I am posting this photo for Skywatch Friday, a site where bloggers are invited to post pictures that include the sky. The sculpture in this photo depicts Boadicea (aka Boudica) and Her Daughters. Boudica was the queen of a Celtic tribe during the period of the Roman invasions. She led an uprising of her tribe against the Romans in around 60 A.D. Her people lost, but they gave the Romans a good fight.
This sculpture is by Thomas Thornycroft, who worked on it from 1856-1883. It is located in London on Westminster bridge, facing Big Ben.
Let’s give three cheers for Boudica for taking on the Romans!
“I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” –Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen lived from 1775-1817, and her novels came out between 1813 and 1818. She grew up the daughter of a rector in Steventon, England. She was similar to many of her literary heroines in that her family was a member of the gentry, although at the lower end in terms of income. She was close to her large family, especially to her brothers. She never married, but enjoyed her nieces and nephews.
I know what you are thinking: BORING! The pathetic spinster lived a boring life. She probably spent her days sipping tea, doing needlework, and trying not to let her breasts fall out of those ridiculous dresses they wore.
Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC Mini-Series version of Pride and Prejudice
Seriously, Elizabeth Bennett needs to be careful not to bend over too far or Colin Firth will get quite an eyeful.
But, back to my point. Jane may well have sipped a lot of tea, but she nonetheless rocked. Maybe not like Joan Jett:
Some of Austen’s fans (and many of her detractors—most of whom have not even read her) focus on the romantic, costume-drama side of Austen. Austen is all about silly women hunting for husbands rather than doing something more important, like getting a job or hunting for lions or drinking a lot of absinthe in European cafes.
While it’s true that there is a fair amount of husband-hunting going on in Austen’s novels, it is also true that women of the gentry had no other way of making a living. Getting married WAS their job. Many women could not even inherit their father’s property because English inheritance law favored sons. Is it any wonder that Mrs. Bennett is obsessed with finding husbands for her five (yes FIVE) unmarried daughters?
But I digress. The real reason Jane Austen Rocks is because of her snark. She is hilarious in her skewering of the pretentious, the ridiculous, the idiotic, the pathetic, and the self-deluded, which is just about everyone. In other words, she is Tina Fey.
What makes Austen even more remarkable, in my humble opinion, is that her characters, especially Elizabeth Bennett, manage to remain reasonably happy even though they live such restricted lives among such an assembly of knuckle-heads. Sister Jane manages to be happy by being blissfully ignorant of the baser side of human nature. The same cannot be said of Elizabeth Bennett. She recognizes everybody’s flaws, laughs at them, and yet still retains her good humor, rather than sinking into a black hole of bile or shutting herself off from the world and her responsibilities the way Mr. Bennett does.
While Pride and Prejudice ends on a happily-ever-after note, with the worthy heroines marrying rich men—for love—Austen’s own life did not have such an ending. She never did marry, and she was forced to live off of her brothers, without even a stable home of her own. However, I can’t say for sure, but it certainly seems from what we know about her is that she was just fine nonetheless.
In other words, Jane Austen rocks because she is an example of how a person can use her mind, spirit, and wit to keep her “head above water” and enjoy the spectacle that our fellow human beings offer us.
Jennifer Ehle and David Bamber in 1995 BBC Version of Pride and Prejudice
As long as we are not forced to marry said spectacle, that is.
I am not going to name names, but I can think of a number of people in my life whom I find annoying. They can be royal pains in the butt and sometimes they act just plain nuts. I have sometimes wished I could just make them go away. (This does not apply to anybody reading my blog, of course!)
If I were a respectable man of means in Victorian England, I could make that happen. I would simply have annoying people—especially women, especially if they were related to me—locked up in an insane asylum and then I would not have to deal with them anymore.
This is the premise of Suzanne Rosenthal Shumway’s novel Effie Martin. Shumway has a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, and the focus of her research was women and madness in Victorian England. In Effie Martin, Shumway applies much of the knowledge she gleaned from her research to the portrayal of a young woman who is sent to an insane asylum by her father after a scene in which she lost her composure and acted, well, a bit nutty. Effie is portrayed by Shumway as perhaps a little more sensitive than the normal person and bereaved by the sudden loss of her brother, the only person in the world to whom she was close. She is also a woman who leads such a constricted life that readers can understand her tendency to “chafe at the bit.” Effie Martin is a long way, however, from being “insane” and needing to be locked away from the rest of the world indefinitely, perhaps for life.
Nonetheless, this is what happens to her. After the scene she had with her father, he chose to send her to Warrinder House so she could get some “rest.” While the idea of rest does not sound so bad, Effie soon learns that this “rest” comes at cost of her liberty. She is locked up in a home with several other women and deemed to be a “lunatic.” She has no rights whatsoever; she is completely at the mercy of her “caretakers.”
Effie Martin teaches readers about how “insanity” was addressed in Victorian England, especially when it came to women. We learn that a woman had very little say over her own life. If a man in her family (father, stepfather, husband) wanted her to be sent away, he could do so with very little difficulty. Once the woman was deemed “insane,” her fate was out of her hands. Doctors and guardians are the ones whose opinions were respected and nobody took the word of a “lunatic” seriously. If the doctors were corrupt, like the ones in Effie Martin, the hapless young woman had little hope of getting out alive. The asylum was a business, after all, and for a business to survive, it needed paying customers. Thus, there was little incentive to deem a patient “cured,” and the corrupt doctor could keep his paying customers as long as he saw fit to do so.
In Effie Martin, the way the patients are treated at Warrinder House are enough to turn even the most stable person insane. The system is organized for the benefit of the people running the house, not for the benefit of the patients. Many of the practices are nothing short of torture. For example, the women are often tied to their bedposts at night so they cannot escape. Therefore, they cannot get out of bed at night in order to use the bathroom. Sometimes, then, they end up urinating in bed. This offense is considered a grievous and is punished with what can only be called water torture.
Rather than provide all the details of the horrific practices of Victorian “medicine,” I recommend that you read the book for yourself. Read it and weep.
“The history of York is the history of England.” –King George VI.
Historians have long told us that we need to understand the past in order to understand the present and predict the future. I found this to be true on my trip to York, England in late May of 2009.
York was first settled by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago (AD 71). York still retains more intact walls than any other city in England, and some sections of the wall date back to Roman times. The area was originally occupied by a Celtic tribe called the Brigantes. The city was successively conquered and occupied by the Romans, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans, the Christians, the Protestants, the Parliamentarians, the aristocracy, the lunatics, the debtors, and eventually the capitalists.
On the beautiful spring day in 2009 that I visited York, the city was overrun not by Roman or Viking conquerors, but by English tourists swarming the many high toned shops, looking for designer clothing, antiques, fine china, or fat rascals. The term “fat rascals” refers not to us American tourists, but to a huge, decadent scone made of lard, margarine, sugar, flour, and currants. This rascal can only be found at Betty’s Tearoom, legendary in York for its 1920s elegant ambiance, its freshly made food, its high prices, and its long lines.
Below is a picture of a family of Fat Rascals captured in their native habitat.
After sipping our tea and gobbling down our Fat Rascals at Betty’s, my companions and I walked over to a street called the Shambles. One of the main attractions of York, the Shambles is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval streets. More generally, the Shambles refers to the area of narrow twisting lanes surrounding this street. We know that the Shambles dates back at least to 1086 because it was mentioned in The Domesday Book. “Domesday” (a.k.a. Doomsday) means “a day of reckoning,” “the last judgment,” “a day of doom.” This name makes sense, given that the purpose of the Domesday book was for King William I to figure out how much money his subjects had so that he could sock them with taxes on it. The name also makes sense, because after spending a few days in York, tourists must face their day of reckoning when they step on the scales and open their credit card statements.
Back in the medieval period, the Shambles was dominated by butchers plying their trade. In fact, the name of the street comes from Saxon “Fleshammels”, which means “the street of the butchers.” The butchers displayed their raw meat on the wide window sills, while the blood dripped into the street. This blood mingled with the garbage and “domestic waste” that housewives dumped out of their second floor windows. Cats, dogs, and pigs roamed the streets freely, adding their own drippings to this colorful scene of medieval commerce at its most productive. Below you can see a reproduction of a medieval painting depicting a typical Shambles scene:
Visitors to Medieval York were so impressed by the vibrant, productive, aromatic mix of blood, commerce, shrill screams, and excrement—human and otherwise–that they were inspired to invent a new concept—an innovation which is now called “Parliament.”
What many people do not know is that the term “Parliament” stems from the French root “parler,” which means “to talk” and the Latin root “excrement” which means “Waste matter expelled from the body.” Taken together, these roots form the word “Parliament,” which means “a bunch of politicians talking B.S.”
And indeed, in late May of 2009 Parliament was in a shambles, a bloody mess. At this time, the housing expense scandal was in full swing. Members of Parliament are legally allowed to write off the expenses involved in maintaining a second home in London. However, as the press revealed, the MPs were writing off expenses for expensive renovations, chandeliers, pornography, moat upkeep on country estates and endless other “necessities.” The British public was not amused, particularly since the scandal erupted during a period of severe economic hardship for many people.
As one esteemed journalist described the affair, “It was a shitstorm”. Numerous MPs either resigned, were suspended or announced they would not seek re-election.
Visiting York helped me to understand the present political Domesday for these political fat rascals. Just as, for example, livestock in medieval York streets were slaughtered on site, so too were present-day MPs being slaughtered by the media. Compare, for example, the medieval rendition of the pig shown above with a portrait of a contemporary English MP. You’ll see the similarities are uncanny.
They say that travel expands our understanding of the world. My companions and I felt our political consciousness enlightened by the Shambles the Brits have made of the world, so enlightened that we were tempted to pig out on a second serving of fat rascals.