Friday, October 11, 2013


In 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations opened in London. Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was a driving force behind this spectacular display of machinery, inventions and products from around the world. The purpose was to showcase Britain's role as the foremost industrialized nation of the world, and it was a huge hit.  A third of the British population, over 6 million people, viewed the exhibition. The proceeds were used to establish the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The event was held in a purpose-built building, the Chrystal Palace.

Made of iron and glass, the building was 1851 feet long, 454 feet wide, and contained almost one million square feet of space. It was remarkably modern in design and was a real feat of engineering.  Sadly, it burned in 1936.

Now, the Crystal Palace will rise again.  This is wonderful news for Victorian enthusiasts.  Can't wait to see it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Insanely Prolific"

That would be Peter Ackroyd, one of my favorite authors, who is 63 and has written 50 books.  And he does it all while drinking two bottles of wine every day of the week.

(Photo from the New York Times)

Not only is he prolific, he's versatile, writing history, biography and fiction.  His books aren't short or superficial, either.  His biography of Dickens checks in at 1,000 pages.  He's written great books on the history of London (which I try to read before every trip to that city), the river Thames, and is now at work on a history of England, projected to be six volumes.  My favorite book is Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination.  It's just what the subtitle suggests:  a history of all the things which have influenced British painters, musicians and writers. There are chapters on trees, rain, hills, the sea, and faith.  It's both enchanting and erudite.  

I was reminded of how much I love Ackroyd's work by this article, which appeared a few weeks ago in the NY Times magazine.

Monday, October 7, 2013

I'm Always the Last to Know

I don't cook, knit, scrapbook or decorate the house for Halloween, so it's no surprise that Susan Branch has never appeared on my radar.  I'm more likely to think of knitting needles as murder weapons, thanks to the hundreds of mysteries I've read over the years. I stumbled on this artist/writer/blogger/entrepreneur by accident.  Scrolling through the latest additions to my local library, I came across A Fine Romance, the diary of her recent trip to England. I checked it out.  Now I'm hooked.

I have a confession to make.  I'm a complete anglophile.  Thanks to my Grandma Pal's shelf full of Agatha Christie's books, I was an early convert to tea, sherry with the vicar and English country houses.  I may live in a contemporary-style house with contemporary furniture, but in my heart of hearts I yearn for a garden like this

outside a cottage like this

where I drink tea from a cup and saucer like this

I think you get the picture.  Back to Susan Branch.  When I'm feeling the need for something sweet and charming, I'll be visiting her blog.  It's a quick fix when I want to feel safe and cozy, and it's a wonderful antidote to all the negativity and vitriol emanating from our nation's capitol right now. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Invention of Murder

Some of the best social histories of the Victorian era are written by Judith Flanders, a British historian and journalist.  My library just acquired The Invention of Murder:  How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime.  

I've read a quarter of the book and can tell you it's meticulously researched and engagingly written. I've uncovered a few nuggets.

When the first police force was created in London, its members were given blue uniforms to accentuate that the force was not connected to the military (who wore red, as I imagine most of you know).  Soldiers were considered to be of low character and far too accustomed to violent death.

The current style of helmet worn by London bobbies was introduced in 1864.

Ever heard the expression "to read someone the riot act?"  The Riot Act of 1715 permitted "tumultuous and riotous assemblies" to be broken up with force only after the Act had been read aloud and a one hour period had expired.

The media hype surrounding the trials of O.J., Jodi Arias, and George Zimmerman, to name just a few, isn't a recent development.  Victorian era newspapers issued special editions covering famous trials, stage plays were introduced before the trials had even begun, and the public had a ravenous appetite for ghoulish detail.  The body of one murderer was publicly displayed after his execution - 30,000 filed by to have a look.  Fascinating stuff.  You can visit the author's website here.