Madeira Mondays: Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens (book review)

A few weeks ago, a billionaire went to space in a rocket. I’m really not impressed. What does impress me is the work that scientists and actual astronauts have been doing for years to map the heavens and better understand our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe. On that note, I wanted to recommend a book which I read last summer that combines two interests of mine: history and outer space. It’s a non-fiction book about the first ever global scientific collaboration conducted on Earth, which actually happened in the 18th century!

The book is Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf. It has adventure on the high seas, it has danger, it has rivalries, and best of all it has international cooperation (something that we could use a lot more of these days).

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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: 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!