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.”


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.


Eminent Victorians: Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis, c. 1870

It’s always been tough to make it as an artist. Now imagine trying to make it as a black woman in the Civil War era USA. That’s what Edmonia Lewis did, despite being accused (and later acquitted) of poisoning two friends, and later accused (and again acquitted) of stealing art supplies from her college. Not only did she succeed at her chosen career despite the persecution she faced; she became the first African American woman to achieve international fame as a sculptor.

Born free in 1844, she was of mixed Afro-Haitian, Afro-American, and Mississauga Ojibwe descent and grew up using her native American name, Wildfire. When she moved to Boston after college, several sculptors refused to teach her. She moved in abolitionist circles and achieved early fame with a bust of Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. On the proceeds of the copies she made and sold, she was able to move to Rome, where she adopted the neoclassical style, while continuing to choose subjects and themes from Afro-American and Native-American culture. It was in Rome that she became a sensation.

Here are some of my favorite examples of her work:

Going clockwise from the largest image: Hiawatha, 1868; Minnehaha, 1868; Detail from The Death of Cleopatra, 1876.

Eminent Victorians: How I fell a little in love with La Goulue.

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Lautrec’s posters and paintings were my first introduction to can-can dancer Louise Weber, otherwise known as La Goulue (The Glutton). A quick google will tell you she got her nickname because she would down the drinks of Moulin Rouge patrons as she danced past. Lautrec was a genius but I’ve never heard anyone say he flattered his subjects. The first thing that struck me about this poster is how worn and ragged she looks, dancing her heart out for a faceless and, to me, somewhat sinister-seeming crowd of spectators.

Weber doesn’t fit in with today’s beauty standards where we assign women (and sometimes men) attractiveness points based on increasingly narrow parameters. But, as her popularity attests, she definitely had something. Photographs do her more justice:

Louise Weber, 1892. Via Pinterest.

This lady was flexible.

Louise Weber, 1895. Unknown photographer. Perhaps Achille Delmaet?

And not shy.

She was, for a few short years, the highest paid entertainer in Paris. The undisputed Queen of Montmatre. But in 1895, she decided to leave the Moulin Rouge and strike out on her own, literally taking her show on the road. Unfortunately, the crowds didn’t follow, and Louise Weber’s star faded along with her fortune.

But none of this is why I love her.

In the 1920s, Louise Weber was travelling in a caravan. She stepped out, saw a man holding a camera, and this was her response:

Louise Weber “La Goulue” in the 1920s. Source: Youtube (Untefinu balaninu)

Her glory days may be behind her but she’s still dancing, still graceful, and still fierce.


Knickerbockers and Pantalettes?: What Late-Victorian Women Wore underneath their gowns.

If you write historical romance of the non-closed door variety, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself researching undergarments. I’m sure there are lots of places on the internet where you can find all the information in one place, but one more won’t hurt. My books are set in the 1880s-90s, so that’s the period I’ll cover in this post.

I can’t remember who called the appearance of Victorian women in photographs ‘well-upholstered’ but the description is spot-on. Unsurprising too, once you realize how many layers they had to put on every morning to be considered ‘decent’.

First your well-bred lady (probably with the help of her maid) would put on a chemise:

Chemise, 1880s. Source: The Met.

Then the drawers:

Drawers, 1890s. Source: The Met.

The chemise would be worn tucked into the drawers. Or you could opt for a combination, which was basically the two garments stitched together without all the excess fabric. Then you’d add a corset which would be attached to your stockings with a suspender belt.

Corset. 1880s/90s. Source: the now defunct fuckyeahvictorians tumblr via Pinterest.

Then a petticoat:

Petticoat. 1882. Source: The Met.

Then a corset cover:

Corset Cover. c. 1889. Source: Pinterest.

Then, if it’s still the 1880s, a bustle:

Bustle, 1880s. Source: FIDM Museum Library via Pinterest.

Or, if it was the part of the 1890s when massive sleeves were in, you need wire sleeve supports:

Wire sleeve supports (1890s) with wire bustle (1880s). Source Augusta Auctions via Pinterest.

Give or take the odd sleeve support and varying the size of the bustle, you’d end up looking something like:

1880s undergarments. Source: Pinterest.

There. Now she’s ready to put her dress on. Assuming she still has the energy.