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Archive for the ‘Victorian Era’ Category

When I hosted a read-along of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett earlier this fall, we spent time discussing the wonderful personality, character, and symbolism of the robin “who showed the way” to the secret garden. After hearing many intriguing tales that members of the group had heard about robins at Christmas time, I decided to read more for myself. I especially wanted to know why the robin features so often on British Christmas cards, tins, and decorations – especially those that have a more vintage feel.

And, of course, I wanted to know if Robin Redbreast was part of the Christmas season during Jane Austen’s lifetime or if that came about later. What I found was fascinating!

Robins as Symbols of Good Will

If you’ve ever seen a robin, you’ll notice that the friendly brown bird’s breast is more of an orange color than a reddish hue. Apparently, the color orange didn’t originally have a name in the UK. Thus, according to tradition, the robin was named for its “red” breast and it stuck.

Robins in art and literature are always associated with good will and friendliness. They are known to be the gardener’s friend. They are intelligent, happy birds who almost seem as though they are communicating. Robins also symbolize spring, good fortune, new beginnings, and rebirth.

Robins are so generally known as happy, cheerful birds that many field guides even say that the robin’s call sounds like this: “Cheer up! Cheerily! Cheer up! Cheerily!”

Wikipedia Commons, European Robin.

Robins as Guides in Literature

Robins feature throughout British folklore, stories, and classic literature. They are usually bright, friendly, happy, cheerful birds. They are often depicted as clever and intelligent birds.

The robin features in The Secret Garden as Mary Lennox’s first friend in England and the one who shows the way to the door of the mysterious garden and to the key to the locked door:

“You showed me where the key was yesterday,” Mary said. “You ought to show me the door today; but I don’t believe you know!”

The robin flew from his swinging spray of ivy on to the top of the wall and he opened his beak and sang a loud, lovely trill, merely to show off. Nothing in the world is quite as adorably lovely as a robin when he shows off—and they are nearly always doing it.

One of the nice little gusts of wind rushed down the walk, and it was a stronger one than the rest. It was strong enough to wave the branches of the trees, and it was more than strong enough to sway the trailing sprays of untrimmed ivy hanging from the wall. Mary had stepped close to the robin, and suddenly the gust of wind swung aside some loose ivy trails, and more suddenly still she jumped toward it and caught it in her hand. This she did because she had seen something under it—a round knob which had been covered by the leaves hanging over it. It was the knob of a door.

The Secret Garden

In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, a robin is a guide once again, helping the Pevensies find their way:

They were all still, wondering what to do next, when Lucy said, “Look! There’s a robin, with such a red breast. It’s the first bird I’ve seen here. I say!—I wonder can birds talk in Narnia? It almost looks as if it wanted to say something to us.” Then she turned to the Robin and said, “Please, can you tell us where Tumnus the Faun has been taken to?” As she said this she took a step towards the bird. It at once hopped away but only as far as to the next tree. There it perched and looked at them very hard as if it understood all they had been saying. Almost without noticing that they had done so, the four children went a step or two nearer to it. At this the Robin flew away again to the next tree and once more looked at them very hard. (You couldn’t have found a robin with a redder chest or a brighter eye.)

“Do you know,” said Lucy, “I really believe he means us to follow him.”

“I’ve an idea he does,” said Susan, “what do you think, Peter?”

“Well, we might as well try it,” answered Peter.

The Robin appeared to understand the matter thoroughly. It kept going from tree to tree, always a few yards ahead of them but always so near that they could easily follow it. In this way it led them on . . .

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

In fact, robins are so well known as symbols of goodness, when Edmund asks Peter, “How do we know which side that bird is on? Why shouldn’t it be leading us into a trap?” Peter replies, “That’s a nasty idea. Still—a robin you know. They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read. I’m sure a robin wouldn’t be on the wrong side.

Robins and December

Robins in the UK (European Robins) don’t migrate; they stay in England year-round. They are territorial birds and they do not often leave their homes or nesting areas. It’s common to see them out and about during the winter because that is when they begin to look for mates. This is another reason robins have become synonymous with December and winter time.

In The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady (1905) by Edith Holden, a journal of watercolor paintings of flowers, plants, birds and butterflies, along with poems and anecdotes, the author has a section devoted to each month of the year. For December, she includes this watercolor of several birds, including a robin. She also includes a poem about robins.

Robins and Christianity

Several old English fables and folk tales link the robin to Christianity. There are many versions of the tales told, but there are two that are quite popular. The first one explains that the robin used to be a plain, brown bird with no red breast, but it went to sing to Jesus when he was dying on the cross. The blood from Jesus’ wounds are said to have stained the bird’s breast, thereby giving it a red breast.

In another tale, the robin was present at the birth of Jesus. It was a cold night in Bethlehem, and the story goes that a brown bird came near and fanned the flames of a small fire to help keep the baby Jesus warm. His breast was scorched by the flames and turned red thereafter.

There are other similar old fables and tales that link robins with Christmas in the Christian tradition. Perhaps you’ve heard one. (If so, please share it in the comments.) There have been many stories told and written since that feature the robin or other friendly birds at Christmas.

Photo by Rachel Dodge, 2022

Robins and Victorian Christmas Cards

If you’ve seen Christmas cards and decorations featuring a robin redbreast, it most likely came about during the Victorian era.

During the mid-1800s in England, Christmas cards became popular. People even began to send Christmas greetings by post. At the time, Victorian postmen wore red coats. Tradition has it that these “red breasted robins” went from house to house and from street to street, delivering season’s greetings and well-wishes.

Moses James Nobbs: (Last of the Mail Coach Guards), Watercolour by H E Brown. C 1890. Courtesy of The Postal Museum.

Ever since the days of these red-breasted mail carriers, robins have been featured on Christmas cards. Many vintage Christmas cards from that era even have drawings of a robin with a letter in its mouth. Robins delivering the mail – even sometimes dressed as mail carriers – has been part of traditional Christmas culture ever since!

Victorian Christmas Card, Ebay.

Robins and Jane Austen

Would Jane Austen have sent Christmas cards or been familiar with the robin red-breast at Christmas time? No, she would not. She definitely would not have sent cards at Christmas. However, she may have been familiar with some of the old tales about the robin. And of course, I’m sure she met many robins on her rambles through the country lanes of Hampshire.

Yet again, the Victorians introduced another beloved Christian tradition and symbol that we’ve all come to enjoy and recognize.

If you’re feeling blue this Christmas or winter, try some bird-watching. It’s such fun and you just might hear a friendly, “Cheer up! Cheerily! Cheer up! Cheerily!”


RACHEL DODGE teaches college English classes, gives talks at libraries, teas, and book clubs, and writes for Jane Austen’s World blog. She is the bestselling author of The Little Women DevotionalThe Anne of Green Gables Devotional and Praying with Jane: 31 Days Through the Prayers of Jane Austen. Now Available: The Secret Garden Devotional! You can visit Rachel online at www.RachelDodge.com.

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Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street (click here to view the book and order it), has contributed posts for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character ,  Law & Order and Jane Austen’s Aunt,  Walking in Austen’s Footsteps, and Food – To Die For: Food Preparation in the Georgian EraHe has graciously sent in an article about crime and an incident involving Jane Austen’s aunt, Mrs James Leigh-Perrot. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!

Workhouses are thought to date back as far as the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the “Black Death.” The plague was merciless in Britain and outbreaks recurred at intervals throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, the working population was decimated and the shortage of labour pushed up wages. To try and halt this, several Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and to keep wages at their old levels, but their main effect was to create itinerant labourers who travelled around the country looking for areas where they could earn more.

bathmap1902-2500

Layout of Bath Workhouse in 1848

The Poor Law Act of 1388 tried to stop this by introducing regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and itinerant beggars. No one could leave their own parish to seek work elsewhere without the written permission of the local Justice of the Peace, and the poor were prohibited from begging and could only receive help from the Parish in which they were born. Alms houses were built for the destitute but the earliest known reference to the term “Workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor of Abingdon (near Oxford) records:-

“wee haue erected wthn our borough, a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”

A further Poor Law Act in 1597 governed the care of the destitute right up until the 19th Century. This law required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, “Overseers of the Poor” to find work for those in need, to apprentice children, and to provide,

“the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”.

This Poor Law required poor rates to be charged as a local tax, replacing voluntary charitable funding. The rate of charge and arrangements for distribution were to be decided by the Overseers. Though most parishes had houses set aside for the old, infirm and destitute these were more like alms-houses than workhouses and most support was given in the form of subsistence payments known as “out relief.”

bath1

Aerial photo of Former Bath Workhouse taken in early 20th Century

The real growth in workhouses took place in the nineteenth century, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of thousands of troops returned home to find there was no work for them. Most had been agricultural workers before the war and the new technology in farming had reduced the need for labour. At the same time a series of poor harvests had pushed up food prices and the Importation Act of 1815 had prohibited the importation of cheaper cereals from abroad. For most people, bread was the main part of their diet and yet they could no longer even afford bread. So many had become destitute and were starving by the early 1830s that the system could not support them. The Government sought a cheaper alternative to “out relief.”

Read the rest of Paul’s fascinating post and the workhouse in Bath at this link:

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In keeping with December, Charles Dickens’ anniversary, and a Christmas Carol, Paul sent this message:

 In “A Christmas Carol” the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children hidden under his robes. Scrooge asks him if they are his children and the Spirit replies that they are the children of Man – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’

‘Have they no refuge or resource.‘ asks Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons.‘ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.‘”

OliverTwistOliver Twist

Oliver Twist Workhouse image

The well known passage from Oliver Twist:

“Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

‘What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice.

‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’

More about Avon Street: Order the book

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: The History Press (March 28, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0752465546
  • ISBN-13: 978-0752465548

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Young Pip (Oscar Kennedy) visits Satis House (Holdenby House's courtyard transformed digitally by Triad Digital).

One of the most polarizing aspects of Great Expectations 2011 is Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham. Many people loved it; as many hated it.

At 43 years of age, some critics regard the actress as being too young for the part. Yet Martita Hunt played Miss Havisham in David Lean’s classic when she was 47, only fours years older than Gillian. Helena Bonham Carter is set to play Miss Havisham in a new theatrical film version coming out later this year. She will soon be 44 years old.

Others find Gillian Anderson’s take on Miss Havisham to be all wrong. I agree with the critic who wrote that regardless of how one feels about the actress as Miss Havisham, she dominates her scenes as the jilted bride. Paired with the CG changes made to Holdenby House to transform it into Satis House, the viewer is treated to one of the creepier interpretations of Miss Havisham in her rotting manse.

Stone angel in courtyard strangled by vines.

The film sets up Pip’s first meeting with Miss Havisham and Estella by transforming the courtyard into a dark, vine-strangled environment. This alone should tell Pip that all is not right with his new patron.

Transformed courtyard.

Miss Havisham glides down the stairs like a ghostly apparition.

In this adaptation, Pip’s first glimpse of Miss Havisham is of her gliding down the stairs in a candle-lit, dark oak stairwell. A break in the curtain backlights her figure and features. Not a word is said. In the novel, Pip has heard that Miss Havisham is an immensely rich and grim lady who led a life of seclusion.

The stairs are covered with dust and candles are fully ablaze despite the day light.

Miss Havisham as an eerie apparition is enhanced in this scene in which her white figure is indistinct and as fuzzy as the dust on the stairs.

When she discovered that her bridegroom-to-be had absconded with her money and her heart, Miss Havisham was at her dressing table putting on her bridal clothes. She had put on one shoe, her other foot was stockinged. Gillian Anderson is seen walking barefoot, a change in Dickens’ story that I found perplexing. In fact, many of the changes in both plot, scenes, and costumes seemed odd.

Surely the dress would have been yellower and more ragged and tattered after having been worn for so long?

While I enjoyed Gillian Anderson’s reworking of Miss Havisham into a neurotic recluse with a tendency towards self-mutilation, I wondered at the decision to make her appear like a mini-me version of Bette Davis’s Baby Jane. Her wedding gown, I suppose, was meant to look like a Regency version of a bridal dress, but to my way of thinking it resembled a nightie. Her curls, which were not supposed to have been touched in years, hung tight around her face. By the time Pip met her, her white hair would have looked like a rat’s nest.  The delicate fabric of her gown remained remarkably intact – it should have been frayed, especially at the edges and where she sat. She was not wearing a veil, which should have been attached askew on her head. And her train would  have been tattered and filthy, and had an ombre look about it, going from black at the floor to dark gray, to lighter grey until it met the yellowing white color of the gown higher up.

One way to assess if the changes were beneficial is to turn to Dickens’ own words:

In Dickens' great tale, Pip met Miss Havisham as she sat near her dressing table.

However the only thing to be done being to knock at the door. I knocked and was told from within to enter. I entered therefore and found myself in a pretty large room well lighted with wax candle.s No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it. It was a dressing room as I supposed from the furniture though much of it was of forms and uses then quite unknown to me. But prominent in it was a draped table with a gilded looking glass, and that I made out at first sight to be a fine lady’s dressing table.”

In this film, Miss Havisham walks Pip through a room filled with dusty glass dome-covered scientific specimens that her dead brother had collected from exotic places, much as a docent would accompany a visitor through a musty science museum.

Dead specimens under dusty glass.

Pip’s actual first impression of Miss Havisham after walking through a dark house was much more powerful and immediate:

In an armchair with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand sat the strangest lady I have ever seen or shall ever see.”

Once beautiful butterflies pinned into a frozen position, a rather obvious visual simile.

Dickens gave the costume and set designers a plethora of descriptions to work with:

She was dressed in rich materials, satins and lace and silks, all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair; and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck, and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses less splendid than the dress she wore, and half packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on, the other was on the table near her hand; her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief; and gloves and some flowers and a prayer book all confusedly heaped about the looking glass.”

Gillian Anderson's lips are as parched as dry paper, but the curls are too neat for someone who has not tended to her hair in decades.

I have no quarrel with Gillian Anderson’s age. The book is written through Pip’s eyes, and a young boy would have found anyone in their 40’s to be ancient. Gillian did an excellent job of resembling someone who had not seen sunlight in decades, and whose physical condition was deteriorating as a result of physical and emotional neglect. Her curls make her look much too young and are incongruent. Why would she take care to wear such beautiful curls when she has neglected everything else about her appearance?

Helena Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham in the yet to be released Great Expectations

If viewers were turned off by Gillian’s creepy Miss Havisham, with her high-pitched little girl voice and nervous bird-like mannerisms, then the above photo indicates that Helena Bonham Carter’s take on the spinster is set to go over the top as well. Let’s go back to Dickens’ description of Pip’s first meeting with his new patron to see if these interpretations fit in with his vision of the jilted bride:

It was not in the first minute that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first minute than might be supposed. But I saw that every thing within my view, which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and, like the flowers, and had no brightness left, but the brightness of her sunken eyes.  I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. “

Miss Havisham was a skeletal, withered shadow of a woman who shone as dimly as a pale moon hidden behind clouds. Gillian’s Miss Havisham shines just a little too brightly.

Pip approaches Estella for the first time.

It was when I stood before her avoiding her eyes that I took note of the surrounding objects in detail, and saw that her watch had stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and that a clock in the room had stopped at twenty minutes to nine.”

For some strange reason, the clocks in the film had stopped at 11:00. It’s these minor inattentions to detail that grate.

Izzy Meikle-Small plays the haughty young Estella.

“Look at me”, said Miss Havisham. “You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born.”

These words would have been much more powerful in the introductory scene than Gillian’s museum tour guide of her rooms.

David Lean's Great Expectations featured a rather mature Jean Simmons. Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and Tony Wager as Pip.

David Lean’s set was dark, as described by Dickens. Too much sunlight was allowed inside the house Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham inhabited. This served to make Satis House look much dirtier but less creepy.

I find it remarkable that many critics found this adaptation visually too gloomy. I think there is too much light. Dickens described the curtains as emitting no light whatsoever.

I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it once, while now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of every thing, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.

So she sat corpse like as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress looking like earthy paper, as if they would crumble under a touch. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen, but I have often thought since that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust”

The above description tells us why it would have been more important for the set designer to have kept Miss Havisham in total darkness. While some of the effects of the light on the dust and dirt was striking, the only evidence of “earthy paper” was on Gillian Anderson’s parched lips.


This set of the decaying bridal banquet is gorgeous. The house itself is allowed to rot (and Pip begins to notice the water damage and crumbling walls as he matures), much as Miss Havisham is allowing herself to rot inside and out. There were moments when the production shone. The film’s colors follow the current trend for digital color correction to create atmosphere. Whether you like it or not, I’m afraid the trend is here to stay.

The wedding cake looked skeletal and creepy, as if bugs were ready to crawl out of it. Still, would so much of the food and flowers have remained recognizable?

Miss Havisham's self-mutilation is evident early on in the film.

The self-mutilation, in this instance, Miss Havisham is constantly scratching her hand, was an interesting touch that added another layer to her manic obsessions. At times she seemed completely insane and incapable of self-possession. In this adaptation, Gillian portrays Miss Havisham as a weak victim who somehow finds the strength of will to plot her revenge on all male-kind.

The letter of betrayal from Compeyson, the fiance who jilted Miss Havisham.

The incongruity of a perfect white veil over the decaying flowers and (finally) the tattered sleeves struck me as being wrong in Gillian’s final scenes. While I loved the cinematography of the exterior sets, these visual mistakes detracted from my enjoyment of the story. One other thought: while I enjoyed watching the young Pip and Estella, I was bothered by their older counterparts. It was very hard for me to swallow that Pip was more beautiful than the girl he loved.

Vanessa Kirby as Estella and Douglas Booth as Pip

Your thoughts?

You can watch Great Expectations online through May 8th on PBSs website.

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From the moment the new adaptation of Great Expectations opened, viewers knew that this was not going to be their grand daddy’s sentimental interpretation of Charles Dickens’ classic. I struggled with how to review this PBS special, which aired last night, and realized that I could only do it through visuals. In the first 15 minutes, with very little dialogue, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister captures the essence of Pip’s bleak life and visually sets up the rest of the plot. (Problems with the coloration of the screen captures must be blamed on my poor photo editing skills, not the cinematographer’s!) If you missed the first episode, you can watch it online until May 1.

Like some preternatural creature, Magwitch rises from the marsh waters. One of the ships in the background is the prison ship from which he escaped.

It is said that Ray Winstone has always wanted to play Magwitch

These scenes were shot in Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex, known for its wildlife. The fog adds to the sense of isolation.

Sketch of the church on the marsh. David Roger, production designer. Image @PBS Masterpiece Great Expectations. How much of these scenes were due to CG design?

Our first view of Pip (Oscar Kennedy) is at his parent's graveside. The smaller stones represent his dead siblings. "There were five of us," he told Miss Havisham sadly. So far, other than the booming of the ship's cannon, not a word has been said.

Pip should have been mortally scared of Magwitch and never come near him again. There is nothing pretty about their first encounter.

Pip's run to the Forge, where he lives with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, shows how isolated this section of the country is - flat, with few landmarks on the horizon. It would be nearly impossible for Magwitch to find a hiding place.

Orlick (Jack Roth)is Joe Gargery's assistant and no friend of Pip's. In this scene he almost looked like a zombie appearing through the mists. His encounter with the boy as he runs home to find a file for Magwitch is filled with hate and jealousy on Orlick's side, and dread on Pip's. It sets a malevolent tone to an already edgy opening.

The Forge is little more than a hovel.

This scene is quiet and pivotal. For many precious moments, Magwitch does not speak or move when he understands what Pip is offering him. Knowing how harsh Pip's life is, I too was moved by the boy's generosity.

The marsh lands through Florian Hoffmeister's lens are harsh and unforgiving. Magwitch can only cling under the platforms in the muck, but he will have no place to go when the tide rises.

This fight in the muck was elemental. I flinched as I watched this. At this point we are only 10 or 12 minutes into the film and I could not pull my eyes away.

Magwitch is caught, covered with mud and blood, yet still defiant. It is obvious that he has the grit, determination, and ingenuity to escape again.

In all these early scenes, only Joe Gargery (Shaun Dooley) shows Pip genuine love, concern, and kindness. His steady support of Pip provides the only real stability in the young boy's life.

The travelers journey through what seems to be a flat, bleak land. As observers of wildlife know, marshes teem with life, offering food for scores of creatures, both transient and permanent.

The two travelers are mere specks in this vast landscape. It would seem to be a perfect dystopian setting for The Hunger Games.

My next visual review will take us into Miss Havisham’s house. Great Expectations, 2011 was directed by Brian Kirk and adapted for the screen by writer Sarah Phelps. The cinematographer was Florian Hoffmeister and the production designer was David Roger. I commend them all for setting the stage so well for Pip’s story. Young Oscar Kennedy plays a compelling young Pip who stirred my heart strings.

Read the fabulous interview with production designer David Roger at this link.

The following links describe the Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex.

Google map of Tollesbury marshes

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It is hard to imagine what entertainment was like in the days before the 21st century, yet people have always devised ways to spend their leisure time in pleasant company doing amusing things. In the evening, Jane Austen and her family spent many hours entertaining each other. One popular form of entertainment that the older Austen siblings would have known about was the Toy Theatre, or a juvenile form of miniature theater.

Toy Theatre. Image @Tea at Triannon

This entertainment appeared in the early 1800s, and coincided with the popularity of theater and the rise of the print trade. One can imagine that Aunt Jane was well aware of toy theatres when she spent time with her nephews, for this new toy largely attracted boys.

By 1811 William West of London was printing sheets of stage characters for purchasers to colour, paste on cardboard and cut out, though others treasured them as individual portraits. Single prints in black ink on white paper were called “penny plains” while those with color added by the seller were the “twopence coloured.” West’s first subject was Joseph Grimaldi in “Mother Goose,” a role that brought him fame and lifelong success on the stage. – NYPL Digital Gallery

Miniature theaters became fashionable all over Europe, and their tiny elaborate sets mimicked the grand theaters of London, Paris and other world stages. The sets remained popular throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century, offering children an opportunity to exercise their imaginations and their acting chops. Some children, I imagine, concentrated on honing their acting skills, while others probably enjoyed their roles as directors or scene designers more. New plays were published in the first half of the 19th century.

After the 1860’s no new plays were published but much of the old repertoire was kept in print by a dwindling number of theatrical print publishers and the tradition continued unbroken until 1944 when Miss Louisa Pollock,shut up her father’s famous shop in Hoxton for ever and sold the contents as a going concern. – Toy Theatre Gallery: History

From Mansfield Park the reader gains a sense of how seriously family theatricals were regarded. In the novel, the men were definitely in control of the enterprise, with the women acquiescing to their direction (the only exception being Fanny). While Jane Austen described a real play, Lover’s Vows, with large, almost life-like sets in Sir Thomas Bertram’s study, wood toy theatres that sat on a tabletop would be taken equally seriously. The children must have spent hours preparing for a performance, arranging sets, learning lines, and dressing and moving their characters before they felt comfortable opening a new play in front of an indulgent and forgiving family.

English Toy Theatre, 1850. Pollock's Museum. Image @Brittanica

Created from printed paper glued to cardboard and then mounted on wooden frames, these theaters could be quite intricate in design. They offered a proscenium, scenery, cut-out characters with codified attitudes and gestures, and a booklet that contained stage and scene directions and dialogue for the actors. Almost all of them depict an orchestra: The clothes worn by the musicians give a good indication of when the theatre was designed.

Early toy theatre prints were made from engraved copper plates, the engravings often from sketches made at the theatre on the night. Sets, costumes, and even the actors’ likenesses were copied, and could often be recognised. – Miniature Theatre: Curator’s Choice

Image @Victoriana

The plays were not necessarily derived from children’s stories: They were adapted from operas, melodramas, history, novels, and pantomimes. Works from Shakespeare, Cervantes, Mozart, and Beethoven were included. Hans Christian Anderson was also an inspiration.

Children could choose “Three-Fingered Jack, the Terror of Jamaica” or “Hamlet” or another of the nearly 300 “juvenile dramas” printed in England between 1811 and 1860. – Dramas to Cut, Color, and Produce

The involvement of publishers was enormous, but Pollock’s toy theatres were probably the most famous in Great Britain.

England had over 50 publishers, Germany 54, Spain 14, France 13, Denmark 10, Austria 9, and the United States 5. All of these versions to some degree were derived from the ability to mass produce the printed image, initially from engraved copper plates, followed by color lithography in the mid-19th century. – A Child’s View: 19th Century Paper Theaters

Many printed sheets of cut- out characters survive to this day, both colored and in black and white.

In 1811 William West produces a sheet of the principal characters from the first production on the London stage of ‘Mother Goose’, with Joseph Grimaldi in one of his most celebrated roles of Clown. The popularity of this role led to the publication of sets of sheets of characters, scenery and props, also elaborate prosceniums, the designs based on those of popular London theatres. Books of words, abridged versions of the most popular melodramas and pantomimes to be seen on the London stage.

From this time the popularity of the toy theatre, also known as the ‘Juvenile Drama’, saw the rapid growth in the number of publishers producing versions of plays, with the drawings for the engravings made by such leading artists as Georg e Cruickshank and William Blake. The legacy of the 19th century toy theatre is that of the most complete documentation of the costumes, scenery, and the performance style of the actors of the London Theatres of the period. – The World Through Wooden Eyes: A Penny Plain and Two Pence Coloured

Paper backdrops image @Birds of Ohio

These backdrops for miniature theaters on Birds of Ohio show how much detail the sets provided.

Below is a very rare example from the V&A shows a souvenir from a play  first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden  in 1800 called Harlequin’s Tour or the Dominion of  Fancy. While the souvenir survives, the dialogue for the play does not.

Souvenir, 1800. Image @Victoria & Albert Museum

In a June 2011 The Telegraph article, Sir Roy Strong, former director of the V&A museum and National Portrait Gallery, recalls his toy theatre with great affection:

Image @The Telegraph

This toy theatre … reminds me of one enormously happy period of my childhood. It was given to me after the war and purchased at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, originally in the East End of London [now in Covent Garden]. I played with all the cut–out cardboard figures and scenery, and still have all my toy theatre plays, which are 19th–century dramas, romances and pantomimes. The theatre sits in the archive room and I love it. It’s been with me everywhere.

More on the topic:

Modern characters for The Waterman.

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