history

Eminent Victorians: Kate and Maggie Fox

Kate and Maggie Fox, via Pinterest.

The heroine of my next book (The Ruin of Evangeline Jones, coming soon from Entangled Publishing) is a charlatan medium. To tell her story, I researched the Victorian spiritualist movement, which is how I found out about Kate and Maggie Fox. These two sisters are in large part responsible for starting the entire 19th century spiritualist craze.

It all began in the 1840s when they were still children. According to the PSI Encyclopedia, “Maggie and Kate Fox were at the centre of a poltergeist-type disturbance in 1848 that led to the emergence of Spiritualism, a religion based on communication with spirits of the dead.”

The sisters claimed to hear strange knocking and rapping sounds through which they could communicate with the spirit of a murdered peddler haunting their home. Spookily enough, searches under the house revealed bone fragments. Tables moved, doors shut spontaneously and the spirit (whom the girls nicknamed Mr. Splitfoot after the devil) urged the sisters to hold public meetings to spread the word about life after death. Visitors descended on their house and eventually, since the spirit seemed to follow the girls wherever they went, they took their show on the road, joined by their older sister Leah (the entrepreneur of the family).

They became a sensation, attracting many famous admirers and, because of their many imitators, spawned a new religion. Not bad for three ordinary Victorian women from a tiny hamlet in New York state.

The Fox sisters in later life: Leah (1814–1890), Margaretta (also called Maggie) (1833–1893) and Catherine (also called Kate ) (1837–1892).

To this day, many believe the sisters to be genuine mediums despite the fact that Kate and Maggie both took to the stage in 1888 to reveal how they accomplished the fraud. The rapping was nothing more than the cracking of toe and ankle joints. At the same time, both denounced the spiritualist movement as a whole and their now estranged sister Leah in particular. Perhaps those who continued to believe in Mr. Splitfoot put this down to a family quarrel that got out of hand and, to be fair, Maggie and Kate, both in dire need of cash, later resumed giving seances. Maggie also renounced her confession.

Even though I think the sisters were charlatans, I can’t help but admire what they accomplished at a time when women had few career options. They attained a level of success few achieved and sparked a movement that took the western world by storm. What may have started as an innocent prank when they were children still colors people’s beliefs to this day.

history

A new figure for a healthier more attractive you? The S-bend Corset.

So, five minutes ago, I discovered that s-bend (also known as swan bill) corsets were a thing. Apparently, they were invented in the 1890s by Inès Gaches-Sarraute (a medical doctor) as a healthier alternative to regular v-shaped corsets (that is, corsets designed to give women the desirable v shape at the waist), the idea being that it didn’t put so much pressure on the abdomen. They were all the rage from about 1900 and into the early 1910s.

As for what the the corsets looked like…

S-bend corset, 1905, Victorian and Albert Museum, via Pinterest.

So pretty!

Below, you can see the finished effect and how the s-bend got its name.

The straight busque forces the pelvis backwards and the bust forwards. Despite the good doctor/corsetiere’s intentions, the health benefits were minimal, given the extreme strain placed on the back.

And, just like the old-style corset, high fashion often dictated ridiculously tight lacing:

Fortunately, in the 1910s, waist lines rose to pretty much regency height (think Rose in Titanic) and women’s backs and waists were safe for a while. I’d laugh except that, more than a hundred years later, we still torture ourselves for fashion. Stilettos, anyone?

history

Eminent Victorians: Spring-heeled Jack

Urban legend, prank, or supervillain?

This here is Satan, we might say the devil, but that ain’t right, and gennelfolks don’t like such words. He is now commonly called ‘Spring-heeled Jack;’ or the ‘Rossian Bear,’ – that’s since the war.— Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

The first sighting of the being known as Spring-heeled Jack occurred in London in 1837. A man jumped out and grabbed Mary Stevens, tore at her clothes, and touched her with claws that were “cold and clammy as those of a corpse.” A clear-cut case of sexual assault. The next day, the same man leaped out in front of a coach, causing it to crash, and, according to several witnesses, escaped over a 9ft wall, babbling and laughing. More sightings followed and the mysterious attacker was even featured in a Times article.

What did he look like? Some accounts describe him in tight-fitting oilskin, others in the attire of a gentleman. Most agree about the claws, voluminous cloak, and general devilishness of his appearance. Accounts of subsequent attacks grew increasingly outlandish. Jack is said to have spewed blue and white flames from his mouth (a professional or amateur fire-breather, perhaps?), possess eyes of fire, and metallic claws that he used to tear women’s clothes. He also once appeared in a bearskin (which I feel gives my fire-breather/performance artist theory even more credence). However, the likeliest suspect in the early attacks is the Marquess of Waterford (commonly known as The Mad Marquess).

In 1838, an arrest was made (not the marquess) but, despite a confession and evidence that he committed at least one of the crimes, the man had to be released because he didn’t know how to fire breathe. Gradually attacks became less frequent until a new wave occurred in the 1840s and again in the 1870s. The last sighting of Jack was in Liverpool in 1904. A copycat? Or–an idea that gained increasing momentum among those who claimed to see him–a ghost?

Illustration of Spring-heeled Jack, from the 1867 serial Spring-heel’d Jack: The Terror of London , via Wikipedia.

One of the problems with parsing the Spring-heeled Jack sightings is that he quickly became a literary sensation, the star of numerous plays and penny dreadfuls. The stories of him running about on the rooftops of London, masked, cloaked and performing supernatural leaps, quickly mixed with and obfuscated genuine sightings of what seems to have been a budding sex offender who enjoyed dangerous pranks or, even more likely, a series of similar criminals. (I’m not one for the ghost theory, but your mileage may vary).

Whatever you believe, the stories themselves, the fiction that grew up around Spring-heeled Jack, have ensured that he’s passed into legend.

history

Eminent Victorians: Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Full-length photograph of Sarah Forbes Bonetta taken in 1862.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy, 1862, via Wikipedia.

People call her Queen Victoria’s black daughter, but Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s story is more complex than that. Was she, as Wikipedia would have it, a West African princess, Omoba Aina? And did Queen Victoria really adopt her?

Unfortunately, we may never know the truth about Forbes Bonetta’s origins. She was silent on that subject in her letters and never referred to any royal lineage. And, in the circles in which she sometimes moved, it would probably have rated a mention. Captain Frederick E. Forbes, the man who brought her to England when she was seven, and after whom she’s named (Bonetta was for his ship,) suspected she was from a good family. But she herself had only confused recollections of her past.

Sally (Sarah) Forbes Bonetta, aged about 13.

The Captain was visiting King Ghezo of Dahomey as part of an anti-slavery mission on behalf of the British Empire. Personally, I have my doubts as to how successful the meeting was, with regard to its stated aim, since Sarah was given to Forbes as a gift to Queen Victoria or, as Walter Dean Myers put it, “a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the whites.” Charming!

To be fair to the Captain (not to mention Queen Victoria,) Forbes Bonetta would have been put to death if the “gift” had been refused. Still, it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to call this process an adoption. On a happier note, Victoria paid for Sarah’s education (the Captain called his young charge “a perfect genius”) and took a warm interest in her well-being. After an unsuccessful stint in a school in Sierra Leone, Sarah was sent to Kent where she lived with the middle-class Schoen family. It was Mrs. Schoen, not Victoria, whom Sarah addressed as “Mama” in her letters.

Having been brought up as a proper English lady, Sarah was expected to marry like one. Though initially unenthusiastic about the match, she obeyed Victoria’s wish that she marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a British naval officer originally from Sierra Leone.

A portrait of James Pinson Labulo Davies and Sara Forbes Bonetta, 1862, by Camille Silvy .

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the marriage seems to have been happy. Together they had three children, one of whom, Victoria, was named for the queen and became her goddaughter. Sadly, Sarah died of tuberculosis when she was only 37. The queen settled an annuity on her small namesake.

As for Davies, he erected a monument “IN MEMORY OF PRINCESS SARAH FORBES BONETTA.”

history

19th Century Fashion Primer (aka another excuse for costume porn)

So I was reading a book the other day when I came across the following (paraphrased) sentence:

“The empire line dress she wore accentuated her small waist.”

No. No, it didn’t. Because this is what empire line dresses actually look like.

And, you’ll notice, the one thing they don’t accentuate? Yup. The waist. They do wonders for the bosom though.

Now, I am by no means an expert on 19th century fashion (or any fashion, if we’re being honest) and I’m sure I make plenty of mistakes in my books when it comes to clothes. But this was an egregious error for someone writing in the regency era to make. So, thought I, let’s track those waistlines and other major fashion developments in a handy beginner’s guide using lots of pretty pictures of extant dresses and movie costumes. That way, we still won’t get it right all the time but hopefully we can avoid any major howlers. And, lo, this post was born.

I think women must have breathed a bit easier in those empire-line gowns. Their corsets wouldn’t have needed to be cinched quite so tightly. Unfortunately, by the 1820s, waists had dropped again and skirts were fuller.

By the 1830s, when Queen Victoria took the throne, the waist drop is complete, corsets are cinched tight again, and the skirts are taking on the bell-shape we associate with the Victorians.

In the 1840s, necklines became lower (note the fichu in the image on the left below, which preserved a lady’s modesty despite “plummeting” necklines) and waists narrowed to a V. See how the waistline has continued to descend?

The 1850s is when the first artificial cage crinoline was invented and, not coincidentally, the decade in which skirts got really, really wide. And you did not want to stand next to an open flame while wearing one of these:

The silhouette of the 1860s is very familiar to people because of films like Gone with the Wind. Skirts got narrower at the top, but even wider at the bottom and fuller in the back.

The 1870s are when the bustle era began. Skirts slowly narrowed and the backside ended up piled with fabric. The costume from The Age of Innocence below is perhaps my favorite film costume of all time.

The bustle had a resurgence in the the early 1880s and became more shelf-like. One well known caricature shows women re-imagined as snails. At the same time, the reform dress movement was catching on, which resulted in a more natural shape as with the tea gown in the middle below.

Which brings us to the 1890s when the bustle and crinoline were both abandoned completely. The waist was extra small but skirts followed the natural line of a woman’s body. It was also the decade of massive sleeves.

Now in a work of fiction, most of this doesn’t matter, first because fashion-sense varied then just as it does now, and, second, because how much detailed description of dresses do you really need to include? But if you say a gown has an empire waist, don’t also say that it accentuates the wearer’s waist because that’s… well, it annoys me and, more importantly, it might take your reader out of the story.

Mostly though, I just wanted to post pictures of pretty dresses.