Death and Mr Pickwick (3) Royal Exhibition

“At the back of the shop I had a permanent exhibition of older prints, for the window always reflected the news of the time, and it seemed to me that the drawings had value even if the events they described had passed. Thus, behind a curtain in the rear, I had old Hogarths, Gillrays, Bunburys and other artists, and I charged a penny for admission to view. I filled the walls with humorous prints, floor to ceiling, like a parody of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and I often heard guffaws from behind the curtain.” 


In Death and Mr. Pickwick, there are several remarks of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. One is from an autobiographical note by an “anonymous” print-shop proprietor/ress as quoted above. Interestingly, he/she also describes the fashionable beaus at the print-shop window performing mischievous stuff in the book. Contrasted with a penny per admission to the rear of the print-shop, visitors were obliged to well pay out catalogue of one shilling each as admission price to the Royal Exhibition, as mentioned in Life in London, narrated by Pierce Egan and illustrated by Cruikshanks. The catalogue of the first exhibition being held on 21st April, 1760 (before the founding of Royal Academy of Arts in 1768) was sixpence each but only for the interested party concerned if they wanted to cough up the money voluntarily. The annual exhibition of the Royal Academy was held initially at Pall Mall, then located its residence to Somerset House in 1780 and Burlington House in the late 1860s till today for visitors to cast casual glances on others’ talent or observe pictures at close quarters.


“[I]n tracing the features of the philanthropist, the scholar, and the hero, such portraits, in themselves, become perfect studies, in order to view the feeling that adorns the face, the intelligence with decorates the mind, and the loftiness of character that depicts a nobleness of disposition and greatness of soul, cannot fail to be a source of infinite pleasure and delight.” (from Life in London)

With respect to the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts, apart from George III as the significant contributor, I am always fascinated in the history of the Foundling Hospital, and found that the charitable entity, which operated in 1740, was not in the least oblivious in its significance as well as its governor, William Hogarth, the marvelous painter, who presented the portrait of Captain Thomas Coram (the sole parent of the Hospital) and his other drawings at this philanthropic institution.  It was indeed a win-win situation for both the hundreds of patron artists and the Hospital in achieving a boost of fame and reputation, because as being the first proper art exhibition open to the public, it always gravitated a big number of spectators as a fashionable stamping ground.

“Stare” Case

I put some pictures depicting the royal art exhibition.They say much better as to the vast popularity of the event than I can express in words.


Rakes and the Condemned Hold


A year ago, we were introduced to an educated rogue named Thomas Hawkins from The Devil in the Marshalsea. Despite being born into a parsonage in Suffolk and graduated from Oxford majoring in theology, Thomas Hawkins was reckless in action, indulged himself in debauchery and accumulated insurmountable debts among the London filth. The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is yet again another adventurous novel centering the voyage of the eponymous protagonist after his liberation from the excruciating Marshalsea Prison. Bearing in mind, readers who had read the previous episode would be constantly reminded of a letter written by mystified Samuel Fleet (Thomas’s inmate in the Marshalsea (Belle Isle in the Hell of Epitome) on how eccentric in character and miraculous Thomas Hawkins is surviving in the Georgian London while devouring the juicy content of the sequel –

“Given that he is not a Lunatick (so far as I can tell), here follows my Conclusions, after Three Days of Close Study:

(i) He is a man of Instinct more than Reason;

(ii) He is drawn to trouble;

(iii) He believes – at heart – that God will Protect him.

An Unfortunate Recipe for Disaster…A man of true Faith in this City is like a Naked Man running into Battle, believing himself fully Armed. Diverting and alarming in Equal measure.”

The Peculiar Smell of London…

Life in London series, Cruikshanks with Pierce Egan
John Gonson in the background. A Harlot’s Progress by William Hogarth (1732)

Through the ramblings of Thomas Hawkins, we are led through every street and location dwelt by the depraved and privileged in the 1828 London. It is a city saturated with corruption and wilful misconducts; some of which include printshops and molly-houses along Russell Street and Fleet Street; St Giles for the luscious strumpets and mutilating snakesmen, not without mentioning the dangerous cockpits full of women warriors and bawdy audience (on a side-note, Antonia Hodgson has written an article on Cock-fighting and Animal Cruelty of the 18th century in relation to her latest novel). To strike a balance between the daunting walks of life, we also get to visit St James’s Palace where George II, seductive Henrietta Howard, Queen Caroline and other royal courtiers reside in, and overhear plans made by John Gonson as the Chairman of the Society for the Reformation of Manners (flourishing during the 1820s-1830s). However, at the end of the day, it is the unreliable good and bad, rags and riches all converge together to pull off an unmistakably brilliant theatrical performance with each of its own darkest secrets.

Crime, Confession, Repentance, Death, Salvation…

Rewse had allowed dozens of curious souls to tramp past my cell. They’d peered in through the grate, eager to see the gentleman as beast, trapped in his cage. They gossiped about me as if I could not hear or understand them. If I turned away it must be out of shame. If I held their gaze, they swore they saw the devil in my eyes. If I covered my face, or paced about the cell, or stared gloomily at the cold stone floor, then I must be in despair at my guilt, and the wretched state of my soul. Not one of them thought I looked innocent.

ApNewgate Prisonart from running into twists and turns and observing the voyeuristic lives of the rakes and riches, we peek into the interior of the Newgate Prison and the fatal route to the Tyburn Tree. As the title suggests, the Confession does have a lot to say about what Thomas Hawkins has embroiled himself into: a Crime.  The Newgate prisoners who are to be executed would compose confessions or hire a ghost writer based on lucrative purposes of decent burials as well as averting the fates to be met in the hands of the anatomists. On a humorous note, through the origins from a respectable family, Tom gets an offer from Daniel Defoe, whom also believes Tom’s innocence, to write about a picaresque story about him (Daniel Defoe is a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners) that is as colourful as Jack Sheppard’s.

Georgian Costumes

Crocheting a fictitious story out of real names and locations, there are quite a lot of historical backgrounds I have learned in relation to that era. Mischievously I need to be thankful to the animated bed scenes existing throughout the Novel because it is an interesting way of probing into the Georgian costumes for both men and women. For example, in the case of women, I cotton on the notions of the garments like stomacher, back, front,  and outside petticoats, as well as fichu and mantua gowns etc. Here is the link which shows you how to dress in the 18th century way!

Overall, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is a plot-driven story that continues seamlessly from The Devil in  the Marshalsea, which satisfies my curiosity in historical knowledge as well as entertainment. On a thematic note, both also have brought out an issue concerning questions of exterior religious devotion against inner morality. My next move would be to read some picaresque novels by Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe.

Ghost Cave: A Novel of Sarawak by Elsie Sze

9781496073945The Hong Kong International Literary Festival holds many interesting seminars this year. I register for four talks, which are based on the authors discussing their works and how they get inspirations to embark on a journey of writing: (1) The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni; (2) Susan Choi’s American Woman; (3) Ghost Cave by Elsie Sze; and (4) Dame Margaret Drabble’s A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. I haven’t finished all of them except Ghost Cave. I very much regret for myself not having finished Ghost Cave before the talk so I might have come up with some good questions to ask the author. Last night I finished the last page – a very captivating novel indeed and easily becomes one of my favourite novels I’ve read this year as well as one of my favourite authors!

I believe in the spirits of our ancestors, who protect us from harm and whose primary concern is our welfare. Mostly, they are not seen, only felt by the sensitive among us. And, very occasionally, when these spirits choose to manifest themselves to the human eye, for reasons that are important to them, we call them ghosts.

James Brooke (1803-68)
James Brooke (1803-68)

This novel is multi-generational; it mainly recalls two generations in the time of the 1850s and 1960s illustrating with various sets of historical accounts happening in Sarawak (North Borneo) around that time. In the 1840s, the first generation, Liu Hon Min, originally born and raised in a Hakka community in Dongguang, China, immigrated to Sarawak with his childhood friend for the better hope of living as well as bringing wealth to his family under the suppression of the Manchu Dynasty. In these twelve blood-sweat years of labour in the Kingdom of Sarawak of which James Brooke was still in the fullest power and governance as the White Rajah, Hon Min participated in the Mau San Gold Miners’ Uprising in 1857, which brought heavy bloodshed to the Hakka communities in Sarawak and later experienced the tragedies in the loss of love and friendships. Apart from that, he also endured the confrontation between Punti and Hakka communities in the mid-1860s. A hundred years later, the great-grandson of Liu Hon Min, named Ka Min, who cultivated a rebellious blood within him, joined the communist insurgency raids against the commonwealth armies amidst the formation of the Malaysian Federation.

Fans of historical fiction will be gravitated to it already. What also makes this novel a page-turner is how the structure and medium that the plots and historical accounts were divulged to readers. The youngest generation in the story is a heroine named Therese who was raised in Canada. As a student majoring in journalism, she came to Sarawak in search of her family history told by her grandfather Liu Ka Min. In this case, she got hold of the journal about the predicament that her great-great-great-grandfather (Liu Hon Min) had gone through in his time as well as from there she found out the existing Dayak indigenous tribal blood unbeknownst to her for so many years (this unveils more plot twists in the story).

“Therese fingers the jade Buddha she is wearing, her eyes focused on the faithful replica of it in the painting, tears welling up at the sight of the little green Buddha her great-great-great-grandmother was wearing; two women traversing time and space to touch in that moment of enlightenment.”

It is not only interesting how the ancestral history is channeled through the journal while her grandfather’s is stored in a recorder, but it is also fascinating that through Therese, she is the medium of connecting the thematic elements which converge and woven altogether in the two generations to form a holistic story consisting of transcendent love, faith, reconciliation and remembrance as is conveyed in its title: “Ghost Cave”. Apart from that, the book might also ponder questions of sense of belonging and identity concerning groups of inhabitants within a territorial place or a country, which implicate many lives and still being relevant today. “The Punti will always think we Hakka have usurped their land, even though we settled here from the north several hundred years ago,” Liu Pak said. “It’s a terrible tragedy that we are fighting our own kind. We are all inhabitants of Guangdong Province. Most Punti don’t feel that way.” 

Incidentally, you can also read an anecdote of Elsie Sze’s in On Father, Ghost Cave and Ghosts: A Short Chronicle as a side-note of this novel as well!

Death and Mr Pickwick (2) Murder, Dream, and Execution

1 7 maria martenReaders of Death and Mr Pickwick can devour bits and bobs of nineteenth-century anecdotes. Around page 200 of the Novel, we are briefly introduced Thomas Kelly, the publisher of Paternoster Row, London, and his sensational installments including An Authentic and Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten. Many publishing companies had also benefitted greatly from this murder. (Not without mentioning Robert Seymour, of course!)

Talking of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten, aka Red Barn Mystery in Polstead, Suffolk, it was the highly speculative murder case committed by William Corder, and Maria was often victimised in melodramatic and picturesque accounts as an ingenuous and country girl version of Amelia Sedley killed by an impoverished man with worst attributes and suchlike. On the contrary, Maria Marten was two years Corder’s senior and infamous for her lecherous affairs with other countrymen of the area with Corder as an impressionable but sparrow-framed young man. Ironically enough, Corder’s aspiration was to be a gentleman-farmer of letters and longing to reside in the literary circles in London.



But that’s not it – the psychic portent was at the time seen as a matter of fact and unimaginable around the nineteenth century court case. Ann Marten, the stepmother (much younger than Old Marten) of Maria’s,  recounted her dream of witnessing a corpse (Maria Marten) being buried in the floor of the red barn by William Corder, and demanded the ground to be excavated immediately. Maria’s rotten body was really exhumed at the red barn and produced an arrest warrant against William Corder (who, at that time, had already married an well-educated schoolmistress named Kathleen Moore in London and together they set up a school in Ealing). In 1828, the noose was finally tightened at his neck in Bury St Edmunds and nothing in the least heroically about his death in the eyes of thousands of spectators who attended the execution.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. By George Cruikshank
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. By George Cruikshank

After the execution, Corder’s skull was used in phrenological examination (incidentally, phrenology was pseudoscience that Anne Brontë ridiculed in comparison with physiognomy; and Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded by George Combe, who was Cecilia Siddons’s husband). It was found that the prominent areas which the killer greatly exercised in his lifetime were “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, and imitativeness”; but with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”.

George Combe lecturing on phrenology to a large mixed audience Credit: Wellcome Library, London. (by George Cruikshank)
George Combe lecturing on phrenology to a large mixed audience. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. (by George Cruikshank)

James Lea was the police constable who investigated the red barn murder and later another notorious and nerve-shredding case of “Spring-heeled Jack”.

Death and Mr Pickwick (1) Anne Siggs

9780199537242I am awakened by the rich details and vast spectrum of topics covered in Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis a robust catapult of knowledge enrichment. During the reading, I had come across an interesting conversation between Joseph Severn and Robert Seymour at the gates of Hoxton House, discussing passion for portraitures and anecdotes of Mrs. Siddons, a famous Georgian tragedian. After a while, the name of “Anne Siggs” came alive on the paper,

But when I am in the drawing office at Vaughan’s, every morning there is a tall, ugly beggar-woman on crutches who passes by in the street. You always hear her, scraping the ground and calling for alms, and if you look out the window, there she is. Everyone in the area knows her – she is called Anne Siggs. But she has two unusual qualities. First, she is spotlessly clean, which is mystifying. Second, she tells everyone her sister is Mrs. Siddons, and that the actress refuses to acknowledge her own flesh and blood.

This unusual attributes seemed to be all the more intriguing; I wanted to gain more information on this eccentric but scrupulous beggar. She was mentioned in many sources, including The Streets of London: Anecdotes of Their More Celebrated Residents; and Vagabondiana, or Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London, both by John Thomas Smith (1766–1833), an English painter, engraver and antiquarian (inspiration of Henry Mayhew’s later works).

Anne_Siggs,_an_eccentric_crippled_beggar._Engraving,_1804._Wellcome_V0007230Anne Siggs was born in May (year unknown) into a respectable family, whose father Moses Siggs was an industrious breeches-maker in Dorking, Surrey. However, an accident befallen on him resulting in deformity and early death. Anne Siggs was the second eldest. Moses’s expertise in astrology once portended his daughter would constantly encounter “a variety of wretchedness”. Death of Moses Siggs left the family in destitution; Anne was received into several families until she was around 20 years of age. She resided in various areas in London, by Swallow Street for thirty years; Upper John Street and Golden Square around the Piccadilly. Rheumatism begrudged her to get up at nine and wandered around till two. In her life she had been “knocked down, pinched, horsewhipped” and incurred all sorts of maltreatment, which enfeebled her senses and ended up using crutches. Unable to be a seamstress and striped off her personalty, Anne received life allowances from churchwarden due to her religious devotion (she was purported to have written few religious writing in life). Before her indisposition she was measured five feet seven, as tall as her father. Living at the back garret, not only her clothes but apartment was remarkably clean. Anne Siggs was often visited by doves and magpies at home, and kept an owl by herself.


Mrs. Salmon Waxwork had exhibited a wax figure of Anne Siggs in 1812 on 17 Fleet Street (Prince Henry’s Room) at the door entrance in alternated turns, but not as popular as Mother Shipton, that the hidden treadle at the step would all in a sudden “incensed” Mother Shipton to kick and snap patrons with her broom!

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

9781444775433I caught a few distinct voices. ‘Spare me, Lord!’ ‘God help a poor sinner!’ ‘Save us! Oh God – save us!’ But the rest was just a heart-shredding din, that seemed to shake the very walls of the prison – the lamentation of souls trapped in a hell on earth.

It’s an enriching thriller and unsettling description of humanity. It’s of literary purpose and beauty in its entirety. It’s one of the books I find myself destined to read. As a beginner of historical fiction, indeed a rare chance do I find one book centering on poignant living conditions, the pain, mastery of survival, and day-to-day contrivance of plots and schemes totted up in a tangible prison – The Marshalsea – a stultifying fortress erected since the fourteenth century which  mainly caged the incarcerated debtors. Seriously, I am much indebted for the author, as well as the novel in letting me fix a glaring gaze on this infamous “Hell in Epitome”.


One doesn’t become warden of the Marshalsea through brute force alone. He was a butcher for twenty years; he knows when to bludgeon and when to fillet. (On William Acton)

F3.largeSet in eighteenth century (1727, two years after Jonathan Wild’s execution) before the coronation of George II, this novel is divided into three parts, journeying five days (Thursday to Monday) with narration of Thomas Hawkins of his time  spent in the Marshalsea, Southwark. On the first day after taking the tour with Thomas Hawkins around the gaol, we are already worried about his unforeseeable future and possible torture in the goal for the next few days – places like Strong Room (a four-walled tinderbox for the tortured and the dead) over the Common Side, sparrow-framed walking corpses, the begging grate, gaol fever, and infectious diseases. Although Thomas stayed in the Master Side, it is not apparently a safe haven – there are rooms on the Master Side called “the Hole” at the cellar of the Lodge, “the Pound” where the governor (William Acton) keeps the grim tools for torture like skullcap (head crusher), spiked collar, thumbscrew, all sorts, you name it, and there is also a place called “Belle Isle” – a room of Samuel Fleet’s abode, and Thomas Hawkins will be fatally sharing with. Samuel Fleet,  a notorious inmate, Face and Black Heart of the devil, the murderer whom everyone is talking out, an enigma. Surely there will be countless dangerous denizens, confrontations and unveiling of gaping brutality lying in wait for Thomas. He needs to strike a light to these shadowy silhouettes to ensure his safety, and hopefully, to his soulful release. Faith? Instinct? Honesty? What does he need to preserve and relinquish?

9AprilLastConfession_royal_hb.inddApart from factual interior descriptions of the Marshalsea, the interesting characters who are accurately and loosely based upon historical references Antonia has gathered (e.g. William Acton, Edward Gilbourne, Joseph Cross, Trim the Barber, and Madame Migault the fortune-teller – from A Journal of My Life while in the Marshalsea, John Grano, 1728-29), and the brutal corruptions as well as ugliness/loyalty in mankind; another endearing quality I am most engrossed in this historical fiction is the intricacy of the plots. Facing the protagonist are layers upon layers of sprawling gossamer of traps, uncanny conspiracy and convolution. Just when you think the resolution to the crisis and the whodunit is soon to be unmasked and revealed, but, BANG! Another unsolved mystery spatters out that leaves you helplessly unconscious. It is invincible! Just so you know, I am all ready for the sequel, and I can’t wait to embark on another “heroic” and “adventurous” journey of crimes and danger with victorious Thomas Hawkins!

Dodger by Terry Pratchett (Fencers, Snakesmen, and Toshers)


“This is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

Reminds me of Pickwick Papers

It is the very first book I read by Terry Pratchett. I might be ashamed of myself having started Dodger rather than Discworld series, but perambulating Victorian London through Dodger’s eyes, it opens my doors of curiosity to embrace the fantastic Discworld. To be frank, I was already deep in thought soon after I read the first line of the dedication page to Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) , “To Henry Mayhew for writing his book” – London Labour and the London Poor – a book which I have longed to read from the first to the last page. “What Dickens did surreptitiously, showing the reality of things via the medium of the novel, Henry Mayhew and his confederates did simply by facts, lots and lots of facts, piling statistics on statistics.” I remember there is a chapter where Mayhew confronts and interviews a little street sweeper, which is indeed overwhelming upon my first glance. In Dodger, Mayhew also appears on pages as one of the major historical characters of Victorian England alongside Mister Charlie Dickens (1812-1870).

Author’s acknowledgements

“You are so sharp that you might cut yourself.”

Inspired by Dickens’s novel, Oliver Twist, this book focuses on an eponymous character, Dodger, a youthful, prismatic and adventurous seventeen-year-old tosher (sewer scavenger) living near Seven Dials under the rookeries world and the attic roof of Solomon’s, a Jewish watchmaker with a dog of a funny name called “Onan” (Footnote from Pratchett: the name of “Onan”, if not familiarised with The Bible, get some help from Google, or any priest – possibly a slightly embarrassed one – will help you). Dodger’s former careers before coming to a fabulous tosher is better not to be revealed here, but one day something incredulous incident happens which changes his life forever – the act of saving a damsel in distress could be no big deal and re-enacted all the time in Victorian London; however it is the damsel’s identity,  his resourcefulness and swiftness of grating drain covers which add up together and clash into consecutive heroic acts involving skulduggery and dark plots forthwith. The story is adequately seasoned with the help of bountiful famous accomplices, the fateful fog of London, as well as some playful disguise and camouflage.

“Once upon a time, Marie Jo had told him that with his skills, he should be on the stage, as she had been, but since he knew that actors didn’t get paid very much he had always reckoned that the only reason to be on a stage would be to rob it.”

Punch-Judy-Puppet-631.jpg__800x600_q85_cropConcerning those bountiful famous accomplices who work in concert with Dodger, apart from Henry Mayhew as is mentioned above, there is Mister Charlie Dickens, a writer of Morning Chronicle, headquartered in Fleet Street. He acts as a journalist and parliamentary reporter, befriending with spikes on the desks and foggy London.

  • The only monsters in Fleet Street, he had been told, were the printing presses whose thumping made the pavement shake, and which demanded to be fed every day with a diet of politics, ‘orrible murders and death.
  • My answer to you would be that the truth is a fog, in which one man sees the heavenly host and the other one sees a flying elephant. (Dickens)
Angela Burdett-Coutts

Alongside Dickens, there is the notable philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), whose roles on charitable acts of supporting Ragged Schools,  encourages Dodger to enroll in it, as well as being a courageous pillar to Dodger’s contrived plots against the enemies, plays an important part of the story. It is amusing that she proposes to Duke of Wellington, and later marries to a 29-year-old secretary, who is 38 years her junior. In her party organised by Lady Coutts, where Dodger and Solomon have the honour to be invited, it is star-studded with George Cayley (1773-1857), Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) (daughter of Lord Byron), Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) (whose keen interests lead him to a guided tour of the sewer world), and Sir Robert Peel with the peelers. I could not elaborate more on their distinctions and achievements, so more research need to be done.

Interestingly, a worthy mentioning of names pin-pricked in the story include Sweeney Todd (whose fate leads him to Bedlam Hospital), Mister Tenniel (1820-1914) (the illustrator), and Dick Turpin the highwayman (1705-1739). Places included Lavender Hill Cemetery and Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark concerning Winchester Geese. Last but not least, with Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace
A place I didn’t visit last time in London!

17998922All in all, entertaining as it might be, the most inspiring idea I get is the faith and belief you have in yourself. The Roman Goddess of Sewers, Cloacina, the Lady, is all that toshers worship in the underbelly of London, as opposed to the one on the upper world. However, it is not about that or what, it’s the reincarnation of the true self, and Dodger has found one. It is an impressive novel packed with blaggard and scallywag, waifs and strays, and many Victorian slang like copper, snakesman and flophouse. A perfect read for me in April. I hope to get my next one by Pratchett!