The nineteenth century

May 20 2009

On the first day of the nineteenth century, the legislative union of the kingdoms of Great Britain and of Ireland was completed; and on its clear evening Giuseppe Piazzi, at the Observatory in Palermo, discovered the first asteroid.

He named it Ceres Ferdinandea, after the Roman and Sicilian goddess of grain and King Ferdinand I of Naples and Sicily.

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“The great cloud which hung, not only over London, but over the whole of the British Isles on the first day of the nineteenth century stayed, or rather, did not stay, for it was buffeted about constantly by blustering gales, long enough to have extraordinary consequences upon those who lived beneath its shadow. A change seemed to have come over the climate of England. Rain fell frequently, but only in fitful gusts, which were no sooner over than they began again. The sun shone, of course, but it was so girt about with clouds and the air was so saturated with water, that its beams were discoloured and purples, oranges, and reds of a dull sort took the place of the more positive landscapes of the eighteenth century. Under this bruised and sullen canopy the green of the cabbages was less intense, and the white of the snow was muddied. But what was worse, damp now began to make its way into every house – damp, which is the most insidious of all enemies, for while the sun can be shut out by blinds, and the frost roasted by a hot fire, damp steals in while we sleep; damp is silent, imperceptible, ubiquitous. Damp swells the wood, furs the kettle, rusts the iron, rots the stone. So gradual is the process, that it is not until we pick up some chest of drawers, or coal scuttle, and the whole thing drops to pieces in our hands, that we suspect even that the disease is at work.

“Thus, stealthily and imperceptibly, none marking the exact day or hour of the change, the constitution of England was altered and nobody knew it. Everywhere the effects were felt. The hardy country gentleman, who had sat down gladly to a meal of ale and beef in a room designed, perhaps by the brothers Adam, with classic dignity, now felt chilly. Rugs appeared; beards were grown; trousers were fastened tight under the instep. The chill which he felt in his legs the country gentleman soon transferred to his house; furniture was muffled; walls and tables were covered; nothing was left bare. Then a change of diet became essential. The muffin was invented and the crumpet. Coffee supplanted the after-dinner port, and, as coffee led to a drawing-room in which to drink it, and a drawing-room to glass cases, and glass cases to artificial flowers, and artificial flowers to mantelpieces, and mantelpieces to pianofortes, and pianofortes to drawing-room ballads, and drawing-room ballads (skipping a stage or two) to innumerable little dogs, mats, and china ornaments, the home – which had become extremely important – was completely altered.

“Outside the house – it was another effect of the damp – ivy grew in unparalleled profusion. Houses that had been of bare stone were smothered in greenery. No garden, however formal its original design, lacked a shrubbery, a wilderness, a maze. What light penetrated to the bedrooms where children were born was naturally of an obfusc green, and what light penetrated to the drawing-rooms where grown men and women lived came through curtains of brown and purple plush. But the change did not stop at outward things. The damp struck within. Men felt the chill in their hearts; the damp in their minds. In a desperate effort to snuggle their feelings into some sort of warmth one subterfuge was tried after another. Love, birth, and death were all swaddled in a variety of fine phrases. The sexes drew further and further apart. No open conversation was tolerated. Evasions and concealments were sedulously practised on both sides. And just as the ivy and the evergreen rioted in the damp earth outside, so did the same fertility show itself within. The life of the average woman was a succession of childbirths. She married at nineteen and had fifteen or eighteen children by the time she was thirty; for twins abounded. Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus – for there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork – sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.”

Virginia Woolf, Orlando, A Biography (1928).

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Wool and water

John Tenniel, illustration in the chapter Wool and Water in Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

8 Responses to “The nineteenth century”

  1. richard Says:

    And the Dutch East India Company (VOC) formally ceased to exist. It had ceased operations in 1795, but it was dissolved at midnight on December 31st, 1800.


  2. […] 1800 March 10, 2010 The nineteenth century […]


  3. […] the nineteenth century got underway. According to Virginia Woolf, the clouds drifted in on the first day of the century in […]

  4. davidderrick Says:

    See also Ambrose Silk’s speech on fog in Waugh’s Put Out More Flags. Silk is a forerunner of Anthony Blanche.


  5. […] The nineteenth century […]


  6. […] The nineteenth century (old post) […]

  7. davidderrick Says:

    Ceres is sometimes now classified as a dwarf planet rather than asteroid.


  8. […] The first four asteroids were discovered during Keats’s boyhood. Three of them are at the extreme margin of visibility with the naked eye. The first was observed on the first day of the nineteenth century. […]


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