Thursday, November 28, 2013

Emancipation and Thanksgiving in Victorian America

The Thanksgiving holiday in the United States is usually traced back to a celebration at Plymouth in 1621. For years afterwards political leaders and presidents of the United States, beginning with George Washington, issued Thanksgiving proclamations and urged the nation to set aside a day late in November for public thanksgiving and prayer.

As with many holidays, the Victorians added an element of sentimentalism to the Thanksgiving tradition. Victorian postcards are filled with the elements we've come to consider essential to any Thanksgiving Day celebration: a plump, well roasted turkey, a family table lavishly set, and lovely young women busy at baking and preparing a feast for their loved ones.

In October of 1863, President Lincoln carried forward the tradition of the presidential Thanksgiving proclamation called for the last Thursday to be set aside as a "Day of Thanksgiving and Praise" to God. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln also urged Americans to petition "the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union."

For certain Americans, 1863 marked a year for particular Thanksgiving. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued the executive order of the Emancipation Proclamation. It made the eradication of slavery an clearly declared goal of the war rending the country, and it gave hope and freedom to millions of enslaved men and women.

When Port Royal, South Carolina was captured early in the war as a blockade base, slave owning plantation owners fled, abandoning their slaves. When a call was issued for those who might come to the region to educate and help the nearly freed men and women at Port Royal, abolitionist Charlotte Forten Grimké responded to the need. She became a teacher at Port Royal, which was overseen as part of the Union Army's Department of the South by General Rufus Saxton, himself a lifelong abolitionist. In 1862, he issued his own proclamation calling for a day of thanksgiving in Port Royal.

Forten Grimké was a faithful journal keeper, and her journal, now published in various editions, is a valuable resource for those interested in 19th century American, abolitionist, and particularly Civil War history.

On November 27, 1862, Forten Grimké left a poignant entry for posterity about how she spent Thanksgiving at Port Royal, South Carolina.

Thursday, Nov. 27 [1862]. Thanksgiving Day. 
This, according to Gen. Saxton's noble Proclamation, was observed as a day of "Thanksgiving and praise." It has been a lovely day-cool, delicious air, golden, gladdening sunlight, deep blue sky, with soft white clouds floating over it. Had we no other causes the glory and beauty of the day alone make it a day for which to give thanks. But we have other causes, great and glorious, which unite to make this peculiarly a day of thanksgiving and praise. It has been a general holiday. According to Gen. Saxton's orders an animal was killed on each plantation that the people might to-day eat fresh meat, which is a great luxury to them, and indeed to all of us here. This morning a large number-Superintendents, teachers, and freed people, assembled in the little Baptist church. It was a sight that I shall not soon forget-that crowd of eager, happy black faces from which the shadow of slavery had forever passed. "Forever free!" "Forever free!" Those magical words were all the time singing themselves in my soul, and never before have I felt so truly grateful to God.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Victorian Texts Tuesday: Bram Stoker's Dracula

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that Abraham "Bram" Stoker loved sensational fiction. Even at university, as a member of the University Philosophical Society, he wrote a paper on "Sensationalism in Fiction and Society."

Like most authors, Stoker conceived Dracula based on a number of influences. Whitby, the northeastern coastal English town, which serves as Dracula's port of entry in the novel, was a place that Stoker knew well, being the favored site for his summer holidays. He researched European folklore in the library at Whitby and was particularly drawn to a book about the principalities of Wallachia in modern day Romania. Stoker likely drew the name Dracula from these accounts. It is a derivation of the name, Dracul, based on the chivalric Order of the Dragon, used by Vlad II and his son, Vlad III, also known as Vlad Tepes, the Impaler. He was Dracula, or son of Dracul.

Stoker also befriended Armin Vambery, a Victorian traveler, who shared stories of the Carpathian region with the Irish author. Some even speculate that Stoker's character Van Helsing may have been based on Vambery, but as appealing as the notion may be there is little proof to substantiate such a claim.

The novel itself is a rich, complex text, still studied, read, and beloved today, perhaps more influential now than it was in its own time. Told in epistolary format, the novel doesn't just follow the letters or journal entries of one character, but several, and it even utilizes fictional newspaper accounts and ship's logs to move the story along. Such a technique gives me the sense, each time I re-read the novel, that I've happened upon a treasure trove of written clues that I must piece together to draw closer to the mystery of Stoker's vampire.

Though the novel remains in print and continues to inspire films, books, and even a new, lushly produced television series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it did not make Stoker a wealthy man at the time. Bram was so poor near the end of his life that he asked for assistance from the Royal Literary Fund. However, the novel was critically appreciated, even upon its release, and many recognized it for it's iconic qualities and the enormous talent of its author.

Whether you love or hate the novel, or have never experienced the story except through film and television adaptations, Stoker's Dracula has made an undeniable and indelible impact on popular culture and continues to feed our ongoing fascination with vampires.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ripper Street and the Real Ed Reid

I jump at any chance to see Victorian England portrayed in movies and on television, so the prospect of Ripper Street, when they began advertising it on BBC America last year, had me delirious with anticipation by the time the first episode aired in January 2013. I wasn’t disappointed. How could I be? The series stars Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, who hardly has time to deal with the aftermath of the Jack the Ripper murders before equally heinous crimes arise in his corner of London’s East End.

It’s easy to get distracted by Macfadyen’s voice and eyes and his altogether excellent acting, but the other cast members—Jerome Flynn as DS Drake and Adam Rothenberg as former US Army Surgeon and Pinkerton agent turned brothel owner Captain Homer Jackson—are equally engaging. I particularly like the fact that the series uses relevant historical issues from the period to drive the show’s episodes and storyline. In the first season alone, they have explored the advent of moving picture film, the threat of cholera, the development of the underground railway, and the London Dock Strike of 1889, to name just a few. Luckily for those of us who have enjoyed every moment of the first season, a second has been commissioned and should be filming soon.

The real Edmund Reid was a bit different than the tall, handsome, deep-voiced Macfadyen. Well, Reid might actually have sported a deliciously deep baritone. There are no extant recordings to prove otherwise. But he wasn’t tall. In fact, at the time he joined he was the shortest man on the Metropolitan Police force at 5 feet 6 inches tall. However, his height did nothing to deter his rise up the ranks. He entered the Met as a constable in 1872 at the age of twenty-six, and he finally reached the position of Detective Inspector in 1885. Three years later, when Jack the Ripper began his homicidal rampage through East End London, DI Reid was the head of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) in Whitechapel.

The real Reid must have been a bit of an adventurer. Not only did he choose to join the police force and enter the detective service, but he was a balloonist and parachutist. He made about 23 balloon ascents and, in 1883, won a gold medal for a record-breaking ascent from The Crystal Palace. Like his fictionalized counterpart on Ripper Street, he did have a wife named Emily. However, he and his Emily had two children, a daughter named Elizabeth and a son named Harold. Seventeen years after Emily’s passing, Reid remarried to Lydia Halling, a woman twenty years his junior. Unfortunately, he died later that same year at the age of seventy-one.

Ripper Street’s Reid has the same kind of scappy, means-to-an-end attitude about solving crime and finding the truth as I imagine the real DI Reid possessed. For a wonderful combination of historical details, cinematic flair, and great acting, check out Ripper Street on BBC America, iTunes, or Amazon Instant Video.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why the Victorian Era?

1888 Regent Circus, now Oxford Circus, looking down Oxford Street
Scoundrels in dark back alleys, the gleam of gaslight on rain-soaked cobblestones, women discarding their corsets and marching in the streets for women's rights. What's not to love about the Victorians?

I am completely taken with the Victorian era. It has intrigued me for as long as I can remember, and the more I learn about the period, the more fascinated I am. Spanning nearly a century, from the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign in 1837 to her death in 1901, it was a period of enormous change in terms of culture, fashion, technology, and so many aspects of British society as a whole.

Our current century has been one of massive changes and people sometimes bemoan the rapidity of transformation, the lack of continuity, and the loss of a nostalgic past. I imagine those who lived their lifetime during the nearly 70 years of the Victorian Era must have felt much the same. There were so many changes during that generation that when you tell folks that you're interested in Victorian history, you may mean something quite different if you're referring to the 1840's rather than the 1890's.

During the years of Queen Victoria's reign the British population more than doubled and technological changes multiplied, medicine advanced and the empire grew, despite rebellion in India in 1857. It was a time of relative peace, though the British Army engaged in war in the Crimea, South Africa, and Afghanistan.

Young Queen Victoria
As a writer, I love the possibilities offered by the late 19th century. Women's roles were beginning to change and the push for women's suffrage was in full swing. In fact, I can't seem to write a Victorian heroine that doesn't have some interest in the changes affecting women during this period.

The overpopulated and poverty-stricken East End of London was the site of heinous crimes, but it was also full of resourceful individuals who developed underground economies to survive. Those people may not be the ones who make the history books, but I find their lives, struggles, and determined spirit fascinating and great source of story ideas.

I hope this site will become a resource for those of us who set our stories during the Victorian era. Stop back often for history, photos, reviews, features on authors and books, giveaways, and much more.

Do you set your stories during the Victorian era? What appeals to you about the period?