Madeira Mondays: 2020 Recap

I’ve had several discussions with friends recently about time and our perception of it during this very strange year.

It feels, to me, that January 2020 was about a thousand years ago – so much has happened since (a global pandemic, a turbulent US Presidential race, an altered state of life for everyone)! But it also feels that January 2020 was only a minute or two ago, considering that also so little has happened since (vacations canceled, jobs lost, a string of blurring and indistinct days as we’re all stuck inside).

Whether you feel like time has passed slowly or quickly for you – or if (like me!) you feel that it has passed quickly AND slowly – I’d encourage you to look backwards and think on anything you’re proud of this year. Even if what you’re proud of is quite simply just making it through this year!

For me, one of those things I’m proudest of is all of these Madeira Mondays posts. It’s brought me joy to write them, and the consistency of it has kept me sane during the ups and downs of the creative freelancer’s life. Some weeks are full of exciting creative work – writing, editing, researching, teaching, performing – while some weeks are full of the not-so-nice side of this work – constant rejections, negotiating contracts (thankfully with the help of my union!), tedious funding applications, and oh, did I mention the constant rejections?

Through all the highs and lows of this year, including launching a new poetry book, Madeira Mondays has been there for me. And I’ve heard from several of you that it’s been there for you too! A couple of you have reached out and said that it’s something you look forward to starting your week with, and that makes me so happy to hear – especially this year, when we quite desperately need things to look forward to!

I’ve done some reflecting on the year that has passed and pulled out just a handful of my personal favorite Madeira Mondays posts from 2020. We’ve covered so many topics, from 18th century underwear, to swear words, to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. I’ve reviewed tons of historical books, films and TV shows, as well as visited historic sites in Scotland and the US. We’ve covered so much ground this year despite, well, literally not covering that much ground!

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The Best of ‘Madeira Mondays’ (2020)

Most unexpectedly delicious recipe…

That would be absolutely be switchel! This ’18th century energy drink’ with lemon and ginger was delicious, and I’ve made it several times since. If you want to learn the recipe and how I made it, check out the post from June.

A very tasty glass of Switchel!

Best film I’ve watched set in the 18th century…

I’ve watched quite a few historical films this year, but my personal favorite (and this is quite subjective) was: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s a queer love story set in 18th century France, and while it wasn’t perfect, I thought it was pretty darn good. Lots of broody, moody, melancholy shots of girls standings on cliffs staring out into the horizon. Yup, I loved it.

My ‘most read’ post…

This one wasn’t actually decided by me but by you and all the people who read Madeira Mondays, but by far and away one of my posts has been the most viewed this year: my analysis, from July, of Tracy K. Smith’s poem ‘Declaration’, which is an erasure poem based on the Declaration of Independence. The post talks about slavery and its ‘erasure’ from the declaration, as well as the power of poetry to explore historical silences and this has by far been the most viewed post of 2020.

Something that is especially meaningful about this is the fact that I can see that several people who read the post actually clicked the link to read the Declaration itself, from the US national archives. This brings me joy because if you’re an American, this document belongs to you, in a sense. I’m thrilled that my post is encouraging further engagement with it!

My favorite site visit…

I love visiting historical sites (if you work at or run one in the UK and would like to chat about the possibility of me visiting, please do get in touch!), but of course this year didn’t allow for many! I think my favorite site visit though was from this summer, when I went to the Highland Folk Museum, and saw a recreated rural 18th century village. I was glad to be able to provide a sort of virtual ‘tour’ of it, for you.

One of the turf houses we explored on our visit to the Highland Folk Museum!

My favorite historical fiction novel I read this year…

This is, again, purely down to personal tastes. I don’t know if this book is objectively the STRONGEST (in terms of style, structure, etc.) but it’s certainly the one that has stuck with me most and that’s: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. This was written back in the 1950’s and while it has its limitations, it’s suspenseful, punchy, and totally sucked me in. I really enjoyed this sweeping drama about a plucky young seamstress in Revolutionary War South Carolina. It’s got some good characters and thinking of the last line still gives me chills (I’ve actually got chills as I’m writing this now!).

Best non-fiction history book I read this year…

I’d say that’s: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. This popular book (which I believe came out in 2019 or 2018) follows the lives of the five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. It’s an excellent portrait not just of them, but also of the society in which they lived. I think the historical research also seemed pretty sound (I’m not a historian, but I’ve worked with historians and read many books by both historians and journalists about history, and this was just my impression!).

Most fun post to write…

That would probably be my post talking about how I researched/wrote one of the poems from my second poetry pamphlet, which was released in July: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. These posts looked at how I researched the Salem Witch Trials, and what influence had had on my poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’. Since I wrote this poem a while ago, it was fun to reflect back on how it was built. Much of my PhD focused on how creative writers access the early American past (through primary sources, like letters and diaries, but also secondary sources, other media etc) and so it was great to reflect on that poem and its beginnings. Hopefully that post is inspiring for fellow historical fiction writers, especially.

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And that’s it, folks! My favorite posts from 2020.

What have been your favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ from this year? 

What are you proud of having accomplished this year, even if (especially if!) it’s something ‘small’ (i.e. keeping a plant alive, talking regular walks, learning a new skill etc.)?

This was taken in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, during my trip to visit my step-sister there in October 2019

Also, I wanted to let you know that this will be the last Madeira Mondays for 2020. But I’ll only be away for two weeks, and then back on Monday January 4th, with a whole new batch of these posts for 2021!

If you’ve enjoyed this series, please do recommend this blog to a friend, or share with them any of the posts you’ve enjoyed! That really means a lot to me, as our little community of curious minds grows. And if you want to further support me and my work, a great way to do that is to order one of my books! There is more information about all of them on my publications page, and you can order my latest, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, on the publisher’s website here.

Most of all, I want to thank you all SO MUCH for reading. Many of you have blogs yourselves and thank you for writing those, as they’ve provided so much solace and entertainment for me during this really difficult time.

Have a wonderful holiday season, and see you all in 2021 my friends!

PS Today’s Featured Image is: ‘A British man of war before the Rock of Gibraltar’, By Thomas Whitcombe. (This ship represents us sailing off, towards 2021 and new adventures together in the new year!)

‘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: Sussex Pond Pudding

I watch The Great British Bake Off every year and this year I was especially looking forward to it – a bright spot of sweet, gentle television in what has been a particularly tumultuous year.

For any who might not be familiar, this is a popular British TV show where amateur bakers from across the UK ‘compete’ (I use this word loosely, because it’s quite a friendly show) to be crowned the winner. They make everything from breads to cakes to ice creams, and each week their skills are tested in a surprise ‘technical challenge’. For ‘the technical’ they all have to bake something, often historical, that they may not have ever heard of before. They are given only a sparse recipe and a set of ingredients. It’s meant to be a test of their general familiarity with all types of baking and also their overall baking instincts/skills.

This week, the ‘technical challenge’ was an 18th century dessert: ‘Sussex pond pudding’.

What is ‘Sussex pond pudding’?

The dish Sussex pond is first recorded in Hannah Woolley‘s 1672 book, The Queen-Like Closet.

The Bake Off hosts explained ‘Sussex pond’ like this:

‘Prue (the judge) has popped back to the 1700’s for this technical. She would like you each to make two Sussex pond puddings. Your puddings should be made with suet pastry and when steamed should be golden. When cut into your puddings should ooze out, creating a lemony, surup-y pond.’

The version of ‘Sussex pond’ that the bakers had to make on the show contained an entire lemon, in the center of the pudding, which is (according to my research) a modern addition to the recipe (historical versions don’t call for lemon).

A Sussex Pond pudding, photo via Wikipedia. (Sussex, by the way, for international readers, is a place in southern England, where I’ve never visited actually!)

While I hadn’t heard of ‘Sussex pond’ in particular, I did know that boiled puddings were all the rage in the 18th century. And when I say ‘pudding’, American readers might be picturing a custard-like substance that you might eat as a kid. No no no. In the modern UK ‘pudding’ refers to ‘desserts’ (i.e. ‘What’s for pudding?’ means ‘What’s for dessert?’) . And in this case we’re talking about a boiled/steamed pudding which is a traditional British type of ‘pudding’. (British readers, feel free to correct me if any of this is wrong! I’ve lived in the UK for ten years now and still sometimes get confused when I hear the word ‘pudding’ and picture American ‘pudding’!)

Jas Townsend talks all about the history of the word ‘pudding’ here in his video on how to make a ‘Boiled Plum Pudding’. He says that the word pudding is based on the Old English word for gut and stomach. And the original puddings were organ meats mixed with grains and cooked in stomachs or intestines. (If you’re familiar with haggis, that’s like an old ‘pudding’). These puddings were boiled for many hours in intestines, until the early 17th century when they started making them in cloth sacks, instead of intestines, and the meats were taken out.

Townsend also explains in that video that typical 18th century boiled puddings featured four key ingredients: flour, milk, eggs, fat (usually suet – more on that in the second). They are cooked by wrapping them in a cloth and boiling them (or steaming them)  in water.

A recreated 18th century kitchen hearth, at The Georgian House in Edinburgh where I volunteer

On the Bake Off, many of the competitors were unfamiliar with one of the key ingredients of Sussex pond: suet.

What is suet?

As one of the bakers explained, the savvy Edinburgh lad Peter (who I’m rooting for to win!): ‘Suet is the lovely protective fat from animals that surrounds the livers, the kidneys.’

Townsend explains it in lots of detail in his video on suet and its many uses in 18th century cooking. He says that: ‘Suet is the fat from the loin and kidney region of beef and mutton.’ Apparently it’s a firmer sort of fat than the fat from other parts of an animal. I don’t eat meat, so even the look of suet kind of turns my stomach, but it was a real asset for 18th century bakers, and the modern bakers on the Bake Off were all given jars of it to use – I enjoyed their confused reactions!

In the end, most of the bakers didn’t nail the ‘technical challenge’, mostly because they didn’t steam their ‘Sussex ponds’ long enough. It makes sense. If you’re not familiar with historical recipes like this, you wouldn’t guess that it takes so long – like two hours – to steam. So the result was that many of them weren’t cooked!

I really enjoyed this episode of Bake Off (which is Series 4 – Episode 8 ‘Dessert Week’), but ‘Sussex pond’ is not something I’ll be trying to make any time soon. As those of you who have been reading this blog a while know, I enjoy making 18th century food and drinks from time to time – which sometimes goes well (see: ‘Switchel‘) and sometimes goes very badly (see: ‘Flip‘). But I think I’ll give this one a miss. I’ve tried these types of puddings before, and I’m not the biggest fan. But what do you think?

As one of the judges, celebrity baker Paul Hollywood, said during the episode: ‘Steamed puddings like this go so far back in British history, it was what we were known for.’ So they do have a rich history and you can give Prue Leith’s modern recipe a go here if you’re curious!

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

‘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!

 

 

‘I hope yet I fear’: John and Abigail Adams on living through turbulent times

‘I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times – and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance.’ – Abigail Adams to John Adams, November 27, 1775

John and Abigail Adams were, in many ways, an unlucky couple. They had to spend a lot of their married lives apart: when John was serving in the Continental Congress (which declared the American colonies independent from Great Britain), when he was later serving as an Ambassador to England. Although this time apart is unlucky for them, it is quite lucky for us, because they wrote some of the most beautiful, profound, romantic, and insightful letters to each other during those turbulent times.

Although Abigail’s gender kept her from engaging in the public sphere directly, she was hugely intelligent and followed the developments of the American Revolution closely (as well as experiencing, first hand, the effects of the war: the loss of friends, food shortages, the constant threat of violence). She wrote about all of this.

These were two amazing people who shaped their world and ours. Adams and his peers wrote many of the laws and established the system of government that everyone in America still lives under today. John and Abigail were also quite progressive people by our modern standards (they were both, for instance, very against slavery). Like so many of the founding generation, it’s very easy for them to take on a sort of mythic quality in our imaginations now. But what I love about reading their letters to each other, and Adams’ journal entries, is seeing how freaked out and anxious they were…pretty much all the time.

They were deeply religious people and trusted in God, and they were early New England people so they were gritty and used to physical and mental hardship. But they were also human beings who were, quite understandably, nervous wrecks a lot of the time. Abigail worried about John’s safety, of course, but also about the fate of the war against Great Britain and about what would happen after, even if the colonies won. Who would write the new laws? What sort of government would there be?

Adams greatly missed his family when he was away and worried constantly about the ‘Ocean of Uncertainties’ before him and the thirteen colonies. He worried about the safety of his family, as well as his own safety (although he doesn’t mention this directly, once he’d signed the Declaration of Independence, he knew he’d committed high treason and would be executed for it if the revolution failed). He ends one letter, on May 22, 1776, with the simple sentence: ‘I hope yet I fear.’

In a diary entry from two years earlier, June 25, 1774, he wrote about his fears and his feelings of inadequacy:

I muse, I mope, I ruminate (…) The Objects before me, are too grand, for me and multifarious for my Comprehension. – We have not Men, fit for the Times. We are deficient in Genius, in Education, in Travel, in Fortune – in every Thing. I feel unutterable Anxiety. – God grant us Wisdom, and Fortitude!

‘We have not Men, fit for the Times.’ AKA ‘we’re not up for this challenge’, the challenge of the present. He worries there aren’t people smart enough, cultured enough, good enough to meet the historic moment. This is a peek behind the curtain, as it were, to the very human worries going on backstage, as America was moving towards becoming the first ever colony to break from its mother country and towards becoming a republic that would last for centuries. John Adams was so worried.

The reason I chose to write about the Adams family (the 18th century one, not the TV one!) today is because this past week can be summed up, for me, in those words that John Adams wrote: ‘I hope yet I fear.’

Although it seems like things are moving in the direction which I believe, with my whole heart, is the only way forward for the country – the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – it has still been a nerve-wracking week. We’ve had a President trying to undermine and stop the voting process – that’s scary. This is, in many ways, a dark moment, and it’s tough during dark moments to find that ‘patience and perseverance’ that Abigail talked about in the opening quote of this post.

I don’t know how everyone else is feeling, but I can tell you that I’ve been nervous, on edge, fearful and have cried…more than once, mostly out of exhaustion and sheer build up of emotions. Like Adams: ‘I muse, I mope, I ruminate.’ BUT I also have so much hope that we can meet the enormous challenges of the present moment: the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change etc.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that even if you personally feel overwhelmed right now, or like you don’t have the energy or the skills to rise to this moment and to affect positive change in the coming weeks and months and years – you are enough. You are ‘fit for the Times.’ And we, as a nation, are enough. We’ll get through this.

John and Abigail’s letters and diaries remind us that it’s very human to doubt one’s own abilities and to fear for the future. But I truly believe, as they believed, that the country is heading towards something very bright indeed.

I hope that you are keeping well during this momentous election season, and, for my readers who are not American, I hope that this post offers something for you to think about too! I am thinking of you all, and hope that you are safe and well.

I’ll be taking this upcoming Monday off from ‘Madeira Mondays’, since I anticipate needing a break from being online next week. But I’ll be back with another ‘Madeira Mondays’ post the week after, November 16th! As always, thank you for reading, my friend.

Further Reading:

  • Most of the quotes from this post came from My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (which is an entertaining read and, I kid you not, more romantic and exciting than a lot of novels I’ve read)
  • My previous posts analyzing The John Adams HBO miniseries
  • My post on the TV series Grace and Frankie and its relationship to John Adams and LGBT+ activism

PS Today’s Featured Image is of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, taken on my trip there last year

‘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: Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) Movie Review

Heads will roll. – The tagline for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Last Halloween, I rewatched Beetlejuice (1988) directed by Tim Burton. It was zany, silly, macabre, but also quite a smart satire of ‘yuppie’ culture and a celebration of the quirky and bizarre in all of us. It was colorful and strange and (especially for the time) unique. Plus there are some simply iconic scenes in it.

I think that Beetlejuice is really an example of Burton at his best. By contrast, with 1999’s Sleepy Hollow staring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, we have Burton at his most…bleh.

I choose Sleepy Hollow as my Halloween viewing this year because I had recently read the source material: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. For anyone who hasn’t checked out my Madeira Mondays post about it, I look at the history of Irving’s tale, published in 1820.

Irving’s original story is actually a bit like Beetlejuice (a quirky satire of the contemporary society that Irving was living in), and I think it has more in common, in terms of tone, with Beetlejuice than with the straightforward, semi-serious gothic Sleepy Hollow movie. The original Sleepy Hollow story is spooky at times, yes, but it’s overall pretty lighthearted and (in my opinion) a bit of a joke. It’s not gory, like this movie, and it’s frankly a lot more fun to read than this was to watch.

When I turned off Sleepy Hollow, after an hour and forty odd minutes of periodic boredom (with a pick-up of pace towards the end), I was left with a very ‘meh’ feeling about the whole film. I was also left with two main questions: 1 – Does it work as an adaptation? 2 – Does it work as a film in its own right?

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Does it work as an adaptation?

I often listen to The Flop House podcast (which is about ‘bad movies’) and recently they were discussing what makes a good adaptation. I can’t remember which host was saying this (perhaps Dan McCoy?) but he said that a ‘good’ adaptation is one where the creator figures out what it is they like about the original and then tries to explore than in a new medium. I really like this concept. It’s not about getting every single plot detail ‘right’, because film will have different demands than a book and vice versa, but rather figuring out what quality or aspect of a thing you really like, and then trying to translate that. (So maybe, for Lord of the Rings, it’s the epic sense of adventure you want to preserve? Or, with a Harry Potter book to film, it might be a feeling of cozy whimsy, or a focus on the coming of age narrative etc.)

I think, here, Burton and company picked out ‘spooky tale about Halloween hauntings’ from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and really leaned into that, without examining what the original Sleepy Hollow is really about. I would argue that the original story  is mostly about superstition, how you shouldn’t believe everything you hear, etc. It’s also a little bit about inheritance and the film does lean into that – it’s not giving too much away to say that the film’s plot, like so many ghost stories, does involve an inheritance.

But the decision to reimagine Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as a proto-Sherlock Holmes detective here, who packs his steam-punk goggles to go and investigate murders committed by the ‘headless horseman’ in Sleepy Hollow is such a strange choice (Ichabod Crane, in the original story, is a superstitious man and his fears are exploited by others in the town). This Sherlock Holmes rational/clues-driven detective stuff is also so Victorian to me that it feels out of place in the Colonial American setting, and is totally different from the book – although perhaps they didn’t want a lead who was a foolish as Crane from the story?

All in all, it’s not a particularly ‘faithful’ adaptation (in terms of themes, plot, character etc.), nor is it one that subverts/challenges/reimagines the original in any way. It just took the bare bones of the story and ran with that. Which, you could argue, is fine…but I didn’t like where they ran.

Does it work as a film?

If we put the source aside, it’s a decent film in its own right and it overall looks very good. Everything is muted, grey and black, and it would be a good thing to put on in the background when you’re carving pumpkins or something, because it does have a lot of spooky imagery: gnarled trees, glinting Jack-o-lanterns, etc. Knowing what Burton can do though, I think he could have pushed the mis-en-scene (all the bits on screen like set, costumes, props etc.) even further and made everything look stranger.

Also, and this is a pretty specific critique, the costumes look way more 1770’s and 1780’s to me than 1799 (when the film is set)…by this time, people were wearing more empire waist dresses and there is nary an empire waist dress to be seen! But maybe the town of Sleepy Hollow, being so remote, is a bit behind, fashion wise…

Finally, be warned that it is a little gorier than I expected, but I am a bit of a baby when it comes to horror movies (I never watch them). This one wasn’t ‘scary’ at all, but there was some blood and guts, so if that’s not your thing then I’d give it a miss. (Although the tagline did promise that ‘heads will roll’ and boy, did they ever!)

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That’s about all I have to say about Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, my Monday friends! A very decent film, but nothing exceptional!

What do you think of Sleepy Hollow?

What do you think makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ adaptation? Do you have a favorite book to film adaptation? 

I hope you had a nice Halloween on Saturday, if you’re into that sort of thing (which, as you know, I am!).

(Also, since tomorrow is the US Presidential election, I wanted to send a gentle (yet urgent!!) reminder to all of my American readers to: VOTE. If you’ve not already…VOTE!!)

‘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: 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!