Eighteen Nineteen

Contemporary engraving of Queen Victoria

Are you one of those people who loves seeing 12.34 appear on a digital clock, gazes delightedly at the mileometer (odometer) as it clicks over to all the same digits in a row, or got excited at one minute past eight in the evening of the 20th of January, 2001?

No? No matter; you clearly won’t be excited at the arrival of the year Twenty twenty (no vision, see). But this year at least gives me a chance to look back two centuries to 1819 — I do savour saying “eighteen-nineteen” — and a few greats, particularly literary greats, of the Victorian era.

The year that John Polidori’s The Vampyre was published was also the year that saw the birth of the future queen who gave her name to an era, and of her husband, Prince Albert. Queen Victoria (who died in 1901) was the contemporary of the pianist and composer Clara Schumann (1819-1896) and of Florence Nightingale (who was born just a year later, in 1820). Also born around that time was Roger Fenton (1819–1869), a significant figure in the burgeoning art of photography, noted as a war photographer in the Crimea and for snapping the royal family on various occasions.

Photograph of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria by Roger Fenton (1819–1869)

Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880) is better known by her penname George Eliot: her novel Middlemarch is on my Classics Club list, and I hope to tackle it this year. Across the Atlantic Herman Melville (1819-1891) was also born this year: some day I may get further than the first few pages of Moby-Dick.

Melville’s almost exact contemporary, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), is another giant in the literary world though my acquaintance with his work is largely limited to musical settings of his texts by Benjamin Britten and others, and of course “O Captain! My Captain!” (as cited by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society).

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a strange individual, though probably no more idiosyncratic than any of the other unconventional Victorians mentioned here. A respected writer and opinion-former on art, architecture and history, he was also the author of the literary fairytale The King of the Golden River (published in 1851 but written ten years earlier). Written for a young girl called Effie, with whom he later had a disastrous marriage, this marvellous piece in the Brothers Grimm tradition is forever linked in my mind with the Richard Doyle illustrations which accompanied its first publication. In an ideal world I’d very much like to read his The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

And now I come to the equally distinguished Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), another one of those 19th-century polymaths; however he, while a jack-of-all-trades (art, botany, geology, theology and novel-writing for example) turned out to be master of none. He too is best known as the author in 1863 of a literary fairytale — the incomparable The Water-Babiesbut I have a couple of his other fictions on that Classics Club list.

That just about exhausts my roster of eighteen-nineteen figures: sadly I couldn’t raise seventeen names (17 1819 writers) has a ring to it, does it not?) nor could I find a more international selection than these Anglophones. Maybe you can come up with some of those unrepresented writers that have so far eluded my search?

24 thoughts on “Eighteen Nineteen

    1. Well, I knew about Pinkerton and his detective agency but I had no idea he was a writer of fiction and non-fiction, nor indeed that he was an active abolitionist. We live and learn, live and learn!

      And, after a quick glance at Wikipedia, Żmichowska looks fascinating too! Presumably she was part of the Polish diaspora in France, along with individuals like Chopin?

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      1. piotrek

        Weren’t the Pinkertons spying for the good guys during the Civil War? Before they started specializing in crashing the unions for big business…

        Żmichowska was a governess for a Polish aristocratic family (Zamoyscy, one of them, Adam, is contemporary a British historian), they, obviously, had to visit Paris a lot, that’s what one did these days 😉 And she got some shameless habits there, such as proto-feminism or smoking cigars publicly 😀

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    1. Whitman’s birthday was in May so the exhibition may be timed to incorporate that; Melville’s was at the start of August so we’ve a couple of months to go before things start hotting up!

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  1. I love the day May 4th – Star Wars day! (May 4th be with you!)

    I’ve wanted to read some George Elliott (Evans) for a while now. I’m intrigued by her character Silas Marner but not sure

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      1. Hah! I do that often on my smartphone too. 😊 Elliot? Haven’t read her yet but I did watch the TV adaptation of Middlemarch some years ago, when we were living in Bristol. One of neighbours / acquaintances was Patrick Malahide, and he played the part of Casaubon, an ageing author who marries the main protagonist Dorothea.

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        1. I just had a brainwave – Project Gutenburg! I can download a free and legal epub and give it a try – then buy the actual book if I get on with it! (I much prefer proper books to electronic reading. I constantly miss the touch and smell of a real book while reading with my Kobo or tablet.)

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          1. Huzzah! I’ve always preferred physical books over ebooks, my Kindle consigned to a dark recess after fruitless attempts at completing anything on it. But as a way of sampling classics electronic books are ideal, especially if they’re free to download! (Myself, I also like the introductions and occasional scholarly apparatus in physical books to help place the works in context.)

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    1. Yes, Star Wars day, great meme on social media! Also trending last year (and I’m being a bit political here) was ‘the end of May’, though that was somewhat premature–maybe this year?!

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  2. What a fun post thank you! May 4th be with you is great – and Patrick Malahide a neighbour, wow, he was brilliant as Casaubon. Middlemarch is one of the most perfect books ever written, Silas Marner is much shorter but is also brilliant. I hope you love her too.

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    1. Thanks, Jane, number synchronicity is great, especially where dates are concerned!

      Malahide was, like me, on the Parent Teacher Association at our kids’ primary school in Bristol in the late 80s, by which time he’d done tv series like Minder and The Singing Detective (1986); more recently he’s done Game of Thrones and, on film, Mortal Engines but our paths no longer crossed after our kids left for secondary school.

      I’m looking forward to Middlemarch, but I don’t think it’ll be till the summer, too much else to read before then! 🙂

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  3. Moby Dick? Blech, there are soooooooooooooooo many other books to read! I had to read Moby Dick in high school and positively loathed it. Sure, this could be because I was a teenager, but I’ve never read or seen anything to persuade me to try it again. x

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    1. Books/authors who divide opinions are described here in the UK as Marmite (a salty yeast extract for spreading on bread, though looking like Nutella, so don’t mix them up!) — you either love ’em or loath ’em. Moby Dick I think falls into this category! 🙂

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