Tag Archives | Victorian

Queen Rat: Victorian London’s Sewer Succubus

Toshers were scavengers who explored the vast, ancient sewers of Victorian London in search of lost coins and salvage, but even greater rewards awaited those fortunate enough to encounter the legendary Queen Rat. As Mike Dash of Smithsonian Magazine reports:

…A second myth, far more eagerly believed, told of the existence (Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood record) “of a mysterious, luck-bringing Queen Rat”:

This was a supernatural creature whose true appearance was that of a rat; she would follow the toshers about, invisibly, as they worked, and when she saw one that she fancied she would turn into a sexy-looking woman and accost him. If he gave her a night to remember, she would give him luck in his work; he would be sure to find plenty of money and valuables. He would not necessarily guess who she was, for though the Queen Rat did have certain peculiarities in her human form (her eyes reflected light like an animal’s, and she had claws on her toes), he probably would not notice them while making love in some dark corner.

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Varney the Vampire’s Feast of Blood

Varney_the_VampireThe fictional vampire may have made his debut at the Algonquin Round Table, but he flourished alongside the cave-dwelling cannibals and homicidal maniacs who introduced the British working class to the magic of reading. The 1845-1847 penny dreadful Varney the Vampire was penned by none other than James Malcolm Rymer, who created the character Sweeney Todd. Victorian Gothic writes:

James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire has been described as the worst book of the 19th century. Introduced in 1845, the completed serial consists of over 600,000 words of tedious dialog, aimlessly meandering storylines, maddening repetition, and enough kernels of genius to consistently inspire horror fiction into the present day. Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Russell T. Davies and Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau are just some of the writers and filmmakers who have been indebted to concepts originated in the pages of Varney, making it easily the most influential vampire story that nobody reads.

The first full-length work of vampire fiction, Varney appeared in the penny press some 36 years after the original short story sketches by Lord Byron and John William Polidori, and decades before J.

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Crafting With Human Hair

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Victorian Hair Wreath

During the 19th century it was fashionable to incorporate human hair into brooches, watch chains, wreaths, and other objects that could be worn or displayed. Victorian Gothic explores the lost art of sentimental hairwork:

Mrs. Hamlin of Omaha, Nebraska left a rather curious heirloom to her descendants—an intricately woven bouquet composed entirely of human hair. Buried deep inside, each of its flowers is numbered with a tiny label corresponding one of fifteen names written on a separate index card; those of herself and her loved ones. More than a century ago, each of these people offered up their locks of brown or gray—literally, pieces of themselves—to provide the material for what would become a lasting symbol family unity.

The weaver need not have been the eccentric that one might suppose. On the contrary, she was likely to have been a conventional middle class lady going about her fancywork. She may have included a lock of her own in the wreath, but quite possibly she did not, preferring instead to be present as the sum of its parts; the invisible weaver of family ties.

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Spiritualism was the Psychedelic Movement of the 1870s

Spiritualism…complete with altered states, free love, and millenarian ideals. In this piece, Victorian Gothic discusses “The Lighter Side of Victorian Spiritualism”:

“One important and often overlooked aspect of Victorian mediumship is that it could be enormous fun,” says Alex Owen in The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. This is the picture that emerges when one looks particularly at the “star mediums” of the 1870′s, who were known for performing theatrical, full-body materializations for eager audiences.

In a dim seance room, the medium would enter a closed cabinet wherein she would tap the mysterious psychical forces that would allow her to manifest one of her spirit familiars. This familiar would then emerge to from behind the curtain to entertain the assembled sitters. Each medium had her own repertoire of otherworldly entitles at her command, each with his or her own distinct personality, speech patterns, favored tricks and antics.

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Before “The Secretary,” Hannah Cullwick was “The Maid”

secmaidCullwick claimed to be able to tell where her husband had been by the taste of his boots. Kathryn Hughes reviews Love and Dirt in the Guardian:

The secret marriage between minor man of letters Arthur Munby and his servant Hannah Cullwick has become one of the great set pieces of 19th-century social history. Whenever a case study is needed to show the sheer weirdness of Victorian men in the bedroom, the story of how the gentlemanly Munby stalked, caught and loved the huge, dirty Cullwick over a period of 40 years is pressed into play … At Munby’s direction, Cullwick produced thousands of pages of letters and memoir which told the strange story of how she came to spend 40 years in a sado-masochistic relationship where her greatest treat was to be allowed to lick her husband’s dirty boots (horse shit was her favourite relish).

Cullwick’s private name for Munby was “massa”, an uneasy term that looked back to her native Shropshire dialect and elided it with that of the negro slave whose blackness she replicated with soot, as much for her own pleasure as for his.

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Children of the Victorian Era, Post-Mortem

If you notice a sleeping or vacantly-staring figure in an antique photograph, it might not strike you to wonder if the subject is even alive. In the 21st century, we rarely see photographs of the dead that are not connected with crime scenes or accidents; dead relatives are instantly removed to funeral homes, where their bodies are embalmed by well-paid specialists. The Victorians, however, were not so disconnected from death, and a common practice was to have portraits taken of the recently-deceased. In these post-mortem photographs, the dead may appear in coffins, but were also quite frequently arranged among family in lifelike poses. As it was a period of extremely high child mortality, images like the ones in this video were often the only keepsakes 19th century families had by which to remember their short-lived sons and daughters:

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