Tag Archives: Jane Austen

The Lost Game Of Bullet Pudding

Despite its name, an abbreviation of the Swahili word kujenga, meaning to build, the fiendish game of Jenga is a British invention. The brainchild of Leslie Scott, it was first marketed at the London Toy Fair in January 1983. The starting point is to build a tower from the 54 wooden blocks that make a set and then each player takes it in turn to remove a block and then place it on top of the structure which becomes increasingly unstable. It takes a steady hand and some luck not to send the structure crashing down with a loud thud accompanied by the gleeful cheers of your fellow players. I have always liked to think that this visual and practical demonstration of the stability of structures is part of the (ahem) foundation course for would-be architects.

Games involving the come-uppance of a clumsy player have a long legacy. A game that proved a bit of a hit in the Regency period was Bullet Pudding, a mix of Jenga and the children’s game, Pie Face, and apple bobbing. Fanny Austen Knight, Jane Austen’s niece, was a fan of the game, mentioning it at least twice in her surviving correspondence. In 1806, she wrote “different amusements every evening! We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon” – we will look at that curious game another time – “and…we danced or played cards”. Sounds fun.

Not everyone knew of or was enamoured by Bullet Pudding and, fortunately, one of Fanny’s correspondents, a Miss Dorothy Chapman, was blissfully unaware of the delights of the game. This prompted the incredulous Fanny to give her a detailed description of the fun and japes they had at Godmersham Park in a letter from 1808.

I can do no better than to quote it in full. The lack of punctuation and the breathlessness in the description is Fanny’s; “I was surprised that you did not know what a Bullet Pudding is but as you don’t I will endeavour to describe it as follows: You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek at top. You must then lay a bullet at top and everybody cuts a slice of it, and the person that is cutting it when it falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths of which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choking you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out”.

You can imagine the reaction of the rest of the players as the unfortunate loser emerged with their faces covered in flour. If you did not have a bullet, a coin of the realm would do just as well. The servants must have groaned inwardly when they heard that their betters were proposing a game, thinking of the mess that would be left for them to clear up.

As well as the mess and seeing one of your part undergo a mild form of humiliation, one of the attractions of the game was that it allowed both sexes to mix in fairly intimate circumstances and such opportunities were to be snatched at in their otherwise closely chaperoned world. Sadly, the delights of the game soon waned but its legacy is still with us to this day.

The illustration at the top of this post was by Francis Hayman and shows the moment when the bullet toppled from the top of the pyramid of flour to the delight of all bar one.  

Book Corner – August 2018 (3)

The Spoils of Poynton – Henry James

Published in 1896, by James’ standards this is a short book, running to about 250 pages. The unkind critic might argue that it could all be boiled down to a short story of around twenty to thirty pages but Henry James wouldn’t be Henry James if he didn’t use 5,000 words where a hundred would do and sentences that positively creak under the weight of subordinate clauses.

The Spoils of Poynton, according to Jamesians, is the transition point between his early and later styles and there is certainly something of the theatrical in its construction. There are relatively few characters, five of whom only four really play prominent parts in the drama. The action, such as it is, is episodic, staged in set pieces. James was unsuccessful as a playwright and used some of the techniques of crafting a stage drama in constructing the novel.

As often is the way with novels of the later Victorian era, the Spoils of Poynton is much ado about relatively little. In essence, Mrs Gereth has filled her house, Poynton, with furnishings, tapestries, paintings, objects d’art, of which she is inordinately proud. The death of her husband means that the ownership of these artefacts falls to her son, Owen, to do with as he pleases. Owen is engaged to be married to Mona Brigstock who doesn’t share her appreciation of the finer things in life. What tension there is in the book revolves around the battle of wills between Mesdames Gereth and Brigstock, the artefacts being the spoils of the battle.

The character with one of the most ludicrous names in English literature, Fleda Vetch, is initially Mrs Gereth’s willing conspirator and develops what are termed as feelings for Owen. But she will not steal the poor sap, a pawn in the game of three powerful females, from his betrothed. Much of the book is concerned with Fleda wrestling with her moral dilemma – does she do Mrs Gereth’s bidding and wrestle Owen away from Mona, thus rescuing the spoils from a woman of questionable taste, or does she go with her moral sensibilities and leave well alone? Frankly, the scenes between Owen and Fleda are the most strained and unconvincing parts of the story. Ultimately, Fleda loses everything, including the spoils which are consumed in flames as Poynton burns down.

In many senses, Fleda is a foil to Mrs Gereth. Gereth’s aesthetics are positively Olympian and purely black and white. Something either accords with her refined definition of what is art and what is beautiful or else it doesn’t. When she visits Ricks, the already furnished alternative accommodation that Owen has found for her to live in following her eviction from Poynton, all she sees is ugliness. Fleda has more mortal set of aesthetic sensibilities. She appreciates that a person’s view of an object’s worth can be tinged by such feelings as sentiment and association. Tellingly, she says “by certain natures, hideous objects can be loved.

As the book progresses one starts to wonder whether Mrs Gereth’s aesthetics are all they are cracked up to be and whether she is as guilty of bad taste as her mortal enemy, Mona Brigstock. A point perhaps reinforced by Mona’s and Fleda’s attachment to Owen whom Mrs Gereth sees as a boorish dolt.

There are some striking similarities, at least in terms of plot, with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Both books are about women whose moral standards put them under considerable emotional stress. Both Fleda and Fanny Price are in love with the sons of the women they are staying with and both the chaps are blithely unaware of this romantic interest. The denouement is different – in Austen’s work Fanny gets her man.

There is enough in the book to recommend it but it is not one of James’ best.

Book Corner – March 2017 (2)



The Trials of the King of Hampshire – Elizabeth Foyster

Over the last few weeks I have been musing about where eccentricity ends and lunacy starts and have been swayed by the argument that it is a class and wealth issue. Our betters, aristos and those with pots of money, are able to get away with standards of behaviour that would see us mere mortals carted off to an asylum. But, occasionally, the distinction is more than a moot point as the tragic and gothic tale of the 3rd earl of Portsmouth shows.

The subject of Foyster’s book is the splendidly named John Wallop – one of his traits which cast doubt on his sanity was his frequent assaults on his servants and his predilection for seeing children and pets beaten. One poor footman broke a leg. Portsmouth went to see him, not to offer tea and sympathy but to jump on it again, breaking the limb a second time. He seemed to derive some sexual gratification from being bled by young girls in the neighbourhood who were instructed to use a lancet for the purpose. He took great delight in visiting people on their death-bed and was a regular attendee of funerals – black jobs, he called them – where his behaviour often caused the mourners distress.

Why the distinction between eccentricity and lunacy was more than moot in the case of the 3rd earl of Portsmouth was down to inheritance and money, what else? From an early age he was different from others and, particularly, his siblings. Instead of going off to Eton and Cambridge like the other brothers, Portsmouth was home schooled, spending some time holed up with Jane Austen’s father, before Jane was born. The novelist did meet him later at a function, claiming that he “surpassed” the behaviour of other gentlemen, perhaps not a terribly high bar, and the poet Byron described him as a “prize fool of an earl”. But was he mad?

In those days, to be declared insane required a public trial. Portsmouth endured two, the first shortly after his forced marriage to Mary Anne, in 1814. This was at the instigation of his younger brother, Norton Fellowes, who sought to annul the marriage. The attempt failed but in 1823 another attempt was made. The trial was a cause celebre and was to be the longest and costliest insanity trial in history, racking up costs of 2 guineas a minute. What seemed to tip the balance against Portsmouth was that he shared his marriage bed with his wife and her lover. To modern eyes, he was cruelly treated, abused physically and mentally by his wife and her paramour but to his contemporaries, his seemingly laissez-faire attitude to Mary Anne’s infidelities was proof positive of derangement. The court found that Portsmouth was mad, a verdict which annulled his marriage, disinherited his heir who was almost certainly not his, and meant Newton was in pole position to inherit the title and a vast annual fortune of £18,000 onn his death. Mary Anne was required to pay £40,000 towards the cost of the trial and fled the country.

Surprisingly, Portsmouth was reasonably well treated afterwards, being allowed to reside at the family home near Basingstoke, Hurstbourne Park. He had a throne erected in one of the rooms and styled himself the King of Hampshire. He lived a further thirty years. Newton duly inherited the title but enjoyed it for less than a year.

Foyster’s book is an entertaining and well-researched piece of work, although at times its rather thematic approach to Portsmouth’s strange and disturbing story does serve to confuse rather than enlighten the narrative. And she shies away from attempting to diagnose what was wrong with Portsmouth. Nonetheless, it is an invaluable insight to life amongst the upper classes and how unusual character traits were dealt with.

What Is The Origin Of (116)?…



It’s a funny thing. When I was younger I and my contemporaries used to raise our eyebrows and sigh contemptuously when older folk banged on about how things were not like they were in the (usually good) old days. But I find that I now I have reached a certain age, this is what I am doing too. We were having a discussion about childhood and the way children were brought up these days and one of our party ventured the opinion that they were mollycoddled, a verb (in this case in its passive form) used to indicate the treatment of someone in an indulgent or over-protective way. It struck me as an interesting compound verb worthy of some investigation.

Molly was an acknowledged pet name for a woman called Mary but over time became associated with the low living. The play The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, written around 1611, told the life story of one Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse, a notorious bandit of the time. Whether this usage set a precedent or was a reflection of an established idiom is unclear but from around that time molly began to be used as slang for a prostitute or a woman of ill-repute

In the 18th century, however, it gained another connotation, referring to effeminate or homosexual men. Miss Molly was used as a pejorative term for what we would now term a gay and a molly house was a male brothel. Today, molly has another meaning, used to describe a pure form of the drug, MDMA, or ecstasy.

Coddle appeared in print somewhat later. Jane Austen’s Emma, published in 1815, contained the line, “be satisfied with doctoring and coddling yourself”. It is clear that the sense here is of looking after yourself, resting up, letting your body recover from whatever is ailing you. The other meaning associated with the verb is to cook at just below boiling point, to parboil. It is probable that it was linked to the noun, caudle, which was used to describe a warm drink given to the sick, which in turn almost certainly owed its origin to an abbreviation of the Latin noun, calidus, meaning warm,.

Caudle first appeared in 1297 and a recipe dating to the early 14th century lists the ingredients of caudle as wine, wheat starch, raisins and some sugar “to abate the strength of the wine”. A more detailed recipe dating from the late 14th century recommends mixing breadcrumbs, wine, sugar or honey and saffron together, bringing them to the boil, adding egg yolks and sprinkling with salt, sugar and ginger. It was particularly administered to women in their pregnancy.

One of the earliest usages of mollycoddle, as a noun, appeared in William Thackeray’s Pendennis, published in 1849. There the eponymous hero is told, “you have been bred up as a molly-coddle, Pen, and spoilt by the women”. This has the modern sense and it is clear that molly has its pejorative sense of softness, if not effeminacy.

So there we have it, a fascinating word with an interesting history.

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Nine


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

With Billy Bunter, Jane Austen/ Ray Ellington, George Formby

For some reason, which these days is rather difficult to fathom, stories about public school life were all the rage in the 50s and 60s. One of the most popular of the public school larrikins was Billy Bunter from the Remove at Greyfriars School, an invention of Frank Richards. Bunter was a rather unpleasant character, fat, greedy, lazy and conceited. He called his contemporaries beasts. His role in the stories was essentially comedic and occasionally his hidden qualities of generosity and courage would come to the fore. An anachronism to be sure but I suppose the majority of schoolkids stuck in the state education system looked on him with a sense of pity and admiration – the underdog who came through in the end, the epitome of the British spirit. There is a nugget of gold in even the most obnoxious person, it would seem.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) is one of the pre-eminent English novelists. Her works, including Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma, are pieces of romantic fiction set amongst the landed gentry and acclaimed for their realism, sense of irony and social commentary. She is not really to my taste, I’m afraid, but as an iconic representative of the English literary scene, Jane is up there with the best.

One of the most popular radio shows after the end of the Second World War was the Goon Show featuring the manic talents of Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine. A feature of the radio show was the musical intermission allowing the listener to recover from the sensory assaults of the previous ten minutes and from 1951 to 1960 this was provided by the Ray Ellington Quartet. Ellington (1915 – 1985), whose real name was Henry Pitts Brown, played the drums and sang. He was of mixed race which was quite unusual for the time, although most of the audience would have been oblivious of the fact, even if it bothered them, because it was a radio show. Sadly, the Goons played on his ethnic origin by getting him to play bit parts as African, Native American or Arab characters, as the plot demanded, As well as being the unsung member of the Goons Ellington moved the cause of racial integration forward.

George Formby (1904 – 1961) was a popular actor, singer and entertainer who found fame and fortune in the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Wigan Formby played the ukelele and sang comedic songs, his stage persona that of a gormless Lancastrian who overcame some form of villainy. Rather lame and dated by today’s tastes it is rather hard to imagine what a major star he was at the height of his fame. The English love and see themselves as cheeky chappies, none more so than the great Ian Dury whose quasi-music hall, comedic style owes much to the likes of Formby.