David Copperfield was born “on a Friday, at twelve-o-clock at night”, with a caul. In a foreshadowing of e-bay this caul was “advertised in a newspaper at the low price of fifteen guineas.” There were no takers at that price. David goes on recollect, “ten years afterwards, the caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to fifty members at half–a–crown a head, the winner to spend five shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand–basket, who, very reluctantly, produced from it the stipulated five shillings, all in halfpence, and twopence halfpenny short.”
So, what is a caul exactly? All fetuses grow inside a kind of bubble in the womb. The caul is part of this amniotic sac that, in some babies, refuses to come unattached. So essentially they emerge with their heads in a transparent veil, nature’s bubble wrap. This happens only once in every 80,000 births–so no wonder babies born in this way are often reputed with magical powers and said to have the gift of second sight. 17th century medical books referred to it as “a helmet” or “the Virgin’s shift.” In parts of Hungary, well into Victorian times, peasant women who had such babies were convinced they would grow up to be witches; if such a baby was born, it was carried by its mother up to a rooftop and the mother had to declare “A child was born to our house in a bloody shirt”, as the only means to ward off this fate. Often, but not always, caul-wrapped babies are premature. In 1975, a baby lived outside the womb, but inside the caul, for 25 minutes, not breathing air–and turned out perfectly healthy. Whether he also became clairvoyant, or a sorcerer, is not noted.
Walter Scott said of Jane Austen: “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”
But Charlotte Bronte thought differently. She is one of the few influential people to voice negative feelings about Austen’s work, saying of it: “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasionally graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of Death- this Miss Austen ignores.” She goes on to call her a most sensible lady but a rather insensible woman. The Bronte sisters are, of course, known for their passionate prose and lives full of turmoil. Their brother Branwell died at the age of thirty-one, addicted to alcohol and opiates; he was known to have forged checks to keep himself afloat in his existence as a financially unsuccessful painter. Charlotte, Emily and Anne all struggled in the world as governesses, strained to the point of nervous breakdowns and being forced to return home; Charlotte was, for a time, in love with a married man before she settled down with a vicar. Similarly, their famous characters all wear their hearts on their sleeves. In contast Austen’s heroine’s learn to do a social dance, even if the steps at first prove tricky, landing good, prosperous husbands and sedately happy endings.
In our times an example of each kind of heroine might be find in the British royal family. Princess Diana, with her ready sympathy for others and her penchant for speaking out publicly about her eating disorders, failed marriage and diastrous love affairs, would definitely be a Bronte girl. Kate Middleton, who with her mother’s help carefully plotted her way into an excellent marriage, without ever seeming to have a hair out of place, is Team Austen. Which style of woman do you prefer?
As the autumn weather sharpens and cools, appetities increase and hearty meals are required. Alice thinks about the White Rabbit in another context, as dinner rather than a friend. Until the 1950s, when myxomatosis wiped out much of the UK’s bunnies, rabbits were considered an excellent, cheap protein source. Today, trendy eaters are turning again to this low-fat meat, which tends to be dry but is tasty when cooked in a sauce. Marks & Spencer reported a 20% increase in rabbit meat sales in 2014. Top chefs buy their rabbits from accredited game dealers; but there are still some rogue home cooks who might go out and hunt, then skin, their own, especially those which nibble parsely from their gardens. You can make a stew with red wine gravy, bacon, shallots, currant jelly and herbs; simmer the meat in coconut milk; or give it a good fry in buttermilk (Alice’s favorite preparation).
Brine your rabbit for 12 hours in a mix of salt and water.
Mix buttermilk with cayenne, garlic powder, paprika and Italian seasoning mixture. Marinate in covered container overnight.
In hot oil (at least 325 degrees), fry rabbit pieces gently–don’t let them sizzle too much. Turn; then repeat for another 12 minutes. Drain on rack before serving at room temperature. 1 rabbit will serve 2-3 people. (For the traditionalist, this works for chicken too).
When I was growing up in the 1830s, very few women could read or write, not even to sign their names on a marriage register. Throughout the century female literacy continued to improve so that by 1900 it had increased to almost 97 percent. As a reflection of this, penny dreadfuls, or slender novels with melodramatic themes, available for a penny apiece, aimed at the female market, began to grow in popularity.
Currently, The Grace of the Hunchback by Annabelle Troy, is on sale on amazon for 99 cents–the modern equivalent of a penny. Though slender in size, it is no cheap romance. Rather, it is the fictionalized version of the real life of influential ballerina Marie Taglioni, born in 1804. Under the guidance of her father, a dictatorial choreographer, she pioneeres the romantic style of ballet: dancing en pointe, ethereality mixed with athleticism, white tutus, heroines dying for love. Marie always wants to be loved herself but this eludes her. On stage she is considered to be beautiful; offstage she disappoints men with her plain looks and shyness. She marries a heartless French aristocrat who uses her for her money; they divorce after having two children. Marie tries to recover from her heartbreak by dancing in triumph in Russia, before ultmately retiring to Lake Como. Late in life, when she is in her seventies, she loses all of her money and teaches at a girls’ school in London. She never stoppes loving her husband, even though she realizes what she actually craves is a male ideal rather than an actual relationship. Her story is contrasted with that of her former maid, Lucette, who becomes a successful prostitute in the Paris demimonde. This part was a little wicked for me, sometimes inducing a blush, but I do acknowledge that it added a little spice.
Below is the link to the book. I wish you joyful reading. And remember to be grateful that you can read at all.
Fashion week, showcasing styles for spring 2015, runs from Sept. 5-11 in NYC.
In my novel Jane Eyre Gets Real, it is Jane who is known for becoming a businesswoman during her stay in contemporary New York. But Emma Bovary also possesses the touch of an entrepreneur, and shows it by creating ice cream novelties inspired by designers, past and present. Teen model Alice in Wonderland takes a break from the catwalk to help her sell them on the street, via a trendy chartreuse truck–because pink is so last season–during the heat of fashion week.
Some of Emma’s favorite creations:
THE COCO CHANEL: 2 scoops of black licorice ice cream in a sugar cone, covered in edible silver “pearls”
THE ALEXANDER WANG: bright lime sherbert sprinkled with coarse sea salt and served in between chocolate sandwich cookies
THE CALVIN KLEIN: vanilla soft serve in a white plastic cup
THE MARC JACOBS: Blue Moon and lavender ice cream sundae laced with dark melted chocolate and topped with a ribbon of gummi candy
The Swiss have always been pioneers in children’s education. In the early 19th century educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi founded several schools throughout Switzerland with the motto “Learning by head, hand and heart”. By 1830 illiteracy in that country was almost completely wiped out. Today Switzerland is known for its expensive private schools and for “alternative” educational methods, such as holding kindergarten in a pine forest:
So it’s no wonder Heidi is looking forward to attending fourth grade in contemporary New York City. Here are some essential items she will need to survive.
Humorous cat tee:
Hello Kitty pencil box, because every girl needs a touch of retro whimsy:
A backpack–The North Face makes kids’ sizes; hardy AND pastel:
It was with some trepidation that I ventured out to see the latest Woody Allen film; I don’t enjoy cinema at the best of times and I had the feeling that this movie was going to be more predictable than most. I was right. If the intention was to create a treacly confection, with beautiful scenery, unbelievable sentiments and a paper-thin plot, the director did a remarkable job.
Nor was I impressed by the acting of Miss Stone. I had been told, by Hester Prynne who was most taken with Stone’s portrayal of a beleagured young virgin in something called Easy A, that she is an exceptional actress. Here, she played a tomboyish Daisy Miller-type heroine all too well, without any of the mystery or nuance that would have made the sophisticated hero’s love for her seem realistic.
The one thing that kept me engrossed was Colin Firth. In his depiction of a professional magician who longs in some secret part of himself to believe in miracles, I found, I must confess, some resonance with my own private longings. Like him, I don’t yield easily–to clairvoyants, or redheads, or love. Unlike him I am not sure I wish to; cocaine, my friendship with Watson–which is NOT, I hasten to assure you, a “man crush” as Dorian Gray calls it–and my violin have proved to be enough. It will have to be an exceptional blue moon which changes THAT.