ’em. No; I never see any children crying – it’s no use.

Devil's Acre, Westminster: a typical London slum with its crowded courts
Devil’s Acre, Westminster: a typical London slum with its crowded courts

“Sometimes I make a great deal of money. One day I took 1s. 6d., and the creases cost 6d.; but it isn’t often I get such luck as that. I oftener makes 3d. or 4d. than 1s.; and then I’m at work, crying, ‘Creases, four bunches a penny, creases!’ from six in the morning to about ten. What do you mean by mechanics? – I don’t know what they are. The shops buys most of me. Some of ’em says, ‘Oh! I ain’t a-goin’ to give a penny for these;’ and they want ’em at the same price as I buys ’em at.

“I always give mother my money, she’s so very good to me. She don’t often beat me; but, when she do, she don’t play with me. She’s very poor, and goes out cleaning rooms sometimes, now she don’t work at the fur. I ain’t got no father, he’s a father-in-law. No; mother ain’t married again – he’s a father-in-law. He grinds scissors, and he’s very good to me. No; I dont mean by that that he says kind things to me, for he never hardly speaks. When I gets home, after selling creases, I stops at home. I puts the room to rights: mother don’t make me do it, I does it myself. I cleans the chairs, though there’s only two to clean. I takes a tub and scrubbing-brush and flannel, and scrubs the floor – that’s what I do three or four times a week.

“I don’t have no dinner. Mother gives me two slices of bread-and-butter and a cup of tea for breakfast, and then I go till tea, and has the same. We has meat of a Sunday, and, of course, I should like to have it every day. Mother has just the same to eat as we has, but she takes more tea – three cups, sometimes. No; I never has no sweet-stuff; I never buy none – I don’t like it. Sometimes we has a game of ‘honeypots’ with the girls in the court, but not often. Me and Carry H. carries the little ‘uns. We plays, too, at ‘kiss-in-the-ring.’ I knows a good many games, but I don’t play at ’em, ‘cos going out with creases tires me.

Girl in a slum room, from George Robert Sims' How the Poor Live (1883)
Girl in a slum room, from George Robert Sims’ How the Poor Live (1883)

“On a Friday night, too, I goes to a Jew’s house till eleven o’clock on Saturday night. All I has to do is to snuff the candles and poke the fire. You see they keep their Sabbath then, and they won’t touch anything; so they gives me my wittals and 1½d., and I does it for ’em. I have a reg’lar good lot to eat. Supper of Friday night, and tea after that, and fried fish of a Saturday morning, and meat for dinner, and tea, and supper, and I like it very well.

“Oh, yes; I’ve got some toys at home. I’ve a fire-place, and a box of toys, and a knife and fork, and two little chairs. The Jews gave ’em to me where I go to on a Friday, and that’s why I said they was very kind to me. I never had no doll; but I misses little sister – she’s only two years old. We don’t sleep in the same room; for father and mother sleeps with little sister in the one pair, and me and brother and other sister sleeps in the top room. I always goes to bed at seven, ‘cos I has to be up so early.

“I can’t read or write, but I knows how many pennies goes to a shilling, why, twelve, of course, but I don’t know how many ha’pence there is, though there’s two to a penny. When I’ve bought 3d. of creases, I ties ’em up into as many little bundles as I can. They must look biggish, or the people won’t buy them, some puffs them out as much as they’ll go. All my money I earns I puts in a club and draws it out to buy clothes with. It’s better than spending it in sweet-stuff, for them as has a living to earn. Besides it’s like a child to care for sugar-sticks, and not like one who’s got a living and vittals to earn. I ain’t a child, and I shan’t be a woman till I’m twenty, but I’m past eight, I am. I don’t know nothing about what I earns during the year, I only know how many pennies goes to a shilling, and two ha’pence goes to a penny, and four fardens goes to a penny. I knows, too, how many fardens goes to tuppence – eight. That’s as much as I wants to know for the markets.”

———————-
See more from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor:
Volume I
Volume II
Volume III

Gals and bone-grubbers: more Victorian street traders

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London’s working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations from the people themselves, describing their lives. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London’s forgotten underclass. Here are some excerpts from Mayhew’s interviews with street traders (more here). The illustrations are all drawn from actual daguerreotypes.

the bone-grubber

The bone-grubber
“I don’t go out before daylight to gather anything, because the police take my bag and throws all I’ve gathered about the street to see if I have anything stolen in it. I never stole anything in all my life, indeed I’d do anything before I’d steal. Many a night I’ve slept under an arch of the railway when I hadn’t a penny to pay for my bed; but whenever the police find me that way, they make me and the rest get up, and drives us on. The Jews around here give a great deal of victuals away on Saturday. They sometimes calls one of us in to light a fire for them, or take off the kettle, as they must not do anything themselves on the Sabbath.  There’s a great deal more than 100 bone-pickers about here, men, women, and children.The winter is the best time for us, for there is more meat used, and then there are more bones. I’ve lost my health since I took to bone-picking, through the wet and cold in the winter, for I’ve scarcely any clothes, and the wet gets to my feet through the old shoes; this caused me last winter to be nine weeks in the hospital of the Whitechapel workhouse.

 

the groundsel man

The groundsel man
“I sell chickweed and grunsell, and turfs for larks. That’s all I sell, unless it’s a few nettles that’s ordered. I believe they’re for tea, sir. I gets the chickweed at Chalk Farm. I pay nothing for it. I gets it out of the public fields. Every morning about seven I goes for it. I’ve been at business for about eighteen years. I’m out till about five in the evening. I never stop to eat. I am walking ten hours every day – wet and dry. My leg and foot and all is quite dead. I goes with a stick”.

 

 

 

 

 

the blind boot-lace seller

The blind boot-lace seller
“At five years old, while my mother was still alive, I caught the small pox. I only wish vaccination had been in vogue then as it is now or I shouldn’t have lost my eyes. I didn’t lose both my eyeballs until about twenty years after that, though my sight was gone for all but the shadow of daylights and bright colours. I could never see a star. I got to think that a roving life was a fine pleasant one. I didn’t think the country was half so big and you couldn’t credit the pleasure I got in going about it. I grew pleaseder and pleaseder with life. You see, I never had no pleasure, and it seemed to me like a whole new world, to be able to get victuals without doing anything. On my way to Romford, I met a blind man who took me into partnership with him, and larnt me my business complete – and that’s just about two or three and twenty year ago”.

 

the london coffee stall

The London coffee-stall
“I was a mason’s labourer, a smith’s labourer, a plasterer’s labourer, or a bricklayer’s labourer. I was for six months without any employment. I did not know which way to keep my wife and child. Many said they wouldn’t do such a thing as keep a coffee stall, but I said I’d do anything to get a bit of bread honestly. I went to the tinman and paid him ten shillings and sixpence (the last of my savings, after I’d been four or five months out of work) for a can. I heard that an old man, who had been in the habit of standing at the entrance of one of the markets, had fell ill. So, what do I do, I goes and pops onto his pitch, and there I’ve done better than ever did I before”.

 

 

 

the coster-girl

The coster-girl
“My mother has been in the streets selling all her lifetime. Her uncle learnt her the markets and she learnt me. I suppose by sitting at the stall from nine in the morning till the shops shuts up at ten o’clock at night, I can earn about 1s. 6d. a day. If I’m unlucky, mother will say, “Well, I’ll go out tomorrow and see what can do”; and if I’ve done well, she’ll say “You’re a good hand at it: you’ve done famous”. Yes, mother’s very fair that way. Ah! there’s many a gal I knows whose back has to suffer if she don’t sell enough.

“I dare say there ain’t ten out of a hundred gals what’s living with men, what’s been married Church of England fashion. But it seems to me that the gals is fools to be ‘ticed away. The lads is very insinuating, and will make a gal half tipsy, and then they makes their arrangements. Then perhaps a man will have a few words with his gal, and he’ll say, “Oh! I ain’t obliged to keep her!” and he’ll turn her out: and then where’s that poor gal to go?

“My parents often talks about religion. I’ve heerd Father talk about the first man and woman as was made and lived – it must be more than a hundred years ago. Father told us how our Saviour gave a great many poor people a penny loaf and a bit of fish each, which proves him to have been a very kind gentleman. We poor gals aren’t very religious, but we are better than the men. We all of us thanks God for everything – even for a fine day; as for sprats, we always say they’re God’s blessing for the poor, and thinks it hard of the Lord Mayor not to let ’em come in afore the ninth of November, just because he wants to dine off them – which he always do. I know where heaven is; it’s above the clouds, and it’s placed there to prevent us seeing into it. That’s where all the good people go, but I’m afeered there’s very few costers among the angels – ‘specially those as deceives poor gals.”

Cripples and baked potatoes: Victorian street traders

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London’s working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations from the people themselves, describing their lives. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London’s forgotten underclass. Here are some excerpts from Mayhew’s interviews with street traders (more here). The illustrations are all drawn from actual daguerreotypes.

the baked-potato manThe baked-potato man
“Such a day as this, sir, when the fog’s like a cloud come down, people looks very shy at my taties. They’ve been more suspicious since the taty rot. I sell mostly to mechanics, I was a grocer’s porter myself before I was a baked taty. Gentlemen does grumble though, and they’ve said, “Is that all for tuppence?” Some customers is very pleasant with me, and says I’m a blessing. They’re women that’s not reckoned the best in the world, but they pays me. I’ve trusted them sometimes, and I am paid mostly. Money goes one can’t tell how, and ‘specially if you drinks a drop as I do sometimes. Foggy weather drives me to it, I’m so worritted – that is, now and then, you’ll mind, sir”.

 

the crippled street bird-sellerThe crippled street bird-seller
“I couldn’t walk at all until I was six years old, and I was between nine and ten before I could get up and down stairs by myself. When I could get about and went among other boys, I was in great distress, I was teased so. Life was a burthen to me, as I’ve read something about. I learned to read at a Sunday school, where I went a long time. I like reading. I read the Bible and tracts, nothing else; never a newspaper. It don’t come in my way, and if it did I shouldn’t look at it, for I can’t read over well and it’s nothing to me who’s king or who’s queen. It can never have anything to do with me. There’ll be no change for me in this world. I’ve been bird-selling in the streets for six-and-twenty years and more. I liked the birds and still do. I used to think at first that they was like me; they was prisoners, and I was a cripple. And I think of the next world sometimes, and feel quite sure, quite, that I shan’t be a cripple there. Yes, that’s a comfort”.

the street rhubarb and spice sellerThe street rhubarb and spice seller
“I am one native of Mogadore in Morocco. I am an Arab. I left my countree when I was sixteen or eighteen years of age, I forget, sir. Dere everything sheap, not what dey are here in England. Like good many, I was young and foolish – like all dee rest of young people, I like to see foreign countries. The people were Mahomedans in Mogadore, but we were Jews, just like here, you see. In my countree the governemen treat de Jews very badly, take all deir money. I get heer, I tink, in 1811 when de tree shilling pieces first come out. I go to de play house, I never see such tings as I see here before I come. When I was a little shild, I hear talk in Mogadore of de people of my country sell de rhubarb in de streets of London, and make plenty money by it. All de rhubarb sellers was Jews. Now dey all gone dead, and dere only four of us now in England.

 

the street comb sellerThe street comb seller
“I used to mind my mother’s stall. She sold sweet snuff. I never had a father. Mother’s been dead these – well, I don’t know how long but it’s a long time. I’ve lived by myself ever since and kept myself and I have half a room with another young woman who lives by making little boxes. She’s no better off nor me. I has very few amusements. I goes once or twice a month, or so, to the gallery at the Victoria Theatre, for I live near. It’s beautiful there, O, it’s really grand. I don’t know what they call what’s played because I can’t read the bills. I’m a going to leave the streets. I have an aunt, a laundress, she taught me laundressing and I’m a good ironer. I’m not likely to get married and I don’t want to”.

 


the rubbish-carterThe rubbish-carter
“I was brought up on the land, sir, in the county Wexford. I lived with my mother and father, and shure we were badly off. Father and mother – the Heavens be their bed – died one soon after another, and some friends raised me the manes to come to this country. Two Londoners came to find men as they wanted for rubbish-carters One of ’em said, I was a b—– Irish fool, and words came on, and thin there was a fight, and the pelleece came. I was taken to the station, and had a month. I had two black eyes next morning, but was willin’ to forget and forgive. No, I’m not fond of fighting. I’m a peaceable man, glory be to God. I sarved my month, and it ain’t a bad place at all, the prison. I tould the gintleman that had charge of us that I was a Roman Catholic, God be praised, and couldn’t go to his prayers. “O very well, Pat”, says he. And next day the praste came, and very angry he was, and said our conduc’ was a disgrace to religion, and to our counthry, and to him. Do I think he was right, sir? God knows he was, or he wouldn’t have said so”.

the street-seller of nutmeg gratersThe street seller of nutmeg graters
“Persons looks at me a good bit when I go into a strange place. I do feel it very much, that I haven’t the power to get my living or to do a thing for myself, but I never begged for nothing. I never though those whom God had given the power to help themselves ought to help me. My trade is to sell brooms and brushes, and all kinds of cutlery and tinware. I learnt it myself. I was never brought up to nothing, because I couldn’t use my hands. Mother was a cook in a nobleman’s family when I was born. They say I was a love child. My mother used to allow so much a year for my schooling, and I can read and write pretty well. With a couple of pounds, I’d get a stock, and go into the country with a barrow, and buy old metal, and exchange tinware for old clothes, and with that, I’m almost sure I could make a decent living”.

Stages of Woman’s life from the cradle to the grave

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.

Life and Age of Woman2

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.

Life and Age of Woman

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.

The wicked waltz

In her 1771 novel Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche, writing no doubt for an audience of genteel ladies, portrayed the waltz as a “shameless, indecent whirling-dance [which] broke all the bounds of good breeding”. The early version of the German waltz which she was describing was a variant of the Ländler, a peasant dance dating from the 16th century. The Ländler was notorious for its closed position where men and women embraced each other round the waist and shoulders, and for its rapid turns which made dancers dizzy, breathless and (allegedly) open to all sorts of lustful abominations.

Notwithstanding such criticism, by the end of the 18th century, waltzing was all the rage in polite society in Germany and Austria. In England it was received with suspicion by the self-proclaimed arbiters of morality, as were most foreign innovations at the time. Until the introduction of the waltz, the most popular dances were the country square dances which involved very limited contact between the sexes. Therefore, one of the most criticised aspects of the waltz was its couples-only nature, with men and women dancing in a closed position. The Oxford English Dictionary called the dance riotous and indecent, and it was frequently satirised by caricaturists. Even Lord Byron condemned the waltz, though less for its alleged indecency than its antisocial nature, saying that it was “like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin”.

Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)
Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)

When the waltz appeared at the Prince Regent’s grand ball in 1816, the Times of London wrote:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last…it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it our duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”

It’s hard to tell how “voluptuous” the “intertwining of the limbs” really was. It could well be that, influenced by wine and a heated, packed ballroom, the dancers did hold each other very close in an immodest fashion. Yet the most popular instruction manuals of the day suggest that the Regency era waltz was a relatively decorous dance which does not fit the Times of London‘s description. In the illustrated frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s 1816 Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (see below), the men and women are dancing at arm’s length in quite a dignified manner.

Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance
Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance

Perhaps the waltz was not always as raucous and indecent as its critics maintained. At any rate, it was given one seal of respectability when the patronesses of Almack’s gave married women and those debutantes “whose deportment was impeccable” the permission to waltz in 1814. This was no unimportant decree; Almack’s was the most respectable and socially exclusive dancing assembly in Regency England. Primarily designed for debutantes, one of its main functions was as a marriage mart; the young women were expected to be on their best behaviour. The fact that waltzing was gradually allowed indicates a slow acceptance of the dance among the higher classes, at least.

Over the course of the 19th century, though, it seems that the waltz became less decorous. Paintings from the late Victorian era portray a very fast and energetic dance sure to leave dancers breathless. There were evidently plenty of opportunities for amorous expression, with some couples shown in a very close embrace. This was partly due to greater acceptance of the dance, and partly due to to a change in the dance itself. Around 1830, the Austrian composers Lanner and Strauss composed a series of waltzes which set the tradition for the later ‘Viennese Waltz’. These were very fast, played at 165-180 beats a minute; certainly a contrast to the early waltz, which was generally danced at an andante con moto: a sedate walking pace. The fast waltz did not replace the slower, but it became wildly popular among younger dancers who wanted to show off their athletic prowess. Since then, the waltz has of course become the best-known and most respectable ballroom dance around; a far cry from its initial reception in polite society.

Anders Zorn, Valsen. 1891
Anders Zorn, Valsen (1891)
Dance at Bougival, Renoir, 1882-3
Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1882-83)