Tag Archives: champagne

Champagne and the world’s worst play

I had the fortune (or misfortune) to read today a ranking candidate for the world’s worst play. Published in 1895 it has sat, pages uncut, in Oxford’s Bodleian Library for over 120 years.

I read it because champagne plays a minor but nonetheless vital role.

Ernest England is an aspiring artist given to utterances on the lines of ‘hail rosy clouds, hail cerulean sky’. Money is of no object to him since ‘a gold-lined purse will never cleanse the heart / Nor build a true heroic full-souled man’. He is, however, entranced by Carlotta Durand, the daughter of a general who has written off Ernest as a fop and a sop. Despite her father’s objections, Carlotta falls for his line of pure-souled rhetoric and agrees to marry him.

Unfortunately, Ernest’s sole commercial commission as an artist is to create a back cloth for a music hall show. Viewing his work, he is spotted by Olga Pearl (‘a depraved brandy-swilling beast’ and ‘shameless courtesan’) who inveigles him into drinking many bottles of the best brands of champagne. In her defence she says that lemonade gives her indigestion and that ‘I detest inferior champagne’. She follows up the champagne with brandy chasers and the scene ends with Ernest leaving with her… to where we are not told.

But not before Ernest has delivered his analysis of wine: ‘It suddenly dawned on me that wines naturally gravitate into two divisions – literary divisions perhaps I should say. Your clarets, ports, burgundies, and sherries discover a sober equivalent in prose – plain unadorned prose; on the other hand you have in champagne the precise equivalent of poesy. Nature’s own ambrosial dew, an elixir fit to assuage the thirst of the immortals’.

Unfortunately shame (and a clearly dreadful hangover) haunt him so much that he enlists under the assumed name of Private Hope to fight in India, leaving Carlotta so bereft that she too heads off to work in a medical mission under the name of Sister Hilda.

Fate, of course takes a hand and ‘Corporal Hope’ (he has been promoted for his bravery and his ingenuity in making his own bullets from a lead roof to resist the Indian mutineers) and Sister Hilda meet again in the medical mission where he, temporarily blinded, is recuperating with head injuries and a broken arm. Happily this has not stopped him from writing an affecting farewell letter in the blood of his dead comrade (his ink bottle has been shattered by another bullet).

Ernest and Carlotta marry … they have an artistic son … he dies … she dies … he is paralysed. The play ends with a touching scene in which he – described unfortunately to modern ears as ‘completely paralytic’ – strokes the gravestone of his mother (I’d forgotten to mention she too had died unhappily).

You probably won’t get the chance to read it for yourself – but if you do don’t pass up the opportunity…. For what it’s worth contemporary reviewers were no less damning than this modern reader. Said the Clarion’s book reviewer of Mr Parker’s A Soul Laid Bare: ‘the most turgid colloquial prose [admixed] with ‘flights of furious grandiloquence’. No sober prose here but the very essence of ambrosial dew.

‘Meurtre au Champagne’

It was the author – Agatha Christie – and title that got me. Translated back into English that’s ‘Murder by Champagne’ and it took a moment to work out that this must be the novel that Christie published in 1945 – ‘Sparkling Cyanide’.

‘Sparkling Cyanide’ movie poster (note the yellow iris) and ‘Meurtre au Champagne’

Continue reading

‘On the scale from riches to ruin’: the cargo of champagne in R.L.Stevenson’s Ebb-Tide

One of Robert Louis Stevenson’s very last books was Ebb-Tide. His step-son Lloyd Osbourne shared the credit for this 1894 work but it seems clear that Stevenson wrote all the second part (‘The Quartette’) and heavily revised the first part (‘The Trio’)[1].


Briefly, the story is of a trio of ‘on the beach’ bums; each a failure in his own way, each hiding his real identity, each close to the point of death or despair on the wind and rain swept beach of Samoa. Continue reading

‘Archer Up’ | celebrating the great Victorian jockey

Fred Archer committed suicide on 8 November 1886. Delirious with wasting and purging to make the 8 stone 7lb weight for the Cambridgeshire Cup (the only classic race he had never won) and suffering the effects of typhoid fever he shot himself. The gun is still in the National Horse-Racing Museum.Fred Archer_200913

Continue reading

Into the lions’ cage | adman wins a champagne bet

On 11th October 1890, The Oxford Journal reported that Mr James Dillon, an Irish ‘advertising agent’ had wagered £100 that he could enter the lions’ cage and “drink his share of a bottle of champagne before leaving.”

Thanks to the assistance of Muccomo (described as the ‘coloured lion tamer’) with both the lions and the champagne he succeeded.

Champagne was often part of 19th century wagers. If it wasn’t the ‘fumes’ of the drink that provoked some extravagant or intemperate behaviour, it was often the prize at stake. In February 1880, the South Shields Gazette featured a bet (for a sum unrecorded) that turned on the ability to drink a glass of champagne from an unopened bottle without piercing the cork or breaking the glass. It was won by the simple expedient of turning the bottle upside down and drinking from the punt (described here as “the hollow at the bottom”).

19th century French champagne bottles showing the depth of the 'punt'

19th century French champagne bottles showing the depth of the ‘punt’. Thanks to the Naked Winery for this image

Continue reading

‘Steady’ on the champagne | Australia’s 1880 recipe for cricketing success

Though the touring Australian cricketers lost the September 1880 Test Match (the first to be held in England), they had, overall, a successful tour, winning 4 of the 8 matches they played against first-class sides, with 3 draws and 1 narrow loss.

In August 1880 when they were still undefeated, their captain and star batsman, W. L (Billy) Murdoch was asked for the secret of their success.


Billy Murdoch – no 2 Australian batsman of all time?

Continue reading

A bottle of claret a day | a Victorian doctor’s view of health

An Age UK study, released today (8 August 2013) has raised concerns that too many over-65s are drinking to excess. Many of the over-65s interviewed, however, did not see a particular problem. Drinking helped them relax, made it easier to socialise, and, in their view, wasn’t much of a problem so long as they weren’t out of control in any way.

Francis Anstie, the Victorian doctor whose 1877 book On the Uses of Wines in Health and Disease, I was reading yesterday might have shared their view.  He was concerned about the ‘grave danger’ of excessive drinking caused, in his view, by the “multiplication of alcoholic drinks, with different flavours, each tempting in its turn” and by the lack of accurate label information on the strength of drinks.  However, he was also determined (perhaps in the face of a temperance threat) “to demonstrate the prominent fitness of wine, above all other alcoholic drinks” as a remedy for a wide range of illnesses.

Francis Anstie

Francis Anstie, FRCP, MD

Continue reading

Women in wine|the 19th century

Over a hundred years ago, my grandmother (then in her early 20s) was taken on to work at the Prudential Insurance Company’s Head Office in London. Men and women were on separate floors and her main memory was that many of the girls working there kept long white gloves in their desk drawers so that they could head straight out in the evening after work. Incidentally, there was a ‘language’ of gloves just as there was a language of fans. Holding the tips of the gloves downward meant ‘I wish to make your acquaintance’.


Continue reading

Dom Pérignon|Did he see stars?

4th August 2013 seems like a good date to launch this blog since – by some accounts – it’s precisely 320 years since Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon reputedly ‘invented’ champagne in 1693. Others say June 1694 but I’m too late or too early for that.

I’m heading back to University this autumn to do a Masters’ Degree on the ‘Perception and Marketing of Champagne in Victorian England’ so this date has a special resonance for me. And Dom P himself is yet another entry in the catalogue of marvellous myths, brand management, white lies, counterfeit labels and dubious brands that make up much of the history of champagne when you leave the relative safety of the ‘celebrated brands’ that we recognise and salute today.

Continue reading