… good general life advice you might think, but in Victorian Britain’s arsenic-imbued green-wallpapered rooms it could literally save your life to hold your tongue. Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley is a beautifully designed book (just like those luscious wallpapers) with death at its heart. The Victorians (of a certain, moneyed class) never met a new, vibrant colour that they didn’t like, or immediately apply to their households and themselves. Meanwhile the other classes, made (in atrocious conditions, no need to lick anything, just breathe the air around you) and sold the goods that were so desired – and so deadly.
Scheele’s green and schweinfurt green, pigments created using arsenic, were used to produce the startling green wallpapers that became immensely popular. Designers and manufacturers (William Morris described the ridiculous fears of those worried about the worrying papers as the ramblings of those “bitten by witch fever”) were dismissive of the potentially fatal effects of covering your walls with arsenic-imbued paper (cigarette companies anyone?). Heating rooms with fire and gas is thought to have created a miasma of the awful compounds: it wasn’t the tight lacing of corsets that made Victorian maidens swoon, it was dancing in clouds of nasty contaminated air.
One of the theories about why Napoleon died when he did, is that he was poisoned by his fashionable Scheele’s green wallpaper in his lonely St Helena bedroom, as he sat out his final exile. Mind you, arsenic was everywhere: in bread – an excellent whitener, eaten as a medicine, used in quantities to rid houses of vermin. A number of the big Victorian poisoning murder trials hinged on trying to prove that the victim hadn’t just ingested the fatal dose just going about everyday life – a lot of the time, looking back at the evidence presented, it is fifty-fifty if evil or stupidity was afoot. We can thank the prevalence of the use of arsenic in all sorts of industrial processes, and the manufacturers’ refusal to not use it, for the introduction of regulations and laws protecting consumers and workers from the ill-effects of using ingredients and chemicals that can injure and kill you really, really easily.
The book it very beautiful, with is lovely green cover, the text is on pages sliced in half vertically, nestling between breathtaking images of wallpapers on full size pages. These are so lively and stunning and exquisite – that you can see why people wanted them on their walls despite the danger – a bit like eating fugu, for the frisson of dancing with death and a slightly numb tongue. Best all round really, to keep your tongue in your cheek.
We have been enjoying the intricacy and skillful paper engineering of two new pop-up books:
Creatures of the Deep: The Pop-Up Book is a gorgeous exploration of images from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899 book Art Forms in Nature. It is a real treat, breathtaking and slightly impossible looking; perfect for scientists and artists…
The Walking Dead Pop-Up Survival Guide by David Hawcock is an essential guide for those planning to survive the zombie apocalyse; those of us just planning to give up at the beginning, due to not wanting to deal with all the various socio-political-ethical issues thrown up by mad-as-cut-snakes survivalist alive people, let alone the wandering dead ones, can just enjoy the cleverly made gore and horror…
We all know honey bees are in a precarious position, which is awful, not just for them, but for humans, who depend on them for the polllination of so much of what we eat. So the new book by Piotr Socha, The Book of Bees, from art book publisher Thames & Hudson is truly a delight. Gorgeous to look at, stuffed full as a hive with honey, with facts and fables about bees and their lives with – and before – humans, it fairly hums with life. Whether your thing is bees or beautifully designed books, this book hits the sweet spot.
And, while we are on the topic, hooray for the lovely new jacket (the original, right, is not bad either…), from Vintage Classics, of The Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson’s story of his passionate drive to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee, once commonly found in the marshes of Kent, and driven to extinction in Britain by intensive farming practices, to its native land. The cover is designed by Timorous Beasties, the Scottish studio famous for their designs inspired by the natural world, Vintage has got them to do several in their Birds & Bees range of natural history classics…
The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley is a rather lovely novel based on the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of the 19th century British ornithologist and bird artist, John Gould. Being a good Victorian scientist, he killed and collected thousands of specimens – and Elizabeth, an outstanding artist, gave them rather wondrous life in a number of monographs and plates.
The purpose of her work was to show the scientific points of difference and interest between all the ‘new’ bird carcasses – and occasional live specimens – flooding into England from collectors in South America and Australasia, all engaged in the great project to name and catalogue the world – exciting stuff at a moment when Darwin’s preposterous theory was beginning to be taken seriously. But Elizabeth’s birds also have a liveliness and charm that lifts them above scientific usefulness. The novel explores what her life may have been like, engaged fully with the great project but still expected to take a backseat to the great men and be a proper Victorian lady, stoically birthing and losing children, and creating a family life, while deeply enjoying her art.
Beautifully written, this is a quiet but fascinating book, and Elizabeth springs from the page like one of her pretty birds. Have to say, this may be the most exquisite cover on a novel this Christmas – the palest blue dust jacket is attracting people in the shop and then, when you show them what is on the cream cover underneath the dust jacket… and the endpages also feature her work… it makes you feel all fluttery!
…today’s best book about how things work is Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by genius explainer and clever comic Randall Munroe of last year’s What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions and xkcd fame.
Thing Explainer has just landed and is very cool – it looks like a big children’s hardback picture book and is stuffed full of explanations you didn’t know you needed about things and processes you may not have even been aware of. And yet it is utterly fascinating. And perfect for all those people you know who love a bit of popular science, or appreciate a gorgeously designed book or just like to know stuff. I put a stack in the shop at lunchtime and two went in 5 minutes…
My simple explanation? It is a very good book.
Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews-David is a fascinating tour through the awful things our love of display and novelty has inflicted on us. Stuffed full of plums about flammable crinolines, arsenic-loaded faux flowers, neuro-toxic chemicals used in everything from hat manufacture to the early synthetic materials to stripey men’s socks for Victorian dandies, this is a weird mix of entertaining and shocking.
Many of these dangerous clothes are of necessity old – as both the makers of them, and their wearers, showed signs of the horrible effects successive governments in the USA, UK and France, outlawed various ingredients and practices, making the clothes safer to wear. One picks up the feeling that the comfort and safety of wearers was the point – the workers could display really nasty symptoms for quite a while, it was only when the clothes-buying middle-classes started to show signs of the same symptoms that action was taken. Mind you, the authorities could only do so much; if the garment that gave you a nasty measle-like rash was in the latest exciting new colour like mauve, people still insisted on wearing it.
Here in the 21st century we shouldn’t feel superior. Matthews-David writes about young men in Turkey developing silicosis because of their jobs sandblasting new denim jeans into the exact shade and feel of ‘used-ness’ required by fashion. We may not experience the horror of Herakles, dying as his poison-impregnated shirt consumes him, but Matthews-David points out the Western world’s cheapie, alluring, wantable, throw-away fashions require people elsewhere to work in places and with chemicals that most Westerner’s wouldn’t touch – and often couldn’t because their governments have long-standing regulations in place.
Wonderfully illustrated, thought-provoking, a great read but also scholarly (all the sources are listed), and finally a really well-designed book, a lovely objet, covering the scary bones of its subject just like one of the arsenic-saturated green gowns in a Victorian ballroom.
I picked up The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery because it looked so odd. Well, it looked beautiful, the cover is very appealing but nonetheless, sort of odd. Now I find myself wanting to spend time communing with an octopus.
Montgomery is a biologist who became interested in octopuses (the plural form that she uses, as wikipedia says: “There are three plural forms of octopus: octopuses [ˈɒktəpəsɪz], octopi [ˈɒktəpaɪ], and octopodes [ˌɒkˈtəʊpədiːz]. Currently, octopuses is the most common form in the UK as well as the US; octopodes is rare, and octopi is often objectionable” which seems a little strong, it is wrong because Octopus is Greek and the -i ending is Latin) and then fell sort of in love with them.
They are most mysterious creatures and very clever. They escape from captivity as much as they can, taste with their suckers and their skin, recognise individual humans, seem to enjoy quiet hand/sucker holding/caressing with their favourites and trumpet water at those not in favour. Their mouth is in their armpit and their 8 legs/arms act independently of each other. They can change colour and texture at will in less than a second.
China Miéville, one of the best wierd/fantastic fiction writers, wrote a fantastic – in all senses – novel called Kraken about the liberation of a giant squid specimen from London’s Museum of Natural History by worshippers wanting to restore an ancient cephalopod religion. I am going to have to re-read it… Montgomery sort of channels the awe and fascination, and slight fear, that such unusual, very non-mammalian creatures inspire, she grieves when they die and, she says, they are not slimy, but soft, like silky custard, with questing, curious suckers.
Makes you curious too, doesn’t it?