Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Victorian Mandolins

In the late nineteenth century a mandolin craze swept America and Europe, leading to the formation of numerous mandolin orchestras with mainly classical repertoires - I'm not quite sure how this fits in with my emerging theory of the counter-cultural underground of portable stringed instruments, but the craze wasn't confined to middle class drawing rooms.

In the novel Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (London, Virago, 1998), Nan King, oyster girl turned music hall star turned rent boy, catches her first sight of her future lesbian lover in a house opposite her lodgings, listening to a friend playing the mandolin: “Someone had begun to strum some kind of sweet, twangy instrument - not a banjo, not a guitar - and a lilting gypsy melody was playing upon the bare evening breezes... The player of the instrument - it was, I now saw, a mandolin - was a handsome young woman in a well-tailored jacket, a white blouse,a neck-tie and spectacles”. In this novel the mandolin takes its place amongst upper class saphhists, music hall mashers (women dressed as men), prostitute guardsmen and socialist rallies as a component of 1890s London life.

This is obviously a fictional account, but there is a nice story in the South London Observer of a servant getting ideas above her station by learning to play the instrument: ‘The Servant’s Mandolin’ (South London Observer, 6.5.1899) tells of a court case in 1899 where the father of Agnes Reid, aged 18 and ‘in service at Camberwell’ was sued by Miss Rosina Love, a Peckham music teacher. The cause was Agnes’ failing to pay for her mandolin lessons, but the fact of her learning to play the instrument was seemingly cause for comment. The Judge asked her father 'what induced your daughter to learn the mandoline' to which he replied ‘One of the other servants put her up to it. I know no other reason’. Judge Emden of Lambeth County Court concluded: 'I do not say that a servant should not play the mandoline if she does not annoy the people in her mistress’s house by so doing. But she must pay her music teacher'.

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