02 October 2015

Things I Know Very Little About: The Crimean War

This week, I'm still working on my dissertation chapter about Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago. It's driven home to me that, considering I'm a Victorianist, I know surprisingly little about the most significant war of my chosen time period. Like, a list of things I know about it would go:
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade happened.
  • Florence Nightingale carried her lamp around and invented nursing.
  • Beryl Bainbridge's 1998 novel Master Georgie is set during the war, but though I remember liking it, I don't remember a thing about it.
  • Um... I think that's it.
  • Sebastopol? That's a thing, right?
Part of this is, I believe, that I'm a literary scholar. The Crimean War had surprisingly little literary impact in England: in Two Years Ago, a number of characters go off and fight (or nurse) in the war, but that mostly happens "off-stage," as it were. Other than that, the number of Victorian novels set during the war is minimal. Stefanie Markovits's monograph The Crimean War in the British Imagination lists a few more. George W. M. Reynolds (who was basically terrible) wrote a book Omar: A Tale of the War during the actual war, with the effect that he caught up to the real war and then had to vamp a lot while he waited for something to happen. George Whyte-Melville wrote The Interpreter: A Tale of the War; I've never heard of him or the book, but Markovits reports that he's the only Crimean War novelist to actually have served in the war (as a volunteer with the Turkish cavalry). Markovits also suggest Kingsley's Westward Ho! (set in Elizabethan times, but an allegory for the war), Henry Kingsley's Ravenshoe (I had no idea Charles had a brother who was also a novelist), and Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (!).

Map of the Jaws of Death.

Of course, the most famous literary production of the war is Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," a tale of heroism and tragedy we still recollect today:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
     Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
     Rode the six hundred.
The full poem is here. Amazingly, you can hear Tennyson reading the poem himself in this 1890 wax cylinder recording:

It always throws me for a loop when what I sometimes think of as distantly historical figures manifest in such a modern format.

Markovits suggests (and she's not alone) that the Crimean War was the first "media war," the first war that the media demanded exist and covered extensively, and that the contemporary need for war writing was met by journalism as a result: Dickens's journal Household Words covered the war in fact, but Dickens wrote barely anything about it in fiction.

Despite its seeming lack of literary impact, the war was an important one, and Orlando Figes's The Crimean War: A History (2010) seems to be the only comprehensive historical study of the war in English. Maybe someday I'll get around to reading it and figuring out exactly how impactful the war really was.

ALSO: Did you know cardigans come out of the Crimean War?

My Google Image Search for "earl of cardigan wearing a cardigan" turned up no such thing, but I did find this image of the current Earl of Cardigan wearing a pullover, which is pretty close. Courtesy The Daily Mail.
Well, kind of. James Brudenell, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan is actually the guy who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, and he may or may not have been kind of a screw-up, one of those folks whose noble birth was probably not sufficient reason to make him a leader of men. Before people figured that out, though, his knitted waistcoat became famous.

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