Henry Labouchere: The Non-Progressive Progressive

Henry du Pre Labouchere

Henry du Pre Labouchere

The history of gay rights is blotched with all sorts of setbacks and failures, one of the worst occurred in Britain in 1885.  The proximate cause was an addendum to The Criminal Law Amendment Act proposed by the MP Henry du Pre Labouchere. Originally the 1885 law was designed to  address  the problem of under age prostitution.  It raised the age of consent to sixteen and criminalized attempts to pimp young girls.

The editor of “Truth”, as well as a member of Parliament, Labouchere was a seriously rich man.  He had inherited not one but two banking fortunes, being connected to the Baring Bank founders, and he had had a chequered career.  Labouchere was a republican who detested the royal family, a liberal, almost a radical, where politics were concerned, but this ex- diplomat, financier, and semi-professional gambler turned politician, had his prejudices.  He was anti-semitic, convinced that women were,”mentally flighty” and therefore should not have the vote, and he detested homosexuality.  Continue reading

Through a Lorgnette Darkly

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

Not many Victorian Lords of the stage have reputations which have survived into the twenty first century.  Many of them are now forgotten, even such people as John Wilkes Booth are famous for their non thespian activities (in his case presidential assassination) but one at least deserves to be remembered: Henry Irving.

Henry, or Sir Henry as he came to be known later in life, was from Cornwall and began his career with the unfortunate surname of Brodribb.  He changed it to Irving and began acting when an uncle left him a small legacy of 100 pounds, enough to start himself in the competitive  business of acting in the mid nineteenth century. Continue reading

La Belle et la Bête – Old as Time

straparola_ritrattoI see the Disneys are dragging out Beauty and her Beast for a new iteration.  It was, of course, ever so, and long before animation and CGI

Scholarly types generally agree that the first iteration of the timeless tale came from the works of Venetian Giovanni Francesco Straparola (1480-1558), a somewhat shadowy figure who thought to follow the success of Boccaccio’s Decameron with a new collection of short stories (the Pig King is the entry in question).  As it happened, he was quite right, and his stuff sold rather well. We may assume he lived happily ever after. As one does in Italy. Continue reading

Arcadius Avellanus, born Mogyoróssy Arkád (6 February 1851 – 16 June 1935: “Scisne Latine, Barbare?”

Mogyoróssy Arkád was born in Esztergom near Budapest back in the days before exurbia blurred the line between city and country. His first language, he claimed, was Latin.

The claim is fantastic enough to seduce credulity, and some of the circumstances behind his early life suggest it might be true.

Independent details on his early life are, sadly, scarce, and gentlemen do not inquire too closely into the details of other men’s personal lives, and given what that part of the world has gone through in the years since Avellanus’ birth, confirming anything could be a challenge.

Consider the range of populations under the Hapsburg’s imperial eage. Hungarian German Slovak Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Rumanians, all jealous of their several prerogatives, what to bring them together, particularly in matters of law and politics? Latin, of course, was language of the Church, the lingua franca of the renaissance. It lasted as the official language of the Hapsburg Empire until 1782.

Sixty nine years (the space between 1782 and his birth) was less earth changing a span in those days than now – one can imagine a traditional family keeping up the old ways, preparing its sons for whatever service the Empire might require. Continue reading

Mastro Titta (1779–1869): Er dilettante de Ponte

Mastro_TittaA slurred pronunciation of Maestro di Giustizia, or Master of Justice “The dilettante of the bridge”, the name he got from Romanesco poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, the bridge being Ponte Sant’ Angelo which connects Rome’s left bank with the Vatican. Belli also credited him as a sure cure for headache.

Titta’s real name was Giovanni Battista Bugatti. He was a short, round, amiable man who, with his wife, made his living by manufacturing, decorating, and selling umbrellas to the tourists who visited the nearby Vatican.

As jobs go, it is easily overlooked, and presumably it was neither steady enough nor profitable enough to make ends meet. At age seventeen he found a second income stream.

He was, in the years between 1796 to 1864, the Vatican’s official executioner Continue reading

John Gamgee (1831-1894): The Iceman Cometh

John GamgeeDr. John Gamgee was born in Florence Italy in 1831, the son of a Scottish veterinarian who wanted his children to have a broad education. John eventually graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London. He thrived in that field. In 1858, he founded the New Veterinary School in Edinburgh in 1858, and later the Edinburgh Veterinary Review. In 1863, he organized the first International Veterinary Congress in Hamburg Germany.

So far, so dull, unless you are interested in Victorian academic politics. A few years later, the United States government invited him to consult on the matter of lung plague and cattle fever in Texas. He lectured widely in America, promoting his novel view on the pathogenic theory of medicine. That is, that disease was transmitted by microorganisms. It was a theory for which claim he was widely ridiculed.

His so-called “rollerskate” was less controversial, but it was his explorations into the mechanics of refrigeration more that makes him interesting to the general reader. Continue reading

Stalin’s Englishman

stalins-englishmanStalin’s Englishman, by Andrew Lownie, St. Martin’s Press, $29.99

Andrew Lownie’s biography of one of the Cambridge spy circle has recently caught an answering echo at Cambridge.  Three men prominent in intelligence circles, one of them Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI5 and master of Pembroke College, have resigned as conveners of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar.

The trouble specifically was over a digital publishing service which was providing funding for the seminar called Veruscript, founded by one Gleb Cheglakov and his wife Nazik Ibraimova.  Some of those who resigned fear that Veruscript may be a front for Russian intelligence services.  One recent attendee at the regular Friday meetings was Mike Flynn, the Trump nominee for US national security adviser.  What an unseemly to do for Corpus Christi College. Continue reading

Plus ça change…

This Renaissance sign required you to measure your catch from the Tiber river:

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the Pope.

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the civic authorities.

These days, if you catch something smaller than these:

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

One way or another, size always matters and there’s always a catch.

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

the-sixThe Mitford sisters have become an industry.  There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.

Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography.  She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance. Continue reading

The Reckoning

The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Picador

Charles Nicholl

This biography done in the early 1990’s is an arresting variation on the little sonata usually played by Christopher Marlowe’s biographers.  Their performances are almost always tuned to the minor key of Marlowe’s early death (at 29) and the tragedy this posed to English letters.  Charles Nicholl decided to play things in a different mode altogether and the suspenseful true crime narrative he composed is jaunty and percussive instead of a dirge for a dead poet. Continue reading