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Exhibit, conference showcase Victorian amusements          Send a link to a friend

[April 25, 2007]  From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau:

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Despite their reputations for being prudes and their Queen's famous comment to the contrary, Victorian folks could be amused. Quite, in fact.

And to demonstrate their ravenous appetite for fun, an ensemble of scholars at the University of Illinois has mounted a new exhibition titled "We Are Amused."

The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, runs from Monday (April 23) to July 20 in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Room 346 of the University Library, 1408 W. Gregory St., Urbana. That library is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

All but two of the items for the exhibition are drawn from the U. of I. Library. A Web version of the exhibit is posted at

The occasion for the exhibit is the 31st Conference of the Midwest Victorian Studies Association, which will hold its 2007 meeting at the U. of I. Friday through Sunday (April 20 to 22). The theme of the meeting is "Entertainment in the Marketplace: How the Victorians Were Amused."

The association and the Rare Book Library are co-sponsors of the exhibit.

According to Nicholas Temperley, a U. of I. professor emeritus of music and one of the curators, the items in the exhibit were chosen to "evoke a relatively unexplored aspect of Victorian life."

He and his co-curators, Walter Arnstein, professor emeritus of history, and Christina Bashford, professor of music, and the exhibit coordinator, Dennis Sears, focused on three categories of entertainment in the Victorian era: music, theater and sport.

"All three enjoyed a near-universal appeal in the Victorian period," Temperley said. "Even the Queen, despite her famous saying, was amused. She was an enthusiast for opera and horseback riding, and promoted recreational swimming."

Temperley said that some of Victoria's "less exalted subjects" preferred minstrel shows and dog fighting, while melodrama occupied those in the middle ground. Golf and hunting were "somewhat exclusive pastimes," while skating and cycling were well within reach of the majority and enjoyed by both sexes -- often together.

We discover from the show that Victorians were amused:

• In their drawing-rooms. "It is almost impossible," Bashford wrote in the exhibit catalog, "to exaggerate the importance of music in the lives of the Victorians." They flocked to hear professional musicians, but also "delighted in making music themselves."

One of the crazes that overtook middle-class Victorians was the Christy's Minstrels, a "blackface" comic song and dance troupe whose performances, which included ballads, comic songs and burlesques, "claimed to recreate modes of entertainment that were found among American plantation slaves," Bashford wrote.

Songs from their shows were arranged for voice and piano and published in albums. "The simple vocal lines, harmonies and easy accompaniments would have made them ideal for amateur performances in the Victorian drawing-room."

The "Boosey's Christy's Minstrels Album" in the exhibit was published in London in 1859. It contained in two books and one "elegant volume" the music and lyrics for 24 popular songs, including some tunes still familiar today -- "Gently Down the Stream" -- and some not as well remembered, such as "Let Me Kiss Him for His Mother."

Another sing-along book on display was just for men: "Richardson's New Modern Minstrel, containing all the most popular comic, sentimental, and bacchanalian songs for the year." Published in 1834 with a hand-colored foldout title page, the book contains lyrics to such classics as "Give Me the Ruby Grape" and "Mary Had Lovers Two."

Hard to believe, but even the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was grist for the song mill. For three shillings and sixpence -- then equivalent to about 87˘ -- a London choral group in 1900 could buy a copy of "Scenes from the ‘Song of Hiawatha' " by H.W. Longfellow set to music for soprano, tenor, and baritone soli chorus and orchestra by S. Coleridge-Taylor.

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Coleridge-Taylor's Op. 30, No. 1, had three parts: "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast," "The Death of Minnehaha" and "Hiawatha's Departure." The pocket-sized book also included a list of characters and their identifications and a pronunciation guide to Indian words.

The publisher Novello "enjoyed enormous commercial success selling cheap editions of choral works such as ‘Hiawatha' to satisfy the huge amateur interest in singing, and demand for multiple copies of music," Bashford wrote.

• At exhibitions, including London's big one in 1851. For the equivalent of about $1.37, visitors could buy an ingenious souvenir, "Lane's Telescopic View of the Interior of the Great Industrial Exhibition." The accordion-style "peep-hole" book has nine colored panels, one of them a grand fountain sprinkled with glitter to mimic its torrent of water.

• In the theaters. "The theater was in a flourishing state throughout Victoria's reign," Temperley wrote in the exhibit catalog. "Playbills bear witness to the astonishing enthusiasm of audiences for watching two or even three events on one evening, often lasting for five or six hours."

Women in this era, he wrote, enjoyed "full acceptance, if not equality, as actors, and gradually lived down the moral ambiguity long attached to that profession." They often played male parts, he said.

One woman who built her career largely on "breeches" roles was Jennie Lee (1858-1930). The show includes a print of her portrayal as "Jo," the ragged sweeper boy. Lee first played "Jo" -- a major character in Charles Dickens' "Bleak House" -- in San Francisco in the 1870s for a play titled "Jo." When her husband revived the play at the Globe Theatre in 1876, Lee was an immense success in the title role.

• In armchairs. The satirical magazine "Punch" was ruthless entertainment. The April 3, 1875, issue, shown in the exhibit, depicts an entire orchestra composed of women, the gender that was only just coming out of the cultural bonds restricting their playing of instruments
-- it being considered "unsightly" to see a respectable woman holding a violin under her chin, and still less, a cello between her knees.

• On fields and in stadiums -- in droves. "Victorians not only became involved in an enormous variety of participant sports," Arnstein wrote, "but by the end of the 19th century two mass spectator sports had also become part of English life: cricket, with W.C. Grace as a national hero, and football, that is, soccer."

• On paths. In its 1887 volume on cycling, the remarkable 24-volume "Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes" proclaimed that riding via tricycle and bicycle by both sexes was "by far the most recent of all sports. There is none which has developed more rapidly in the last few years." With 400 bicycling enthusiasts, "England may be looked upon as the Home of Cycling," the book added.

• On the slopes. Beginning in the late 1800s, women were accepted in the "novel sport" of tobogganing -- but their clothing clearly was an issue. The popular women's magazine The Ladies' Field, lavish with photographs and illustrations, addressed the problems in its Feb. 20, 1900, issue.

"A sport that perhaps does not very often come within the ken of the generality of women is tobogganing. Practised as it is, however, to a large extent at winter resorts in Switzerland, and particularly in the Engadine, the charms of it, as I can testify from personal experience, are very considerable."

After a description of the sport, preferred venues and male attire, the author launches into a discussion of acceptable postures and attire for females. While the "sideways" posture was most graceful for women at St. Moritz, the "flat face downward" position was too risky, for "unless the dress is very cleverly manipulated or strapped down, it is apt to blow up to the waist, which, to say the least, is hardly a pleasing sight."

Still, armed with enough elastic, hooks and eyes, "the woman tobogganist can enjoy her rides to the full; and once she understands how to steer with judgment and due caution, and knows the pace at which she can travel with safety, she will scarcely fail to derive as much pleasure as she can possibly desire from the pursuit of this exhilarating sport."

[Text copied from University of Illinois news release]

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