Who hasn’t eaten an ice-cream or at least a muffin in their life ?
Even in movies you see children run behind an ice-cream van, shouting ecstatically for them to stop. While the sound of their bells will always remind us of more pleasant moments in our youth. But the muffin man wasn’t armed with a much different weapon to sell his wares.
The muffin man, who traditionally bore his ware on his head, and the signal of his approach – the ringing of a handbell – was on of the most joyous sounds in a Victorian childhood, continued in business until the Second World War.
Ice-cream was something of a latecomer to the streets. Although it was available by the time of the great Exhibition, it became common only in the eighties, when portable freezing equipment was invented by Agnes Bertha Marshall, the principle of a London cookery school. It was she who invented the cone in the late eighties. Prior to that, ice-cream had often been frozen onto metal rods that had to be returned after it had been licked off!

The street sellers of muffins and crumpets were calculated for Henry Mayhew at approximately 500 during the winter months, somewhere between the years 1858 and 1861.

The street sellers bought their items thirteen to the dozen from a baker who knew them, but Mayhew had not heard of any vendor who made his own wares.
´Peoples likes them warm, sir.´ an old man told him, ´To satisfy them they´re fresh, and they almost always are fresh; but it can’t matter so much about their being warm, as they have to be toasted again. I only wish good butter was a sight cheaper, and that would make them go. Butter’s half the battle.’
Good sized muffins from the street sellers cost a halfpenny each, crumpets sold four a penny. Some are sold cheaper, but these were generally smaller or made of inferior quality flour. Well-off ladies and gents bought them from streets seller, speculating or not but I believe that even the lower classes would indulge themselves to such a delightful treat if their money allowed it.

Last but not least, in my opinion it were the Victorians who made our childhood a little more jolly.

Henry Mayhew’s London labour and the London poor
Life in Victorian Britain by Michael Paterson


This guest post was written by writer J. Elizabeth Valentine, thank you so much for contributing!

Today’s post is written by Sally E. Svenson:


“You have not got to hunt for the best dresses in a crowd,” observed an English society journalist in 1890. “They will always make themselves seen.” What fashionable women wore became a prominent aspect of British society reporting during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when nearly fifty new magazines aimed at women entered the British market. Describing such garments required skill. “It is not everyone who can carry away the memory of thirty dresses in her head,” noted one critic, and only the most brazen journalists stooped to taking notes at social events, including the hapless reporter satirized by the British humor magazine Punch in 1900.

A few journals supplemented textual descriptions of the fashion statements of aristocratic clotheshorses with rough line illustrations, among them Queen and Lady’s Pictorial, unashamedly snobbish weeklies that chronicled the doings of high society. The artists assigned to the task made no effort to capture individual likenesses, but sketched gowns on near-identical, mannerist figures with wasp waists and tiny heads.

Among the women whose clothes attracted press scrutiny at this time was American-born Lily Hamersley, who was from 1888 until his death in 1892 the second wife of the eighth Duke of Marlborough, head of the Churchill family. Lily had a sure sense of style, and her choices reflected the expense, thought, and workmanship that went into the making of a fashionable woman of her period. She did her part in upholding the English stereotype of American women as better dressed than their British counterparts (as did her sister-in-law Jennie Churchill, who spent far beyond her modest means on clothing and was singled out by New York’s Town Topics as the most modishly attired woman in London in 1898). What Lily wore accounted for a considerable portion of the “news” that appeared about her in the press, particularly in the years between 1895 and 1900 when she was married to her third husband, Lord William Beresford, an old friend of the Prince of Wales. Coverage began with Lily’s April 1895 wedding, when Queen provided its readers with a sketch of her wedding dress–of delicate pearl gray brocade patterned with satin roses over a petticoat of white moiré trimmed with Brussels lace. Her matching Louis XVI coat with diamond buttons and gauntlet cuffs of rare antique Point d’Alencon lace opened over a waistcoat of the same material. On her head she wore a gray velvet bonnet embroidered with pearls and trimmed with pale gray ostrich plumes, a white aigrette, and white violets.  The hat was fronted with a small white lace veil.

In August 1895 Lily was one of twenty-two women attendees at the Dublin horse show whose gowns made up a full-page display in Lady’s Pictorial. On this occasion Lily appeared in a dress of dove-colored “undressed cloth” with sleeves of rich dove silk embroidered in a unique design in white terry velvet. Her bonnet, again a subject of some scrutiny, was of crinkled violet straw, trimmed with white stock gillyflowers and an upstanding fan of black ravenswing feathers.

Ball gowns deserved particularly close observation. A May 1897 volume of Lady’s Pictorial featured nine gowns worn at Mrs. Harry Oppenheim’s smart flower ball, to which each female invitee had been asked to come dressed as her favorite flower, sending buttonholes of the same blossom to three gentlemen of her choice. Lily “scored a complete success” in a white satin gown trimmed with tall stems of pure white trumpet lilies up the skirt and on the bodice, which was finished with chiffon and slender lines of brilliants. The look was completed by the addition of a pale-green sash. The ball’s hostess attired herself as a basket of poppies.

The most systematic and detailed fashion press coverage was given to what was worn at Court Drawing Rooms–the extravagant afternoon receptions held several times a year at which eligible women, each wearing the obligatory evening dress baring neck and arms, were introduced to Queen Victoria and the Court. Indeed, reportage of these events often amounted to little more than a compendium of the attendees’ toilettes. In May 1898 Lily, who was singled out by the Aberdeen Journal as “hardly ever” going “to the Drawing Room without wearing one of the most notably beautiful dresses at Court,” chose for the occasion a gown of ivory satin, its skirt and bodice ornamented with Tuscan embroidery in a rich design of orchids outlined with Strass diamonds and finely-cut steel beads. Her nine-foot train was of lily-leaf green satin brocaded in a design of lily branches and lined in pale blue.

Women’s magazines provided readers of the late nineteenth century with fairly accurate images of contemporary fashionable dress through their preoccupation with the clothes worn by women of the aristocracy. What’s more, they did so in color, thanks to the combination of sketch and written narrative. Fashion aficionados of today who appreciate Victorian dress still applaud their contributions.


By Sally E. Svenson, author of Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854—1909): A Portrait with Husbands

The Black CImageount – Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the real Count of Monte Cristo.

If you like adventurous tales or history’s wild men, this book is for you. If you like to read about Byron, if you like to watch Johnny Depp in The Libertine, if you enjoy the Three Musketeers, this book is a must-read. But also if you’re interested about the lesser-known parts of history, for example about the very first multi-racial society, this book is for you.

Tthis is the story of Alex Dumas, the father of famous writer Alexandre Dumas (who authored The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo). The story tells of Alex Dumas, who was born in slavery but ended up commanding 50.000 men, and finally was imprisoned and poisoned.

The story is constructed from diaries, letters, battle reports, and the memoires of Alexandre Dumas, creating what is called “narrative nonfiction.” This is the same kind of concept as last week’s book The Graves are Walking, but with a very different tale and a different sort of protagonist.

The book is very well written. There are many small details and touches that really set the scene and make the story come alive before your mind’s eye. But at the same time it’s pleasantly academic, well-researched and with plenty of footnotes to keep the information-hungry reader happy. I find it very pleasant to read fiction that is well-researched, because it means you can just read for pleasure on a sunday morning but you still get to learn a lot of new things. Especially if a story’s well-told, information will stick with you a lot longer.

Even though the book is called The Black Count, this fact did not really register with me immediately. But an interesting extra point is added to the story, namely the fact that Dumas was a black man. In 18th century French high society, black people weren’t exactly common so the fact that he was so famous and appreciated really does get some extra meaning. If you like researching the alternative side of history, the part that you won’t find in the more common book, this book is definitely recommended.

Strangely, even though this book has everything going for it, I found it less gripping than last week’s The Graves are Walking. It seems strange, that you’d rather read about Irish people starving than a swashbuckling admiral, but there you go.

Interesting fact: the black count on the front cover is totally Tom Reiss himself! What do you think? Check it out here!

Recommended? Definitely! Give it as a present to someone who likes adventure. Four stars.

John Kelly is a person who likes tragedy (lately some writers of the books I’ve reviewed come to my blog so let’s just hope John Kelly won’t come by and be offended!) He likes tragedy, because his previous book deals with the history of the black death, the plague that killed many Europeans. His new book, The Graves are Walking, deals with the great Irish famine and its aftermath.

Even though the subject is not cheery, the book is very compelling to read. I have never read much about the Irish famine or had a very great interest in it, but I definitely couldn’t put this book down. Kelly has found a way of combining historical correctness and research with a fiction-like prose.

The book reads somewhat as a newspaper report, using very exact dates, places and numbers. Then, in some chapters it switches to what reads like a personal account, what one person saw or thought or experienced. Even though the text in itself is about the historical facts, it’s spiced with all kinds of details that make the story come alive. For example, while writing about Lord Lucan: “As a young man, Lucan had been prettier than a professional soldier ought to be, but in 1847 he was forty-seven, as old as the century: balding, thickening around the middle, and out of uniform.” Details like these make the story very personal, and makes you care for the people in it.

The Graves are Walking carefully traces how and why the Irish famine could happen. It shows (very vividly!) what Ireland looked like during those years (especially describing in gruesome detail how the sick looked and smelt. I think John Kelly also likes horror.) And then it constructs how Britain reacted, trying to reconstruct Irish society and shape it in a different form.

John Kelly definitely gives a fresh perspective to this part of history. But more importantly, John Kelly shows how historic fiction can be both accurate and thrilling. The story is about many people, not centering on one main character or protagonist. But the personal details, the small things that make you feel like you’re there, really make the story come alive. I think everyone who wants to write historic fiction should take an example from this book. Hats off to you, John Kelly! Five stars.

You can read an exerpt or buy the book here:  http://us.macmillan.com/thegravesarewalking/JohnKelly#buy-the-book


Some years ago, there was an internet community where people wrote about their favourite historical pairings. By using Wikipedia, you could find out that, for example, Napoleon Bonaparte and Ludwig von Beethoven lived at the same time. And then you wrote a story, or read other people’s stories, about these people meeting. For history nerds, this was a pretty exciting thing.

In the book The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Enid Shomer did something similar: she imagined Gustave Flaubert (the writer of Madame Bovary) and Florence Nightingale meeting in Egypt. An interesting concept! Flaubert and Nightingale were in fact in Egypt around the same time, but there’s no evindence they ever met. Shomer shows us how it could have been, had they met eachother on their travels on the Nile.

The books starts out with Flaubert, who just wrote his first unsuccesful book and feels like a failed writer, with his friend Maxine du Camp, where they document the old momuments of Egypt. They meet Nightingale, who is traveling there with some friends and a maid. The book follows their travels, what they see, experience and feel while their boats slowly travel down the Nile.

Shomer is definitely a very good writer. Having published four books of poetry, it’s no surprise that she describes the surroundings and the feelings of the main characters very skillfully. It is clear she did a lot of research for this book as well: Shomer used parts of Flaubert’s and Nightingale’s diaries and memoires to construct the book, sometimes taking actual sentences and using them in their conversation.

There is one thing though that Enid Shomer did not research: etiquette in the 1850s. When Flaubert and Nightingale meet for the first time, their conversation and behaviour is… peculiar.

First of all, Nightingale starts of with scolding the two men for shooting guns in a populated area. This is not something a woman would usually do, but knowing miss Nightingale’s character, it could be possible. Then, after some minutes of conversation, Flaubert takes her hand, not for a specific reason or to shake it, but just out of a sort of enthousiasm. From Jane Austen’s Emma we learn that taking hands was not a common thing: Harriet is over the moon when Emma shakes her hand at last, after meeting several times, because this was a true sign of friendship and intimacy. Therefore, it would be unlikely for a gentleman to grab a lady’s hand so shortly after meeting.

The other thing is Nightingale’s conversation and behaviour. Still in the same conversation, with the two gentlemen she just met, she “hugged herself and stood on tiptoes”, she “drew a little closer [and said] “I am sleeping with a new invention”. After that she writes Flaubert a letter showing this invention (a sort of musquito net) where she draws herself sleeping, wearing a nightcap. This seems not something a 19th century person would do.

Lastly, she doesn’t introduce her companions to the two men. If you’ve read A Room with a View you know how important a companion or chaperone was for young women abroad. Even taking a walk outside alone would be unacceptable and cause for rumours, so it’s very unlikely that Nightingale would not introduce them first and foremost.

Oh, and in the entire book, Nightingale is called “Flo”. This itches me like people saying “King Tut” but this might just be my personal preference!

If you forget about history-nerd-nitpicking, this book is very nice. I would think it makes a great gift, the book looks amazing with cream pages, a sober black hardcover, and beautiful dustjacket (see above). The tale is romantic and thrilling. Four stars!

A long while ago I wrote a series on Victorian cooking (here, here, here, and here). Many people asked about specific Victorian recipes or dishes, either for a Victorian dinner-party or to bring a fun snack to school for presentations and such.
In the nineteenth century, cooking wasn’t really a hobby, it was either a necessity or just something you hired a cook for. Furthermore, there were no real recipe books, though at the end of the century some books with suggestions came into fashion, mostly in America. It wasn’t very commom for novels to explain what food was eaten, and food wasn’t really a topic of discussion as it is now. Therefore, it’s pretty hard to find actual recipes or dishes from the nineteenth century. I finally found a very good resource in the Annotated Emma by David M. Shapard ( who got them from E. Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper). I will repost them here.

(Click to enlarge)

This dish consists of: Transparent soup (some sort of broth?), Fricas’d chicken, Harrico (green beans), Pigeons Comport, Codsounds like little Turkies, Lambs Ears Forc’d, Fricando Veal, Pork Griskins, French Pye, Brocoli &c., Kidney Beans, Small Ham, Mock Turtle, Boil’d Turkey, Sallad, Bottl’d Peas, Sweet Breads Ala Royal, House Lamb, Sheep Rumps & Kidneys in Rice, Ox Pallets, Larded Oysters, Ducks Alamode, Beef Olives, Florendine of Rabbits, Hare Soup.

(Click to enlarge)

This second course consists of: Pheasant, Moonshine, Crawfish in Savoryjelly (sic), Snow balls, Globes of Gold Web with Mottoes in Them, Marbl’d Veal, Mince Pies, Pickled Smelts, Fish Pond, Pompadore Cream, Stew’d Cardoons, Pea Chick with Asparagus, Transparent pudding cover’d with a Silver Web, Roast Woodcocks, Stew’d Mushroomd, Macaroni, Floating Island, Potted Lampreys, Crocrant with Hot Peppers, Collar’d Pig, Pistacha Cream (pistachio something?), Burnt Cream (maybe a creme brulée?), Snipes in Savory Jelly, Rocky Island, Roasted Hare.
Wel… are you hungry? They definitely knew how to eat, then! Some of these dishes are fairly straightforward but some of them are very puzzling. If you know what they mean or feel like googling for them, please let us know what you found in the comments! I’m especially curious about “Globes of Gold Web with Mottoes in Them”.

Actually, 19th century men and women weren’t so different from contemporary men and women at all! Just as there were brooding but sexy bad boys, there were girls who couldn’t help falling for them. Who, even though they knew the dangers, sought out bad boys just because they were so interesting. Here’s a bit from Jane Eyre, all quotes from Blanche Ingram:

“It is my opinion, the fiddler David must have been an insipid sort of a fellow; I like black Bothwell better: to my mind a man is nothing without a spice of the devil in him; and history may say what it will of James Hepburn, but I have a notion he was just the sort of wild, fierce, bandit hero whom I could have consented to gift with my hand.” […]

“Oh, I am so sick of the young men of the present day!”exclaimed she, rattling away at [the piano]. “Poor, puny things, not fit to stir a step beyond papa’s park gates, nor to go even so far without mamma’s permission and guardianship!” […]

“Here then is a Corsair-song. Know that I dote on Corsairs, and for that reason, sing it con spirito”

The footnote accompanying this says that the fashionable taste for Corsairs, Italian bandits, highwaymen, and Levantine pirates lasted a long time. Already in 1818 Jane Austen described the attraction of the bad boy Captain Benwick, and in 1867 Trollope still wrote about girls complaining of their boring and tame lovers in The Last Chronicles. (And I think you can even see it now, for example in the brilliant TV series Lost in Austen, where Mr. Darcy charms a modern-day girl.)

Highwaymen especially held a certain charm, as this rather breathtaking and romantic poem about highwaymen shows: The Highwayman (1913) by Alfred Noyes. If you prefer that sung you can find it here or have it recited to you by a nervous redhead you can click here. I think that proves that highwaymen, Corsairs, pirates and bandits have held a certain charm to people ever since Byron put his poems down to paper.


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