Mailbox Monday: Christmas edition

After taking a hiatus to concentrate on coursework, I’m returning to Truth in Fiction with a Christmas edition of Mailbox Monday. I don’t usually receive enough books to participate in the weekly meme, which encourages readers to share the new books they’ve acquired each week, but during family get-togethers after Christmas I was well-supplied with enough fiction and non-fiction to ward off the boredom of a long Canadian winter.

Mailbox Monday began at The Printed Page but is now being hosted on a monthly basis as the ‘Mailbox Monday Blog Tour’. For the month of January it can be found at Rose City Reader.

Sir William Garrow: His Life, Times and Fight for Justice has been on my wish list for awhile so I was thrilled to find it under the tree! Written by legal historian John Hostettler and Richard Braby, a descendant of Garrow’s, it details the life of Sir William Garrow, an eighteenth century lawyer who changed the English criminal trial. Garrow spent the first ten years of his career as a defender at The Old Bailey and became known for his aggressive cross-examination, but later in life he changed sides and conducted prosecutions against political radicals while his colleague, Lord Erskine, defended them and became the more celebrated lawyer. Garrow’s early career has been dramatized in the wonderful British drama Garrow’s Law, which concluded its successful second season in December.

For my birthday several months ago my Aunt gave me Aristocrats, Stella Tillyard’s biography of the Lennox Sisters who became influential in Georgian England, so it was only fitting that I received Tillyard’s other titles, A Royal Affair and Citizen Lord: The Life of Edward Fitzgerald, Irish Revolutionary from her for Christmas.

A Royal Affair is concerned with King George III of England and his siblings, primarily his sister Caroline Mathilde whose affair with a court doctor ended in tragedy. Also featuring the king’s brothers, who delighted the gossip-hungry press by partying and carrying on disastrous relationships, Tillyard’s biography suggests that George III’s refusal to give up America can be attributed to his desire to control the colonists in the same way that he tried to rule his siblings.

Her other title, Citizen Lord, chronicles the life of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a Dubliner who fought with the British in the American War of Independence, visited revolutionary France, and took part in the 1798 Irish rebellion. A blurb on the back of the work writes that Lord Edward “grew up as vigorous as Garibaldi and passionate as Byron”. That description alone is enough to pique my interest!

Continuing with the Irish theme, I received Morgan Llywelyn’s 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion. I first borrowed this fictionalized account of the Easter Rising from the library last March as part of the Ireland Reading Challenge, and am thrilled to have my own copy of this fantastic novel to re-read and keep. You can find my review of it here!

My final historical addition is Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing. The novel, which won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award recognizing excellence in Canadian literature, is loosely based on the writings of Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon. Lady Duff-Gordon moved to Egypt in order to help manage her tuberculosis and published Letters from Egypt in 1865. Pullinger’s novel places Sally, the lady’s maid accompanying her, as the narrator who eventually must learn that despite the new freedoms life in Egypt has granted her, she is ultimately mistress of nothing.

I was also fortunate enough to receive a pair of fantasy novels to read when I’d rather escape to another world than the past. I’ve been meaning to read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman for awhile and asked for the novel this Christmas in the hopes of finally sitting down to read it. This collaboration by two of the biggest names in fantasy was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1990 and concerns the efforts of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley to postpone the end of the world after the apocalypse is announced.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians tells the story of a teenager, Quentin Coldwater, disappointed in real life and secretly fascinated by a series of fantasy novels set in a magical land of Fillory. Life becomes much more interesting when he’s admitted to a college of magic in New York and discovers that Fillory is real, but he soon realizes that the reality is darker than his childhood fantasy and more dangerous.



Filed under British History, Irish History, Mailbox Monday

The Historical Tourist visits Wilberforce House

251 years ago William Wilberforce was born in a red brick house in Kingston-upon-Hull. The third child of a second son, he was a frail boy with poor eyesight but the only male heir of the Wilberforce line. The successful family business of trading wood, iron, and cloth meant that after the deaths of his father, uncle, and grandfather during his youth, William inherited enough money to live comfortably as a gentleman for the rest of his life. Instead he turned to politics and used his familial connections to the community and his fortune to get elected as a Member of Parliament for Hull at the age of 21.

At 26 he experienced his “great change” and converted to Christian evangelism. Searching for a common ground between politics and his religious beliefs, William met with a group of committed abolitionists who believed that he was the ideal man to lead their campaign in Parliament. Wilberforce’s status as an MP independent of party ties, his eloquence, and his friendship with Prime Minister Pitt made him uniquely suited for the job, but Wilberforce initially hesitated because he didn’t think that he was equal to the task. He slowly came around to the idea and later wrote: “God, Almighty has sent before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners”.

Wilberforce gave his first speech on abolition in 1789 and continued to present his bill in the House of Commons, facing defeat each time. In 1807 the bill abolishing the slave trade in Britain was passed and Wilberforce received a round of applause from his fellow MPs. The abolition of slavery itself in Britain occurred on July 26th, 1833, just three days before Wilberforce’s death.

Wilberforce House, where William lived until he was elected to Parliament, was sold in order to pay off debts incurred by his sons, but Hull Corporation bought the building in 1903 and turned it into a museum. It opened in 1906, making it the oldest anti-slavery museum in the world! The museum was renovated and re-opened in 2007 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of abolition. The Historical Tourist has a particular interest in Wilberforce and abolition, so visiting the museum, in the spring of 2009, was a thrill. Wilberforce House contains exhibits on slavery and the trade, the abolition campaign, the aftermath, and on modern day slavery.

Anyone who read my article on George Brown House,will not be surprised to learn that my favourite part of Wilberforce House was the library. Belonging to William and his sons, the collection was broken up in the twentieth century but visitors can view the remainder of the collection and examine Wilberforce’s books, journals, and letters through an electronic kiosk. The library is also home to a wax figure of Wilberforce created in 1933 by Madame Tussad’s for the centenary of his death. It’s a nice touch, but the Historical Tourist admits that she found the wax Wilberforce more eerie than interesting.

Other exhibits on Wilberforce present a balanced view of the man, celebrating his great successes but also mentioning the criticism he faced for supporting restrictive measures against trade unions, among other things. I enjoyed the exhibits, but did leave a little disappointed that there wasn’t more about his life and personality. Instead Wilberforce House is devoted entirely to the slave trade and the abolition campaign, showing the kidnap of Africans, the ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic, and the punishing life of a plantation slave.

Draped from the ceiling, one orange flag with bold text presents visitors with a horrifying statistic:“12 Million African people were forcibly transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery.”

I was most interested in the abolition campaign. One display case contained the famous image of Josiah Wedgewood’s chained African pleading, “Am I not a man and brother”. Wedgewood cameos were made by the pottery company using an image modeled in relief by William Hackwood. Many cameos were sold while others were given to those who supported the cause, including President of the Pennsylvanian Society for the Abolition of Slavery in America, Ben Franklin! The pieces became such a huge hit that they were worn decoratively, prompting abolitionist Thomas Clarkson to comment: “fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the course of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

Wilberforce House also displays the Brooks slave ship model that was used by William during his speeches to Parliament to demonstrate the conditions experienced by slaves during the middle passage. Fellow abolitionist Clarkson argued that Britain should trade goods for profit with Africa instead of people. When he spoke in public meetings across the country he brought a chest filled with natural and manmade African goods along as a visual aid. Clarkson’s chest is now on display in the museum.

Sadly the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, in 1833, did not immediately result in improved conditions for slaves because slavery was replaced with a binding system of apprenticeship. Children under the age of six were freed instantly, but other ex-slaves were forced to serve an apprenticeship that was intended to prepare them for their freedom. Instead it permitted masters to continue taking advantage of their workers.

Wilberforce House’s final rooms include a look at Hull’s human rights record, as the first council to sign up for Amnesty International and as the home of the ‘Wilberforce Institute for the study of slavery and emancipation’, which opened in 2006. More sobering, are exhibits on modern day slavery. A 2005 estimate from the International Labour Organization puts the estimated number of people enslaved today at 12.3 million, a figure that includes child labour, bonded labour, and human trafficking.

For more information on modern day slavery visit To learn more about the slave trade in the eighteenth century and the abolition campaign, browse the digitized library of related documents, including essays by Wilberforce and Clarkson, here.


Filed under British History, The Historical Tourist

Vienna, 1814

Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King. Crown Publishing Group, 2009.

One of the most famous images of the Congress of Vienna is Jean-Baptiste Isabey’s enduring portrait of the representatives, including the Duke of Wellington and Austrian Prince Metternich, gathered around a table. It isn’t hard to imagine them working diligently on a territorial dispute, but as David King explains in his non-fiction work Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, the biggest misconception about the event is that it was a Congress at all! Although many European delegates arrived for the Congress, it never sat as one. In fact, most of the business was discussed in private informal sessions between the Big Four (Austria, Russia, Britain, and Prussia) and France, or during decadent feasts and balls. One attendee, Prince de Ligne, who was known for his wit, famously commented “Le Congres danse, mais ne marche pas” (The Congress dances, but does not progress).

King’s book not only details the lavish feasts and balls, it also examines the romantic affairs that took place during the nine month Congress and looks at intelligence gathering in 1814. I was especially captivated by the description of Prince Metternich’s network of spies, who frequented salons (drawing rooms where the intellectual, political, and social elite gathered to converse) and intercepted letters, reading, copying, and re-sealing them, before delegates began to catch on and took measures to prevent intelligence from falling into Austrian hands.

King spends most of the book detailing the frivolity and excesses of the Congress but, despite its imperfections, ultimately concludes that the Congress of Vienna did have a positive and lasting impact on European history. The peace treaty signed on June 9, 1815 resulted in what Henry Kissinger called the longest period of peace Europe has ever known. It was also “the first international peace conference to discuss humanitarian issues” and resulted in a condemnation of the slave trade, and discussions on literary piracy and the civil rights of Jews.

Purely by chance, I began reading Vienna, 1814 during the preparations for the G20 summit in Toronto, and couldn’t help considering similarities between the two events, both of which were paid for by the hosting country and seemed to involve unnecessary excesses. Fortunately, the G20 didn’t last nine months, although it also seems to have accomplished a great deal less than the Congress of Vienna did.

History has provided a dynamic set of characters in the handsome Russian Tsar Alexander, French delegate Talleyrand, who had helped Napoleon gain power but resigned in 1807 because he did “not wish to become the executioner of Europe”, and Metternich, who likely arranged the marriage between Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria. With such strong personalities involved, it is no wonder that bickering over who entered a room first gave rise to the myth that Metternich had cut extra doors into his office so representatives could enter at the same time!

The personalities are there but it is King who brings them to life as characters by describing their physical presences as well as their temperaments and quirks. Instead of simply stating what historical figures discussed, King uses letters and other sources to extrapolate conversations between characters. The result is a researched work of non-fiction, complete with endnotes, that reads like a novel. I found the book to be so engaging with its balance of nineteenth century gossip and politics that I’m surprised there isn’t a film, or at least a documentary, based on the book!

The one area where the author fell a little short was in his examination of the long and short term consequences of the Congress of Vienna. He does note that it created a lasting peace using a system where leaders met periodically to work out their differences, through what diplomatic historian Charles Webster called the first ever attempt “to regulate international affairs during a time of peace”, but I felt that the book would be better served by a more detailed look at the consequences of the Congress. This was my only criticism of an otherwise informative and fast-paced read though.

Verdict: A great popular history book that will inform and entertain with its balance of gossip and history.

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Filed under Books, British History, European History, French History, Non-Fiction, The Regency

The Historical Tourist visits Toronto’s First Post Office

Located on Duke Street (now Adelaide), Toronto’s First Post Office actually predates the city in its name. Built by James Scott Howard, Postmaster of the town of York, in 1833, it began as York’s fourth post office but became Toronto’s first when the town was incorporated as a city the following year. The building served both as a residence and a post office for Howard until 1837 when, despite his political neutrality, he was falsely accused of aiding rebels in the Rebellion of 1837. Although he had eighteen years of service to his name, James Scott Howard was dismissed from his position without formal charges or an investigation.

Charles Albert Berczy took over his duties, residing in the post office until 1839 when he moved to Front Street, leaving Howard to rent out the vacated building. In 1841 he sold it as a private residence. Until 1870 the former post office was the home of a hardware merchant before it was sold again, three years later, to the Christian Brothers who used it and the adjourning building as a school.

In 1978 a fire consumed the building, destroying much of the roof, but it was restored and re-opened in 1983 under direction of the York Historical Society.

Today, Toronto’s First Post Office is the only surviving example of a British colonial post office in Canada and serves as both a museum and a fully-functioning post office. But this is no ordinary post office. It not only offers reproductions of original glass-fronted postal boxes for rent, but a reading room, complete with its original fireplace, where customers can write letters or sort through their mail. It also has its own gift shop, where visitors can purchase seals and sealing wax, postcards, and books on local history, with all proceeds benefiting the museum.

The highlight of my visit was undoubtedly the opportunity to try writing with a quill. As someone with an interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century history, the chance to write a letter as people did in the 1830s was fascinating. Sample sheets were available as part of Doors Open Toronto, but I opted to pay the small charge to write a full letter, fold it, and have the letter sealed with wax and sent. Although I am very fond of my computer, I am an oddity in that I prefer to handwrite my thoughts, or at least make a series of rough notes, before taking to the keyboard. Despite that, I can only imagine the effort it must have required to take notes or write all correspondence by quill!

To help absorb excess ink and allow the writer to handle their letter immediately, sand was poured over the page then shaken off. For the final touch, an employee showed visitors how to fold their letters as was done in the 1830s and heated the wax so we could apply a special seal. She explained that the seal reads “entre nous”, meaning “between us”.

While I enjoyed the chance to write with a quill, the rest of the museum was equally informative. Exhibits included a scale model of Toronto in 1837 and a look at the evolution of writing instruments. Inexpensive and widely available, goose quills, plucked from the left wing so they would curve away from the right-handed user, were the most popular, but ink quickly softened the tip and most quills only lasted a week. In an office, workers could go through several quills every day! Metal nibs were first introduced in the late eighteenth century but the acidity of the inks quickly corroded the metal. It took until the 1830s, when less corrosive inks were developed and steel nibs began to be machine-produced, for metal nibs to finally replace the quill.

Other exhibits detailed the restoration of the post office after it was destroyed by fire, and the types of coins and rates of postage at the time. The museum also has examples of letters written at the time, which were crisscrossed in order to save paper and postage!

Toronto’s First Post Office is an interesting and informative link to the past with a hands-on approach to history. They provide education programs that can be adapted for groups of all ages, and have a library of over eight hundred volumes available for research by appointment. I was pleased to see that I was not the only one taking advantage of Doors Open Toronto to find out more about Canadian history and I hope that more individuals will take the opportunity to visit this valuable resource in the future.


Filed under Canadian History, Local History, The Historical Tourist

Sunday Spotlight: The Duel for Europe 1800-1830

‘The Duel for Europe 1800-1830’ is an exhibition created by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Although there is a physical exhibit, which contains artifacts such as an 1811 pistol, made by a leading London gunmaker, and the Treaties of Vienna and Paris, it is also, much to the delight of this history enthusiast who lives in Canada, an online exhibition.

‘The Duel for Europe 1800-1830’ “highlights one of the most important periods in the history of the Foreign Office, when it helped to end the devastation of war and begin one of Europe’s longest periods of peace.” The exhibition, made up of images and explanatory text, begins with the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that consumed Britain, and the need for a new system to bring peace. Further pages summarize the 1809 duel between the Foreign Secretary, George Canning, and the Secretary for War, Lord Castlereagh, which I have previously discussed on this blog, and their different approaches to foreign policy.

Discussing the idea behind the exhibit, Chief Historian Patrick Salmon explains, “we thought of it as a literal duel, obviously, but also as a metaphorical duel; a duel between Britain and Napoleon for the future of Europe, and a duel between two alternative views of foreign policy”, referring to Canning and Castlereagh. Both men served as Foreign Secretary, but while Castlereagh worked through persuasion in one-on-one meetings and favoured a policy of international agreement, Canning preferred to use public oratory and was viewed as an isolationist.

I was surprised to learn that the Foreign Office regularly employs historians, such as Chief Historian Patrick Salmon. Aside from providing briefing support on historical issues, the historians’ roles include publishing the Official Record of British Foreign Policy since World War II, with an emphasis on documents from the last thirty years that have not yet gone to the National Archives.

‘The Duel for Europe 1800-1830’ is the first exhibition by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, but Salmon hopes that this will be the beginning of several exhibits. I hope so too.

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Filed under British History, Sunday Spotlight, The Regency

Mailbox Monday

I’ve been reading other bloggers’ weekly posts but today marks the first time I’ve taken part in Mailbox Monday, a weekly meme hosted by The Printed Page. The aim is to provide a “gathering place for readers to share the books that came into their house last week”, but the site warns that “Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists.” Although the meme is often used by book bloggers receiving review copies, I’ve chosen to include books I’ve purchased.

I received just one book this week, but it’s one that I’m very excited about. The Younger Pitt: The Years of Acclaim is the first book in a three volume biography of William Pitt the Younger, the man who became Prime Minister of Britain at age 24.

Thanks to my beloved Alumni library card, I was able to borrow The Younger Pitt last month from the University library, but, at over 650 pages, it’s a dense read and I reluctantly returned it unfinished. Fortunately, used copies are available through a number of booksellers online and I found a copy at Prairie Archives, an Illinois bookstore specializing in history books.

Ehrman’s The Younger Pitt: The Years of Acclaim was originally published in 1969 and is the definitive biography of the important statesman. In power between 1783-1801 and again from 1804-1806, Pitt rehabilitated the nation’s finances following the costly American War of Independence, and was in power during the war with France. Ehrman’s first volume covers Pitt’s early life and career, finishing with the Regency crisis, and continues the story in subsequent volumes The Consuming Struggle and The Reluctant Transition

I greatly enjoyed reading William Hague’s more recent biography and look forward to reading the rest of this more comprehensive work!


Filed under British History, Mailbox Monday

The Historical Tourist visits George Brown House

Last weekend I headed into the city to participate in Doors Open Toronto, an annual event in which “buildings of architectural, historic, cultural, and social significance open their doors”. Inspired by similar events in France, which launched its Doors Open program in 1984, and Glasglow, which followed in 1990, Toronto has been holding its Doors Open program since 2000. During the event admittance to all participating buildings is free and buildings not normally open to the public are showcased. Such is the case with George Brown House, a National Historic Site that is now used as a conference centre with tenant offices on the upper floors.

Originally called Lambton Lodge, the house was built between 1874 and 1876 for George Brown, his wife Anne, and their children. After George Brown’s death, the property was occupied by Duncan Coulson, the President of the Bank of Toronto, until 1916, when it was purchased by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and used as office space. It was declared a National Historic Site in 1976 but only a decade later was threatened with demolition. Thankfully the Ontario Heritage Trust rescued this beautiful property, restoring and re-opening George Brown House in 1989.

This example of Second Empire style architecture, so named for the French elements that were popular during the Second French Empire under Napoleon III, was the least captivating of the three historic buildings I visited, likely due to its commercial and private function, but was still worth visiting. On my visit the first and basement floors were open to visitors. While the basement floor contained mostly conference rooms, the main floor held two big draws.

One was the dining room, which was originally remodeled by the Coulsons in 1890 and has been restored to that period. Decorated in the Art Nouveau style, it has a “boardroom feel” to it, as the man on hand to answer questions explained, and features wallpaper that resembled William Morris designs.

Unsurprisingly, it was the library that appealed to me the most. The gorgeous Victorian library was re-created by the government and features 2000 of George Brown’s personal books.

Nestled amongst the books an information card explained that “Brown’s library reflects his interest in Liberal and reform issues of the period, notably the division between church and state, the establishment of a fairer penal system, and the abolition of slavery.”

I spent a great deal of time leaning sideways so I could read the titles of his many books. Since George Brown played a prominent role in establishing the Toronto Anti-Slavery Society of Canada I was not surprised to see a biography of important British abolitionist William Wilberforce in his personal library along with Wilberforce’s book A Practical View of Christianity. Other books that caught my eye were a work on Prince Metternich, a major player in the Congress of Vienna, a book labelled O’Connell’s speeches, probably referring to the Irish Member of Parliament who achieved Catholic Emancipation, and all four volumes of Stanhope’s Life of Pitt.

Tearing myself away from his collection, I read the short exhibit on George Brown’s life and accomplishments. He may be best remembered in Toronto for the college that bears his name, but his real legacy is as a Father of Confederation and founder of a major newspaper. Scottish-born Brown founded The Globe in 1844 and it became a leading Reform newspaper in Canada. Today we know it as The Globe & Mail!

There aren’t any interactive exhibits or guides in costume but George Brown House is worth a look if you have the chance to visit, especially if you enjoy historical texts. It is normally reserved for offices and private functions though so you may have to admire it from the outside during a walk along Beverley Street or wait for another event like Doors Open Toronto!


Filed under Canadian History, Local History, The Historical Tourist