Victorian Era: A Nice Place To Revisit, But . . .

Students Find Finery 'Boring And Hot'

May 13, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

It was a time of sun-bathed croquet lawns and gentle breezes that carried the music of a glass harp. It was a time for Queen Victoria to sit under a white garden trellis and accept the curtsies of girls in long dresses.

But, alas, it was not Kensington Gardens but Quiet Waters Park inAnnapolis. And assembled there were children of the '90s -- the 1990s. The students of Arundel Junior High School in Odenton strained against the steamy restrictions of their formal clothing and balked at the waltz. They would visit the Victorian era on this sunny day, but none expressed a desire to remain.

"I'd say it's boring and hot," said Greg Johnson, one of 170 ninth-graders who took part Friday in the junior high school's fifth-annual Victorian Tea Pageant. It might well be the last, organizers said, because the ninth grade next year will be moved from the junior high school to the senior high.

The ninth-graders have been studying the Victorian period -- 1837-1901 -- in their English, history, social studies and French classes. They have been reading Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities."

The youngsters spent the school day Friday taking part in Victorian activities: a tea and waltz social, a croquet game, a glass harp concert, a lecture by Dickens, a rabble-rousing Hyde Park harangue by British statesman William Ewart Gladstone and a garden audience with Queen Victoria.

Many of the students managed to turn out in some semblance of Victorian garb. There were girls in long, frilly dresses and hoop skirts. There were boys in black top hats, black vests, white shirts and black ties.

The clothing was a source of complaints on a sunny day, as the temperature rose to 81.

"I think it's pretty; it's just hot," said Jennifer Shai, wearing a floor-length lilac gown and walking on crutches. She recently broke two toes on her right foot. "I'm trying to keep up."

Brie Hall, another student, said she learned in class about the pain that 19th-century women suffered for the sake ofpresenting that perfect Victorian image -- the restricted breathing from whalebone corsets. Fractured ribs, even.

"I think they went too far to look pretty," Brie said. "Sometimes they hurt themselves."

Even in her gown, a mere approximation of the Victorian look, ninth-grader Charmaine Johnson said, "Things are sticking you everywhere."

Ray Chapman worked valiantly to find his step in a waltz at the park's Blue Heron room. He's a fine rap dancer, he said, more at homewith the tunes of LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane. Asked if he thought the student string sextet had the waltz tempo right, Ray said, "I couldn't tell if they do or not."

As the sextet played, other students served tea and cake at a side table and Carly Evrett practiced the Victorian art of communicating via fan. Yes, without words, without so much as a raised eyebrow, women of the English Victorian upper classes were known to signal their romantic intentions with a few flicks of a Chinese fan.

"This side is negative," said Carly, a Gambrillsninth-grader, holding a folded paper fan up at the left side of her face. "This side is positive," she said, switching it to the right side.

A sign on the wall explained the code's finer points. Among them: With handle to lips: kiss me; drawing across cheek: I love you; twirling in left hand: I wish to get rid of you.

There was nothing oblique about the communication going on outside the social room, where Arundel Junior High law and government teacher Ray Krauser presented his rendition of William Gladstone stirring up the locals at London's Hyde Park. Gladstone, who served as British prime minister, derided the theory of evolution and shouted his insistence that women belonged at home in the service of men.

"Go back to Piccadilly," he shouted at the girls in the crowd, implying that they were women of unsavory moral character.

Gladstone was known for his disdain for thearistocracy in general and Queen Victoria in particular. While he screamed about the ruling class, the queen -- portrayed by Arundel Junior High bookkeeper Marti Baker -- sat quite unmoved a few hundred yards away under a white garden trellis. As she greeted a line of her subjects, science teacher Gail Lee played "Scotland the Brave" on the Highland bagpipes. It was Victoria who lifted the English ban on Scottish pipes and Victoria, of course, for whom Friday's feast was named.

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