Hello Cats and Kittens!
Before I begin, I think I should let you have a peek into the exotic life of your average romance writer. I am sitting here, having completed my chores for the day (including the fastest re-soleing and re-heeling of a pair of boots in the world I love you Timpsons on Queen St!), dying my hair with Lush’s henna bricks. This has many advantages over chemical dyes in that it gives me a nice, auburn shade that’s actually found in nature, it doesn’t make my eyes water, and my hair is nice a soft and yummy afterwards. (Also, it lasts more than 4 #$%^ weeks.) The downside is that I spend five hours with what is essentially a curry-scented cowpat wrapped in an argos bag, covered in a sacrificial towel, on my head. I SUFFER FOR MY BEAUTY.
(It does force me to stay inside and get work done, though.)
AAAAAAANYWAY, for many of you (I hope!), that deathless prose is your welcome to my blog from the Speak Its Name advent calendar. My short story “For the Benefit of the Public” is published today as part of their lovely seasonal (and now annual!) gift to the world. It was great, great fun to write, because it gave me an excuse to research the state of the British Museum in the 1860’s, smack in the middle of the Victorian movement towards education as something that is for the benefit of all, and should be accessible to all. (Oh the fucking irony, Mr’s Clegg and Cameron, the irony.)
See, before the British Museum (and Sir John Soane’s museum which is a gem too many people miss), there really was no thought of public access to works of art, artefacts, or representative items, particularly from the classical world. (Representative items from a community’s own history were, of course, Right Out until fantastic museums like St Fagan’s started in the 1950’s, and quotidian life began to be preserved and presented by those who had lived it.) Very, very wealthy people who could afford to go to the Continent, Egypt, or the Classical world did so, brought curious items back with or without permission, and put them in Wunderkammers to show their friends — literally, cabinets of wonder. Of course, these could be genuine cabinets, or they could be whole rooms, and they were so delightful I cannot find the words to tell you how awesome they were. The Pitt-Rivers museum isn’t a million miles away from the photos I’ve seen, and if you’re near Swansea, they’ve got a kind of wunderkammer room in their city museum that is absolutely worth going to. (If you’re in Philadelphia, The Rosenberg Museum also isn’t a million miles away, and is equally worth visiting, and we are now out of cities whose museums I know inside-out and upside-down.) As much as I adore these wunderkammers and, frankly, want one as soon as I’ve got a spare room, they were not accessible to…well, anyone, really. Perhaps if the nobleman was very nice and understanding, and the scholar came from the right sort of people, aforesaid scholar could have access to things, but for anyone else — unthinkable.
Until this Victorian movement towards educating the working-class. The BM has many, many problems, but you’ve always got to give them this: anyone could visit. You had to apply in writing in advance, and prove you were of good character and not show up drunk (although I believe they served alcohol there which, frankly, is brilliant and all museums should do so), but you could get in, even if you didn’t have a title or a double-barrelled name, or weren’t an Oxbridge student. This was huge. This is huge. I can go to museums and do whatever research I like, or enjoy art, or just walk around and absorb whatever I want? Yes, please. Yes, a thousand times please. And anyone else who wants to can do the same; I think this, this access to education and art and culture, was the great gift of the Victorians. As the song says, one cannot live on bread alone, but one must have roses as well.
So, you can see why I leapt at the chance to write a little love story in amongst some dusty (and, frankly, questionably-sourced) objects in a grand building in Russell Square. I hope very much that you enjoyed it.
PS Lee and Daniel were borrowed from a story I started yoinks ago. Don’t think you’ve seen the last of them!