Dickens at Westminster, a ceremony in tweets

Dickens’ 200th birthday, the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. (Live tweeting taking place under cover of the Order of Service, so as to be as unobtrusive as possible: all spelling/typos sic.)

Dickens' most recent biographer arrives.

Archbishop of Canterbury arrives.

Tact and savoir-vivre

In a fine piece on ‘Good Manners in the Age of Wikileaks’ (here), the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains the difference between politeness and tact.

In [the film] Baisers volés, Delphine Seyrig explains to her young lover the difference between politeness and tact: “Imagine you inadvertently enter a bathroom where a woman is standing naked under teh shower. Politeness requires that you quickly close the door and say, ‘Pardon, Madame!’, whereas tact would be to quicklly close the door and say: ‘Pardon, Monsieur!’ It is only in the second case, by pretending not to have seen enough even to make out the sex of the person in the shower, that one displays true tact.

I have always loved the (probably apocryphal) story of the Duc de Rochefoucauld. Coming home unexpectedly to discover his wife in bed with her lover, he says, ‘Madame, you really should be more careful. Suppose someone other than I had walked in?’

Why, I ask, rhetorically, are both these examples French?

Sweeney Todd’s Ancestors

A long post today, so bear with me (or go and make a sandwich, whichever seems more sensible). The wonderful Lee Jackson, onlie begetter of Victorian London website, and author of splendid Victorian mysteries, has written on the early days of the theatrical Sweeney Todd. I thought I would add to that with a history of Sweeney’s precursors, some early sightings of the cannibal-enabling barber, and his joke afterlife.


He killed dozens, if not hundreds. He disposed of their corpses in an unimaginably disgusting way. He murdered his accomplice. The only bright spot in this otherwise entirely unredeemed life is that he never existed. No emotions need enter, because neither Sweeney Todd – ‘the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ – nor his victims, nor the luckless Mrs Lovett, ever walked this earth.

Not that we would know it from the acres of coverage given to his non-crimes. In this he was no different from any other murderers stalking the country. For criminals were of all-consuming interest to most of the population throughout the century. Soon after Punch magazine began publishing in 1841, it noted that

…upon the apprehension of a criminal, we notoriously spare no pains to furnish the nation with his complete biography; employing literary gentlemen, of elegant education and profound knowledge of human nature, to examine his birthplace and parish register, to visit his parents, brothers, uncles, and aunts to procure intelligence of his early school days, diseases which he has passed through, infantile (and more mature) traits of character, &c….we employ artists of eminence to sketch his likeness as he appears at the police court, of views of the farm-house or back kitchen where he has perpetrated the atrocious deed…

This was true of real criminals, and as for Sweeney Todd, no one was going to let a little thing like non-existence trouble them. For the one way the imaginary criminal resembled his corporeal fellow point for point was the public’s response to their histories. Throughout the nineteenth century, huge leisure industries catered to the people’s love of the criminous. Newspapers were founded upon a fascination for crime; theatres thrived on a love of blood; magazines were saturated in it; cheap literature – broadsides, penny-dreadfuls, boys’-own stories – found their success in crimson tides; while melodrama and sensation fiction merged to produce a new genre, the quintessence of sudden death: the detective novel. And, back in the real world, crime and attitudes to crime were being reshaped, as the old Bloody Code was dismantled, the police and detective forces established on the lines we know today, and the legal system developed to accommodate a newly industrial world.

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World Book Night [a variation]

As (some) people may know, 5 March is World Book Night. On this night, 1 million copies of 25 books will be given away to (one hopes) new and potential readers, leading them on (the theory is) to a lifetime of new reading habits.

Possibly. Or possibly not. It seems to me like a lot of trees for a ‘maybe’. And it seems to many that giving away a million books when many bookstores (and authors — don’t foget the authors!) are struggling to survive in an industry where success is only a few thousands, or even hundreds, away from failure, is a gamble too far.

So the suggestion of children’s writer Nicola Morgan seems to me to be a brilliant halfway house. Not wanting to rain on World Book Day’s certainly well-meaning parade, she suggests:

‘One day between now and next Saturday (5 March), let’s each of us buy a book, preferably from an actual bookshop, or direct from a publisher. Any book…

‘Write inside it: “Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it.” And give it to someone. Anyone. A friend or stranger, a library or school or doctor’s surgery or anything. Then go home, and enjoy whatever you’re reading yourself.’

A completely wonderful idea: I’m in!

First [past the] post

Well, I’ve joined the 21st century. And I’m not sure I like it. The cheesy font I have chosen for the header to this post is called ‘Jane Austen’. But would Jane have recognized it? I beg to differ.

She wouldn’t have recognized the census, either (before her time). As a historian, I am thrilled by the census. It lets me track down people,watch the rise and fall of neighbourhoods, lets me see what’s ‘normal’: in my street in 1861, perfectly middle class, if not very prosperous, only one household had a servant. (Take that, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’.)

But as a private (very private) person, I am appalled by the planned census. The Victorians made do with name-rank-serial-number — name, who was the ‘head’ of the familiy, ages, places and dates of birth. The 2011 census, according to the Independent, is going to be 32 pages of questions on my health, wealth, and the state of my central heating (poor, since they ask). Of course, when I was at university in New York, living in a dorm, the census there wanted to know if I had an artesian well.

So perhaps for 2021 a halfway house? I realize governments don’t make their plans on what historians will or won’t want in a hundred years time, but the thought of this perfect time-capsule being destroyed, just because people put their religion down as ‘Jedi’…

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