Friday, 21 March 2014


Cora Pearl - exhibiting her not inconsiderable charms

At the height of her astonishing success Cora Pearl owned three different houses in Paris, a stable of 60 horses, and jewels valued at more than a million francs. But the woman who lived as if a queen had been born to a Plymouth music teacher and was christened Eliza Emma Crouch.

As it happened her father was not without a certain degree of his own fame. In the year of his daughter’s birth, which was 1835, he wrote a ballad called Kathleen Mavoureen that went on to become so popular that its proceeds paid for Eliza to be schooled at a convent in Bourlogne. On her return to England, the young woman of considerable beauty was drawn to a life in the theatre and made secret visits whenever she could. However, on one such occasion in London she was seduced by a shameless rogue, who claimed to be a diamond merchant, and then bought his conquest’s virginity ‐ afterwards leaving £5 by the bed, with which Eliza paid for a room in the centre of Covent Garden.

Her next lover was Robert Bignell, who engaged her to sing at the Argyll Rooms ­‐ though her voice was not at all unrefined, but she had the looks to draw a crowd. He then took Eliza to Paris, where they set up home as man and wife and she changed her name to Cora Pearl. In no time at all she left him, sometimes singing in Parisian haunts, but mostly concerned with finding rich men who would pay for luxurious gowns and jewels ­‐ and a growing gambling habit.

At the height of her success Cora Pearl was immensely extravagant. She slept in black silk sheets, embroidered with threads of gold. She often drove out in a pale blue carriage that was lined with yellow satin, having dyed her hair blue or yellow to match. She used face powders flecked with silver or crushed pearls, and in summer she liked to go brown in the sun ­‐ a fashion that was considered coarse, and practically unthinkable amongst the wealthy Parisian women.

Not that the rich men seemed to mind. The Duc de Rivoli set her up in a house ­‐ but Eliza was hardly loyal, entertaining her ‘golden chain’ of lovers, including Prince Achille Murat who indulged her with a stable of horses and grooms in yellow livery. By 1862, when Cora was 27 years old, she had bedded the Prince of Orange who was heir to the Netherlands throne, along with the Duc de Morny, half brother of the Emperor, and Prince Napoleon, the Emperor’s cousin. (Prince Napoleon adored her and set her up on the Rue de Chaillot, said to be the finest house in France ­‐ as well as another in Rue des Bassins.)

Not forgetting her theatrical aspirations, in 1867 she caused a sensation by appearing half naked in diamond encrusted boots when she took the part of Cupid in Offenbach’s opera, Orphee aux Enfers. And at home the scenes were no less lush. She bathed in pink marble bathrooms where her initials had been inlaid with gold. Once, at a banquet she shocked her guests by serving herself on a platter with only a sprinkling of parsley to dress! One admirer sent her a silver horse, stuffed full of gold and jewels. Another sent a box of marron glaces, with each marron then wrapped in a £1,000 franc note.

Such a decadent life was to be curtailed in the July of 1870 when the Franco‐Prussian War began, and most of Cora’s wealthy admirers were lost or diverted their concerns. During this time she proved herself to be more than just a pretty face and converted her house on the Rue de Chaillot into a hospital for the troops, tearing up her silk sheets for bandages and helping to tend the wounded herself. 

But Cora’s love­‐life could not be neglected, and with Prince Napoleon now in exile abroad she turned her attentions to Alexandre Duval, a man ten years younger whose family wealth was established in hotels and restaurants. Duval indulged her as much as he could and was famed for writing the following words, “Will you let me prove my devotion. Command me and I will die...’ to which  the  object of his attentions replied, “I would rather you lived and paid my bills.”

Too soon he had spent every franc he owned ­‐ and when Cora then turned her back on him Duval attempted to commit suicide. Duval recovered from his gunshot, but for Cora it was a near fatal blow. Her public lack of pity resulted in a change of mood amongst those who had admired her before. When hissed and jeered in public, Cora took herself off to tour Europe, though in London she was further shamed when asked to leave the Grosvenor hotel ­‐ and in Baden she was not even allowed to enter the gaming rooms, and the gambling tables where she hoped to boost her rapidly flagging funds.

Cora returned to Paris, but life was never the same again. Prince Napoleon was back but had no desire to see his English lover. And with no saviour to pay her debts she was forced to sell the Rue de Chaillot, along with her cherished possessions and jewels. Ten years later and Cora was to be found renting rooms in the back streets of Paris, ravished by age and sickness. When she died of cancer in 1886, at the age of 51, the event went all but unnoticed. She was destined for a pauper's grave but that final humiliation was spared when an unnamed gentleman intervened and paid for Cora's resting place to be in the Paris Batignolles cemetery - in the style of the grandest Courtesan.

Friday, 7 March 2014


Victoria Woodhull 1838-1927

On this International Women's Day 2014, the VV has been musing on the life of Victoria Woodhull – who was (although few have heard of her now) the very first woman who made a bid to stand for the American presidency, as far back as 1872. 

Not that her attempt met with any success. At that time women had no legal vote and, on the day of Grant’s re-election his female rival was safely imprisoned on charges of libel and pornography. But, what had preceded such ignominy?
Buck Claflin in old age
Victoria had a sensation life. She was born in Ohio in 1838 to a family of shameless rogues. During her early years she was part of their travelling medicine show. Always having a talent to draw a crowd, the little girl would preach and tell fortunes, even claiming the power to cure all ills while her father – the one-eyed Reuben ‘Buck’ Claflin – stood at the back of his wagon and sold bottles of his opium-based Life Elixir.
At the age of fourteen Victoria fell ill, driven to the point of exhaustion after being deliberately starved by Buck as a means of enhancing  her spiritual ‘visions’. Victoria later claimed that her father sexually abused her when drunk, even trying to sell her as a whore. But then, she would be seduced soon enough when, during her convalescence, she was wooed by another fraud - the apparently well-to-do doctor who was known as Canning Woodhull.
Canning, who was then twenty-eight, asked for Victoria’s hand and offered the girl a means of escape from her father’s tyrannical, grasping ways. But, once again she was misused. Her ‘Doc’ was no more than a worthless quack, an opium addict and womaniser. Unable to support his child bride, he was so drunk at the birth of their son that Victoria very nearly died, and blamed her husband evermore for the boy’s severe mental impairments.
When contemplating returning to Buck, Victoria came to realise that her place in the family ‘enterprise’ had been usurped by her younger sister, Tennessee. So, with husband and idiot son in tow she made her way to San Francisco, there hoping to realise a dream. As a small child, Victoria claimed to have had a vision in which the spirit of the Greek orator, Demosthenes, foretold of a glorious destiny in which she would grow up to lead the American people – a position that she would hold in a city of water and ships and gold. Well, San Francisco seemed to fit the bill, being the scene of the gold rush and also a sea port town. But any dreams of success were soon crushed. While Canning spent every cent he owned in opium dens and on prostitutes Victoria was left with no choice but to support her family, working as a cigar girl in a bar, as an actress, and probably a whore.
Returning at last to Ohio, rather than joining Buck’s latest venture (running a dubious hospital from which he advertised himself as ‘America’s King of Cancers), along with her sister, Tennessee, Victoria worked as a spiritual healer – though many have come to suspect that the sisters offered a somewhat more physical sustenance. 
Colonel James Harvey Blood 
While in such trade, Victoria met the married Colonel James Harvey Blood. Blood was a glamorous civil war hero who shared her belief in ‘other realms’ and fervently supported her ‘destiny’ as future ruler of America.  Leaving his respectable life behind, as well as his wife and daughters, he joined Victoria and Tennessee when they set out to make their mark in New York – another city of gold and ships.

At first, times were hard and the sisters' spiritualist business was bolstered by the sale of contraceptive devices to the prostitutes they befriended. Meanwhile, Blood was often absent, spending time with his brother’s newspaper business and learning the tricks of that trade – publishing pamphlets and magazines deemed to be a vital means of spreading the word of Victoria’s aims when she set her cap at the presidency.
Cornelius Vandervilt

Before that, the bad penny Buck Claflin turned up. Having heard that the aging, widowed businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt – then the richest man in America – was seeking the services of mediums, he contrived a means of introducing his daughters. Matters rapidly progressed. Victoria became Vanderbilt’s personal  medium with ’the ‘spirits’ offering financial tips which, in reality, were gleaned from gossiping bankers in brothels. Tennessee became Vanderbilt’s mistress – a natural progression of events after performing her ‘magnetic healing’ and curing the 'old goat's' niggling complaints.
A contemporary newspaper cartoon of Victoria and Tennie as Wall Street traders

Generously rewarded, the sisters caused a public sensation by setting themselves up as Wall Street’s very first female brokers - an enterprise that brought further wealth. With the aid of Colonel Blood, they then founded a spiritualist newspaper and Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly became their political voice – a voice that reached a great many ears, for the religion of Spiritualism was at that time widely followed, offering a rare platform from which women could express their views. 
Victoria Woodhull addressing the House Judiciary Committee

Holding spectacular salons, Victoria was soon courted by the Women’s Movement who supported her bid for the presidency. She lectured to enormous crowds and under the popular banner of universal suffrage and equal rights, Victoria travelled to Washington to petition the House at a Judiciary Committee in 1871.

But, things soon began to deteriorate. With Buck’s criminal antics raked up in the press alongside stories of her dubious past, ‘The Woodhull’ was being demonised as no less than ‘Mrs Satan’. A crippling series of court cases followed which led to her being sued and imprisoned time and time again. Her outspoken thoughts regarding 'free love' caused even more offence when combined with an ill-advised liaison with the press man, Theodore Tilton.
Theodore Tilton
It was a complicated affair. Tilton's wife had been sexually involved with a popular married clergyman whose name was Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher in return had sworn to offer Victoria's campaign support before having second thoughts. Victoria then sought revenge by exposing Beecher's adultery, only to find herself immersed in the ‘Trial of the Century’.  Beecher was to come out unscathed. The Tiltons were socially disgraced, and Victoria had been portrayed as a promiscuous pornographer. Her life and ambitions were ruined – politically, personally and financially.

It was Vanderbilt who brought some salvation. When the old man died his heirs were keen to hush up the millionaire's less than salubrious past. Victoria and Tennessee were given a generous settlement and with this they travelled to England, settling in London; another city of gold and ships in which they reinvented themselves, leaving their lovers and scandal behind - along with all dreams of the presidency. Nevertheless, they attained some degree of success. Tennessee married a viscount and became known as Lady Cook.
Victoria and John Biddulph Martin - happy and 'respectable' at last

Victoria married John Biddulph Martin, a bachelor merchant banker. When widowed she was heartbroken - but rich. Withdrawing to the Martin's country estate, she became a passionate motorist, founding an agricultural college for women, a village school, and a country club – at which Edward, the Prince of Wales was said to be a frequent visitor.

The VV wonders how Victoria felt when, at the age of eighty, universal suffrage was finally won – when the 'modern' world had all but forgotten the woman who once caused a national sensation and was known as the wife of the devil. All but in exile at the time of her death she asked for no more than to be remembered with the following brief words:
‘You cannot understand a man’s work by what he has accomplished, but by what he has overcome in accomplishing it.’
In her own way, and by her own means, Victoria Woodhull achieved a great deal. She was one of the many brave Victorians who lived in a time when a woman was seen as no more than a man's possession. She paved the way for equality – though who knows when her ultimate hope will come true, when a woman will stand in the White House as president of America.

The VV has hardly scratched the surface of Victoria Woodhull's amazing life. Should any readers wish to investigate further there is a wealth of information on the web. As far as books are concerned, Other Powers by Barabara Goldsmith is an excellent resource which gives a full and well-researched view of  relevant historical events at the time. Mary Gabriel's Notorious Victoria is another fine investigation. And, for younger historians, Kathleen Krull's A Woman for President is a good starting point which has the added bonus of being brought to vibrant life by Jane Dyer's watercolour illustrations. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014


The American and English covers for The Signature of All Things 
by Elizabeth Gilbert

There is an ancient concept that God created some plants, or their parts, to resemble certain areas of the human anatomy, and that these plants may therefore be used to cure specific human ills. Such a theological justification of faith in a caring, universal god was the concept of one Jakob Bohme (1575-1624) whose own 'The Signature of All Things' was the book that contained the 'proof' of his doctrine. And now that central thesis, along with Bohme's book's title, have inspired another remarkable book. 

The Signature of All Things is a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert that tells the story of Alma Whittaker ­‐ the daughter of Henry, the man to whom we are first introduced when he is a boy whose own father works as a horticulturalist at Kew. Henry leaves his home to travel overseas with Captain Cook and, indeed, so fascinating is the depiction of Henry's early life that it is something of a wrench to leave the centre of his world at the time of his daughter's birth. 

Alma is ‘born with the century’ in the year of 1800. She is raised in privilege and wealth on her father’s vast Philadelphia estate - his success built on sheer determined grit, and on his business acumen to use plants as pharmaceuticals. 

Physically, Alma is plain and large ­‐ a harsh fact of which she is ignorant until her parents go on to adopt the beautiful child, Prudence. Intellectually, Alma is a prodigy who yearns for scientific truth, to understand the wider world and what her place in it might be. In the smaller world of emotions she flounders. While longing for friendship and love she very often misunderstands the affections of those around her. As a youth on the verge of adulthood, Alma’s growing sexual needs are enhanced by the pornographic books she finds in her father’s library. These she reads in the cramped hot darkness of the library’s tiny binding room - the claustrophobic haven which is also a poignant symbol for the secrets kept in Alma’s mind. This venue, much later on, will form the dramatic backdrop for the intensely moving scene of Alma's first sexual communion with another human soul ­‐ though not in any conventional way. 

Some Victorian botanical illustrations of moss

Alma is a remarkable character. She is the beating heart of this sprawling and intricate novel ­‐ the star in its central orbit who every reader will come to love: not just for the sake of her goodness, but because of her vulnerability when all around presume her to be as steady and needless as a rock. It is a fine poetic touch that Alma’s main subject of botanic study are the mosses that grow upon such rocks ­‐ those down-trodden humble organisms through which her own deductions are made regarding the evolution of life.

Some botanical illustrations of orchids - in all of their flamboyant 'sexuality'

By contrast the man Alma comes to love, the ethereal young Ambrose Pike, studies exotic orchids of which he makes glorious paintings. And despite enormous differences in many aspects of their lives, there is a spell when the two of them form a bond which leads to great happiness. 

Happiness. Contentment. Fulfilment. The need to love and to be loved, both physically and spiritually, are the things that Alma longs for most: the things she needs to understand. In middle age this yearning will lead her to leave her American home and travel around the globe. The time that she spends in Tahiti - following in the footsteps of her father, and also Ambrose Pike - is alluringly described, and the island provides a wonderful scene in a cave of fool’s gold which is lush with moss - where Elizabeth Gilbert stresses the fact that even the very humblest moss may be as intrinsically glamorous as the most exotic of blooms. 

The final chapters are fascinating for their insight into scientific thought in the mid-nineteenth century, and how the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace was to turn the world upon its head in relation to long-held concepts of creation - of Science versus God. 

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alma’s fictional meeting with the factually real Alfred Russel Wallace leads to the expression of notions held dear to both their hearts - in that there is some greater force than what we can know in this earthly realm: some spiritual universal truth that leads to man's altruistic thought ­‐ that spiritual part of the human mind which cannot be explained away by physical evolution alone. 

The ideas are fascinating, yet conveyed with such a readable charm that belies the complex philosophy that Elizabeth Gilbert has 'evolved' to create this big and beautiful novel ‐ as big and beautiful as is the nature of Alma Whittaker. 

The VV will now end this post with the words of Elizabeth Gilbert herself, when she talks about what inspired her to write The Signature of All Things -

For another Virtual Victorian post based on a remarkable woman who existed in the Victorian age, and who travelled to Africa in pursuit of her own scientific dreams, please see this short article about Mary Kingsley: POETIC OBSERVATION ON AFRICA 

For more on Alfred Russell Wallace, the Victorian natural scientist who many feel was overlooked when Darwin rose to prominence, please see this article by the Historical Crime novelist, D E Meredith: ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE ~ THE BUTTERFLY MAN.

Friday, 21 February 2014


From the Earth to the Moon is the name of a novel written by Jules Verne in 1865. In that book a rocket is fired from a launch pad in America - Florida to be precise - and after reaching its destination returns back to the Earth again, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. 

In 1901 H G Wells wrote The First Men in the Moon, a science fiction romance in which, by means of an anti-gravity shield, two adventurers are propelled to the Moon.

And then, in 1902, Le Voyage dans La Lune, or A Trip to the Moon, was the first science fiction film to be given a public screening. Based on the novels of both Verne and Wells, it was written and directed by Georges Melies and it shows a rocket being fired straight into the eye of The Man in the Moon. (Admittedly, this was the year following Queen Victoria's death and therefore not strictly Victorian. But the VV thinks it fair to say that the film's creation would have been under way well before the actual screening day.)

And the point of this post is simply to ask whether or not you agree with the VV that there is something oddly familiar about those stories of space travel - something rather similar to events that occurred in the 1960's. Sometimes fact does emulate fiction - particularly in the scientific realms.

A scene from Le Voyage dans La Lune

You can download a free version of Le Voyage dans La Lune

Friday, 14 February 2014


Recently, the VV appeared as one of the three Memento Moriatas when they produced a 'candle-literary' event in the Dissenters' Chapel of Kensal Green Cemetery. This is the essence of the VV's talk - with a dramatic theme that directly relates to her latest book, an Oriental Gothic novel entitled The Goddess and the Thief.

Cemeteries are used as settings in all of the VV's novels, including one in Tower Hamlets in Bow that appears in The Somnambulist ~ that graveyard being the very last of the ‘magnificent seven’, of which Kensal Green was the first to be built; all constructed to address the needs of a rising population, when the graves of the city of London had become so overcrowded they were literally spilling with human bones.

And now, in The Goddess and the Thief more graveyards feature in the plot, both in the town of Windsor and its surrounding countryside. But this is a novel in which we find traditional Christianity being challenged by the ‘blasphemy’ of the growing Victorian cult of spiritualist mediums ~ not to mention the influence of ‘other faiths’ discovered as the Empire spread.

Those Victorians who travelled to India might go as missionaries, soldiers, or wives; as traders, or clerks, or politicals. Over time, some embraced foreign cultures, but others would have been aghast when exposed to explicit imagery that adorned many Hindu temples ~ the sort of artwork that might well grace a page of the Karma Sutra ~ a text, you might be surprised to hear, that was first translated and published in English during the nineteenth century by scholar and explorer, Sir Richard Burton.

No doubt that offended some prurient souls, yet how much more shocked might they have been if meeting the Aghori ~ a dissenting sect of the Hindu faith, thought to have magical psychic gifts, and far more extreme than anything to be found in English parlours, where ‘tea and table-­‐tapping’ could be the most genteel of affairs.

The Aghori might dwell in cremation grounds, their visions enhanced by drink and drugs. They might smear their flesh with excrement, as well as the ashes of the dead And worse, as a rite of passage, each is charged to consume charred human remains, or else drink blood from a human skull.

Such behaviour may seem repulsive to us. But by fully embracing death and decay, the Aghori might well explain that they are simply exhibiting their devotion to the god Shiva ~ the god who embraces the whole of creation ~ the good and also the bad of it ~ who also inhabits burial grounds after once being wed to Sati, the mortal woman who died in flames to prove her devotion to her Lord. That tragedy led  Shiva to smear his flesh with her ashes, and to dance with her charred and blackened corpse, before going to sit on a mountain top where he closed his eyes for a thousand years in a penance of meditation ~ or until such time as Sati’s soul was reincarnated in the form of a princess of the mountains, whose name was Parvati.

The cannibalistic Aghori, and all their exotic practices, are a gift to a gothic novelist, and they play a very important part in the plot of The Goddess and the Thief, though the skulls that they carry are hardly rare in Victorian Sensation literature, where a gruesome bloodlust is often described in feverish Vampiric tales, where ghouls might lurk on cemetery paths to rattle the bones of those long dead…

And now, the VV will rattle some bones and tell the true story of Jindan Kaur, a Hindu queen whose destiny (for a little while at least) was to lie in the dark, dank catacombs of the Dissenter’s Chapel at Kensal Green: a fact that was all but forgotten until a cracked marble name stone was found during restoration work.

In those vaults there is an atmosphere that can leave one stunned and breathless; really quite a different thing to that of an open‐air cemetery. Such a claustrophobic stillness there. Such a dripping, cold finality. Really more like a dungeon than a tomb.

It is hard to think of anyone being left to lie and rot down there. Harder still in the case of Jindan Kaur whose life had been full of drama, who was the most vibrant of characters.

She was the mother of Duleep Singh, the last maharajah of Lahore, in what is now known as Pakistan but was then Northern India. That area was annexed to British rule in the year of 1849, at the end of the second Anglo Sikh war, when the boy maharajah, eleven years old, was deposed from his golden throne. When converted to Christianity he was taken to live to England, as had been the Koh‐i‐noor diamond, his kingdom’s sovereign symbol ~ the spoil of war exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Queen Victoria often wore that stone, set as a brooch upon her heart. And her heart was drawn to Duleep Singh, acting as his English mother queen. She wrote of his beauty: His eyes! His teeth! She had that glamour immortalised in this painting by Winterhalter ~ still part of the Royal Collection today.

But Jindan Kaur would surely have sneered at such humiliation ~ to see her son’s status so reduced ~ to provide the allure at society events, but really no more than a puppet prince. He had lost the kingdom for which she’d fought, her bravery and ambitious intent resulting in her being called the Messalina of the Punjab, accused of scandals and wicked deeds that may, or may not, have been enhanced for the sake of propaganda.

Jindan’s origins were humble, born to the Lahore palace doorman, or the keeper of the kennels, or perhaps it was the gardener. Whatever the truth of her lowly birth or the rumours that were put about regarding her having been employed as a temple devadasis (one of the dancing prostitutes), her beauty was soon to catch the eye of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh ­‐ the aging Lion of Punjab.

Ranjit Singh had a great many ‘regular’ wives, of whom Jindan was the last, the youngest, and the most favoured. And favoured by the fates as well, when she evaded a dreadful death, as described in this extract taken from The Goddess and the Thief ~

When Ranjit Singh finally breathed his last, four of his other living wives and seven of his slave girls were taken along to the funeral and immolated with the corpse. The Indians call it sati. The word means Perfect Wife...each seated on a gilded chair, each with a mirror set before, and a golden parasol above. They were then led to the sandalwood pyre and concealed within a tent of shawls while everything around them was drenched in a mixture of sulphur and ghee. When lit, that became a fireball from which there could be no escape – though I was assured they felt no pain, being stupefied with opiates. But even if that was the case, who would willingly wish for such a fate? Who could love a man to that extent?

Whether Jindan loved her husband or not, she certainly adored her son. It was thanks to Prince Duleep that Jindan did not suffer a fiery death, with the infant boy but ten months old and still considered to need her care. And then, when he’d reached the age of five, when all other claimants to the throne had conveniently met gruesome ends, Duleep became Maharajah ~ despite there being rumours spread (most likely by British enemies) that the child was not a legal heir, but the result of Jindan’s dalliance with one of the Lion’s male paramours ~ when the aging and syphilitic king, with his one remaining drooping eye, preferred to watch than do the deed.

Raja Lal Singh - the lover of Jindan Kaur

Whatever the truth of the matter, few dared to cast any public doubt when Jindan grabbed Destiny with both hands, casting off her veils to reveal her face when acting as regent for Duleep ~ taking a Sikh general as lover and appointing him palace viceroy ~ transacting state business in public, and addressing her troops directly when they fought to defend the Punjab throne. She was even said to have conspired to poison the British Resident. And perhaps that fact had influenced the Governor General, Dalhousie, who showed no mercy to the queen when the British were victorious, when she was removed from her only child, dragged away by her hair, screaming, and holding her now empty hands out towards him.

Jindan’s power and fabulous wealth were lost. Imprisoned in various Indian forts, she eventually escaped to Nepal, enduring much sorrow and hardship, until ~ after thirteen years ~ she  was allowed to meet her son, at Spence’s hotel, in Calcutta, when Duleep briefly visited India.

Duleep had been much Anglicised which must have caused Jindan much pain. But not wanting to leave her son's side again, she travelled with him England where she spent her few remaining years in the land of her sworn enemy. And there, due to her notorious past, and a somewhat unique style of dress, she tended to cause a sensation, as related in The Goddess and the Thief, when a London gossip is heard to say ~

‘It was one afternoon in Kensington. Lady Garsington couldn’t believe her eyes. Such rumours there were of Jindan Kaur . . . of the Maharani’s beauty. But hard to imagine such a thing...when the rani can barely walk today. Such a tiny, wrinkled, pockmarked old woman who had to be carried into the house while sitting on a pallet. And, just wait until you hear this, my dear, for it is the most peculiar thing: on top of all her silks and veils, and all of the pearls and precious stones, she’d fixed herself up in a crinoline, a shawl and a bonnet flung on top. And that ensemble then festooned with a crown of feathers and flowers! Can you imagine the sight of it? The poor woman, so encumbered... sitting cross-­‐legged and mumbling like some lunatic bundle of rags. She even began to puff on a pipe, refusing to eat a thing that was offered, but bringing out her own little pouches and nibbling on what appeared to be birdseed! Lady Garsington said she was speechless. She has been trying to work it out, quite convinced that the maharani can hardly be more than forty years, yet she looks to be a hundred! Of course,’ she covered her mouth with a hand, ‘they do say she’s riddled with syphilis! And how could she not be. The life she’s led!’

Jindan did indeed have Syphilis, though this portrait, when she was 45 and very near to her demise, does bely the rumours spread that her beauty had quite disappeared. And perhaps her mind was less addled than the British authorities presumed, for the fires of ambition still burned within ~ with which she rekindled Duleep’s pride and encouraged his wish to return to Lahore ~ to take with him the Koh­‐i‐noor diamond, the diamond now owned by Victoria, the queen he had started to call Mrs Fagin for her handling of stolen property, and the diamond of which it was prophesised that should it ever return to its homeland all foreign invaders would be cast out.

That prophecy was never realised. The diamond remained in England. Duleep was accused of treachery when, later on, in middle years, he plotted to invade Lahore, after which he was exiled to live in France. There, when in his fifties, he died of a stroke in a Paris hotel, by which time he’d rejected the Christian faith and returned to his father’s Sikhism.

But rather than being returned to Lahore and cremated as his will had asked, Victoria reclaimed her ‘beautiful boy’ and buried him in English soil. The dissenting Maharajah was returned to the Christian fold. The golden cage he could never leave.

However, Jindan did escape ~ in a way. Some years before Duleep’s sad end, when she died peacefully in her sleep and left her son inconsolable, her body was brought to Kensal Green and then interred in the catacombs of the Dissenters’ chapel. And there it remained for almost a year ~ from the August of 1863 until the spring of ’84 ~ during which months this letter (here in an abridged form) appeared in the pages of The Times ~

Sir, - Her Highness, the Maharani of Lahore, mother of his Highness the Maharajah Duleep Singh, died on the 1st current at Abingdon-house, Kensington, in the Hindoo faith, and we understand it is proposed to bury her....

      According to our customs, we are constrained, as a matter of conscience, to appeal to the country for protection, and beg that you will kindly allow us a place in your spirited journal to enter a public protest against the intended desecration.

      Agreeably to our rules, the body ought to be burnt and the ashes given to the Ganges. The thing is simple enough in itself and, as it infringes no moral or physical law, we certainly cannot believe that the wisdom and intelligence of this land would oppose our acting as our religion directs.

      Besides, the belief of all religionists is that no funeral is hallowed unless a priest, or, in his absence, a layman of the religion of the deceased, officiates at his obsequies.

      It is hard, then, that her Highness should be deprived of the offices that the meanest claim and receive throughout the civilized globe - and that we should be refused the consolation of discharging the last sad duty for our mistress, that is the right of all.

    We feel we are fulfilling her Highness’s wishes, and are satisfied, had she known her dissolution was at hand, she would have left definite instructions for the disposal of her body. Reiterating our protest in the name of the friends and relations of her Highness the Maharani of the Sikhs, in general, both here and abroad, and in the interests of civil and religious liberty,

      We have the honour to be, Sir, 
       Your very obedient servants, UTCHEEL SINGH, and KISHEN SINGH.

Such an appeal did prevail. Cremation was illegal in England then, but Victoria and the powers that be allowed Duleep to return Jindan's corpse, not to the city of Lahore, for fear of any political strife, but to Bombay where she was burned and a small memorial then placed by the Godavari River.

Eventually, in 1924, Duleep’s daughter, the Princess Bamba, carried her grandmother’s ashes home, to the tomb of her husband, Ranjit Singh where, along with his other cremated wives, we must hope that she now rests in peace ~ though, if souls live on, if spirits rise, then perhaps Jindan is waiting still, to fulfill her dream, for her son, Duleep, to reclaim his Punjab destiny.

But whatever dreams Jindan once held, whatever gods she prayed to, the VV leaves you with this scene ~ again from The Goddess and The Thief ~ with the burning ghats of Benares, and the sacred river Ganges, and this short poem by Kabir, an Indian saint and mystic who died many hundreds of years ago, but whose words still resonate today ~

His death in Benares 
Won’t save the assassin 
From certain hell,

Any more than a dip
In the Ganges will send 
Frogs ~ or you ~ to Paradise.

My home, says Kabir, 
Is where there is no day, no night, 
And no holy book in sight.

To squat on our lives.

And finally, here is a short film made at the Kensal Green Cemetery  - to give a flavour of the mood for our future Memento Moriatas events -

Thursday, 13 February 2014


Painting by Albert Goodwin - Benares

When writing her latest novel, The Goddess and the Thief, the VV was very much inspired by a story about the Hindu god, Shiva ~ and Shiva's first beloved wife ~ and the tragic outcome of their bond. Here is an extract from that book, along with essence of that myth…a gift to you all on this Valentine's Eve -

Do you believe in other worlds, of lives ever after, of heavens on earth? My ayah did, and from her lips there dripped such honeyed promises. There was one tale she used to tell, and I heard it so often that, even now, I recall her every word by heart . . .

Far, far away, my heart’s dearest, is a palace atop of Mount Kailash where Shiva lives in wedded bliss with his goddess bride, Parvati. But there was a time, long years before, when Shiva loved another: a woman made of mortal flesh whose name was Sati. Perfect wife.

Sati adored Lord Shiva. She worshipped the ground on which he walked. But her happiness was blighted when her father refused to accept the fact that his daughter, a lady of radiant beauty, had wed the god who was uncouth, with long, braided hair which was never combed, and his dirty flesh so often clothed in nothing but stinking animal skins. When Shiva was not invited to a festival her father held at which a sacred fire would burn and sacrifices would be made, Sati was filled with such grief and shame that she walked alone to her father’s home and there, before his very eyes, she flung herself into the flames.

The devastation Shiva felt when he heard of this was terrible. He came to the place of his loved one’s death and prayed for her soul to live again. He danced with her blackened, charred remains and washed her body in his tears. He smeared his flesh with her ashes, and then returned to his mountain home where he sat cross-legged in the snow and closed his eyes against the world and every pleasure it contained. There he mourned for a thousand years while the Pole Star glistened high above, around which the heavens all revolved, the hub of time, not life or death in which each soul shall be reborn. And, so it was with Sati, when her spirit waxed like a springtime moon and entered the newborn, living flesh of a princess of the mountains.

That child was called Parvati – which means she who is of the hills – and from the moment of her birth, Parvati longed for nothing more than to leave her father’s home and go in search of Shiva, to love him as Sati had before.When at last she found the god she offered him gifts of flowers and food. She knelt in the snow to wash his feet, and prayed in freezing mountain streams. She was to suffer many trials before Shiva accepted her love for him, when at last he opened his eyes, and said, ‘Oh thou bowed beauty. I have caused thee much misery and pain. Take my hand, and live with me in my palace, high up on the slopes of Kailasa. There thou shalt become Mahadevi. There thou shalt be divine.’

And there she lives to this very day, proving by her constancy that death is but a little dream. Death has no beginning. It has no end. It is only the mortal body that dies, our souls forever to be reborn, until every wrong has been righted, and every debt has been repaid, and then there will be the nothingness, which is Nirvana. Perfect bliss.