Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: The Victorian Cactus Craze? Succulents in Nineteenth-Century Poetry

By Lindsay Wells, PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison & Dissertation Fellow, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Lindsay Wells

Lindsay Wells, PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison & Dissertation Fellow, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

When we think about Victorian houseplants, the phrases fern craze and orchidmania likely spring to mind.  Or maybe it is images of palm-festooned parlors and conservatories, such as those found in the colorful paintings of James Tissot.  Many forms of houseplant horticulture can trace their roots back to nineteenth-century Britain, where ferns, orchids, and palms enjoyed perennial favor amongst home gardeners.  But what about the humble cactus?

At first glance, cacti and other succulents may seem more of a contemporary phenomenon than a Victorian one.  From echeverias and jade plants to sedums and aloes, these plants have become the darlings of many a Twitter feed and Instagram account devoted to indoor gardening. [Figures 1-3]

Yet succulents were also grown extensively in the nineteenth century, when, as Andreas Stynen notes, the modern concept of “houseplants” first emerged (219).  In her groundbreaking guide to indoor gardening, Flora Domestica (1823), Elizabeth Kent included a lengthy entry on the “Great-flowered Creeping Cereus”—a type of cactus renown for its bright blossoms (84). The horticultural polymath Jane Loudon also wrote about the merits of cereus cacti, which she described in her Practical Instruction in Gardening for Ladies (1841) as “singular looking plants” that “should be kept in only green-house heat” (394). [Figure 4] Meanwhile, terrarium inventor Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward recommended “Aloes, Cactuses, Mesembryanthemums, and other succulent plants” to readers of his 1842 treatise on ornamental plant cases (60), as did houseplant expert Elizabeth A. Maling, whose handbook In-Door Plants (1862) featured a pink-flowering cactus in its frontispiece. As these and countless other texts demonstrate, the popularity of potted succulents has proved as hardy and long-lasting as the plants themselves.

My doctoral dissertation, “Plant-Based Art: Indoor Gardening and the British Aesthetic Movement,” explores how houseplant horticulture influenced botanical imagery in Victorian painting and literature. During my recent fellowship at the Armstrong Browning Library, I identified and analyzed various houseplants that found their way into nineteenth-century poems, particularly those from the Library’s 19th Century Women Poets Collection.  Orchids and geraniums are recurrent motifs in these works, as are ferns, palms, and other leafy greens commonly associated with the Victorian parlor garden. [Figure 5]

Fig. 5, Red Geranium watercolor from E.F.C.’s Flowers Culled from Browning’s Poems (DATE), Armstrong Browning Library

Fig. 5, Red Geranium watercolor from E.F.C.’s Flowers Culled from Browning’s Poems (no date), Armstrong Browning Library

However, I also encountered a surprising number of poems about succulent plants.

While some of these works, such as Emily Shaw Forman’s “Prickly Pear (Cactus)” (1895) or Ina Coolbrith’s “Retrospect (In Los Angeles)” (1895), describe cacti growing in the wild or in outdoor gardens, others reference specimens that the Victorians typically kept indoors. [Figures 6-7]

These included the aloe, the night-blooming cereus, and the cactus speciosissimus.  By comparing these poems to nineteenth-century gardening books, I realized that Victorian poets and horticulturalists valued many of the same aesthetic characteristics of the succulent family.  In what follows, I want to highlight some of the poems I examined at the Armstrong Browning Library that illustrate how different nineteenth-century writers took advantage of the expressive potential of succulents in their work.

Much like today, succulents of the Victorian period enjoyed widespread popularity, thanks in large part to their reputation as a low-maintenance houseplant.  Resistant to dry and dusty air, succulents could withstand the conditions of nineteenth-century homes that were heated by coal fires or gas.  Horticulturalist Charles McIntosh noted in 1838 that cacti “require much less labour and attention” than “other exotic plants,” adding that “many of them will exist a long time and without water, without sustaining injury” (171).  The Victorian nurseryman Benjamin Samuel Williams was of the same mind, though he described the appeal of succulents a bit more bluntly: “they will bear with impunity a greater amount of neglect than almost any other plants” (38).

Because of their robust nature, succulents offered nineteenth-century poets a compelling vegetal motif for exploring themes of longsuffering, patience, and fortitude.  The succulent that particularly embodied these virtues was the aloe.  Since they often took decades to flower, aloes, or agaves, earned the colloquial name of “Century Plant.”  Embodying a temporality of the singular and the exceptional, aloes could serve as poetic shorthand for events of extreme rarity.  “Thou art the aloe of the skies” [30] exclaimed American writer Rosa Vertner Jeffrey in her poem about the 1858 sighting of Donati’s Comet, which only passes the earth once every two-thousand years (81).  Poets also refer to this succulent in poems about history.  For example, in “On the Celebration of the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Foundation of Trinity College, Cambridge” (1849), Anna Potts likens the establishment of a storied university college to the long life of an aloe plant:

’Tis said, once only in a hundred years,

The unbending aloe its bright blossom rears,

But, as those years roll silently between.

Far spread its roots, its leaves are thick and green; [55-58]

[…]

Image of that brave plant whose leaves expand,

Whose roots are deepening in the grateful land,

First planted by the royal Tudor’s hand.

Fostered by sunshine, sheltered from the blast.

Three centuries have o’er it scatheless past [61-65]

(82)

By drawing parallels between Trinity College and the steadfast, “unbending” leaves of the aloe, Potts implies that this institution “planted by the royal Tudor’s hand” will continue to flourish for many a century to come.

Fig. 8, Dora Greenwell’s “The Aloe,” from Carmina Crucis (1869), Armstrong Browning Library

Dora Greenwell, meanwhile, used the lengthy growth cycle of the aloe to extoll human affections founded upon patience, rather than fancy.  Instead of the common garden flowers—“subtle fancies light and gay” [4]—that bloom each summer only to “spend their souls away in fond excess” [14], Greenwell’s speaker in “The Aloe” (1869) celebrates “A flower that is not fair, / But wondrous” and “rare” [22-24], which won’t culminate in a fleeting moment of passion (3-4). [Figure 8] Such works show how poets mapped concepts of tenacity and constancy onto these sturdy plants.

Another attribute that made succulents fashionable amongst not only gardeners but also poets was their aesthetic charm.  As Williams observed in his handbook on Choice Stove and Greenhouse Ornamental-Leaved Plants (1876, 2nd ed.), “these plants neither lack beauty of form nor diversity of colour, nor singularity or even grotesqueness of appearance” (37). With their sculptural stems and colorful flowers, succulents afforded writers an opportunity to indulge in detailed descriptive passages about vegetal beauty.  Take, for instance, Lydia Howard Sigourney’s “To the Cactus Speciosissimus” (c.1841), which opens with the following tribute:

Who hung thy beauty on such rugged stalk,

Thou glorious flower?

Who pour’d the richest hues,

In varying radiance, o’er thine ample brow,

And like a mesh those tissued stamens laid

Upon thy crimson lip? —  [1-6]

In a later passage, Sigourney adds that these brilliant red flowers:

“[…] bidd’st the queenly rose with all her buds

Do homage, and the green-house peerage bow

Their rainbow coronets.” [11-13]

(34)

Similar paeans to the grace and grandeur of cactus blossoms appear in poems by Lady Flora Hastings and Mrs. Graham Campbell.

However, as Kent notes in Flora Domestica, the beauty of flowering cacti was often “short-lived,” for the most striking blooms lasted only a “very short duration” (84).  Many nineteenth-century poets singled out the night-blooming cereus as both the most beautiful and the most transient of such blossoms.  As its name suggests, the night-blooming cereus—a catchall term for several cactus varieties—produces its large, fragrant, snowy blossoms only one night per year.  In her language of flowers handbook, Flora’s Lexicon (1858), Catherine Waterman calls the night-blooming cereus “one of our most splendid hothouse plants.”  Its flower, she adds, is not just “remarkable” because of it is great size and luminous petals, but also because of “the rapidity with which it decays” (150).  Julia Emily Gordon similarly speaks of “transient glee” and “evanescence” (59) when describing a cereus blossom in her poem “The Carnival of Night” (1880), while Eliza Lee Cabot Follen compares the “transient lustre” of this flower to the fading of life’s “sweetest pleasures” and “brightest blessings” (107).

As these poems show, succulents possess an appealing paradoxical complexity that can simultaneously epitomize ephemerality and endurance.  Both the aloe and the cereus weather long seasons of growth before they start to bloom, thereby concentrating a wide spectrum of emotional significance into a single plant.  The current popularity of succulents suggests that these plants are here to stay, and there remains plenty of research to be done on their cultivation history.  I am deeply grateful to the staff of the Armstrong Browning Library for supporting my research on this project and for sharing these collections with me.

 

Works Cited

Coolbrith, Ina. Songs from the Golden Gate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1895.

Follen, Eliza Lee Cabot. Poems by Mrs. Follen. Boston: William Crosby & Company, 1839.

Forman, Emily Shaw. Wild-Flower Sonnets. Boston: Joseph Knight Company, 1895.

Gordon, Julia Emily. Songs and Etchings in Shade and Sunshine. New York: Scribner and Welford, 1880.

Greenwell, Dora. Carmina Crucis. London: Bell and Daldy, 1869.

Jeffrey, Rosa Vertner. The Crimson Hand, and Other Poems. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1881.

Kent, Elizabeth. Flora Domestica, or the Portable Flower-Garden; with Directions for the Treatment of Plants in Pots. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1823.

Loudon, Jane. Practical Instruction in Gardening for Ladies. Second. London: John Murray, 1841.

Maling, E.A. In-Door Plants, and How to Grow Them for the Drawing-Room, Balcony, and Greenhouse. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1862.

McIntosh, Charles. The Greenhouse, Hot House, and Stove. London: William S. Orr and Co., 1838.

Potts, Anna H. Sketches of Character and Other Pieces in Verse. London: John W. Parker, 1849.

Sigourney, Lydia Howard. Selected Poems. Philadelphia: Edward C. Biddle, 1843.

Stynen, Andreas. “‘Une Mode Charmante’: Nineteenth-Century Indoor Gardening Between Nature and Artifice.” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 29, no. 3 (2009): 217–34.

Ward, Nathaniel Bagshaw. On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. London: John Van Voorst, 1842.

Waterman, Catharine H. Flora’s Lexicon: An Interpretation of the Language and Sentiment of Flowers. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1858.

Williams, Benjamin Samuel. Choice Stove and Greenhouse Ornamental-Leaved Plants. 2nd ed. London: Published by the Author, 1876.

19th Century Valentines

"Wilt Thou Be Mine?" Victorian Valentine Collection, Armstrong Browning Library

“Wilt Thou Be Mine?” Victorian Valentine Collection, Armstrong Browning Library

Much of today’s Valentine’s Day expectations were created by the Victorians. While sending and receiving Valentines had been fairly commonplace before the 19thcCentury, it was the Industrial Revolution’s advances in paper making and printing which greatly reduced the cost of the traditional, small, and elaborate Valentines. Machine made paper and new printing processes and techniques allowing for combined colors (chromolithography), metallic inks, and die-cutting worked together to decrease the price of Valentines. Victorian Valentines could be purchased ready-made or senders could create original assemblages of materials available from a stationer’s shop. These items included paper lace, mirrors, bows, ribbons, seeds, sachets, gold and silver foil appliques, silk flowers, die-cut mottos or designs, and other items. Additionally, postal pricing reform recommended by Rowland Hill in 1837 and fully adopted in Britain in 1840 with the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post incentivized mass production of Valentines.

"A loving heart is a priceless treasure" Victorian Valentine Collection, Armstrong Browning Library

“A loving heart is a priceless treasure” Victorian Valentine Collection, Armstrong Browning Library

The growth of Valentine’s Day’s commercialization is clearly demonstrated in the increased sending of Valentines as tracked by the British Post Office. Its records indicate that up to 60,000 Valentines were sent in England in 1836. After the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post, 400,000 Valentines were posted throughout England in 1841. The numbers continued to climb, with 542,000 Valentines mailed within London in 1865 and nearly double that amount were sent into London from the surrounding countryside. These numbers led to Victorian postmen receiving a special allowance for refreshments to help them keep up their energy in the 2-3 days leading up to February 14th.

"Valentine's Day; 'Oh! Here's The Postman!'", The Illustrated London News, February 10th, 1872. From the British Library's Collections, Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

“Valentine’s Day; ‘Oh! Here’s The Postman!'”, The Illustrated London News, February 10th, 1872. From the British Library’s Collections, Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

If you are lamenting Valentine’s Day as a commercial racket, blame the Victorians. If you are looking forward to sharing tokens of affection with friends and loved ones, thank the Victorians. Either way here are some Victorian Valentines that you can download and print to share with those in your life expecting or deserving a Valentine’s Day expression of love:

A four page PDF with scans of Victorian Valentines from the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Valentines Collection. Two pages are a classic layout of 9 cards to print and cut out. One page has 4 horizontal designs with a back and front that can be printed, cut, and folded in-half as a card. One page has two vertical designs with a back and front that can be printed, cut, and folded in-half as a card.

If you would prefer individual pages as a JPG file: classic layout page 1, classic layout page 2, horizontal designs, and vertical designs.

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Fall 2018 Instruction Sessions in the ABL

In Fall 2018, the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) was privileged to either host or contribute materials to 16 instruction sessions. There was one class from each of the following departments: music, art, German, and a University 1000 course. The rest of our instruction sessions were evenly divided between English and history, with each department having 6 class visits.

ABL's Director, Jennifer Borderud, gives University 1000 students a tour of the ABL.

ABL’s Director, Jennifer Borderud, gives University 1000 students a tour of the ABL.

Two classes kicked off their semesters with tours of the ABL in August. Baylor’s Chamber Singers, who practice in the ABL’s McLean Foyer of Meditation twice a week, took a tour of the library to learn the history of the building and to view materials from the library’s Browning Music Collection. A University 1000 came for a tour as well, so they could learn why Baylor is home to one of the most beautiful academic libraries in the United States and discover some of the rich resources that can be found here.

History 1307 students analyze primary sources.

History 1307 students analyze primary sources.

In September, our first section of English 2301: British Literature came twice. The first visit was to compare and contrast our collection of 18th-century editions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the second was to compare and contrast publications of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from 1600 to the present. The Central Libraries Special Collections collaborated with us and provided half of the Chaucer texts. Also, in September, we carried a selection of 19th-century abolitionist literature to Moody Library’s Active Learning Lab (Moody 104) for a History 1307: World History since 1500 class’s instruction session. The Texas Collection, the Baylor Libraries Book Arts Collection, and the Central Libraries Special Collections all contributed resources to an examination of written records of slavery in the United States.

Our ABL Teaching Fellows, past and present, chose to bring their courses to the library during October. The month started with 2017 Teaching Fellow Paul Gutacker bringing his 8:00 a.m. History 2365: History of the U.S. to 1877 class to the library to analyze primary sources relating to 19th-century reform movements. Midway through the week, 2018 Teaching Fellow Joel Iliff brought his History 2365: History of the U.S. to 1877 class to analyze primary sources relevant to the themes he was covering. While the history classes overlapped in their topics and themes, each instructor selected very different sets of resources. At the end of the month, our second Teaching Fellow for 2018, Dr. Ginger Hanchey, brought her three sections of English 2301: British Literature to the ABL for a tour of the building one day, and then brought them back a second day for the opportunity to survey items from the collections which corresponded to the main themes of her course.

ABL resources waiting to be opened by students.

ABL resources waiting to be opened by students.

In between the Teaching Fellows instruction sessions at the beginning and end of October, additional English faculty brought their courses to the ABL. English 5304: Bibliography and Research Methods came to the ABL to learn how to find archival and rare book collections using digital resources and then to explore the variety of resources which are found in special collections. And another English 2301: British Literature class visited the ABL for a short tour of the building and rare materials display of manuscripts relating to the authors they were reading.

November saw the return of 2017’s Teaching Fellow for one last session, and while we are happy to open the library early for instruction sessions (or stay late on occasion) those mornings do require an extra cup of caffeine. In the middle of the month, Art 3356: 19th-Century European Art came for a day to study 19th-century printed illustration styles and techniques. And our final instruction session of the semester involved escorting German 4320: Special Topics in German through the ABL as an exemplar of what constitutes beauty and how such determinations are made.

We at the Armstrong Browning Library are always pleased when faculty members request to bring their classes to the building for tours or instruction sessions utilizing the collections. We are looking forward to returning classes and those coming for the very first time in Spring 2019. For more information about class visits, contact ABL Curator Laura French.

A Curator at California Rare Book School

By Laura French, Curator, Armstrong Browning Library

What is Rare Book School?

Rare book school is a professional (or personal) development opportunity for librarians, curators, academics, antiquarian book sellers, and book collectors to complete an intensive, one-week study of a discrete topic within bibliography and the history of the book. Terry Belanger founded the original Rare Book School at Columbia University in 1983. It has since moved to the University of Virginia.

Attendance at Rare Book School has developed into a sort of rite of passage for librarians working in or interested in working with special collections. Special collections are the research materials that libraries collect which are too valuable, rare, or fragile to leave the library. (The Armstrong Browning Library is made up almost entirely of special collections.) By their very nature of these materials requires additional training beyond what a librarian typically learns in their graduate program. The fastest way to learn the proper way to look after specific types of materials within special collections is to attend a course on that material type or custodianship issue at a rare book school.

Over time several similar institutes have developed. These include:

California Rare Book School

Texas A&M’s Book History Workshop

The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminars

London Rare Book School

Ligatus Summer School

University of Otago’s Center for the Book’s Australasian Rare Book School

Institut d’Histoire du Livre

The Montefiascone Conservation Project’s Study Programme

What Class Did I Attend? & Why?

This past summer I attended California Rare Book School’s course “Better Teaching with Rare Materials”. The class was led by Michaela Ullmann, Exile Studies Librarian in Special Collections at the University of Southern California, and Robert Montoya, Assistant Professor and Director of the Doctoral Programs in the Department of Information and Library Science in the School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at Indiana University, Bloomington. The course trains librarians and teaching faculty how to design instruction sessions utilizing special collections materials which will increase students’ primary source literacy.

This course provided me the opportunity to spend one full week focusing on instructional strategies prior to my first semester teaching with the Armstrong Browning Library’s collections. I wanted to attend this course, in part, because this past year the Society of American Archivists and the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Rare Books and Manuscripts Section jointly approved “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy.” The course also allowed me time to increase my familiarity with the new guidelines prior to the start of the Fall 2018 semester.

What Did We Do?

The five days were broken up into: direct instruction, discussions, and fieldtrips to a variety of special collections and cultural heritage institutions within driving distance of UCLA. The class covered topics such as: setting up an instruction program, special collections pedagogy, strategies for collaborating with teaching faculty, in class assignments and exhibit curation, digital instruction tools, digital scholarship tools, curriculum mapping, and assessment techniques. There were frequent discussions of the instructors, participants, and guest speakers’ successes and failures in each area. Participants were encouraged to envision how they would implement or adapt each of the topics covered for their institution.

The fieldtrips were a valuable component of the course. We visited Special Collections at UCLA, USC, and Occidental College and the Museum of Tolerance. It was so helpful to see the variety of institutions’ instruction space and to hear about the kinds of instruction that they are doing.

What Was the Result?

This course was a great way to prepare for the fall instruction sessions. I came away with plans to create materials which will describe the possible ways the Armstrong Browning Library’s collections can be used by faculty in their courses and new ways to promote instruction sessions to Baylor faculty.

The Literary Network of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Literary Network Of Robert Browning And Elizabeth Barrett Browning Exhibit Poster

The Literary Network Of Robert Browning And Elizabeth Barrett Browning Exhibit Poster

In fall 2017, students in Dr. Kristen Pond’s upper-level English course, “Literary Networks in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” explored the relationships between writers of the Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist Periods utilizing the letters, manuscripts, rare books, and other collection materials at the Armstrong Browning Library.

The course revealed the discrepancy between the image of a ‘solitary genius’ creating art in isolation handed down from the Romantics and the act of literary creation. The nineteenth century boasts some of the most fascinating relationships between famous literary figures. Authors did not work alone but often collaborated, either directly by each person contributing something to the final piece or indirectly through the influence of conversations, interactions, or from reading one another’s works.

The students ended their semester by each curating a miniature exhibition that demonstrated connections between a Romantic, Victorian, or Modernist literary figure and Robert and/or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Authors chosen by the students range from William Wordsworth to Charlotte Bronte and from Tennyson to T.S. Eliot. Come by the exhibit to see more authors and items chosen by the class which reveal the wide literary network of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

White Star Lines–Titanic Connections at the ABL–Rose Kingsley and the S S Shannon

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, more commonly known as the White Star Line, was a prominent British shipping company.  Founded in 1845, The White Star Line, operated a fleet of clipper ships that sailed between Britain, Australia, and America. The ill-fated Titanic was perhaps their most famous ship. The Armstrong Browning Library has a few connections to the Titanic. One connection relates to a set of postcards that disappeared with the Titanic and another relates to the author of the hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” the song that was purportedly playing as the Titanic sank. The Armstrong Browning Library’s collection includes a letter with the White Star logo in its heading and several letters written on board ships or while individuals were preparing to board ships. The letters, written between 1841 and 1912, are lines from people who were passengers on SS (Steamer Ships), RMS (Royal Mail Steamers), or HMS (Her Majesty’s Ship). It is interesting to note that one of the first purposes of steamers crossing the Atlantic was to deliver the mail. These lines, written from steamer ships, may shed some light on the adventure and danger presented by steamer travel in the late nineteenth century.

Rose Kingsley. Courtesy of The Kingsley School. This girls’ school, still in operation today, was begun by Rose Kingsley in 1884 as the Lemington High School for Girls.

Rose Georgina Kingsley (1845-1925) was the oldest daughter of Charles Kingsley, nineteenth-century clergyman and novelist. In 1869 she joined her father on a trip to Trinidad. The Kingsley’s trip is recorded in At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies. Harper & Bros, 1871. They spent seven weeks exploring the island of Trinidad before their return to England.

SS Shannon

Their trip began on the SS Shannon. The SS Shannon was built in 1854 as a paddle-wheel steamer by Napier and Sons of Glasgow. The first paddle-wheel steamers had begun crossing the Atlantic in 1838. The Cunard Line (the company that later built the Titanic) began their first regular steamer service with the RMS Britannia in 1840, sailing from Liverpool to Boston. The SS Shannon was a successful mail steamer for the West India Line until she was withdrawn and refurbished some time around 1875. She was converted to a screw steamer and lengthened. Her maiden voyage as a refurbished ship broke all records of speed and she only consumed 635 tons of coal. However on her second trip the SS Shannon went aground on the Pedro Bank, southwest of Jamaica and was lost. Passengers, crew, and mail were all saved. (The Shipwrecked Mariner. Vol. 23, 1876, 45)

The Armstrong Browning Library has three letters from Rose to mother, brother, and sister, written during her trip to Trinidad.

The first letter was written on board the SS Shannon.

Writing Room on board the SS Shannon

Rose Georgina Kingsley to Fanny Kingsley. 12 December [1869].

In this letter Rose describes the “fairest ever” voyage, gives accounts of her seasickness, and tells of her father’s Sunday sermon in the Saloon. The family was always very interested in natural history, and the other letters, written after they arrived in Trinidad, are filled with Rose’s descriptions and illustrations of frangipani, bougainvillea, shells, coral, poison trees, monkeys, toucans, parrots, kinkajous, ocelots, mosquitos, and giant spiders.

Rose Kingsley to Grenville Kingsley, 24 December [1869].

In this letter Rose draws a picture of a spider, life-size. She writes: “I found […] spider in my room as big as this but that is considered quite tiny here!!”

In the final letter Rose wrote from Trinidad she says, “we are coming in the Neva & that I hear she is most comfortable & the fastest ship in the Service.” In fact, the RMS Neva was a new ship, built in 1868 by the Caird and Company shipyard, accommodated 272 first class passengers, and boasted an oak and gilded saloon, furnished in walnut. The RMS Neva replaced the RMS Rhone, which was wrecked in a hurricane in October 1867 (Jampoler, Andrew. Black Rock and Blue Water: The Wreck of the Royal Mail Ship Rhone in St. Narciso’s Hurricane of October 1867. Naval Institute Press, 2013).

Rose was quite a pioneer. She traveled across the Atlantic the next year and joined her brother, Maurice, as a new member of the Colorado Springs community in Colorado. In 1872 she travelled with General William Jackson Palmer exploring the possible route of a railway from Texas to Mexico City. Her adventures are recorded in her writings, which include South by west: or, Winter in the Rocky Mountains and Spring in Mexico, Rides and Drives in the Far West, and Ulay, the Chief of the Utes.

 I could not find a biography of this rather amazing woman. Perhaps this is a project that needs to be undertaken.

Sociology Class on Death and Dying Visits the ABL

Amanda Smith and a student look closely at items relating to Robert Browning’s death.

Students in Amanda Smith’s upper-level sociology class on death and dying recently visited the Armstrong Browning Library. During their quick stop, Jennifer Borderud, director of the ABL, gave the students a short introduction to Victorian poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) and to the history of the Library and its collection. The students then examined artifacts in the collection relating to Robert Browning’s death to gain insight into nineteenth-century funeral and bereavement practices.

The items on display included a sketch of Browning made by painter G.D. Giles on 24 November 1889, shortly before Browning’s death. Browning signed the sketch and included a few lines of poetry: “Here I’m gazing, wide awake, Robert Browning, no mistake!”

Sketch of Robert Browning by G.D. Giles, 24 November 1889.

Also included in the display were photographs of Browning taken after his death by Ralph W. Curtis, a program and ticket for Browning’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, a lock of hair taken after Browning’s death by a family member, and an album of newspaper clippings relating to Browning’s death collected by his son and daughter-in-law.

Program from Robert Browning’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, 31 December 1889.

Ticket to Robert Browning’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, 31 December 1889.

Students also viewed letters written by Robert Browning on mourning paper after the death of his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning in June 1861. The students observed that letters written in 1861, shortly after Barrett Browning’s death, had wide black lines around the edges while letters written a year later, as the mourning period came to an end, had narrow black lines around the edges.

Letter from Robert Browning to William Surtees Cook, dated 18 July 1861.

 

Reflections from a Summer Intern – Stories from Victorian Letters: Drawings in Victorian Letters

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

During my internship, I have discovered that some of my most favorite things to find in Victorian letters are little drawings or sketches. It is especially fun when they relate to and help illustrate the story that the letter is telling. I am so excited to be able to share some of these drawings with you through the blog!

The first drawing that I will share with you comes from a letter written on December 24, 1869 by an Englishwoman named Rose Georgina Kingsley. She writes her letter to her little brother Grenville Kingsley. Rose was living in Trinidad and most of her letter consists of her excitedly describing the fantastic plants and animals that she has seen there. Rose included a drawing in her letter of one of the animals she had found in her room – a spider, drawn life size to the one she saw. On the letter it is almost 4 inches across. Rose comments that, for Trinidad, this giant spider is actually small! Below is an excerpt from the letter on the spider,

I found [letter torn] spider in my room as big as this. But that is considered quite tiny here!!

Letter from Rose Georgina Kingsley to Grenville Kingsley. 24 December 1869. Drawing of a spider.

You will notice that Rose’s drawing does not depict the correct number of legs for a spider, but I still wonder if the spider could be identified. Do you recognize this spider?

The next letter that I will share with you may be especially interesting to those who love music. This letter was between two musicians, from N. J. Heineken to Miss Hodge. The letter is not dated but believed to have been written in the Victorian era. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any more identifying information about the musicians. Heineken writes Miss Hodge to praise her music as well as to offer her advice. Heineken seems to admire Miss Hodge’s music very much. He writes, “I have been much pleased with your truthful and ingenious song.” When referring to particular parts of Miss Hodge’s song, Heineken draws musical notations. It is amazing to see these musical notations, as it could give us clues as to what Miss Hodge’s song sounded like. An example of Heineken’s drawing can be seen below.

Letter from N.J. Heineken to Miss Hodge. Undated. Musical notations.

The last letter I will share with you contains a sketch by the Scottish artist Sir George Reid. Reid wrote to Mrs. Tom Taylor, nee Laura Wilson Barker, on February 18, 1879. Laura was the wife of the English playwright Tom Taylor. One of his most famous plays is Our American Cousin. In his letter, Sir George Reid, describes to Mrs. Taylor how harsh the winter was in Scotland that year. Reid writes,

We have had a trying and tedious winter here. For weeks the snow lay a foot and a half deep – it vanished at last slowly and led me to think that the winter was over. Yesterday and today it is back to the old story – snow has fallen steadily since morning and now lies 6 or 8 inches deep –

Along with his description of the winter weather, Reid adds a sketch of a man he names as Macdonald, whom Reid is painting a portrait of. Reid could have possibly been referring to the Scottish author, George Macdonald, whom Reid is known to have created portraits of. Macdonald is depicted outside sitting in his carriage, bundled up to protect himself from the cold. His face is barely visible peeking out underneath his hat.

Letter from G.W. Reid to Mrs. Tom Taylor. 18 February 1879. Sketch of Macdonald.

These three drawings provide amazing illustrations of the stories the letters tell. They all help to bring to the past to life. Rose’s letter helps us to see what she saw, by depicting a life sized spider; Heineken’s musical notations give us clues to Miss Hodge’s song; Reid’s sketch helps us imagine the bitterly cold Scottish winter in 1879.

This will be my last blog for my internship at the Armstrong Browning Library. I had so much fun discovering all the amazing stories to be found in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian letters this summer. Thank you for letting me share these stories with you!

Reflections from a Summer Intern – Stories from Victorian Letters: The Whittier-Family Autograph Album

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

In the past few days of my internship I have been able to work on transcriptions for an extraordinary album.

The first thing that stood out to me was the album’s beautiful deep red cover. The gold lettering of the word “Autograph” and the picture of a book and quill that announce the album’s purpose is beautiful.

Front cover of Whittier Family Autograph Album.

Back cover of Whittier Family Autograph Album.

This Victorian era autograph album contains the signatures of many famous people of the day. Most of the dated signatures are from around the time of the American Civil War. It belonged to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard (1846-1902), who was the niece of the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). The album was given to Elizabeth by her brother, Charles Whittier (1843-1909).

Lizzie H. Whittier
From her brother
Char.

Autograph. Charles Whittier to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

Her uncle, John Greenleaf Whittier, as a famous poet, may have helped to fill the album with the autographs of his famous friends and correspondents. There are a few letters that are written to John Greenleaf Whittier included in the album.

There are several types of autographs found in the book. Some of the autographs simply include the person’s name. Some of the autographs are attached to a letter, or cut out of one. But what I found most interesting were the names that came with a quote. When a signer added a quote it was sometimes from their own work.

The autograph from Nora Perry, an American writer, came with a quote from her own poem. The excerpt of her poem “The Love-Knot” reads,

Tying her bonnet under her chin
She tied a young man’s heart within
Nora Perry

Autograph. Nora Perry to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

But most often a famous quote came from another source, such as the Bible, and usually contained a moral message.

Very rarely, the quote comes in the form of a unique poem. One of my favorite quotes in the album was a unique poem written just for Elizabeth. This poem was written by the American author and poet Lucy Larcom (1824-1893). The poem reads,

For the name thou bearest
Tender love thou sharest.
Hold it sacred unto death
The dear name – Elizabeth.

Autograph. Lucy Larcom to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard.

Elizabeth probably did hold her name as something very sacred to her, as she was named after a beloved and much admired aunt. This admiration can be seen in a letter that her father, M. F. Whittier, who was the younger brother of John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote to her on December 4, 1864. The letter reads,

As far as your nature will allow imitate the beautiful life of the dear Aunt whose name you bear. Strive to love all God’s creatures as she did. Like her be charitable towards the erring – – remembering that “to err is human – to forgive is Divine.”

                                                                   M.F. Whittier

Letter from M. F. Whittier to Elizabeth Whittier Pickard. 4 December 1864.

Some of the most famous autographs in the album are the type that are simply signatures. Examples include Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Autograph. Ulysses S. Grant. 21 May 1872.

Autograph. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Autograph. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 20 February 1874.

I was excited to find Robert Browning’s autograph in a letter he wrote to John Greenleaf Whittier in 1856. Elizabeth Browning must have been nearby as her husband wrote the letter, as Robert Browning writes to Whittier that, “I speak for my wife.” The letter is a thank you note to John Greenleaf Whittier for the kind words he wrote of them in a book. The letter reads,

My dear sir,

On returning to England this summer we found a book of manly and beautiful verse, and our names (I speak for my wife in this letter) written, with a kind and gratifying word of sympathy from yourself, in the first page. We are just leaving England again, but you must take our hasty thanks as if they had been more worthily expressed: they are hearty and sincere, at all events – – since acknowledging that you have thus numbered with your friends

                         Two, proud to be so numbered,

                                 Elizabeth Barrett & Robert Browning

Letter to John Greenleaf Whittier from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 20 October 1856.

The autograph letters are some of my favorite because, as well as the autograph, they also included snippets of the everyday life of the person. For example, one of the letters is from John Greenleaf Whittier to Greenleaf Whittier Pickard, who was Elizabeth Whittier Pickard’s son. John writes to his great nephew, telling him that he will collect stamps so that Greenleaf can put them in his stamp album. He also reminds Greenleaf to do well in school. I love letters like this that seem so familiar even to modern eyes. The letter reads,

Dear Greenleaf,

I send a few stamps for thy album, and will try to save more for thee, I hope thee go to school and learn well.

                                                 Thy Uncle,

                                                      John G Whittier

Letter to Greenleaf Whittier Pickard from John Greenleaf Whittier.

This autograph album allowed me to learn about many Victorian people who I hadn’t known before. It was so fun to be able to research all the people inside of the book and to learn their stories.

Reflections from a Summer Intern–Stories from Victorian Letters: John Forster and Percy Fitzgerald

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

Hello! My name is Katie Mackenzie and I am an intern at the Armstrong Browning Library this summer. One of the projects that I am working on is transcribing and preparing Victorian letters to be digitized. Digitizing these Victorian letters will help them to be more accessible to the world as they will be able to be viewed online.

The first Victorian letter collection that I worked on consisted of nine letters. These letters had been tipped into a green “scrapbook” album, with the handwritten title “Letters of John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald” on its cover.

Cover of John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald Album. 1857-1873.

The book looks to have been recycled from its original purpose as the spine of the book has the title, “Letters of Charles Dickens to Percy Fitzgerald.”

Spine of John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald Album. 1857-1873.

When you examine the album you can see that many of its pages have been cut out. Is it possible that the album once contained letters from Charles Dickens to Percy Fitzgerald?

The letters inside the album are written from John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald and date from 1857-1873. One of the first questions I wanted to know when I looked through this album, of course, was: “Who were John Forster and Percy Fitzgerald?” John Forster (1812-1876) and Percy Fitzgerald (1834-1925) were both writers and biographers of Charles Dickens. Forster’s biography, The Life of Charles Dickens, was published in 1876. Fitzgerald contributed to the magazine Household Words, which was owned by Charles Dickens. He also wrote two biographies of Dickens, Life of Charles Dickens (1905) and Memories of Charles Dickens (1913).  The two Charles Dickens biographers, Forster and Fitzgerald, were also, as we see from the album, very good friends.

When you open the album, the first page has a handwritten title reading “John Forster’s Biographer of Dickens Letters to Percy Fitzgerald.” Lower on the page Fitzgerald writes that Forster was, “The Best friend I ever had and did most for me getting almost a small fortune in my way.”

Title page of John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald album. 1857-1873.

I wonder what the story of the small fortune is. Did it have anything to do with their careers in writing? This is still a mystery.

Transcribing these letters was a challenge, as John Forster’s handwriting is very difficult to read.

Excerpt from letter from John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald. 17 August 1869.

Forster himself hints at the possibility that he found difficulty in reading his own handwriting at one point in the letters. In a letter dated August 17, 1869, Forster mentions that he wrote a wrong address, making the best guess he could at the time. Later, when he figured out the proper address, he writes to Fitzgerald saying that he had better to go to the post office to retrieve his lost letter.

Letter from John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald. 17 August 1869.

This section of the letter reads,

I wrote to you yesterday – addressing my letter to [“Husband”] street – that being my nearest guess to the name which I have since discovered to be [Harbour] St.  Call at the P. O. for the letter if it should have not been delivered to you.

Because of Forster’s handwriting, some of the words are still uncertain.

From the letters we find historical clues about Victorian food, mourning customs, and museums.

Most of Forster’s letters to Fitzgerald are invitations to dine, and from them we can learn some interesting things about Victorian food. In one letter dated February 14, 1872, Forster asks Fitzgerald over to dinner at around 7 o’clock. Forster is careful to ask about Fitzgerald’s dietary restrictions. To ask if Fitzgerald is pescetarian, Forster writes,

and tell me, in your word of reply, whether you are restricted to creatures caught from the watery world?

What a clever way to ask this question!

One mystery regarding food in the letters comes from translating Forster’s difficult handwriting. On May 27, 1872, Forster is replying to an invitation that Fitzgerald gave for dinner. Forster accepts and requests that they eat

the simplest of dinners, a bit of white fish, and a bit of brown mutton. No soup or [—–]!

The last word is a mystery! Have a look at the image below. Do you have any ideas what the other item that Forster did not want was?

These letters also give a glimpse into Victorian mourning customs. While in mourning, Victorians would often write their letters on stationery that had a black border. These borders can be very thick depending on how close the author was to the deceased. Three of Forster’s letters were like this. One, dated May 10, 1873, is in regard to the death of his friend and famous actor William Charles Macready.

Letter from John Forster to Percy Fitzgerald. 10 May 1873.

The letter reads:

My dear Percy,

In my misery (which [still] [overtakes]) I forgot to send you Mrs. Macready’s address “6 Wellington Square Cheltenham

Alys Yours,

J.F.

Lastly, there is mention in one letter of a trip to a museum. I found this letter so interesting, as a Museum Studies student at Baylor University. In the letter, dated May 27, 1872, Forster asks Fitzgerald to meet him at the “S. K. Museum” to see a pottery collection. S. K. stands for South Kensington Museum, which was the name for the Victoria and Albert Museum at that time. The Museum was given the name South Kensington Museum in 1854, and it was finally changed to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899.

There are many more Forster letters in the Armstrong Browning Library’s collection, addressed to several correspondents. I am looking forward to learning more about his story in the future!