Thursday, March 12, 2009

Darwin at Home

A full-scale replica of Charles Darwin’s cabin on HMS Beagle is one of the highlights of a new exhibition at Down House (shown above), the naturalist's family home in Kent, that celebrates his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

"Uncovering Origins" charts the progression of Darwin's ideas and the controversy they provoked. Multimedia tours include the Darwins' living quarters and the extensive gardens that served as Charles's outdoor laboratory.

Can't get to Kent? The next best thing is a virtual tour of Down House created by English Heritage, which manages the property. You can explore Darwin's study, listen to Sir David Attenborough describe what the house meant to Darwin and his family, and page through interactive versions of his field notebooks and Beagle diary.

Darwin's life at Down House with wife Emma and their children will be the subject of two upcoming films. The first, Creation, is based on the book Annie's Box by Darwin's great-great-grandson Randal Keynes and was shot in part at Down House. It stars real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly. (Visit the film's excellent website here.) This will be Bettany's second turn as a naturalist: in 2003 he played Dr. Stephen Maturin to Russell Crowe's Captain Jack Aubrey in the film adaptation of Patrick O'Brien's Master and Commander. (Below: Bettany as Darwin in Creation.)

The second new film is Mrs. Darwin, with Joseph Fiennes and Rosamund Pike, who says, "I'm definitely a Darwinist, but playing his wife has been a real eye-opener. She was very religious and his discoveries placed a heavy strain on their marriage. We are exploring different angles to his life story."


Darwin Correspondence Project (Cambridge University)

Emma Darwin's Diaries 1824-1896 (Darwin Online)

The HMS Beagle Project will launch a sailing replica of the ship, crewed by scientists and sailors, that will retrace the 1831-36 voyage of the original Beagle.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

For What It's Worth . . .

Two economics professors, one from Maine and one from Illinois, have provided an invaluable service to those wanting to measure the relative worth of things over time, from the eighteenth century to today.

Their website,, features several calculators based on a variety of official UK and US government statistics and economic indicators, including the retail price index (the cost of goods and services purchased by a typical household in one period relative to a base period), average earnings, and three measures based on gross domestic product.

One calculator allows you to learn the present worth of a past amount (for example, the cost of Big Ben, the salary of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the price of tea); another tells you what a historic price in British pounds is worth in US dollars today (and vice versa).

A quick crunch of numbers related to my own specialty, theatre history, reveals that Lillie Langtry's £250-per-week salary at the Haymarket Theatre in 1882 translates into a whopping £126,478 in purchasing power per week today. Of course, exorbitantly paid performers like Langtry were by far the exception and not the rule.

This site should come with a Surgeon General's warning about how addictive it is.

Shown here: The Royal Exchange and the Bank of England in an undated photo, c. 1890.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"The Young Victoria" Arrives

"The Young Victoria" has opened in London to a resounding . . . thud. This despite two very attractive lead actors in Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend (above).

"The [film] is intended to blow away the cobwebby image of the grumpy old Empress in her widow's weeds and show us instead the vibrant, brilliant younger woman who was very much amused by the glorious freedom she suddenly assumed at the age of 18," says The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. Instead, "a tone of celebratory reverence for Victoria predominates" and "the film sometimes tasted like a damp slice of Balmoral-heritage shortbread." Read the rest of Bradshaw's review here. The Daily Mail (click here for the full review) called it a "pleasant but plodding biopic of our longest-serving sovereign, mainly to be recommended for those with a limitless appetite for stately homes, lavish costumes, and Mills & Boon romance. . .It has more than a faint whiff of mothballs and antimacassars." The Times liked it better; click here to read the review and see the trailer. (Below: the film's poster.)

Apparently, the most egregious historical howler in the film is the depiction of Edward Oxford's attempt to shoot Victoria as she rode in a carriage down Constitution Hill with Albert on 10 June 1840. In real life, Oxford's two shots missed; in the film, Albert shields his wife with his body and is hit in the chest. Victoria and Albert had been married just four months at the time, and Victoria was pregnant with the first of her nine children, a daughter named Victoria (who would become the German Empress in 1888). Edward Oxford (Wiki bio here) was later tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. (Below: detail from an 1840 engraving by J. R. Jobbins of the assassination attempt.)

I'll review the film after it's released here in the United States. In the meantime, visit the film's pretty website here (and try not to be distracted by the anachronistic music, which was also used prominently in the film Love, Actually). Sarah Ferguson discusses her fascination with Queen Victoria and her role as a producer of the film here. Emily Blunt talks with the BBC about corsets and court etiquette here.
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