Restorative Lamb Chops For Romantic Poets

So when bloggers who heretofore had been relentlessly consistent — some might even say unhealthily obsessive — about posting every week suddenly fall eerily silent for a distinct period of time, it usually means one of three things.

  1. The blogger’s life has suddenly become unspeakably wonderful, leaving no time for writing.
  2. The blogger’s life has suddenly become unspeakably awful, leaving no time for writing.
  3. The blogger’s life has suddenly been consumed with writing for somebody else, leaving no time for writing on her own damn blog.

Well folks, I’m happy to report that in this case at least, we’ve totally lucked out and won the fabulous prize behind Door Number 3.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. My life is in fact still pretty generally wonderful. So there’s maybe a just little bit of Door Number 1 in there, too.

But we all know that things have been just a little bit thin on the ground around here of late, more so than ever before in the long, storied life of this blog (which incidentally I think might have crossed the ten-year mark somewhere along the way this spring), and that’s been for the very good reason that someone else has started paying me actual money to write weird, quirky little articles about history and food and cravats and stuff.

I am not making this up.

I’ve been keeping it under my hat for a while because, well, it sort of seemed too good to be true. But now it’s officially official, and the first of these officially official little stories of mine just got published yesterday.

So I guess I won’t be jinxing it if I tell you about it now.

I’m writing for The History Channel, folks. For their new, fairly tricked-out website where they’re starting to publish all manner of wacky historical awesomeness. And they’ve asked me to write a fair bit of that wacky historical awesomeness for them.

I know, right?

Anyway, all this is my way of saying that I’d be chuffed as all heck if you’d go over right now and check it out. As I said, my first post went up just yesterday, and I think it looks mighty fine if I do say so myself.

And these posts will feature everything you’ve come (for better or for worse) to expect out of me. This first one alone is replete with dreamy 19th century male celebrities, brilliant 19th century female authors, scandalous young love, bizarrely executed elopements, and highly questionable choices in food and drink.

There’s even a little opium and prostitution thrown in there, as well. Because I know that’s how you like it.

Yes, all this and more can now be found on The History Channel website. Can you believe?

Here’s a snippet of my debut post, for those of you just too stunned (or too giddy with excitement) to have clicked already:

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a young, idealistic poet whose beliefs often set him at odds with the rest of British society in the early 19th century. He was an atheist who got kicked out of university for being a bit too vocal about his atheism. He was a strict vegetarian in an era when beef broth and pork jelly were the go-to cures for the common cold. And at the age of 20 he deserted his young wife for the even younger Mary Godwin (the future author of “Frankenstein”), thereby becoming a pariah to much of mainstream society for the rest of his life.

Not that he wanted much to do with mainstream society in the first place. Romantic poets so infrequently do.

Read on…

Of course there’s lots more to come. More historical recipes (this one features lamb chops — you’ll have to read it if you want to know why), more weird facts about long-dead dudes and ladies, more historical shenanigans and general nonsense of the very best kind. I hope you dig it.

Because God knows I do.

 

Banksy

Everybody loves a good conversion story, right? Especially if it involves a handsome young man, dripping wet from a quick swim in the river near his school.

Or is that just me?

“Emerging late one summer afternoon from a schoolboy swim in the Thames at Eton, the teenage Banks found himself alone on the river, all his schoolfriends gone. Walking back through the green lanes, solitary and preoccupied, he suddenly saw the mass of wildflowers along the hedgerows vividly illuminated in the slanting, golden evening light. Their beauty and strangeness came to him like a revelation. (He said to himself) ‘It is surely more natural that I should be taught to know all the productions of Nature, in preference to Greek and Latin.’ He immediately began to teach himself Botany.”

What this rather fussy Victorian narrator really means is that young Joseph Banks — who would become one of the most important public figures of the age — immediately began hanging out with all the village women, gypsy herbalists, and local midwives he could find, because they knew all the special properties and aspects of plants that he did not, and this was something that he was suddenly, passionately interested in learning absolutely everything about.

He even managed to get his mother to loosen her grip on her much-loved copy of Gerard’s Herbal, the most widely read book on practical botany of the day.

Oh, yes, practical botany? I can hear you say as you stifle a yawn.

Yes, practical botany, smartass. Can you even conceive of how vital this kind of knowledge was in an era that knew little to nothing about what we would call medicine today? Practical botany was quite possibly one of the most useful things a person could learn about. So, naturally, it wasn’t taught in schools.

At least, not in the way that Joseph Banks wanted to study it.

Now, combine the ridiculously useful nature of practical botany with the most exciting, swashbuckling bits of the Age of Exploration, add in some spice from the Napoleonic wars and a handful of naked Tahitian ladies getting tattoos on their bottoms, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a pretty great story.

Or just a pretty great life. However you want to look at it.

Oh, how I love Joseph Banks.

From his dashing, impetuous youth to his absurdly impressive career as an international man of science, he’s just a tremendously appealing figure to me.

Dashing, impetuous youth

We’ve already discussed his charming conversion to the wonders of nature as his life’s calling, above, as the young Banks stood in a golden, sunlit field of flowers, hearts a-popping ’round his head as he took it all in for the first, apparently transcendant time. That’s pretty appealing, as an image, if you ask me. We can fight about it, if you want.

And in the way of all teenagers everywhere, ever, he saw his love of botany as a deeply Romantic rebellion against the fusty old traditions of his father, his father’s generation, and of the traditional, hide-bound, classical education he received at Eton, Harrow, and Oxford.

Oh, I didn’t mention he was also wealthy, privileged, and quite entirely a gentleman of leisure?

My bad.

Also: handsome.

Ah, yes, and dashing, too:

When he learned that there was no teacher of botany to his liking at Oxford, he mounted his horse and loped off to Cambridge, where he promptly hired away their best young botanist as his own private tutor. The spectacularly talented, heretofore obscure Israel Lyons suddenly found himself the recipient of a generous salary (Banksy paid him out of his own pocket), and mentor to an impossibly energetic young Banks and his Oxford coterie of similarly geeked out little friends. Banks, naturally, remained friends with Lyons his whole life.

Around this time, when Banks was eighteen years old, he came into his inheritance. This consisted primarily of vast estates and working farms across Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, all of this yielding him a rather princely income that flowed steadily into his pockets from then on.

He reacted to this good fortune by gambling it all away in the clubs of London, and begetting countless bastards on the whores and opera dancers of his acquaintance.

No, wait, that’s not what he did. Sorry, I got him confused with every other wealthy wastrel fop of his generation.

Instead, Banksy being Banksy, he purchased himself a berth aboard a nasty little ship, volunteering to participate in an arduous, seven-month expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador, where he collected samples to his little heart’s delight. He managed to impress even the dour, hardworking naval officers aboard this ship, not an easy task for a brash youth with unlimited funds and a seriously cushy upbringing, and even made the acquaintance of a certain young Lieutenant James Cook while he was at it.

He returned, pockets full of samples and diaries, to moderate fanfare and notoriety, and at the tender age of twenty-three was summarily elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Absurdly impressive career

Two years later, he would accompany Cook on his round-the-world expedition aboard the HMS Endeavor, which would make both their names and seal both men’s fame for good. They returned with Australia, New Zealand, and the magical South Pacific in their pockets, as it were, and it was all champagne and whores from then on out for Banks.

Oh, right, no. There I go again.

Actually, Banks then settled down into a long life of hard work and honors as a naturalist, conducting research and giving talks for the Royal Society, advocating for the continued exploration of New Zealand and Australia, and serving as a trustee for the British Museum for 42 years. He eventually became president of the Royal Society, served as an advisor to the King, helped establish Kew Gardens as the masterpiece of botanical samples from around the globe that it is today, and continued to serve as magistrate and sheriff for his hereditary lands until his death in 1820.

He helped make it possible for scientific expeditions to carry on unmolested throughout the endless years of the Napoleonic wars, regardless of the country of origin of the people involved. This, along with his prodigious correspondence with men of science across Europe throughout his life, did much to advance the international, above-the-political-fray ideal of the academic world that we still struggle to maintain today.

Of course, a fair bit of Banks’s work would lay the groundwork for much of the worst of what the Victorians would get up to later, colonizing and subduing and pillaging all those magical, paradisiacal lands that Banks first visited with Cook, and later, by proxy, Bligh.

But I’m going to heap the blame for all that squarely in the laps of those starchy Victorians, aren’t I? Yes, I’m afraid I am.

This is my blog, and I’ll champion who I want on it.

And today I say, let us think of superior men. Especially dashing, intelligent, Romantically-inspired men who like to muck about in the garden. No matter where, or how exotic, that garden might be.

 

For further reading on my man Joseph Banks, who died this day in 1820, you should seriously read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. A riveting, highly entertaining account of an era when poetry overlapped indistinguishably with science, and dashing young men across Europe made their names by doing some pretty ludicrous things. Much of what I know about Banks, I learned from reading this book, and any errors contained in the above entry are mine alone.