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Making the case for Victoriana

24 August 2006

9:50 AM

24 August 2006

9:50 AM

Consuming Passions Judith Flanders

Harper Press, pp.604, 20

When people use the word ‘journalese’, they always do so pejoratively. They are not thinking of James Cameron, Bernard Levin or Walter Winchell. They mean a style that traffics in clichés. The poet B. I. Isherville has derided that kind of writing:

Where every heresy is rank
And every rank is serried;
Where every crook is hatchet-faced,
And every hatchet buried.

There are cliché headlines, too, and for some reason articles on food seem specially to attract them. Any novice sub-editor thinks he or she is being wildly or Wildely witty in heading a piece on puddings ‘Just desserts’. And was there ever a curry recipe that was not headed ‘Some like it hot’? (yes, just occasionally ‘Favouring curry’ is preferred, as a neat inversion of ‘Currying favour’.) Judith Flanders probably thought she was being original in calling her book Consuming Passions; but in 1970 Philippa Pullar gave that title to a ‘history of English food and appetite’; in 1986 Judith Williamson brought out Consuming Passions: The Dynamics of Popular Culture; and in 1996 appeared Alan Hunt’s Governance of the Consuming Passions: A History of Sumptuary Laws.

Flanders’s prose can sometimes slide into cliché mode, as in this passage:

It is important to remember that while this modernisation — of production, distribution and retailing — was developing at a furious rate, it was not occurring in splendid isolation but running in tandem with an older system of retail networks.

One sentence, four clichés. And there are some ungainly phrases; a notice in the first catalogue of the Royal Academy exhibition was ‘a tad disingenuous’; and William Gilpin’s Essay upon Prints (1768) ‘levelled the playing field’ between paintings and prints.

George Weidenfeld published my book Posters in 1969, a time when people were collecting art nouveau posters by Beardsley and Mucha, and young artists were designing Day-Glo posters in psychedelic style. One passage in it, on early 20th-century Berlin posterists, was little more than a bald list of names, largely because what I knew about them could have been engraved on a pin-head. A well-known film critic reviewing it for the Financial Times, quoted that extract, prefacing it with the words: ‘Page after page reads like this.’ It was quite untrue. The shrapnel of that unfair notice pierced me and has only now surfaced to remind me not to be similarly beastly to Judith Flanders.

She made her name in 2001 with a most accomplished biography, A Circle of Sisters, about Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin (mother of the prime minister). In 2003 she wrote The Victorian House. It brought her such reviews as these: ‘No one has ever written so interestingly or wittily about housework’ (The Spectator); ‘A god-among-loo-books … There is not a single piece of trivia here that I don’t feel better for knowing’ (Time Out); and ‘Judith Flanders is the Mary Poppins of academic toil. “Spit spot,” she says, and suddenly you have … amusing information.’ (Lynne Truss, Sunday Times). Spit spot, yerself!

A lot of Flanders’s new book is about shopping, and I can’t help comparing it with Shops and Shopping, 1800-1914 (1964) by Alison Adburgham, the pioneer of that subject. By comparison, Flanders’s text seems a little stolid. It doesn’t ‘sing’. But there are many compensations. First, she has obviously done mammoth research. For the most part, she has consulted the best authorities — for example, Neil McKendrick and Robin Reilly on Wedgwood, and George Buday on Victorian Christmas cards — though I am surprised to find no mention of Sir David Wilson’s 1989 book on the British Museum or of Peter Conrad’s The Victorian Treasure House (1973), the most perceptive study ever of that era’s culture. Also, G. C. Williamson’s 1919 book on the dealer Murray Marks would have given her a much richer insight into the craze for blue-and-white Chinese porcelain in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. (Marks’s trade-card, illustrated by Williamson, was allegedly designed by William Morris, Rossetti and Whistler.)

At the outset of the book, Flanders launches us into the heart of Victorian culture with the Great Exhibition of 1851. Unlike the disastrous Millennium Dome, the Crystal Palace was central (in Hyde Park, not out in Greenwich); it was international in scope, not smugly chauvinist; and its organisers knew what it was for and whom it was intended to attract. Was it to be a museum or a supermarket? Education or entertainment? The people behind the show, led by Prince Albert, worked out answers and got the mix about right. Paxton’s Crystal Palace ‘looked like a great shining box built to hold all the commodities that could ever be produced’. It was a huge success; six million flocked to it.


One of the organisers’ aims was ‘to improve the taste of the common man’. That may seem laughable now, considering some of the exhibits Flanders lists — things of the kind Victor Lewis-Smith has called ‘consumer unendurables’: a safety hat for the prevention of concussion in the event of a train crash; corsets that ‘opened instantaneously in case of emergency’; a silver nose, for those missing a nose of their own; a vase made of mutton and lard; an oyster-shucking machine; an expanding and collapsing pianoforte for gentlemen’s yachts; and a bed which in the morning tilted its occupant straight into a waiting bath. But at least there was a rationale.

Though the Great Exhibition is the launch-pad of her book, Flanders wants us to understand its antecedents. So she whisks us back a century to the 1750s and Dr Johnson’s observation that, already, shopping was no longer an action rooted in necessity but a pastime. After a chapter on the 18th-century shop, she writes one on ‘The Ladies’ (and Gents’) Paradise: The Nineteenth-Century Shop’. And here there comes into play one of her most impressive talents: the ability to pluck information from several different sources to illuminate one aspect of a subject. It is like training a number of searchlights on the same spot. For example:

At the beginning of the 19th century Johanna Schopenhauer described ‘going into at least 20 shops, having a thousand things shown to us which we do not wish to buy, in fact turning the whole shop upside-down and, in the end, perhaps leaving without purchasing anything’, while in Maria Edgeworth’s 1809 novel Ennui the Earl of Clenthorn describes going to watchmakers’ shops ‘for a lounge … to pass an idle hour’. This was not the case only in luxury shops in London. Fanny Burney’s novel The Wanderer (1814) portrays a heroine with a mysterious past who works in a millinery shop in a small market town.

Flanders further notes that Zola wrote ‘the ultimate novel of the department store, Au Bonheur des Dames (in its English translation, The Ladies’ Paradise)’. It is a pity that H. G. Wells’s The History of Mr Polly, with its shop scenes, was published in Edward VII’s reign (1910), not Victoria’s.

Another of Flanders’s assets is that she enjoys a funny story, and passes it on. Gor- don Selfridge, whose London store opened with bombastic publicity in 1909, claimed to have invented the annual sale. That, Flanders tells us, was demonstrably not true:

[An] ‘ol
d draper’ in 1872 recounted how in his youth — probably in the 1820s — when some stock accidentally burned, his employer decided to use this as an excuse to clear the over-stock that had accumulated. ‘In the first place some large yellow poster bills were struck off, headed, “Fire!!! Fire !!! Fire!!!” which informed the public that in consequence of the fire which took place on Wednesday, the 6th instant, the damaged stock, much of which was only slightly singed, would be cleared out at a great reduction, together with other surplus stock, sale to commence on Monday next.’ After closing, the staff quietly singed goods that had remained unharmed.


The next morning, the shop sold ‘goods which would have taken us several weeks to have sold under ordinary circumstances’.

Occasionally, Flanders’s own jokes enliven the narrative, as when she remarks about the late 18th-century vogue for history-painting, ‘The rape of the Sabine women might be a perfectly good classical subject, but did one want to look at it over the breakfast cups?’

At times, if I may lapse into journalese for a moment, you feel she has bitten off more than she can chew. It is such a large swathe of history, with so many aspects to its culture — the press, books, travel and holidays, panoramas, theatrical spectaculars, the music and art markets, sports and Christmas. Flanders has chapters on all these topics; but you notice some curious gaps, both outside them and within them. Given that her stated subjects are ‘leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain’, you might expect to find something about sex. But what you find is similar to the tobacco Brendan Behan was promised in borstal: ‘Three Nuns — none yesterday, none today and none tomorrow.’

Among the shops mentioned, there is only a glancing reference to Fortnum and Mason, who celebrate their bicentenary next year and none to Asprey; to James Smith the umbrella shop, founded in New Oxford Street in 1867, and still looking very Victorian today; or Debenham and Freebody, about whom Alison Adburgham has much to tell us. And where are the taxidermists, Great Stuffers of the World? The eccentric Walter Potter, with his museum of stuffed animals in tableaux at Bramber, Sussex, surely deserved a mention.

Under art, there is no mention of the St John’s Wood Clique, a sort of second-division Pre-Raphaelite group, which included W. F. Yeames, painter of ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’, Henry Stacy Marks, who designed the frieze round the Royal Albert Hall and David Wilkie Wynfield, who besides painting was an Old Master of photography who taught Julia Cameron that art.

Under music, we look in vain for the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who first appeared in England in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable in 1847, creating a ‘prodigious furore’. Also missing is the Spanish-born singer Adelina Patti, who in 1861 sang as Amina in La Sonnambula at Covent Garden. Flanders mentions the Craig-y-Don gun, by which the Chester and Holyhead Railway set its clocks, precisely 161/2 minutes after the hour according to Greenwich time; but she does not mention Craig-y-Nos, Patti’s Welsh home, with its theatre. Under sport, boxing is omitted, even though this was the age when the Queensberry rules came in, named after Oscar Wilde’s nemesis.

Some of Flanders’s generalisations are off-beam. In the chapter on the press, she gives excellent coverage to fashion magazines, but she is wrong to suggest that the Norwich Post of 1701 ‘may have been the first newspaper in Britain’. That honour, if it is an honour, belongs to some English ‘corantos’ of the 1620s, if one discounts Thomas Raynalde’s Newes Concernynge the General Councell Holden at Trydent (1549) on the grounds that it was a translation from the German. Newspaper publishing became easier after the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641. The London Gazette was established in 1666.

Journalists may write journalese, but they know it is risky to claim that anything is the ‘first ever’ or ‘exclusive’; readers gleefully write in to point out exceptions. Flanders is asking for trouble when she writes that cycling ‘found its early popularity exclusively in the middle classes’. In 1887 G. Lacy Hillier (no relation) and Viscount Bury together wrote a book on cycling. By the time later editions were published, Bury had become the Earl of Albemarle; he was the son of that earl who fought at Waterloo.

Flanders’s final chapter is headed ‘Visions of Sugar Plums: A Christmas Coda’. She makes great play of the fact that in 20 of the years between 1790 and 1836 the Times printed no mention of Christmas. She shows how Christmas was developed and Dickens- ified by the Victorians, with Christmas trees, cards and crackers. There is almost an impression that they invented Christmas. One of her illustrations is an 1848 print depicting the figure of ‘Old Christmas’ with a Yule log on his back; but she fails to make the point that Sir Frank Stenton makes in Anglo-Saxon England, that the heathen year began on 25 December and that the heathen months of Giuli (Yule) and Eostre (Easter) were commuted into Christian festivals.

I don’t think anybody could read this book without learning something new and finding things of interest. Flanders has an eye for piquant details, and she exiles several of them to footnotes on the page. One reveals that the parents of Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), sent up by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, worked in Wedgwood’s showroom in Bath. She was a friend of Wedgwood’s daughter, Susannah, Darwin’s mother. Another tells us that recent research proves that Dr John Hill was not just the 18th-century quack he is usually portrayed as: in a 1759 publication he suggested a link between tobacco and cancer. A further note records that when Abraham Thornton was accused of raping and murdering a woman he had met at a dance in 1817, he demanded ‘ordeal by battle’, to which he was entitled by law. Other notes deal with the Victorian mania for fairies and the craze for ‘electric jewellery’ set off by Iolanthe.

I learned something new from the last text page of the book. After describing nursery-themed advertisements for Borwick’s Baking Powder, Flanders writes:

The Sen-Sen Cachou Co. was rather less domestic, producing ‘The Sen-Sen War Puzzle’, a board game in which players raced to be first to beat the Boers.

At last I understand (what I confess I never understood before) the ending of John Betjeman’s poem ‘On Seeing an Old Poet in the Café Royal’:


Scent of Tutti-Frutti-Sen-Sen
  And cheroots upon the floor.


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