Slighting the mourning

If you had been a member of the Victorian middle classes going through a period of mourning, and unsure of a precise elaboration of the ritual, you could have consulted a manual such as “The Queen” or “Cassell’s”. This would have guided you through the specified period for each degree of relationship. For women, the dress code permitted only jet jewellery, and dresses might be trimmed only with crape, which by its nature would not combine with any other materials such as velvet, satin or lace. Crape was a hard, scratchy silk with a peculiar crimped appearance produced by heat. After a specified period the crape could be removed in the name of “slighting the mourning “.

Samuel Courtauld III set up on his own in the silk crape trade in 1816. Some English silk makers had turned to the production of black crape towards the end of the 18th Century, when conspicuous grief had become a symbol of social status. Courtauld’s supplied the major share of the English market in the mid-Victorian period, and in 1901 the firm was the largest of its kind in the world. Courtauld’s crape was widely sold abroad as the one and only true “crape anglais”. (The softer “crepe myosotis” (“forget me not”) was introduced by Courtauld’s in the early 1930s.)

I am reading a copy, brought for me this weekend by a friend, of E. Nesbit’s “The Story of the Treasure Seekers”. Its stories were originally published in an assortment of periodicals between 1894 – 1899, then rewritten for a one volume publication in 1899. The story centres on Nesbit’s favoured and innovative motif of a set of siblings from an incomplete family who must amuse themselves while alone on holiday, and who face perils that they overcome through pluck.

At the time this book was published, there was a Lewisham Road railway station (on a section of the road which is now Loampit Hill). The Bastable family have a semi-detached house nearby, at no 150, from the windows of which they can see the trams pass on the route between Blackheath and Vauxhall:

“Our house is in the Lewisham Road, but it’s quite close to the Heath if you cut up the short way opposite the confectioner’s, past the nursery gardens and the cottage hospital, and turn to the left again and afterwards to the right. You come out then at the top of the hill, where the big guns are with the iron fence round them, and where the band plays on Thursday evenings in the summer.”

When the family fortunes are redeemed by a Great Uncle at the end of the book, they go to live in “one of those jolly big, ugly red houses with a lot of windows, that are so comfortable inside” on the Heath.

(In a subsequent volume, when the family are staying on holiday in the country, the young narrator observes:

“Of course when you live in Lewisham or Blackheath you learn other things. If you asked for a lift in Lewisham High Street, your only reply would be jeers.” At a later point in his account, he points out: “In London, or at any rate Lewisham, nothing happens unless you make it happen”. And later: “…in the Lewisham Road the most observing boy does not notice the dates when it is proper to hunt foxes.”.)

The narrator tells us on the second page:

“Our Mother is dead, and if you think we don’t care because I don’t tell you much about her you only show that you do not understand people at all.”

Later he tells how one of his sisters knitted a red scarf for another brother: “…most of our things are black or grey since Mother died; and scarlet was a nice change.”. (In the sequel, a young visitor to the family tells them of “The Daisy Chain” by Miss Charlotte M Yonge, which opens with the death of the mother of a large family, “…and one of them got married and wore black watered silk and silver ornaments.”.) When a real wedding is planned for the following Christmas, at the end of the sequel, “The girls are to be bridesmaids in white frocks with fur” – in the event, white silk dresses under white cloth coats with lots of little capes, white beaver bonnets, and real silver buckles on their shoes. The bride wears a white dress, and her going away outfit includes “a furry cloak”.

In the next chapter we meet Albert-next-door:

“We do not like him very much, but we let him play with us sometimes, because his father is dead, and you must not be unkind to orphans, even if their mothers are alive.”

The narrator explains as best he can that: “Father was very ill after Mother died; and while he was ill his business-partner went to Spain – and there was never much money afterwards.”.

The narrator later observes that “…so many children with regular pocket-money have never felt it their duty to seek for treasure.” At one point in the family’s history their gas is cut off by the supplier. The gas man is kind, and gives the boys some lead piping, a brass tap and a handful of screws. Others are kind, too: “He was a clergyman, and I found out afterwards he was the nicest we ever knew, except our own Mr Briston at Lewisham, who is now a canon, or a Dean, or something grand that no one ever sees.”.

Not until p272 does he divulge:

” “Oswald Bastable,” I said; and I do hope you people who are reading this story have not guessed before that I was Oswald all the time.” And only on p306 of the sequel do we learn: “No one ever knows Oswald was christened Cecil as well, if he can possibly help it. You didn’t know it till now.”. In the concluding paragraph of that volume, Oswald asserts: “Oswald is said to be a very manly boy, and he despises that name, and will never give it to his own son when he has one.”.

The fourth story is entitled “Good Hunting” after Kipling’s “Jungle Book”:

“Oh, hear the call! – Good hunting all

That keep the Jungle Law!”.

I reminisce about another author I loved as a child, Margaret J Baker, and her books in the Nesbit tradition: “Castaway Christmas “, “Home From the Hill”….Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Treasure Island”, composed his own epitaph in the poem “Requiem”, ending:

“Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.”.

He had written further lines fifteen years before his death:

“You, who pass this grave, put aside hatred; love kindness; be all services remembered in your heart, and all offences pardoned; and as you go down again among the living, let this be your question: can I make some one happier this day before I lie down to sleep? Thus the dead man speaks to you from the dust: you will hear no more from him.”.

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