Madeira Mondays: Inside an 18th century bedroom

A few weeks back, I took you inside The Georgian House with me and we visited an 18th century parlor. We talked a bit about education, the hobbies and pursuits of the Georgian elites, as well as globes and mapmaking, tea ceremonies and more. If you’re curious to read that post, you can check it out here!

This week, we’re going back into The Georgian House – the recreated 18th century townhouse here in Edinburgh where I volunteer. The townhouse is a ‘show house’, not a traditional museum, so if you were to visit you could see a house fully furnished with 18th century art and objects, giving you a sense of what daily life was like back then for those living in Edinburgh’s New Town. Each room in The Georgian House offers a glimpse into a different aspect of the past, and it’s very hard for me to pick a favorite, but I do love showing visitors around the bedroom, which is where we’re heading today!

The bedroom in The Georgian House

In the photo above, you can see the elegant four-poster bed (made in 1774 for Thomas Hog of Newliston, near Edinburgh). A bed is, of course, totally something you’d expect to find in, well, a bedroom, so no surprise there, but what a lot of guests are surprised by is how multifunctional bedrooms were in the 18th century.

Seating in the bedroom for socializing

These days, I think we tend to think of bedrooms as quite private spaces, perhaps tucked away on the upper floors of houses and not really a space where you’d gather if you had friends over. But – and I could go into this in greater depth in another post – the concept of private, individual spaces was different back then. In the 18th century it was still very common (even in wealthy households) for bedrooms to be shared among members of that family and, as you can see from the photo above, bedrooms were also places for socializing with guests. The bedroom at The Georgian House might have been used as an informal breakfast room, or ladies sitting room – which would have allowed the hosts the show off their four-poster bed – which was a bit of an 18th century status symbol!

Another difference between bedrooms then and now, which guests often find surprising, is that there were no coat hangers during this time period! Clothes were folded up and stored in drawers, rather than hung in wardrobes. Coat hangers weren’t invented until the later part of the 19th century, so you won’t find a wardrobe or a closet in an 18th century bedroom for hanging up your clothes! (This is so interesting to me – how this one invention really changed the whole layout of a space.)

One final thing I wanted to show you in the bedroom is the medicine chest. This is probably my favorite object in the bedroom!

The medicine chest in The Georgian House

Most houses would have had some sort of medicine chest stocked with remedies for minor ailments. A visit from a physician was expensive, and, especially if you were located further outside of the city, it often wasn’t even possible. Or, at least, it would take the doc a long time to reach you! It was common (and I know this was true in Colonial America too) for the lady of the house to take care of the entire household, including servants, if one of them got sick, especially if it wasn’t something major. This medicine chest is from 1830 and retains 22 out of its original 29 bottles. Some of the contents are things we would recognize today – Epsom salts and peppermint oil, for example. Some are things that we definitely wouldn’t be able to get over the counter now, like laudanum, derived from opium.

The chest would have come with detailed instructions about how to use its contents and recommended doses. There were also books available at the time, such as the popular Domestic Medicine by William Buchan (1772), which explained home remedies for all sorts of things. It’s worth a flip through if you’re curious.

There are so many more aspects of the bedroom at The Georgian House that I could go into, but I’ll leave it there for now! I didn’t even touch on personal hygiene, bathing (or lack thereof!) and all that jazz, so if you’d like a post about about that stuff – let me know! In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a couple of recommended further readings, and thank you again for joining me this Monday! At some point in the upcoming weeks, we’re going into the dining room (yay! food!) and the kitchen (yay! more food!) of The Georgian House. See you then!

Recommended Further Reading:

William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1772) – Buchan was an Edinburgh physician and this book was popular in both the UK and the soon-to-be USA

Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760-1860 by Jane Nylander (okay, so this one is technically not about Scottish homes of this period, but a lot of the customs were transatlantic and this is a great window into domestic life in this time period)

‘The Edinburgh medicine cabinet and the city high life’, article in The Scotsman newspaper (goes into a lot more detail about the dangerous over-uses of laudanum in the period)

And if you’d like to book tickets to visit The Georgian House, you can do that here. Definitely check their opening times (which have been reduced and changed due to Covid) and they recommend booking in advance! If you fancy coming along on this upcoming Saturday Oct 24th, I’ll be there (hi!) and would love to talk with you more about all things Georgian!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Making an 18th century sailor’s breakfast

Have you ever heard of something called ‘burgoo’?

Nowadays the word ‘burgoo’ refers to a hearty, spicy stew, typically served in the American South with cornbread or muffins. However, in the 18th century, ‘burgoo’ referred to a type of oatmeal porridge eaten by British sailors!

I first learned about ‘burgoo’ in this video I stumbled across from one of my favorite YouTube channels: Townsends. For those who don’t know, this is a brilliant (and weirdly relaxing!) educational channel featuring a re-enactor Jon Townsend who cooks 18th century recipes. You might remember Townsends if you read my post about making ‘Flip’ from earlier this year!

One of the things that I love most about the channel  is how excited Townsend and his team get about 18th century primary sources. He frequently reads from letters and diaries of the time, and uses them as a little glimpse into the culinary past. In this video – ‘Sailor Rations in the 18th Century – Burgoo’, he reads aloud from Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens. Spavens reflects on sailor’s rations (most of which consisted of beer, bread, beef…no fresh veggies and fruits, of course! No wonder they got scurvy from lack of Vitamin C!). Anyways, Spavens writes:

On Wednesdays we get burgoo boiled for breakfast and a pint of peas to make soup for dinner. On Mondays, no peas but burgoo for dinner.

So what was burgoo exactly? It’s majorly simple. It’s ground oatmeal boiled in water. Sometimes you got salted beef fat to go with it, or you might get molasses. Molasses, or black treacle (for British readers!) is a dark, sweet, viscous goo (seems like I’m using the word ‘goo’ a lot in this post!) which comes from refining sugarcane. On a ship, they’d be making it in giant vats, as Townsend explains. In his making of burgoo, he uses a ratio of 3:1 oatmeal to water.

After we watched this video, my partner (who eats porridge most days for breakfast) wanted to try his hand at making a ‘burgoo’, so we made it for breakfast, using the same simple method that Townsend did – adding hot water to oats. We put some molasses in too. Here’s the result, it’s not beautiful – but oatmeal isn’t a very photogenic food!

Homemade ‘burgoo’!

It was, predictably, a little bland.

We even added nutmeg (which Townsend suggests that officers might have had…but I’m a bit more wary of that. I don’t think that officers would have necessarily been eating burgoo at all, they might have had something nicer! And, even if they did have burgoo, they probably wouldn’t be grating nutmeg on it, unless they were a huge nutmeg lover and brought their own personal nutmeg stash with them to sea. Which, I guess, is possible. Nutmeg is delicious.) But even with nutmeg, it was bland.

In the end, I did a very un-period appropriate thing and cut up some banana to add to it, which sailor’s would definitely not have had! But I wanted to have a nice breakfast and the banana definitely was a game changer.

So that’s it! Burgoo is simple and warming and cheap (then and now). And it was fun to spice up breakfast with a bit of an 18th century inspired experiment. (We don’t really leave the house much these days, so gotta get those moments of entertainment where you can!)

What do you think of burgoo? Have you heard the word before? Does it seem like something you’d enjoy? Also, what breakfasts have you been enjoying recently in general? Granola with raisins and almonds is my go-to, but we’re going to try burgoo another time soon, possibly with more spices added to it!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Royal Charlotte – Indiaman’ by Robert Dodd, created between 1764-1785, and accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

A Year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

Exactly one year ago, I sat down to write my first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. My initial idea for this series was that it would look at early American history and historical fiction. I have always been passionate about early American history, from a surprisingly young age. See (rather grainy) photographic evidence below of me in high school alongside some of my history teachers. We dressed up in 18th century garb when a Declaration of Independence broadside came to the school. Our job was to educate the public about the document and, oh boy, was I thrilled to do it!

When I began ‘Madeira Mondays’, I had just finished up my PhD, a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and my research there had focused on how creative writers access and represent the American Revolution specifically. Part of my doctorate had also involved writing a full-length historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution. So my life, for three years, had effectively been all 18th century, all the time. And I really wanted to communicate some of that knowledge (and enthusiasm!) to the wider community somehow, and to make friends online who were similarly interested in history, books, and generally learning and chatting about the past. (My friends and family in life are brilliant as well, don’t get me wrong! And many of them do follow the blog – hello!).

I named the series ‘Madeira Mondays’ after the fortified Portuguese wine that was popular in 18th century America (there’s a great article here from a historian about the history of Madeira). Wine is something drunk socially at gatherings and I wanted this blog to be a gathering, of sorts, and a place to share.

‘Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam’ by John Greenwood, c. 1752-58. Located at the St Louis Art Museum. Looks like those guys are enjoying a LOT of Madeira!

Gradually the series widened out, so now I focus not just on early American history, but 18th century history more generally. I do live in Scotland after all, and there’s so much brilliant history here from that time period!

Today marks the official one year anniversary of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which means I’ve written over fifty posts about everything from 18th century swear words to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. There have been tons of historical film and book reviews, as well as a look at the links between 18th century fashion and RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve talked about my experience as a reenactor, and my writing process for writing some of the historical poems in my new poetry pamphlet. I’ve cooked recipes, attended conferences and visited historic sites here in Scotland and further afield. I’m proud of myself for sticking with it and can’t quite believe it’s been a year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

I think the most fulfilling thing though has been connecting with people online – you! Many of you who follow this blog and enjoy ‘Madeira Mondays’ have blogs of your own, which I’ve loved reading and discovering. Your thoughtful and enthusiastic comments and suggestions here have been a real joy for me, encouraging me to keep this series going and also, quite honestly, making me feel more globally connected during this time of isolation. Writing is always a solitary endeavor, so this blog has been a way for me to balance that, to share and look outwards.

Also – and fellow creative writers I’m sure can relate to this – there is something very satisfying about writing a blog post, when you’re in the midst of working on a long-form creative project like a novel. A blog post is short and sweet and FINISHED within an hour or two. Whereas a novel can take months or, more likely, years.

What I’m trying to say is: thank you for reading this series! I hope that it has been engaging and that you’ve taken something from it. To celebrate ‘A Year of Madeira Mondays’, I’ve picked out five of my favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from the last year. I’ve picked a couple from the start of the project, since quite a few of you are more newly subscribed, in case you wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘back catalogue’. (They’re also a good place to start if you’re totally new to ‘Madeira Mondays’ and want a sample of what I cover on the blog).

My favorite posts from October 2019-October 2020

  1. The John Adams Miniseries (TV Show Review)

This was one of the first posts I wrote and I think it’s one of the best. It analyzes the HBO series John Adams, about the life of America’s 2nd President. Part of my PhD looked at representations of John Adams specifically in popular culture, and this post was in conjunction with a talk I gave at the Trinity College Dublin as part of their History Conference 2019.

Me dressed up as John Adams to deliver my paper at Trinity College Dublin. The conference was free, fun and open to the public and the organizers said ‘costumes are encouraged.’ As you know from the start of this post, I need no encouragement.

2. The Witch (Movie Review)

This post looks at one of my favorite movies set in early America – The Witch by Robert Eggers! A spooky and cleverly made film set in Puritan New England. It’s about an evil witch who lives in the woods…or is it?

3. A Forgotten 18th Century Drink (‘Flip’)

This is one of my favorite posts because my attempt to make this 18th century drink went so horribly wrong. It was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever (tried) to drink and this hilarious failure sticks in my mind.

4. The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

I’m really proud of this post which showcases the life and writing of one of America’s first poets: Phillis Wheatley. She was internationally famous in her day for her poetry, respected and admired for her work, which is remarkable considering that she was not only a young woman but also a former slave. Her life is interesting but also tragic. Have a read!

This is an original copy of one of Wheatley’s books, which I saw at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in October 2019.

5. The Patriot (Film Review)

This post looks at one of the most famous movies depicting the American Revolution, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this movie (it’s so ridiculous, but I’m fond of it because I enjoyed it so much as a kid). This post is a two-parter and is, effectively, a rant. ‘Historical accuracy’ is a complex topic, and, as a writer myself, I’m not usually one to care too much about small creative changes made in order to tell a better story. But if you really want to see me come down on a film for its egregious and nonsensical alterations to American history – this is the post for you!

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And that’s it! Five posts from my first year. I hope you enjoy them!

Which ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts have been your favorite ones, so far?

Thank you so much, as always, for joining me on this blogging journey. I publish a new ‘Madeira Mondays’ post every Monday, and if you’d like to subscribe and follow along, please do! I’ll see you next Monday.

Madeira Mondays: A Visit to a Georgian Parlor

The fire is crackling and you huddle close to it on a cold Edinburgh morning. Next to you, you hear the scratch of a quill pen as your mother writes a letter and the clink of a silver spoon in a cup as your sister makes tea. Perhaps you’ve got a book in your lap – one of the many being published in Edinburgh these days, a city steeped in Enlightenment thinking. Perhaps it’s a riveting historical novel by Walter Scott. Or maybe you’re not reading at all but doing some needlework, or studying one of the globes – the terrestrial one, perhaps, that shows the ever-changing map of the world: when new discoveries are made, they will be papered over the old ones.

These are the sorts of scenes I like to imagine when I’m volunteering at The Georgian House. I was so delighted to return last week to my volunteer job, as a historical guide at the recreated late-18th century townhouse here in Edinburgh. It was wonderful to be in the house again and, especially, to welcome visitors. As you know from reading this blog, I love chatting with people about daily life in the 18th century  and last week was no different. I had several fascinating conversations with visitors about what sort of pets they might have had in Georgian times, what kind of books they read, and how they drank their tea. People, I think, love to zoom in on these little details – it’s why I love ‘social history’ so much. Learning about dates and about big political movements is, of course, very important – but I usually want to know what people had for breakfast.

A couple of months back, I told you that I’d planned to write a series of blog posts focusing on different rooms within The Georgian House and explaining what they were each used for. I even published the first post: ‘Inside a Georgian Drawing Room.’ Now that the house is opened back up again for visitors, I thought it would be a great time to resume the series and to go room by room, showing you some of my favorite objects in each. I’ll also talk a little bit about what people living and working in an upscale Georgian townhouse would have done in each room.

This week – I wanted to show you the parlor.

The Parlor at The Georgian House in Edinburgh

A parlor is like a family sitting room. It’s a living room, basically, in contrast to the more formal, grand drawing room that I talked about in my other post. This is where the family would relax and pursue hobbies, like in that scene I described above. They might write letters, read books or the newspaper, or have friends over for tea.

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin; A Lady Taking Tea; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Afternoon tea was a popular activity and there was a lot of ceremony attached to it. It was one of the ‘polite accomplishments’ of young women to be able to blend a good cup of tea (green or black or a mix) for her guests. Tea was taxed in this period (we know all about that in America, right? The colonists weren’t too happy about it! See: the Boston Tea Party. I can definitely do a post on what exactly the ‘Boston Tea Party’ was, and what led up to it, if you’re curious). Since it was so expensive, it was kept under lock and key in caddies or drawers.

The table all set up for tea – note the tall, almost trophy-looking thing which was the ‘water urn’. That’s where they kept the hot water. It held a piece of iron inside that was heated on the fire and then inserted inside, to keep the water hot.

Kids were also allowed in the parlor and would have spent time with their parents in this room. Their mom might have taught all her children the basics of reading and writing, but of course education was then rapidly split based on gender. While both elite boys and girls would have things like music and dance lessons, boys would also learn about history, geography, languages (like Latin), and philosophy. They could go to a university and study law, medicine, theology etc. Girls, on the other hand, were taught domestic things  to prepare them to be wives (how to be a good host, how to sew, how to deal with servants and with basic household budgets maybe). We’re talking about elite women and men here, the wealthiest members of society.

These diverse educations were so that they prepared men and women to enter what was believed to be their sphere: for boys, that was the public sphere. For girls: the private, domestic one. (This distinction is crucial, I think, to understanding why, for instance, women had such trouble securing the right to vote many decades later. The public, political sphere was thought to be a man’s domain. So when he voted, he was voting for the entire household, in theory. Yes, this way of thinking is repressive, of course. But that’s how it was. In general, people were not given equal access to education, not just based on gender, but also race and class).

In addition to receiving an education in this room, kids (and adults) might also have played games. There’s a chess board on display and a popular game for kids was ‘ball and cup’ (which is where you try to get a ball…into a cup. But trust me, it’s harder than it sounds!).

A chess board from the period and, above that, a little girl’s ‘sampler’. Samplers were common in this period and they were places where young girls would practice their stitching and their alphabet. Parents really did put them on display like this, to show what their daughter had made and how accomplished their little girl was.

In our parlor, we also have two globes on display: celestial (mapping the heavens) and terrestrial (mapping the land). The Georgians loved symmetry and it was very in vogue to have not one but two globes on display, if you could afford it. Not just to show off, but also, you know, symmetry. The globes at The Georgian House are from 1810. As I mentioned earlier, globes were constantly being updated, as new landmasses were being ‘discovered’ and added to the map, and as boundaries of nations changed. So sometimes it’s difficult for us to date globes accurately, because they were re-papered to be kept up to date.

The Terrestrial Globe at The Georgian House

There are so many things to see in the parlor alone, and many of them I’ve not mentioned here! If you’re curious to see more, please do come and visit us at The Georgian House. I work every other Saturday (and will be there this weekend, September 26th) if you’d like to come and say hi! They’re operating at reduced hours and there’s a pre-booking system in place – you can book your tickets to visit here!

In the upcoming weeks I’ll be focusing on other rooms – including the kitchen and the bedroom – so if there are any specific things you’re curious about, in terms of those rooms, let me know and I can try to highlight them in those posts.

Recommended Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘A Tea Party’ by Joseph van Aken. Photo Credit: The Manchester Art Gallery

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Rob Roy (Film Review)

I rewatched Rob Roy (1995) yesterday for the first time in about twenty years. As readers of this blog will know, I recently went on a trip to the Highlands and toured the Highland Folk Museum, as well as Culloden Battlefield. During this trip, one of my friends kept bringing up the film Rob Roy. She insisted that it was full of gorgeous Highland scenery and that it touched on a lot of the topics that we’d been learning about during our museum explorations – the Jacobite uprisings, the dissolution of the Highland Clans etc. I’d seen Rob Roy as a kid, but couldn’t remember much about it.

After returning from our trip, I hesitated, at first, to re-watch this film because the only thing that I did remember about it was that it contained a very hard-to-watch rape scene. This particular scene has really stuck with me since I first viewed it, perhaps because it was one of the earliest depictions of sexual violence that I saw on screen. (I’m honestly not sure why my dad let me watch Rob Roy – I think he had probably forgotten this scene was in it!) But, in any case, I was missing the Highlands and I was curious to see how all these topics that we’d been learning about played out in the film. So I watched it.

One of the gorgeous sights from our recent Highland trip. This was taken on the drive from Fort William up to Mallaig (where you catch the ferry to Skye).

The best and the worst thing that I can say about Rob Roy is that it does what it says on the tin. It’s a sweeping adventure story about a Robin Hood-like figure who fights to retain his family’s ‘honor’ in the changing landscape of early 18th century Scotland. The film even begins with effectively a thesis statement that explains exactly that to the viewer. The opening text reads:

At the dawn of the 1700’s famine, disease and the greed of great Noblemen was changing Scotland forever.

With many emigrating to the Americas, the centuries-old Clan system was slowly being extinguished.

This story symbolizes the attempt of the individual to withstand these processes and, even in defeat, retain respect and honor.

Not many films start out with such a precise thesis statement, or baldly admit that their story ‘symbolizes’ anything. I don’t actually think that this explanation was necessary either, because all of that becomes quite clear as the film transpires.

This is a story (based on stories about a historical figure turned folk hero) where wider societal change is, in a sense, embodied in the struggles of one ‘traditional’ Highland man (Rob Roy aka Liam Neeson) who refuses to cope with the ‘modern’ avarice, corruption and greed of those around him (as if greed was a new thing haha!).

Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham (left) and Liam Neeson as Rob Roy (right). I can’t remember precisely when this moment is from in the film, but it’s a safe bet that Rob Roy is ‘defending his honor’ from the smarmy Englishman.

This film is all about ‘honor’, which was quite an important concept to 18th century men -remember that the signers of the Declaration of Independences pledge their ‘lives, fortunes and sacred honor‘ to the cause. ‘Honor’ is actually the last word of the Declaration of Independence. (There’s a very interesting article here on Mount Vernon’s website exploring the changing concepts of honor in Colonial America, from something that was linked explicitly to upper classes, to something that ordinary citizens could have, as well).

In writing this blog post, I’ve realized that ‘honor’ is actually a rather tricky concept to explain or to define. In the 18th century, I think it sort of equates to ‘reputation’. But the way that it was defined also depends a lot on gender. When we think of a woman’s ‘honor’ there’s a sexual connotation and we think of chastity, ‘purity’.

‘Honor’ is defined by Rob Roy in the film as something like morality and ethical conduct. Rob Roy explains to his sons that his ‘honor’ prevents him from ever ‘mistreat(ing) a woman or malign(ing) a man’. It is ‘what no man can give you and none can take away’. It is, in short, his moral compass and system of personal ethics.

Throughout the film, Rob Roy’s code of honor is set against the dishonorable behavior of the nobles who effectively cheat him out of quite a lot of money and engage in other sneaky and also violent actions against him, most notably the aforementioned rape of Rob’s wife Mary MacGregor (Jessica Lange). Yet even that horrific act is part of this larger narrative of ‘honor’. The principal reason that the glib aristocrat Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) rapes Mary is to drag Rob Roy out of hiding. Now that his wife has been assaulted, Rob Roy’s ‘Highland honor will have to be satisfied,’ Cunningham remarks.

I actually quite liked this emphasis on ‘honor’ as a theme and how, at every turn, Mary MacGregor’s approach to life is much more sensible and pragmatic. In a way, she’s the foil to Rob and his obsession with honor, even more so than the amoral Cunningham. She sees that Rob’s inability to do or say anything bad about anyone ever, or to do anything sneaky or under-handed at all, will get their family into trouble one day. And, indeed, it does.

Lange gives a dignified and emotive performance as Mary – I really believed that she was a sturdy lady who had borne several children, survived rough Scottish winters and was more than capable of stabbing people in the throat (no spoilers, but she may or may not stab someone in the throat).

When the film succeeds, it does so based on the performances of Lange and also Roth, whose despicable character of Cunningham is far more interesting to watch than Rob Roy ever is, because – unlike Rob – he has flaws (quite a lot of flaws – he’s a murderer, rapist, thief, abandons his pregnant girlfriend, only cares about money etc.). Rob seems to already BE a folk hero – always doing good, always caring for others – not someone whose actions inspired legend.

Another area in which the film succeeds is the choice to show extended sword fighting sequences which were really marvelous to watch. Roger Ebert apparently called one of these sword fighting scenes ‘one of the great action sequences in movie history’ and I’d buy that. The final climactic sword fight is long (ten minutes?) and tense – lots of intricate choreography.

Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham (right) shows off his fancy sword fighting skills

The landscape is also, of course, breathtaking and it gets plenty of screen time. The whole thing was shot on location in the Highlands and you can absolutely tell. I can’t fault Michael Caton-Jones on the direction – he gets good performances out of his cast and really lets the setting shine.

So would I recommend it? Well, if you’re a fan of Braveheart or Outlander or be-kilted dudes, you’ll certainly like this. And if you’re someone, like me, who enjoys 18th century history and sweeping period dramas, in general, then there’s plenty here to like. It’s just nothing special, largely because of the lack of humanity in the central character. When someone is such a good person, a righteous person, a caring person, they eventually stop seeming like a person, at all.

Let me know what you think of this movie, if you’ve seen it. If not, let me know if it sounds like your cup of tea (or dram of whisky)!

Recommended Reading:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: A Vist to Culloden Battlefield

There’s a misty moor in the Scottish Highlands where, over 250 years ago, a battle took place that shaped the course of world history forever. I’m talking about Culloden, the site where Jacobite forces clashed with British government troops in a harrowing fight and one that would ultimately mark the end of the 1745 Jacobite Rising and the dissolution of the Scottish clan system. It was also, interestingly, the last battle fought on British soil.

When you go to visit Culloden yourself, there are ultimately two key elements to see: the battlefield itself and a shiny new visitor center, which explains the lead up to the battle, how the fighting went down, and also the legacy of Culloden. I have to admit, when we went to see this site two weeks ago, I knew very little about the battle, or anything leading up to it. Even though the 18th century is the time period I study, and even though I have to know about Scottish history to engage knowledgeably with guests in my volunteer job as tour guide at The Georgian House in Edinburgh, I didn’t know very much about Culloden in particular. I know more about 18th century social history and  the American Revolution (which took place about 30 years after Culloden).

So when I arrived to Culloden (which is overseen by the National Trust for Scotland, the same organization that runs The Georgian House – yay!), I was ready to learn. What I did not expect was quite how atmospheric it would be. On the morning we arrived, the fog was thick and the grass still slick from a storm that had passed the night before. The air was gray but the green field littered with bursts of purple heather. It was quiet, solemn and verging on spooky.

Culloden Battlefield, shrouded in mist

Our group split up and while my partner and my friend explored the battlefield itself, I went into the Visitor Centre (which is basically like a small museum, although there’s also a gift shop and cafe). We all wanted to go inside the museum portion, but we’d waited until the night before to book slots and could only get one, which my group graciously let me have (as the resident 18th century enthusiast). I also got in for free as a National Trust volunteer, which was a nice perk.

The museum is set up more or less chronologically, so that you can go through it and see what happened before and during the Jacobite uprising, from both a Jacobite and ‘government’ perspective. Who were the Jacobites? They were a group of mostly Scottish people who believed that the Catholic Stuart family had a right to the British throne. The Jacobite army comprised a lot of Highland clansmen and it was led by Charles Edward Stuart, or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. They had achieved some successes fighting British government troops before Culloden, but at Culloden they were roundly defeated by the Duke of Cumberland. Their rebellion was over.

The museum does a really fantastic job of explaining this complex time period and the battle itself. The building is quite somber and looks almost like a military fortress, which adds to this atmosphere of seriousness – after all, 1,600 men were killed in this battle (1,500 of them Jacobites). And, from what I learned, there was a lot of brutality in the aftermath of the battle too, when the government troops were searching for the fleeing, defeated Jacobites – killing, pillaging, etc. along the way. So it is a somber site.

The Culloden Vistor Centre

It’s a very engaging museum though and one of the elements that I liked most was the room where you could ‘immerse’ yourself in the battle itself. There were four screens, one on each wall, that featured re-enactors depicting the battle and it is quite immersive. To be in the middle of four screens, all full of heavily-armed dudes shouting, is overwhelming and does give a sense of the intensity of the fighting.

I also loved seeing the artifacts of the time. One disturbing item that stuck with me is a sampler from a young girl in a London. A ‘sampler’ was a piece of fabric where girls practiced their embroidery – maybe their ABCs, or they might sew images of a house or a bible quote or something. This girl had sewn a picture of a British redcoat stabbing a Jacobite soldier (I think the little girl had someone in her family who fought in the British army) and her caption was something like, ‘Killing the Highlanders!’ Apparently propaganda was rampant in London about how the ‘unruly’ highlanders in Scotland were rampaging and needed to be crushed etc., but there was something very sad about seeing this image on a little girl’s sampler, which is usually something full of benign images like birds, houses, trees.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time for me to do a full exploration of the battlefield itself, but I was assured by the rest of my group that it was a fascinating sight. There are markers throughout about troop movements, flags marking where different army front lines were and where exactly the fighting took place. So it would be a particularly interesting sight for anyone who is keen on military history. There are also memorials too, for different clans that took part in the fighting.

All in all I was very impressed with Culloden as a historical site and have pretty much nothing critical to say about it! The only bummer of our visit (the fact that we couldn’t all get into the museum) was very much our fault for not being more organized about booking the tickets – so anyone looking to visit, especially during Covid, do book your museum visit in advance online. It’s very easy to do.

I hope that was an interesting little jaunt into Scotland’s past. I would highly recommend a visit if/when you’re ever in the area. Like the Highland Folk Museum featured in my last post, I think Culloden has a special significance to fans of Outlander (which I’ve never read, but have seen a couple of episodes of!), but it would be an interesting place to visit even if you don’t know anything about Scottish history and if you have no connection to Diana Gabaldon’s sweeping time-travel romance series. It’s a carefully created and even-handed museum, and a striking Scottish geographical landmark. Let me know if you do visit, or have visited before, and what you thought about it – I’d be curious to know!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: A Visit to the Highland Folk Museum

Nestled in the Cairngorms National Park, about an hour east of Fort William, you’ll find the Highland Folk Museum, a site dedicated to exploring domestic life and culture in the Scottish highlands. It’s an 80 acre open-air museum full of replica buildings, recreating different eras of Scottish history from the 1700’s through to the 1960’s, including an entire 18th century village (where an episode of Outlander was shot).

I’m a sucker for these sorts of open-air, living history museums and I’ve visited several of them: Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, Skansen in Stockholm, Sweden, and the ATSTRA Museum in Transylvania, Romania (more on that another time perhaps). I’m so passionate about social history (the academic way of saying the study of how people lived), so on our recent trip to the Highlands, we decided to stop off at the Highland Folk Museum to learn more about the region and its history. And I’m so glad we made the stop because, honestly, this place provides quite a unique experience!

The Highland Folk Museum was the brainchild of Dr. Isabel F. Grant, who studied British folk life in the Highlands, and was inspired by the Scandinavian open air museum movement to start a museum of her own. This museum was first opened in 1944, the first open-air museum on mainland Britain.

It’s a truly unique place. First of all, the setting itself is unbeatable. 

My friend Margherita exploring the pine woods on the folk museum grounds
The recreated 18th century village, ‘Baile Gean’, Gaelic for ‘Township of Goodwill’

The 80 acres of the museum are verdant and lush, with sweeping views of the surrounding highland countryside. We visited on a sunny day, but even if you encountered typical Scottish fog or light rain, it would still be a pretty spectacular landscape to explore.

We unfortunately only had about an hour and 45 minutes for our visit and, ideally, we would have had more. We had to prioritize and since one of our party (*waves*) studies and writes about 18th century history, we knew we had to see the 1730’s village, which meant that we skipped tons of great looking stuff in other parts of the park: a recreated 1930’s sweets shop, a 19th century school house, and a post office from the 1910’s, to name just a few!

But the 18th century village was well worth seeing even if, during Covid times, it was a rather different experience, I’m guessing, than what you’d usually get.

My understanding is that there are typically several costumed historical interpreters about, showing you how to make crafts or telling you more about life from the period they are portraying, but, in this case, we were met with only one (very knowledgable and friendly!) interpreter in the recreated village.

Also, I think that more of the buildings are typically open, but several had to be shut due to (as I understood it) there not being proper ventilation inside them, to comply with safety standards. Buildings were made back then to keep in heat, and these ones had no windows, which would have been good for insulation, but not so good when you’re trying to prevent the spread of a pandemic!

Still, despite these necessary restrictions, it was very cool to see ‘Baile Gean’ and how the museum had depicted rural life in the highlands in the 18th century.

The buildings were made from natural materials, as they would have been then: timber frames, walls of turf, a thatched roof of locally collected vegetation like heather, bracken or reeds.

One example of a 1730’s house. This was one of the larger houses, which was interpreted as the home of the Tackman, or the principal tenant. The Tackman collected rent from the other tenants to pay to the local laird, their landlord.
Another home in the village. This one was built into the side of the hill.
Me outside another house in Baile Gean. (I was wearing a mask, but took it off briefly for the pic, since we were outside.)

I’d definitely love to come back and see this village again, because I do think that it would be a very different experience. For this trip, I’d purchased a guidebook at the entrance of the museum, which proved more or less essential in learning more about these buildings. If I hadn’t had that, it would have been quite difficult to figure out what I was looking at – given the lack of signs around the buildings themselves. So I’d definitely recommend grabbing a guidebook, especially if you’re visiting during Covid, when fewer interpreters will be about. The book was only a fiver and considering that entrance to the park is FREE, it’s well worth it, to get that extra bit of information.

Overall, I was surprised that my favorite thing about my visit to The Highland Folk Museum actually wasn’t the 18th century portion of the museum, but some of the 1930’s and 1950’s buildings (which were recreated in much more detail, possibly because these artifacts are simply so much easier to come by than ones from the 18th century).

The tailor’s shop was a particular highlight for me (As a side note, I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek Deep Space Nine recently and the tailor’s shop also made me think of my favorite fictional ‘tailor’, Garak. And if you understand my Deep Space Nine reference, then you’re amazing and we definitely should be friends). The tailor’s shop was originally build by Andrew MacPhearson for his son Donald on his return, wounded, from WWI. It was recreated to look as it had in the 1930’s.

The front room of the tailor’s shop
The office/construction room of the shop

All in all, it was a fascinating visit and, as I mentioned earlier, I would love to go back and see it again. There was so much stuff I missed! If you go yourself, I’d really recommend allowing at least three hours to explore. It’s a massive property and there’s so much to discover. It would make a great day or half-day trip, if you’re staying in Fort William, like we were. Plus, it’s free to visit!

More information about the museum and how to book a time slot to visit can be found here.

Thanks so much for reading and I hope you enjoyed seeing the photos of the trip. Let me know which elements you liked best and stay tuned for more 18th century explorations coming up, as I’ll be chatting about a visit to Culloden Battlefield in a future post!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden

One of the things that I love most about living in Edinburgh is that there are always more historical sites to visit. Even though I volunteer as a tour guide at The Georgian House and have visited most of the major historical sites in the city (Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace etc.), I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, until last week, I’d never been to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden.

This is a particularly striking omission on my part given that 1 – I love learning about Edinburgh’s history and 2 – I love gardens. I used to spend lots of time in Glasgow’s Botanical Gardens, when I lived there, and I’ve even co-led a writing workshop there, a couple years back. Basically, it was high time that I checked out ‘the Botanics’ (as everyone here calls the garden) and as soon as they opened back up after lock-down, I booked a slot to go and visit. (Side note: It’s free to visit, but you do have to book a time slot at the moment).

The history of the garden dates back to 1670, when it began as a small patch of ground in Holyrood Park, overseen by two intellectually curious and well-travelled doctors, Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour (Sibbald was also the first professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh). As you might know, Edinburgh was a site of Enlightenment learning and particularly medical expertise in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1683, James Sutherland wrote a catalogue of all the species of plants in the garden at that time: Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis : or, a catalogue of the plants in the Physical Garden at Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Plant Catalogue

The Royal Trust / Copyright: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020 (Photo accessed via The Royal Trust Collection Website)

If there’s one thing that I know about the Enlightenment, it’s that those guys loved – for better or for worse – to find and catalogue stuff. So it’s really no surprise that, as the British Empire expanded, the gardens expanded too. It changed locations twice and ended up at its current location, at Inverleith, in 1820. Imagine having to transport all those plants!

I wish that I could tell you that I learned lots more about the Botanics’ history during my trip there, but, quite frankly, I was too busy enjoying being surrounded by all the diverse plant life and catching up with the friends I met, who I hadn’t properly seen for months (we had a long period of strict quarantine in Scotland). It is truly an immense garden – and you could easily spent a half-day (or full day!) wandering around.

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A hedge maze in the gardens. Apparently the little building on the other side of it is full of all kinds of shells (my friends told me), but it’s closed at the moment.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the enormous tree fossil, outside a Victorian greenhouse (which was, wisely, still closed!).

Another highlight for me was the Chinese garden and I found the bridge and the tranquil waterfall so relaxing.

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There were plenty of benches for sitting and socially-distanced chatting, as well as some lovely fountains.

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And you could also find helpful historical tidbits scattered throughout too, for those, like me, who enjoy that kind of thing.

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I’m certain that I only scratched the surface of the garden (the top layer of soil, if you will) and its 350-year-old history, so I’ll definitely be going back soon. I also have a historian friend who studies 18th century botany, so let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d be curious to learn about.

If you’re ever in Edinburgh in the future, it’s well-worth a visit and I know I’ll be taking the next group of friends or family who come to visit me here.

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Hello from the Botanics!

I hope that you’re keeping well and that you’ve been finding things to take solace in and enjoy, during this strange time.

Recommended Reading:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Unbinding of Mary Reade (Book Review)

Let’s talk about pirates!

I was super excited when I checked out The Unbinding of Mary Reade from my local library a couple of weeks ago. This historical fiction novel by Miriam McNamara came out in 2018 and it’s inspired by the life of a real 18th century (female!) pirate by the name of Mary Read. I knew nothing about Mary Read going into the book, but I’ve since learned a little bit about her and her status as one of the legendary English pirates of the early 18th century, the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’.

We’ll come back to the real historical Mary’s life in a moment, but I went into this book without any of that knowledge and I’m reviewing it now as a novel. And, unfortunately, as a novel, I don’t think that it wholly succeeded, despite the super exciting premise of a queer lady pirate going on an adventure in the Caribbean (cue Pirates of the Caribbean theme music…).

I’ll start with some of what works about the book. At its core this book is really a romance, between Mary Reade and another female pirate called Anne Bonny (also a real person). And some of the sensual scenes are really well written without being explicit – it’s a Young Adult book, so it’s still appropriate for that audience. Bodies melt into each other like ‘candle wax’ and the characters are always covered in gritty sand (okay, so maybe that’s not sensual, but it is specific and probably realistic). In general, the setting was well described – colorful parrots fly overhead, the sea is shining under the hot sun etc.

I also liked the character of Anne Bonny, the female pirate who our protagonist Mary becomes enamored with. Anne was an excellent combination of manipulative and vulnerable, capable and helpless, totally over-confident at times and totally self-pitying the next. She’s gorgeous and bold and brash. As a poor woman in the 18th century, the odds were not in her favor and she has learned to manipulate the men around her and play the system, using her sexuality to gain safety and favors, but we see her coming up against the pervasive lack of fairness and unequal treatment of women at that time, which all works great.

Unfortunately though, the cons outweighed the pros for me with this book. My main issue is that there wasn’t a lot of pirate stuff in it. No buried treasure? Maps? Sword fighting? None of that? These are things we expect from the genre. I wanted a queer pirate treasure island, I guess – whether or not that’s historically accurate is another matter (it probably wasn’t) but you come to expect some of those trappings from pirate stories. A lot of pirate life probably was waiting around for opportunities to arise, as the characters do in this book, but that’s not as fun to read about.

Also I wasn’t a fan of the book’s structure. It flashes back from past to present, in alternating chapters, which was often confusing and didn’t add much. I think those flashbacks would have been better if they had simply been woven into the main body of text, not set off in separate chapters.

Additionally, the dialogue was often a little clunky and on-the-nose (there’s a bit when two characters scream at each other: ‘You don’t understand what it’s like to be me!’ ‘Well you don’t understand what it’s like to be me!’). And throughout the text there didn’t seem to be much of an attempt at taking on an 18th century manner of speaking. Often I prefer a lighter hand when it comes to adopting a historical voice, but I didn’t feel like McNamara was enjoying or reveling in any of the amazing language of this time period, which was full of very distinctive and colorful phrases.

Overall though I think my main criticism was quite simply the lack of adventure. I think buried treasure is mentioned but then it’s dropped. I would have preferred the primary driver of the plot to be something non-romantic (Mary wants to find treasure and get rich, for instance) and then have the romance with Anne Bonny growing slowly throughout their adventure together. But that’s also an entirely different book. 

When I went to read a bit about the real Mary Read after finishing this book, I was also a bit taken aback by all the changes McNamara made to her life. Not because the author doesn’t have license to change whatever she wants (of course she does!), but because I just don’t understand why some of these changes were made. Why change so much? The real Mary was married before she became a pirate, for instance, which I think could have made for quite an interesting backstory (although possibly not as appropriate for YA?).

Also, as a side note, I’m unclear why the character’s name is spelled with an ‘e’ in this book (Reade) but most sources I’ve found online refer to her as Mary Read (without the ‘e’). I’m guessing these are just variations of the spelling of her name (it was fairly common in the early modern period, especially when many people still couldn’t write, to have multiple spellings of your name). But I’m just curious!

To sum it all up, in the end I’d still recommend this book if you’re after an unconventional love story between two women, but not if you’re looking for a pirate story. It was a disappointing read because I just have this writerly feeling (I could be wrong!) that McNamara was one or two drafts away from this book being really great, but that what we’re reading just isn’t quite finished yet. Which is sad because it’s such a fascinating story about a really unique historical person. I’d certainly pick up another book by her in the future.

What have you been reading recently? Any suggestions?

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718’, accessed via Wikipedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!