Saturday, December 31, 2011

December 31, 1900 --- The End

It is the final day of the Nineteenth Century.

At St. Paul's Cathedral, Canon Mason hails the concluding century as one in which slavery was abolished, drunkenness was controlled and respect for religion had been firmly established. Several publications remark on the similarity to the close of the 18th Century; The Annual Register notes that, then, as now, England was at war and, "at the close as at the opening of the century, she is without a Continental ally."

The Times, ever optimistic, looks ahead one hundred years to the end of the 20th Century: "We have a reasonable trust that England and her sons will emerge triumphant... and that then, and for ages to come, they will live and prosper, one united and Imperial people, to be a bulwark for the cause of men."

To mark the occasion, the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin (see December 30) comes forth with "The Passing of the Century," an effort which, sadly, can only be described as typical. A sample passage:
When the night is murk and the mist is dense,
to guide us Whither and remind us Whence,
the Soul's own lamps through shades of sense ... etc
Those looking for portents can take little comfort in word that a giant stone in the ring at Stonehenge topples, something that hadn't happened since 1759.

At Osborne, the old Queen, who has reigned for 63 years of the dying century, is in poor health. In her journal, she notes: "The same unfortunate alternations of sleep and restfulness, so that I again did not get up when I wished to, which spoilt my morning and day."

At 6:30 pm, 22 January 1901, three weeks into the new century, Victoria died.

Friday, December 30, 2011

December 30, 1895 --- An Unfortunate Laureate

Prime Minister Salisbury informs "the minstrel of Toryism," Alfred Austin, that he will be named Poet Laureate by the Queen in the New Year's honors list.

Since Lord Tennyson's death in 1892, the post had been vacant. The reigning poets of the day, Oscar Wilde (who was in jail), Algernon Swinbourne (who was kept in seclusion), and Rudyard Kipling (whose barrack ballad, "The Widow at Windsor" had not gone over well with the Queen), were all unacceptable to the Crown.

Austin is a journalist by occupation who had written leaders for several Tory papers  He had acquired a deservedly modest audience for his poetry of the "garden" school.  When asked why he had selected Austin, Salisbury quipped, "He wanted it."

No Laureate in history has had his verse so savagely attacked. Within days of assuming the title, Austin composed an unfortunate ode on the Jameson Raid (see 3 January). A memorable quatrain:
So we forded and galloped forward
As hard as our beasts could pelt,
First eastward, then trending northward,
Right over the rolling veldt ...

Even Salisbury admitted embarrassment at the first effort of the new Laureate; he thought the poem played "unluckily to the taste of the galleries in the lower class of theatres who sing it with vehemence." The press gleefully bashed Austin, especially Punch, which dubbed him "Alfred the Little" and not only because the poet stood barely five feet tall.

Austin seemed oblivious; at one dinner party, when he remarked that poetry kept the wolf from his door, a fellow-diner asked waspishly, "Do you read the wolf your poetry?" When King Edward VII succeeded, he inquired whether he had the right to give Austin the sack.  He was told he could not but HRH took solace to learn the Laureate is an unpaid honor.

Modern critics have been equally unkind; Austin has been described as "a byword for pretentious emptiness." Upon his death in 1913, The Athenaeum observed cruelly, "The laureateship, virtually vacant since Tennyson's death, is now actually so."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

December 29, 1880 --- An Author's Funeral

It is bitterly cold, windy and snowing as Mary Ann Cross is laid to rest in the Dissenter's section of Highgate Cemetery. She was known to her readers as "George Eliot."

Mary Ann (sometimes Marian) is buried alongside George Henry Lewes (see 20 July), discreetly described in the papers as "her friend and literary associate." Mary Ann had lived alone since Lewes' death in 1878.  She stunned her friends in May of 1880 by marrying John Cross, her investment advisor. He is 40, she was 60.

Their brief union was a disaster; Cross was so unhappy in Lewes' shade that, while on their honeymoon, he tried to drown himself in the Grand Canal in Venice. Once returned to London, the couple had settled in to an uneasy partnership, preparing to move into a new home on the Thames. Mary Ann fell ill and, despite her doctor's apparent unconcern, she rather suddenly died on 22 December. Cause of death: "a cold... resulting in a complete loss of power to the heart."

Even in death, "George Eliot" is controversial. Should she - as was her wish - be buried in Westminster Abbey? The Abbey's Dean Stanley was hesitant; he declared that he would need "strong representations" to permit the burial.  Many letters are written, pro and con. Surprisingly, one of the strongest negative letters came from the scientist T.H. Huxley: "George Eliot is known not only as a great writer, but as a person whose life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage—One cannot have one's cake and eat it too. Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters."  Space in the Abbey will not be made available.

Despite the weather, Highgate is crowded with literary and public notables, including Huxley. Although widely read and admired, so rarely was George Eliot before the public that The Illustrated London News cannot offer its traditional obituary portrait. The weekly's literary columnist concluded, "She was, after a manner, an abstraction, an impalbability." At the grave, John Cross delivers a brief eulogy, "Her spirit has joined that choir invisible whose music is the gladness of this world."

Cross was particularly disconsolate. The awkwardness of his position is summed up by those wags who are already calling him "George Eliot's widow." Cross was the author's first biographer, but he was so successful in obscuring the truth of Marian/Mary Ann/George Eliot's life, more than one of her friends found the subject of his book unrecognizable.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December 28, 1879 --- The Tay Bridge Disaster

In a howling gale off the North Sea, a 3000 foot span of the Tay Bridge collapses, plunging the Edinburgh Mail train into the icy waters of the Firth.

The northbound train had gone on to the bridge, passing the signalmen's shack at 7:14, on a Sunday evening. Minutes later, eyewitnesses see the lights of the train, amidst a shower of sparks, descending into the blackness of the roiling waters, 90-feet below. Word that "the bridge is doon" spreads quickly along the riverside but little can be done. Rescue boats brave horrific sea conditions in a vain search for survivors, finding only bodies and debris. Not all in vain, the North British Railway had placed a £5 bounty on any recovered body. The exact death toll will never be known, but it numbers at least 90.

The two mile long bridge, just south of Dundee, had only been opened eighteen months before, replacing the world's first train ferry. The Queen - who had been present to dedicate the new structure - wires immediately for all details on such "an appalling tragedy." The Times notes that the accident combines the risks of rail and sea and "seems to multiply terribly and unexpectedly the vicissitudes of life."

Sad stories fill the papers; the most touching, perhaps, that of a young man visiting his fiancee who had thought the weather too bad for travel; his lover, however, urged him to return to Aberdeen rather than "break faith with his employer." Sabbatarian zealots suggest divine retribution for travel on the Lord's Day but Punch condemned them for "converting the awful catastrophe... to their own black and bitter creed."

In the end, the blame fell on the bridge's designer, Sir Thomas Bouch, who'd been knighted by the Queen upon completion of the project. When he came to view the wreckage, an angry crowd kept him a virtual prisoner in his hotel. A Parliamentary review committee concluded the bridge had been "badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained." Modern structural engineers blame Sir Thomas for miscalculating the maximum windloads that could be expected in such an exposed setting. Sir Thomas had already begun working on the even more ambitious plans to bridge the Firth of Forth but was immediately removed from the project team. Ten months after the Tay Bridge disaster, he was dead, his reputation and health ruined.

The disaster was remembered by the man called "the World's Worst Poet," the Scot, William McGonagall.  In (merciful) part, he wrote:

So the train moved slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway.
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay.
The Tay Bridge was rebuilt by 1887, using much of the materials salvaged from the wreckage.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December 27, 1861 --- War Averted

After several tense weeks, the United States agrees to release two envoys from the Confederate States of America who had been arrested and removed from a British mail ship.  The RMS Trent (pictured) had been stopped and boarded off Cuba in early November.

"The Trent affair" inflamed emotions on both sides of the Atlantic. When news of it reached London, Prime Minister Palmerston had barked to his cabinet, "You may stand for this but damned if I will!" He soon ordered 3000 troops to Canada. A bellicose message to Washington, drafted by the Foreign Office, was submitted to the Queen for routine review. Prince Albert, rising from his deathbed (see 14 December), toned down the demarche by adding that the British fully believed the American captain had acted without orders.

In the U.S., some Anglo-phobes thought a war with England might help re-unite the nation now in Civil War. President Lincoln, however, said he wanted "just one war at a time" and seized at the proffered face-saving opportunity. On Christmas Day he ordered Secretary of State Seward to draft the appropriate documents. Seward meets with the British Ambassador, Lord Lyons, who reported that the American seemed overcome with the emotion of the moment. Nonetheless, Seward must remind London of the War of 1812, fought over U.S. objections to similar British interference with "neutral" shipping. The peaceful resolution is accepted by all but the most warlike.  The New York Times thought the agreement was based on "the great principles of maritime law to which the United States has always adhered," and, in London, The Times commented, "We draw a long breath and are thankful."

The two Confederate envoys soon arrived at their posts. James Mason, a bluff Virginian, had been sent to plead the Confederate cause in England. He had little success.  A staunch proponent of slavery, he had co-authored the Fugitive Slave Law which is unpopular even among pro-Southerners in England. His eccentric dress and crude personal habits (chewing and spitting tobacco, even in the House of Commons) soon "damaged him terribly," according to the official U.S. delegation. Mason, however, thought he fit in well; he wrote his wife that the English aristocrats remind him of "our best Virginia circles."

December 26, 1891 --- A Shooting Accident

At Osborne, a holiday shooting party is marred by an accident that cost Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein his left eye.

The Queen's son, Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, was out shooting with two of his brothers-in-law, Prince Christian (married to Helena) and Prince Henry of Battenberg (married to Beatrice).  The three men are hunting in a semi-circle when, espying a bird, the Duke fires. The bird falls, but so does Prince Christian, in dreadful pain, hit by spray pellets from the gun.

The Prince is borne by the beaters to Osborne House, and Dr. George Lawson, Harley Street's best oculist, is summoned. His advice is simple, the shattered eye must be removed to save the good eye. The Queen is horrified. Sir James Reid, Victoria's personal physician, wrote a colleague, "She spoke as if Lawson and I wished to do it for our own brutal pleasure." Victoria grudgingly okayed the procedure but ordered her doctors never to speak of it in her presence.

The operation is a success. A brief inquest concludes that the shooting had been "one of those inexplicable accidents which too often occur even among the most careful and expert sportsmen." All reports on the incident stressed that it occured before luncheon to discourage talk among the lower orders that drinking had been responsible for any carelessness. Left unsaid was the undoubted record of clumsiness that had been laid to the poor Duke. In his youth, Arthur accidentally fell out the billiard room window at Buckingham Palace. Later, given command of a cycling regiment in the Army, he fell off his bike while returning a salute. He would seem to have been a less than ideal hunting companion.

Still, the glass eye proved no hindrance to the injured Prince. He was able to carry on with his life.  In truth, he had little to do; the Princess of Wales thought he did "nothing but eat and shoot other people's pheasants." Prince Christian, never a handsome man, was less so with his glass orb. Friends recall that he kept a large collection of replacements which he brought out for favored guests, including a blood-shot version for days when he felt poorly.

The Prince photographed so as to hide his glass eye.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

December 25, 1860 --- Christmas at Windsor Castle

As usual, the Royal family gathers at Windsor Castle for the Christmas holiday. This year, readers of The Times are treated to an exclusive look at the Royal Yuletide from the Viscount Torrington, Lord-in Waiting. 

Victoria and Albert's Christmas is a combination of English and German traditions; the latter include the Christmas tree, introduced to England - not by Albert, as he is oftimes mistakenly credited - but by Victoria's Hanoverian ancestors. There are no fewer than three trees in the Palace, hung in place of the chandeliers. Tables fairly groan with gifts for the Royal brood, nine children, ranging now in ages from 20 to 3. All the presents are opened on Christmas Eve.  In his "Windsor Special," Lord Torrington writes, "I have never seen a much more agreeable sight. It was royalty putting aside its state and becoming in words, acts, and deeds one of ourselves."

Christmas Day is sunny but quite cold. In fact, with a reading of 10 degrees in Hyde Park, it's said to be the coldest Christmas in fifty years. The day's highlight is a huge dinner. The Castle kitchens work round the clock to prepare the pies and meats, not only for the Royal table, but also for distribution among the tenants on the estate. More food will be given to the local poor on Boxing Day. A favorite dish each Christmas is the raised pie, featuring a woodcock stuffed inside a pheasant inside a chicken inside a turkey and then baked in stuffing and pastry. So many mincemeat pies are to be baked, the Castle cellars send up 24 bottles of brandy. For the Christmas meal, fifty turkeys are prepared.

"A really wonderful meal," a well-fed Lord Torrington told his readers, "How I live to tell the tale I don't know." His narrative concludes, "I never saw more real happiness than the scene of the mother and all her children: the Prince Consort lost all his stiffness... Altogether a jolly Christmas."

Sadly, no one could know it would be the last Christmas at Windsor. After Albert's death (see December 14) in 1861, the Queen could not bear the memories and preferred instead to observe the holidays at Osborne on the Isle of Wight.