Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Collect like a Victorian!

A rabbit school diorama by taxidermist Walter Potter
In chapter 22, David Copperfield meets the fascinating Miss Mowcher, a woman whose mannerisms
captivate our protagonist almost as much as her short stature. During their conversation, Miss Mowcher notes that she keeps the Russian Prince's fingernails and toenails in order for him, and then produces scraps of said nails to show off to David and Steerforth. Miss Mowcher comments, "The Prince's nails do more for me in private families of the genteel sort, than all my talents put together. I always carry 'em about. They're the best introduction. If Miss Mowcher cuts the Prince's nails, she must be all right. I give 'em away to the young ladies. They put 'em in albums, I believe. Ha! ha! ha!"

I must admit that the idea of collecting fingernails gives me pause, though the Victorian upper class had a habit of collecting things that seem may seem odd to us today. This article from The Atlantic discusses the popular hobby of collecting birds' eggs, and these two articles (from Atlas Obscura and Mental Floss) discuss pteridomania — or fern collecting — and seaweed scrapbooking, respectively. There are also several accounts of Victorians collecting hair (sometimes for use in jewelry), animal skeletons, dead insects, and anthropomorphic taxidermy in their curiosity cabinets, which often took up entire rooms.

These seem odd to me, but then, how many of the things we do today would seem odd to Victorians?

1 comment:

  1. The bit about the Prince's fingernails made me think of all of those saints' relics - fingerbones, kneecaps, etc. - supposedly stashed in churches throughout Europe. I wonder if Dickens was thinking about that?