Archive for the ‘LITERATURE, EDUCATION, & REFORM’ Category

Crime author Agatha Christie loved to swim on the Devon Coast.

Crime author Agatha Christie loved to swim on the Devon Coast.

Agatha Christie (1890-1976) never outgrew her childhood love of sea bathing. She spent her early years in the coastal town of Torquay, England, in Devon, on the English Channel. In summer, she swam in the sea practically every day, even if it rained or stormed. Not only locals like Agatha enjoyed Torquay’s beaches. Torquay [tor-kee] was a posh seaside resort, a popular winter and summer holiday destination for wealthy Europeans and royal personages. With its reputation for a healthful climate, the area is called the English Riviera.

a Great Western Railways travel poster illustrates the allure of the Devon Coast

A Great Western Railways travel poster illustrates the allure of the Devon Coast. Undated

When Agatha was a young girl, the beaches in Torquay were segregated by sex. The Torquay Council kept a strict watch on the propriety of sea bathing. In 1899, a bylaw stated that “no person of the male sex shall at any time bathe within 50 yards of a ladies’ bathing machine.” Men and boys swam at the Gentlemen’s Bathing Cove where there was no dress code. Men swam there in the nude or “in their scanty triangles,” Agatha recalled, “disport[ing] themselves as they pleased.” Women and girls were restricted to swimming at the Ladies’ Bathing Cove. Their beach was small and stony, and steeply sloping.

The Ladies' Bathing Cove, Torquay England, undated. Note the bathing machines at the shoreline.

The Ladies’ Bathing Cove, Torquay, England, where crime author Agatha Christie bathed in the sea. Note the bathing machines at the shoreline. Undated photo

The women swam in pantaloons and frilly dresses that covered them up.

A page from a Newcomb Endicott Company Spring Catalog, ca. 1910. Most women sewed their own bathing suits.

A page from a Newcomb Endicott Company Spring Catalog, ca. 1910. Most women sewed their own bathing suits.

Agatha loved going to the Ladies’ Bathing Cove with her family. Once there, Agatha’s mother and grannie would stake out a spot on the beach with their picnic things, but Agatha couldn’t wait to plunge into the surf. She changed into her swimsuit in one of the 8 bathing machines parked near the water’s edge. Bathing machines were private, portable changing rooms on wheels.

Once inside the machine, “an ancient man, of somewhat irascible temper” picked up the “gaily painted striped affair” and hauled it down the hill and into the water. Agatha exited the bathing machine, stepping down a short ladder into the chilly waters of the English Channel.

Swimmer exits the bathing machine in her Victorian swimsuit ca. 1905

Swimmer exits the bathing machine in her Victorian swimsuit ca. 1905

Agatha would then swim out to an anchored raft, pull herself up, and then sit upon it, sunning. Getting to the raft was a minor feat in itself, even though Agatha was a strong swimmer, because once in the water, her woolen swimsuit became completely sodden and heavy, making her sink under its weight. Women sewed weights in the skirt hems to keep them from rising up in the water, compounding the problem. It was a recipe for disaster: women sinking under the weight of cumbersome dresses, women who could not swim, crashing waves, no lifeguards, and water so frigid that limbs went numb and faces blue. Only some beaches had attendants to help women in the surf and ropes to hold onto.

Trivial matters like safety aside, what really occupied everyone’s mind at the Turn of the Century in England was protecting women’s modesty. The beach at the Ladies’ Bathing Cove was immensely private; it was completely invisible from the windows of the Torbay Yacht Club situated above it on the hill.

The beach may have been ultra-secluded but the sea around the raft was not. It was perfectly visible through the club windows. In her autobiography, Agatha wrote:

…[A]ccording to my father, a good many of the gentlemen spent their time with opera glasses enjoying the sight of female figures displayed in what they hopefully thought of as almost a state of nudity! I don’t think we can have been sexually very appealing in those shapeless garments.”

In 1903, when Agatha was 13, the Torquay Council approved mixed bathing on its beaches. Men and women could now frolic in the surf together at Tor Abbey Sands and Corbin’s Head Beach, as well as on the more aristocratic Meadfoot Beach, the one Agatha’s mother’s preferred.

Here is a mixed group of bathers photographed in Eastbourne around 1906. Mixed bathing in England became widely accepted at about this time.

Here is a mixed group of bathers photographed in Eastbourne around 1906. Mixed bathing in England became widely accepted at about this time.

Although allowing the sexes to mingle was considered to be a very progressive social move, ironically, it placed an even heavier burden on the women. In order to properly mix with men on the beach, Victorian standards of modesty dictated that women had to wear far more clothing than before! It was strictly forbidden for women to let their bare legs show. To caps, dresses, bloomers, and shoes, they added thick, black stockings. Agatha remembered the taboo against legs:

I really don’t know why legs were considered so improper: throughout Dickens there are screams when any lady thinks that her ankles have been observed. The very word was considered daring. One of the first nursery axioms was always uttered if you mentioned those pieces of your anatomy: 

‘Remember, the Queen of Spain has no legs.’

‘What does she have instead, Nursie?’

‘Limbs, dear, that is what we call them; arms and legs are limbs.’”

Women wearing Victorian swimwear and keeping their legs hidden from male view. 1905, origin unknown

Women wearing Victorian swimwear and keeping their legs hidden from male view. 1905, origin unknown

At first, Agatha’s mother insisted that Agatha wear stockings to the beach, but:

Three or four vigorous kicks when swimming, and my stockings were dangling a long way beyond my toes; they were either sucked off altogether or else wrapped round my ankles like fetters….”

907 studio photo of famous champion Australian swimmer and silent Hollywood film star, Annette Kellerman. Her contribution to women's liberation was her advocacy of a comfortable women's swimsuit.

1907 studio photo of famous champion Australian swimmer and silent Hollywood film star, Annette Kellerman. Her contribution to women’s liberation was her advocacy of a comfortable women’s swimsuit.

Australian swimmer, diver, and entertainer Annette Kellerman – “The Diving Venus” – set out to challenge legal restrictions on women’s bathing suits. She believed that swimming was the ideal exercise for women and that pantaloons and skirts prohibited free movement, allowing women only a dip, not a swim, in the life-giving sea. Kellerman was well-known in Britain. In 1904 she swam 26 miles of the River Thames, performed underwater ballet in a glass tank at the London Hippodrome, and tried (and failed) three times to swim the English Channel.

In 1907, preparing for a promotional coast swim, Kellerman was arrested for indecent attire on Revere Beach, Boston, in America. She was wearing one of her clinging, one-piece swimsuits that had no skirt, revealing her thighs.

Kellerman pleaded her case before the judge. Her swimsuit, she explained, was practical, not provocative. Swimming in a Victorian swimsuit with its

‘shoes, stockings, bloomers, skirts, corsets and a dinky little cap,’ she said, made as much sense as ‘swimming in lead chains.’”

The judge dismissed the case, accepting Kellerman’s arguments in favor of swimming as healthy exercise and against cumbersome bathing suits, provided she wore a robe until she entered the water. Her arrest made international headlines. It was the birth of Twentieth Century bathing suits for women; from then on, swimsuits began to be designed for more practical use.

Wearing modern one-piece suits inspired by swimmer Annette Kellerman, women bathers gather seaweed and laugh.  Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire in Wales, 1916

Wearing modern one-piece suits inspired by swimmer Annette Kellerman, women bathers gather seaweed and laugh. Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire in Wales, 1916

For more on Agatha Christie, click here.

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Agatha at 16 in Paris. 1906

Agatha at 16 in Paris. 1906

Thinking back over her teenage years, English crime novelist Agatha Christie (1890-1976) wasn’t sure how long she had been at her finishing school in Paris. In her autobiography, she wrote:

I am hazy now as to how long I remained at Miss Dryden’s – a year, perhaps eighteen months, I do not think as long as two years.”

Upon one point, however, she was perfectly clear. It was during her stay at Miss Dryden’s that she discovered men:

Something happened to me at the sight of Rudy [an American college boy]….From that moment forward I stepped out of the territory of hero worship….I wanted to meet…lots of real young men – in fact, there couldn’t be too many of them.”

Girls and young women of this period believed, including Agatha, that in these packs of real young men lurked their future husband, commonly referred to as “Fate” or “Mr. Right.” She says:

You were waiting for The Man, and when the man came, he would change your entire life!…In the words of old nurses, nannies, cooks, and housemaids:

‘One day Mr. Right will come along.‘”

Back then, her name was Agatha Miller. When Agatha left finishing school (1907) and returned home to her mother in Torquay, England, her dream of becoming a concert pianist had faded, but not her desire to meet men – and lots of them. She was 17, and, in her own words, good-looking. She was tall and slender with masses of thick, wavy, and  golden hair – hair so long she could sit on it.

Agatha Christie as a child. She had fantastic hair.  Undated photo, ca. 1900

Agatha Christie as a child. She had fantastic hair. Undated photo, ca. 1900

She wore it up now, in the Grecian style, because, at 17, she was ready to “come out,” and that was the proper hairstyle for a girl going from a chrysalis to a butterfly.

Edwardian Era hairstyles had to be big and poufy to hold the enormous hats the Edwardians were so fond of.

Edwardian Era hairstyles had to be big and poufy to hold the enormous hats the Edwardians were so fond of.

This was the Edwardian Era (1901-1910) in England. It was traditional then for a girl of Agatha’s upper middle class status to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood by “coming out.” A mother gave her daughter a dance. The daughter would “do a season” of parties in London. But as Agatha’s mother Clarissa was a widow and her wealth was a thing of the past,  there could be nothing like that for Agatha. So, the winter of 1910 they decided to go to Cairo, Egypt, where Agatha could ease her way into society (and meet men). Travel was relatively cheap then and they would lease their house out for extra income. They were going Agatha husband-hunting.

Clarissa Miller, Agatha Christie's mother, at her home in Torquay, England, before the start of the First World War (1914)

Clarissa Miller, Agatha Christie’s mother, at her home in Torquay, England, before the start of the First World War (1914)

Mother and daughter set sail for Cairo where they would join other mothers and daughters with the same purpose. They were not disappointed. Three or four regiments were stationed in Cairo. There was polo matches to watch every afternoon and, five nights a week, there were dances in the hotels. Cairo was crawling with men - exciting ones, too.

Agatha Christie (center) at a dancing class, Torquay. She was a good dancer. undated photo

Agatha Christie (center) at a dancing class, Torquay. She was a good dancer. undated photo

Agatha and Clarissa stayed at the Gezirah Palace Hotel in Cairo for three glorious months. Agatha was so busy that she didn’t get as far as even falling slightly in love. Despite being a poor conversationalist, she had been popular among men of all ages and backgrounds, even an Austrian count, as she was both pretty and a great dancer. In the end, two men proposed marriage to her. (Men proposed very freely back then!) Her first suitor, a Captain Hibberd, never actually proposed marriage to Agatha. He timidly told Clarissa of his interest in Agatha. Clarissa didn’t even tell Agatha about it until they were sailing back to England, which made Agatha mad, as she liked to conduct her own love affairs. Agatha’s second marriage proposal came from a young man who was six-foot-five, a nice enough fellow, she admitted, but she didn’t love him, so she turned him down. Agatha would marry for love, as she was fully romantic.

British tourists pose in about 1910 at Giza outside Cairo, the Sphinx over their shoulders. Agatha Christie, too, visited this spot in 1910 but was not as interested in Egyptology and archaeology then as she would be in later years.

British tourists pose in about 1910 at Giza outside Cairo, the Sphinx over their shoulders. Agatha Christie, too, visited this spot in 1910 but was not as interested in Egyptology and archaeology then as she would be in later years.

Agatha returned to England with newfound confidence in herself – and still looking for “Mr. Right.” Over the next two years, she was courted by a string of eligible bachelors and became engaged to three of them. She spread her wings. She went up in an aeroplane. She visited a friend in Florence. She dreamed of becoming an opera singer but thought better of it. Then, one day, sick with the flu and stuck in bed, bored, she decided “to try her hand at a novel.” She began to write in earnest and, before long, she had formed the habit of writing stories.

Meanwhile, she was engaged to Reggie Lucy (who hated dancing and parties) when, in December of 1912, she was asked by some family friends to attend a dance being given for the members of the Garrison from Exeter. She reluctantly agreed. She traveled the 12 miles distance by train then car to Chudleigh.

Agatha Christie attends a house party, undated photo. Note the elaborate clothing of the Edwardian Era.

Agatha Christie attends a house party, undated photo. Note the elaborate clothing of the Edwardian Era.

Her friend Arthur Griffiths, who was stationed at that same Garrison in Exeter, wrote her to say that, sadly, he was not one of the officers able to attend the dance but to look out for a friend of his who was indeed going,

Christie by name….He’s a good dancer.”

Later, when Agatha was at the dance, she said:

Christie came my way quite soon in the dance. He was a tall, fair young man, with crisp curly hair, a rather interesting nose, turned up, not down, and a great air of careless confidence about  him….We got on together very well; he danced splendidly…I enjoyed the evening thoroughly.”

Ten days later, back in Torquay, Agatha was having tea with the Mellors across the street from her home. She and Max Mellor were practicing the tango. The phone rang. It was Agatha’s mother asking her to “Come home at once, will you, Agatha?” A young man was waiting for her in the parlor. Clarissa didn’t give his name.

Agatha was irritated at having to abandon her fun at the Mellors; she felt sure that her gentleman caller was a “rather dreary young naval lieutenant, the one who used to ask” her to read his poems. She left sulkily for home.

Colonel Archie Christie in an undated photo

Colonel Archie Christie in an undated photo

But it wasn’t the dreary young naval lieutenant standing nervously in the family drawing room. It was Archie Christie (1889-1962), the man from the dance. He made up some lame excuse about having been in the neighborhood and deciding to look her up, but it was clear he was taken with Agatha. They chatted uncomfortably at first, then, after a few minutes, it got better. The afternoon wore on. Clarissa asked Archie to stay for a  “scratch dinner” of cold turkey, cheese, and salad. For the next several weeks it was like that, him arriving unexpectedly on his motorbike, spending the day, then motoring off “in a series of explosive bumps to Exeter.”

Agatha’s interest in fiancé Reggie Lucy was waning. Within a month, she broke that engagement and became engaged to Archie Christie. Now he was “Mr. Right.” They broke the news to Agatha’s mother. Clarissa knew that it would be hard for them, with Archie’s meager salary as a soldier and Agatha’s even more meager allowance of 100  pounds a year from her grandparents’ estate. She counseled then to wait, but did not object to the marriage. She could see that the two of them were terribly in love.

It was Archie’s mother Peg Hemsley who went and spoiled it all.

Agatha recalled the scene when Archie told his mother he was engaged to her:

‘Would she now be one of those girls that’s wearing one of these new-fangled Peter Pan collars?’

Rather uneasily Archie had to admit that I did wear Peter Pan collars. They were rather a feature of the moment.

1914 day dresses featuring Peter Pan collars.

1914 day dresses featuring Peter Pan collars.

We girls had at last abandoned the high collars to our blouses, which were stiffened by little zigzag bones, one up each side and one at the back, so as to leave red, uncomfortable marks on the neck. A day came when people determined to be daring and achieve comfort.

1911 Queen Mary with Ladies in Waiting. These women were not "Go-Ahead Girls"; they still wore the stiff collars of the Edwardians.

1911 Queen Mary with Ladies in Waiting. These women were not “Go-Ahead Girls”; they still wore the stiff collars of the Edwardians.

The Peter Pan collar was designed, presumably, from the turned-down collar worn by Peter Pan in Barrie’s play.

Maude Adams starred as Peter Pan in a 1905 British play. The collar on her costume, known as the Peter Pan collar, became popular.

Maude Adams starred as Peter Pan in a 1905 British play. The collar on her costume, known as the Peter Pan collar, became popular.

It fitted round the bottom of the neck, was of soft material, had nothing like a bone about it, and was heaven to wear.

1914 Dress featuring Peter Pan collar and a more relaxed dress line. Ladies were abandoning rigid clothing and corsets.

1914 Dress featuring Peter Pan collar and a more relaxed dress line. Ladies were abandoning rigid clothing and corsets.

It could hardly have been called daring. When I think of the reputation for possible fastness that we girls incurred, just by showing the four inches of neck from below the chin, it seems incredible….

Anyway, I was one of those go-ahead girls who, in 1912, wore a Peter Pan collar.

‘And she looks lovely in it,’ said the loyal Archie.

‘Ah, she would, no doubt,’ said Peg.”

Agatha Christie ca. 1926

Agatha Christie ca. 1926

Regardless of Peg’s disapproval, Archie and Agatha did marry – two years later. It was at Christmas and England was at war with Germany (1914). Archie was on leave; he was then a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. They were staying at Bristol with his mother and stepfather. Archie decided that getting married was the only sensible thing to do. They hunted down the vicar and, outside the church, saw a friend of Agatha’s who agreed to witness the wedding. Agatha was wearing an ordinary coat and skirt with a small purple velvet hat, and hadn’t had time even to wash her hands and face. The ceremony was performed with only bride, groom, witness, vicar, and organist present. The newlyweds then had two days together before Archie returned to France and the dangerous business of being a fighter pilot in the First World War (July 1914-November 1918).

It would be six months before Agatha would see her husband again. She resumed volunteer work at the hospital in Torquay – and, more importantly, writing story after story at home, and seeing them published. In good time, Agatha Miller  – now Agatha Christie -  would be regarded as the world’s best-selling novelist, her literary success having been made possible despite “Mr. Right,” not because of him, contrary to what she had been brought up to believe.

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Twelfth Night, celebrated on January 5 (and also called Epiphany Eve), is the traditional last day of the Christmas holiday festivities. It also marks the adoration of the Magi, and many cultures celebrate it as almost a second Christmas Eve. It marks the start of the Carnival Season which ends on Mardi Gras. Beginning in Tudor England (1485-1603), Twelfth Night was often commemorated with a large festive party - lots of cake and ale - to mark the end of the Winter Festival. William Shakespeare wrote his joyous comedy, "Twelfth Night, or, What You Will" (1600), to be performed at Twelfth Night feasts. The illustration shown here is William Harrison Ainsworth's "Mervyn Clithroe's Twelfth Night Party by 'Phiz'" (c 1840).

William Shakespeare’s high comedy, “Twelfth Night, or, What You Will,” (1600), centers on themes of love – unrequited love, lost love, secret love, fickle love. But another theme is also explored – carpe diem, or “seize the day.” The idea that we should embrace life and live it to the fullest and in the present was a very modern philosophy for Shakespeare (1564-1616) to tuck into a 17th Century play.  Plays during the Elizabethan Era were generally moralistic in nature, reflecting the prevailing Puritanism.  

Now let’s slip into a scene in “Twelfth Night” in which carpe diem is expressed:  

"Olivia" (1888) from "Twelfth Night" by Edmund Blair Leighton

detail from painting, "Twelfth-Night (The King Drinks)" 1634-40 by David the Younger Teniers show the Court Jester entertaining a crowd.

Act II, Scene iii opens in Olivia‘s vast house in dreamy Illyria on the Adriatic Coast. As Olivia is a rich noblewomen in step with the fashion of the day, she keeps a clown on staff whose name is Feste. Feste is a witty jester dressed in crazy clothes. His job is to say clever things, tell his mistress the truth (as would any decent court jester), and amuse her and her guests, who, at this moment, include her alcoholic uncle Sir Toby Belch and his drinking buddy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a bumbling knight who has his eye on Olivia for a bride.  

It is quite late at night when we join Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in the drawing room. They have been drinking quite a lot. By the time Feste the Clown joins them, they have gotten so noisy and stinking drunk, they are disturbing the peace of the sleeping household.   

"Twelfth Night, or, What You Will," Act II, Scene iii: (l to r) Feste the Clown, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek whoop it up with a drink and a song, rousing the household in the wee hours of the morning.

Both Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are in the mood to hear a song. Sir Toby gives Feste sixpence to sing a love song. Feste obliges. His beautiful song –  “O Mistress Mine” –  is an ode to free-spirited, impulsive, and delicious love. Life is short; you’ve got to grab joy when it’s within reach:  


O mistress mine, where are you roaming?

O, stay and hear! your true-love’s coming,

That can sing both high and low.

Trip no further, pretty sweeting,

Journeys end in lovers meeting—

Every wise man’s son doth know.


What is love? ’Tis not hereafter;

Present mirth hath present laughter;

What’s to come is still unsure:

In delay there lies no plenty;

Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,

Youth’s a stuff will not endure.


(1) The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. New York: The Viking Press, 1969.

Readers, for more “Talk Like Shakespeare Today” posts, click here.

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American author and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, well-known by his pen name of “Mark Twain,” served as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the American Civil War broke out in 1861. The Mark Twain image shown here adorns an early Twentieth Century cigar box. Mark Twain was beloved and enjoyed public goodwill all his days.

 I used to have a notion that there was only one place in the world where I could write,” American author Mark Twain once told a friend, “That was Elmira, where I used to spend all my summers. But I’ve got over that notion now. I find that I can write anywhere.” (1) 

Anywhere meant exactly that: anywhere. Twain didn’t even require a desk to write. As it turns out, Mark Twain (1835-1910), also known as Samuel Clemens, did a good deal of his writing in bed. Unlike many other authors who complained of the difficulty of the writing process, Twain did not find creative work difficult. 

Just try it in bed sometime. I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away. Thinking is easy work, and there isn’t much labor in moving your fingers sufficiently to get the words down.” (1) 

In his old age, Mark Twain was often photographed in his heavenly bed, smoking away on a cigar or a pipe and writing.

Mark Twain writing in his heavenly bed.

While Twain had many houses in his lifetime and all of them special, he had but one favorite bed, which he kept with him all of his life.  He had bought it in 1878 in Venice, Italy, when he and his wife Olivia were furnishing their ridiculously- expensive three-story Victorian palace in a Hartford, Connecticut neighborhood known as “Nook Farm.” 

The Mark Twain House in the Hartford, Connecticut, community known as "Nook Farm." Mark Twain said of this house, "To us, our house . . . had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with." (Mark Twain Wrote (and Smoked!) in Bed," Lisa's History Room)

The master bedroom at Nook Farm occupied its own wing on the second floor. The massive Venetian oak bed dominated the room. The bed was heavy and made of carved oak. It featured: 

a headboard carved into a bas-relief of cupids, nymphs and seraphs, the six-wing angels who guard God’s throne. [Twain] claimed he found it so sublime he had put the pillows down at the foot of the bed and slept backward so that this heavenly vision of worldly success would be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.” (2) 

Mark Twain's carved oak bed. ("Mark Twain Wrote (and Smoked!) in Bed," Lisa's History Room)

It was in this bed that Twain died. (3) The bed remains the most famous furnishing of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. This house proved so costly to furnish and maintain that it drove Twain into bankruptcy in 1891. He was forced to go on tour in Europe to raise funds.

Mark Twain and family at Nook Farm

However foolhardy the house was, it was during those spendthrift years at Nook Farm that Twain wrote many of his best-known and most-loved works, probably while smoking in his favorite heavenly bed: 

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876),
  •  The Prince and the Pauper (1881),
  •  Life on the Mississippi (1883),
  •  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). (2)

(1) “How Mark Twain Writes in Bed. The New York Times, April 12, 1902. 

(2) Wolfe, Tom. “Faking West, Going East.” The New York Times, April 24, 2010.
(3) Power, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005.

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Frances Griffiths is shown playing with fairies in Cottingley Beck, near Bradford in England, in 1917. Her cousin Elsie Wright was the photographer. This is one of 5 photographs the cousins took of themselves playing along a creek with dancing fairies.

Do you believe in fairies? Frances Griffiths, 16, and her cousin Elsie Wright, 10, did. They claimed to play with dancing fairies along the enchanted stream [the beck] behind Elsie’s house in Cottingley Village, England - and they had 5 photographs to prove it. There in the frames, dancing around the girls, were four female fairies!

When Elsie’s parents saw the photos, they didn’t know what to think. Elsie’s father examined them and proclaimed them clever fakes. But Elsie’s mother wasn’t so sure. Mrs. Wright wanted to believe the girls, as she was a spiritualist. [Among the country folk in England at the time was a lively fairy-faith. ] The parents searched the girls’ shared bedroom and around the beck for scraps of paper to reveal tomfoolery. Still nothing turned up. Mrs. Wright was inclined to believe the girls. Her husband made his camera off-limits.

Time passed. At first the photographs were only shared with close friends and family, but, in 1919, Mrs. Wright attended a lecture on fairy life, bringing the prints with her. By 1920 the prints had come to the attention of one of the leading spiritualists of the time, Edward Gardner, who examined them and had two new negatives made, clarifying the pictures.

The story of the Cottingley fairies got even more attention when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries) learned of them.

Detective Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The characters of Holmes and Watson were created by British doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a renowned spiritualist.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous for more than his books. He was an outspoken believer in the spirit world. He immediately believed the Cottingley fairy story and began writing letters to the Wright family in support. Doyle published his book The Coming of Fairies in 1922, maintaining until his death that the Cottingley fairies were real.

Still, public opinion was divided. Supporters claimed the photos provided long-awaited proof of the existence of spirits. Others said the photos were nothing more than clever fakes. The Cottingley Fairy Photos caused heated debate. Nevertheless, the girls held to their story, even as they aged.

Finally in 1983 Elsie came clean. She divulged in a letter to a friend that the photographs were indeed a hoax. She described how she and Frances had used the fairies in Princess Mary’s Gift Book as inspiration for cut0uts. They then used hatpins to prop up the paper dolls in the bushes for pictures.

Fairy figures in Princess Mary's Gift Book


Elsie insisted that they had meant no harm. They were just having a bit of fun. It had been Elsie’s idea as a way to get back at her parents for scolding her little cousin. Evidently, her mother and father had gotten angry with Frances for getting her clothes wet one day while playing in the beck. Frances had claimed to be playing with fairies when she’d fallen, and the elder Wrights had teased her. Elsie had come up with the idea of taking the first pictures to have the last laugh. All along they had planned on confessing their little trick until Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. By then, the matter had grown so out of proportion thatthe girls became terrified of a public backlash should they confess.


Elsie Wright is shown receiving a flower from a fairy. This is one of the famous Cottingley fairy photos from 1917.

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Freedmen’s Monument, Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.; sculptor, Thomas Ball. The sculpture was funded solely from freed slaves, primarily from African-American Union veterans, to pay homage to the American president who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, thus liberating them from bondage in the Confederate States. The statue was dedicated on April 14, 1876, 11 years after Abraham Lincoln's assassination by the Confederate rebel John Wilkes Booth. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass delivered the dedication speech.

Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln

Frederick Douglass delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln at Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1876. This is the conclusion of what Douglass said to the crowd:


“Fellow-citizens, the fourteenth day of April, 1865, of which this is the eleventh anniversary, is now and will ever remain a memorable day in the annals of this Republic. It was on the evening of this day, while a fierce and sanguinary rebellion was in the last stages of its desolating power; while its armies were broken and scattered before the invincible armies of Grant and Sherman; while a great nation, torn and rent by war, was already beginning to raise to the skies loud anthems of joy at the dawn of peace, it was startled, amazed, and overwhelmed by the crowning crime of slavery–the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was a new crime, a pure act of malice. No purpose of the rebellion was to be served by it. It was the simple gratification of a hell-black spirit of revenge. But it has done good after all. It has filled the country with a deeper abhorrence of slavery and a deeper love for the great liberator.

Had Abraham Lincoln died from any of the numerous ills to which flesh is heir; had he reached that good old age of which his vigorous constitution and his temperate habits gave promise; had he been permitted to see the end of his great work; had the solemn curtain of death come down but gradually–we should still have been smitten with a heavy grief, and treasured his name lovingly. But dying as he did die, by the red hand of violence, killed, assassinated, taken off without warning, not because of personal hate–for no man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him–but because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.”

Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, daguerrotype, 1855. Douglass recruited black men to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Readers, I’ve posted many articles on Abe Lincoln. Scroll down the right sidebar to Categories/People/Abraham Lincoln for more! Enjoy.

Also on this blog: “Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.”

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The American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, in a rare photo taken c. 1840, around the time he became a runaway slave.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

The following is an excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), which includes recollections of Douglass’ experiences on a Maryland plantation:

“To describe the wealth of Colonel Lloyd [his master] would be almost equal to describing the riches of Job. He kept from 10-15 house servants. He was said to own a thousand slaves, and I think this estimate quite within the truth. Colonel Lloyd owned so many that he did not know them when he saw them; nor did all the slaves of the out-farms know him. It is reported of him, that, while riding along the road one day, he met a colored man, and addressed him in the usual manner of speaking to colored people on the public highways of the South:

‘Well, boy, whom do you belong to?’

“To Colonel Lloyd,’ replied the slave.

‘Well, does the colonel treat you well?’

‘No, sir,’ was the ready reply.

‘What, does he work you too hard?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Well, don’t [sic] he give you enough to eat?’

‘Yes, sir, he gives me enough, such as it is.’

The colonel, after ascertaining where the slave belonged, rode on; the man also went on about his business, not dreaming that he had been conversing with his master. He thought, said, and heard nothing more of the matter, until two or three weeks afterwards. The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader….

It is partly in consequence of such facts that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim that a still tongue makes a wise head.”

Also on this blog: “Abe Lincoln: The Freedmen’s Monument

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MERRY-GO-ROUND by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

colored child at carnival:


Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.

Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we’re put in the back–
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!

Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

It wasn’t like young Langston Hughes to get into trouble. But, in 1914, when his seventh-grade teacher moved him and the other African-American students into a separate row in class, he got angry. So he put cards that read “JIM CROW ROW” on the black kids’ desks. He was soon expelled. But a protest rose up among the parents and Langston was eventually allowed to return to school. He had fought back and won a victory: separate seating in his school was no longer permitted.

Although Langston Hughes attended school with whites in Kansas, he wasn't allowed to play sports of join clubs. Signs throughout town read: "No Coloreds Allowed" and facilities for whites and blacks were separate. This anti-black caste system was known as Jim Crow Laws and operated mostly in the Southern United States between 1877 and the mid-1960s. It was used to keep blacks as second-class citizens.

Readers, you might also enjoy: Langston Hughes: When Sue Wears Red.

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Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an African-American poet, novelist, columnist, short story writer, and playwright. His exceptional literary talents were recognized early in life; he was elected class poet at his Lincoln, Illinois elementary school.

Langston Hughes scoffed at the “honor” of the position:

“I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows — except us — that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.” 

Langston is best associated with the American literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s)  and was one of the pioneers of a new literary form, jazz poetry.

Langston wrote his first jazz poem when he was in high school in Cleveland: “When Sue Wears Red.” Here it is:

When Sue Wears Red


When Susanna Jones wears red

Her face is like an ancient cameo

Turned brown by the ages.

Come with a blast of trumpets, Jesus!


When Susanna Jones wears red

A queen from some time-dead Egyptian night

Walks once again.

Blow trumpets, Jesus!


And the beauty of Susanna Jones in red

Burns in my heart a love-fire sharp like pain.

Sweet silver trumpets, Jesus!

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Sonnet #130 by William Shakespeare

Pass the breath mints! 

The Bard paints an unflattering portrait of his mistress.


My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun [brown],

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked [mingled red and white], red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath than from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak; yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound:

I grant I never saw a goddess go [walk];

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

    As any she belied [deceived] with false compare [comparison].

Readers: For more “Talk Like Shakespeare Today” posts, click here.

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Walt Whitman, the American poet, photographed in Camden, New Jersey, 1887

from “Song of Myself”

by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


I think I could turn and live with animals,

they are so placid and self-contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long.


They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,


Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

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Charles Dickens at writing desk

By the time Charles Dickens turned ten, his family had lived in six different houses, each poorer than the one before. Although Charles’ father John Dickens was employed as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, he lived well beyond his means. Plus, the family kept growing; there were eight children in all, which meant many mouths to feed.

Then, in 1822, John Dickens was transferred to London and the family followed. Things went rapidly downhill. John Dickens was soon in debt up to his eyeballs. He informed Charles that he no longer could afford to send him to school. This broke Charles’ heart. The headmaster at his school had already recognized Charles’ special intelligence and imagination and Charles wanted to be a man of letters.

To pay the butcher and the baker, Charles was sent with armloads of books to sell at the pawnshop. Charles was humiliated and heartbroken. Gone were the wonderful hours in his little attic room in Chatham, reading tales of heroes like Robinson Crusoe and Peregrine Pickle. Now he was forced to part with his beloved stories, his only escape from the drudgery of his life. The books were soon followed by all the household goods, sold in an attempt to pay off the family’s debts, and keep John Dickens out of debtors’ prison.

In this 1840 engraving, 'Love Conquered Fear,' fictional character Michael Armstrong, a boy adopted by the mill owner, is shown embracing his brother Edward who is one of the ragged factory boys working amongst the spinning mules. By Michael's foot, a child can be seen crawling out from under a mule, employed to keep the floor under the mules dust and fiber free to minimise risk of fire. These poor boys often suffered horrific injuries when crushed by the moving machinery. From Frances Trollope's ''The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong'' London 1840.

Then, in “an evil hour for me,” Charles was offered work at Warren’s Blacking Factory at six shillings a week, or about $1.40.  Charles’ parents jumped at the offer. Charles remembers:

It is wonderful [shocking] to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age….My mother and father were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.”

No one – no neighbors, friends, or family members reached out to save Charles from this terrible fate. So, on Feb. 9, 1824, at the tender age of twelve, he entered the business world to earn wages for the family. From eight in the morning until eight at night, six days a week, Charles worked alongside rough boys in a dark room covering pots of boot polish and gluing on labels.  The work conditions were appalling:

“The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old gray rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place,rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river.”

 Victorian children are shown working in a cotton mill. At the beginning of British Queen Victoria’s reign (1837), many children worked in factories for cheap wages. Some workers were as young as five. Few citizens questioned the practice of employing children at the time as there were no laws to protect them. The novels of British author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) with their depiction of poverty did much to bring about positive social change and improve the living conditions of the poor.
Then, two weeks later, John Dickens was arrested and thrown into Marshalsea Prison, where he had to stay until his debts were paid. Charles’ mother and his seven siblings were allowed to live there with him, everyone living in one room, except, alas, Charles. The blacking factory was too far from the prison for Charles to get back before the gates were shut at night. Charles was sent to live in a cheap boarding house. After work he wandered the dark streets of the big city, utterly alone, totally miserable, shabbily dressed, anticipating a dinner of bread and cheese in an empty room.
Those days were so crushingly painful for Charles that, years later, when he was a grown man with a family of his own, he could not walk those same streets without being reduced to tears. As a writer, Dickens filled his books with people and places from those bitter days, offering a social commentary that improved the lives of the poor. The novel Oliver Twist (1839), for example, shocked readers with its depiction of poverty and crime in Jacob’s Island, resulting in an actual clearing of the slum.

For more on Victorian child labor, click here.

Readers: For more on Charles Dickens, scroll down the right sidebar: Categories/People/Charles Dickens. Enjoy!

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Old Fezziwig's Christmas Eve Ball from "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens (1843)

The Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan owns the entire handwritten manuscript of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The 66-page manuscript written in 1843 bears all of Dickens’ edits in his own hand. “He worked on it with loving care, doing much more rewriting than usual.” (1) The original story is written in light blue ink. Edits are in thick, black ink.

One edit is visible on page 12, where Scrooge encounters Marley’s ghost, and chalks up the vision to indigestion. Dickens originally wrote “a spot of mustard” then changed it to read: a “blot of mustard.”

The manuscript is exhibited each holiday season but, alas, only one page is put on view each year, under glass. This year, however, the Morgan has allowed the New York Times to photograph and display the entire handwritten treasure online at


The Morgan challenges readers to go online and study the manuscript and submit what they think is the most interesting edit in the work. The contestant judged to have submitted the most intriguing edit will be invited as the newspaper’s guest to afternoon tea at the Morgan.

What motivated Charles Dickens to write his classic holiday ghost story?

“At the time A Christmas Carol was written, Dickens feared for his future. He had six children to feed, a large house in London to maintain, and a lavish lifestyle. Christmas was approaching.

Yet Martin Chuzzlewit, the work he was then producing, a few chapters at a time, was not selling as well as earlier installments of The Pickwick Papers or Nicholas Nickleby. Bitterly, he confided to a friend that his bank account was bare….

Conjuring up what Dickens himself described as a “ghost of an idea,”…he got to work. The 6,000 copies printed in time for Christmas sold out. But because he had splurged on hand-colored drawings by John Leech, one of England’s leading illustrators, the project was a financial bust.

Fortunately for Dickens, his quickie book went on to become a classic.” (2)

(1) Stanley, Diane and Vennema, Peter. Charles Dickens: The Man Who Had Great Expectations. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1993.

(2) “Dickens the Editor To Dickens the Writer: Make it Sell.” The New York Times. A29. December 2, 2009.

Readers: Check out these other related posts:

“Dickens: Marley’s Ghost” 

“Grip the Raven” about Dickens’ pet raven

“Nellie Bly: Charles Dickens’ Visit to Blackwell Island Asylum 1842″

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The ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843); Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1915)

‘Mercy! [Scrooge] said. ‘Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?’

“Man of the worldly mind!’ replied the Ghost, ‘do you believe in me or not?’

‘I do,’ said Scrooge; ‘I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?’

‘It is required of every man,’ the Ghost returned, ‘that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!’

Marley's Ghost by John Leech (1843) from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1943)

Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

‘You are fettered,’ said Scrooge, trembling. ‘Tell me why?’

‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’

Scrooge trembled more and more.

‘Or would you know,’ pursued the Ghost, ‘the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain!’”

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Full Moon Through the Trees

Full Moon Through the Trees

Last night, just before bed, Katie called me outside to look at the moon. I didn’t want to do it; I was tired, but she insisted, so I went. She took me into the backyard and pointed at the corner of the yard, behind the live oak near my bedroom. 

“Up there!” she said. “See it?”

Well, I didn’t, but she made me keep looking.  She scooted me to the right and had me stand on my toes. I craned my neck to see. Then I finally saw it, a full moon hung low in the sky, just over the roof, stuck in the live oak branches, like an errant volleyball. The moon was more white than yellow, not very big, and veiled in smoky haze. With the live oak branches scratching the moon, cloaked in night mist, it looked like a scene right out of a scary vampire movie . It was spooky.  But what intrigued me more was the look that moon looked down and gave me.

Yes, there was a face in the moon – the face of a woman. For just an instant, that moon’s face smiled down on me in a Cheshire Cat kind of way. Then a thin cloud floated across the moon and the face was gone forever.

The Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The cat disappeared, little by little, but the smile was the last to go

The Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The cat disappeared, little by little, but the smile was the last to go

I am not alone. The poet Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) also saw a woman in the moon.

The Moon


The moon has a face like the clock in the hall;

She shines on thieves on the garden wall,

On streets and fields and harbour quays,

And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees.


The squalling cat and the squeaking mouse,

The howling dog by the door of the house,

The bat that lies in bed at noon,

All love to be out by the light of the moon.


But all of the things that belong to the day

Cuddle to sleep to be out of her way

And flowers and children close their eyes

Till up in the morning the sun shall arise.


  from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson


dreamstime_1972333[1]_SarahLouiseJohnson_Dreamstime.comFaithful Readers:

I’ve written a new teen mystery, THE CANDY RAVERS, which I’ve posted here on this blog in its entirety. Click here to read THE CANDY RAVERS or use the tab at the top of the site. I hope you enjoy it or show it to a young person.


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