A Victorian Christmas Miscellany
On the Christmas pages last year I posted a medley of short items relevant to the "Victorian Christmas", featuring festive icons and activities which need preparation and planning long before Christmas Eve. I am now including this page in the new Christmas Supplement.
This image from the Girls' Own Paper 1884 reflects the emphasis at Christmastide, in many Victorian magazines, on charitable works and visiting the poor and sick.
To You all I wish a Very Happy Christmas and Prosperous New Year.
Illustration of a Ward in the New Hospital for Women in London. From the article "Christmas in the New Hospital for Women" by Sophia F A Caulfield
*Readers were told that the new voluntary hospital had benefited from some of their handiwork. Articles submitted to the magazine's needlework competitions were donated to charities, and some of these, including "beautifully made flannel petticoats", which were apparently particularly well received, had made their way into the capacious interior of a four-foot high figure of Father Christmas, the centre-piece of the largest ward which was lit by Chinese lanterns and decorated with evergreens. Gifts placed inside were numbered and everybody "nurses and nursed" alike drew lots for them. As well as needlework, welcome presents included flowerpots and plants, work-boxes, books and eau de cologne. Some of these floral gifts are visible on the tables. (A comment on the value to patients of ferns in particular can be found in the feature on Gardens.) The article ended with an appeal for further donations and and an invitation from the lady superintendent to local readers to visit the hospital.
Sadly Father Christmas must have disappeared by the time the artist and journalist visited the hospital, but I was as intrigued as the paper's readers presumably were, to learn that his body was "extemporised" out of the 'wicker work sides of a vapour-bath' and in his drapery 'resembled that of "The Green Man" or "Jack o' the Green" paraded in the streets on May Day.' (Further evidence that in the 1880s Father Christmas could still wear the traditional green.) His bearded and whitened head was adorned, like the burlesque and pantomime players in the article below, with an "appropriate mask."
FOOTNOTE:The hospital was designed exclusively for women and at this time had 26 beds occupied by 'both ladies and women in a humbler position' and had treated more than 2,000 out-patients during the previous year. Though both men and women sat on the organizing committees, the doctors, dispenser, housekeeper and honorary officers were all women, as of course were the nurses. Patients other than the very poor paid a small contribution towards their treatment.
[A boy's delight. From an essay "Pantomimes" in Temple Bar 1861]
The Victorian Pantomime season seems to have mirrored the winter social season of dinners, dances and other indoor entertainments, as these theatre notes, appearing in the February issue of the Ladies' Treasury 1860, indicate:
At Covent Garden, the English opera has succeeded beyond the expectation of the enterprising lesees. The opera of "Victorine" has been a decided hit; and the pantomime of "Puss in Boots" displays the most numerous, well-trained, and interesting female rifle corps that has yet been exhibited at any theatre.
At the Haymarket, the well-arranged pantomime, "St Valentine's Day," is peculiarly suited to the great anniversary of this month - a day so important to lovers of all ranks and conditions of life. It is from the pen of Mr. Buckstone - a genius as original and attractive in his style of composition as in his manner of acting.
PRODUCING A PANTOMIME
By the late 1860s the Christmas "Show" was sufficiently well established for it to be a festive target for humorists contributing to the Belgravia Annual. The images below are taken from a comic strip "De Jones's First Pantomime" by Brunton.
CAPTIONS READ: top - DE JONES ENGAGES TO WRITE A PANTOMIME - UNABLE TO MAKE A SELECTION FROM THE "WHITE CAT"
bottom - "THE SEVEN CHAMPIONS OF CHRISTENDOM"
OR "THE FAIR ONE WITH THE GOLDEN LOCKS"
... he decides to take the easy way out and write "an entirely original piece opening with 'The Demon of the Depths' and finishing with 'The Pale Spirit of Pandemonia'.When the masks are modelled, and the miles of gorgeous scenery painted, rehearsal comes.
IT DID NOT AT FIRST APPEAR AS IF THESE EMINENT COMEDIANS COULD BE
"Nor did the rehearsal of Christmas-Eve foretell The Terrific Combat of Boxing-Night"
WHAT IS A BURLESQUE?
The second item to deal with spectacular shows was a poem "What is a Burlesque?" by W.S.Gilbert, like Dutton Cook, a contributor to Belgravia in its early years. It amusingly targets the features of this dramatic genre, and in doing so it is not only informative for puzzled readers - whether Victorian or contemporary - but reflects the links between the stereotypes of modern pantomime and its ancestry via harlequinade and burlesque. Since Gilbert had written a burlesque and a pantomime himself only a couple of years before, the poem has a touch of self-parody, though the humour is mainly directed at the stereotypes and confusion of the spectacle itself. The works for which he and Sullivan were later to become famous would give both librettist and composer a scope and level of control denied to the script-writer of burlesque and pantomime.
FOOTNOTE Pantomime ultimately traces its origins back to commedia dell' arte.
This extract from a poem of nine stanzas gives the opening one on the Princess character and the first of two devoted to the Prince.
Pretty princess, Prince whom she loves,
Beautiful dress; Beautiful gloves,
Exquisite eyes, Clothes very fine,
Wonderful size; Glitter and shine,
Lots of back hair Exquisite tie,
Coming to there; Glass in his eye,
Shoulders so fair, Highly urbane,
Marvellous pair! Neat little cane,
Dear little dress Comb in his hair
(Couldn't be less); Sunnily fair,
Story confused, Beautiful curls,
Frequently used; Form like a girl's-
Sillified pun Figure, I mean;
Clumsily done. Looks epicene.
Dresses grotesque, Dresses grotesque,
Girls statuesque, Girls statuesque,
Scene picturesque- Scene picturesque-
That's a burlesque! That's a burlesque!
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© Barbara Onslow 2007 Page published November 2007 Last updated December 7th 2009