Paris 1830 — a history lesson

I generally can’t muster much enthusiasm for role-play sims.  On Sunday, however, Lady Lydia and I were invited to the Grand Opening Ball of Paris 1830 at which there was to be a piano recital of early 19th century music by virtuoso pianist Horus Cedrus.

Role-play is taken seriously here, we noted, as we met with the likes of le roi Louis-Philippe Ier, Princesse Marie-Amélie de Bourbon-Sicile, Alexandra I of Goldenhear, and Princesse Clémentine d’Orléans, all perfectly and persuasively in role.  Perhaps one or two of the guests were anachronistically attired in costumes of another era, yet most (Lady Lydia and myself included) had dressed appropriately, and were speaking exactly as the characters represented by their avatars.  (Lady Lydia, an habituée of such historical role-play sims quite properly, when in a moment of inadvertence I thoughtlessly made reference to the Victorian era, discreetly corrected me: “Victorian? what is that?”)

Proposing that she and I concoct plausible biographies for our avatars, Lady Lydia made an important observation: that the research undertaken in constructing a convincing biography for oneself becomes an effective and engaging strategy for learning the history of the period as well as for expanding one’s general knowledge.  Lydia chose to base her character on the opera singer Maria Malibran (24 March 1808 – 23 September 1836); I clumsily tried to weave an impromptu narrative around Saartjie Baartman‘s presence in London and Paris at the turn of the 19th century as a platform for giving account of the presence of a character with the unlikely name of ‘Khoisan’.

Lady Lydia, erstwhile resident of inter alia ancient Rome, of 18th century Versailles, and of 1920s Berlin, has now convinced me that role-play in virtual environments such as Second Life can be used as an effective and exploratory paedagogic tool in the teaching and learning of history.

Appendix: the biographies

Writing the biographies was, for both Lydia and myself, an instructive research exercise from which we both learned a great deal about the period and the people.  Each of us started from where our personal interests lay, respectively music and African studies.  The results are published below.

Lady Lydia

Born in Madrid in 1806, daughter of french composer and director Jean Yalin, who used to conduct at many palaces and noble houses in the Paris area and its surroundings, also well for some operas that took place in the National Opera of Paris. He left France when the terror, being accused of performing for some nobles, and head to Spain, where he got under protection of the Duchess of Alba, who was a big fan of arts and generous patron. So he moved to Seville, where he met and married Doña Mercedes García Mariscal, third daughter of a famous lawyer. After the death of the duchess, in 1802, they moved to Madrid to try luck with the premiere of some symphonies and tonadillas to be performed at Teatro de la Zarzuela, and there is where their daughter Lydia arrived.

From the begging she had the help and supervision of his father to be trained in arts and specially singing, for which she showed herself gifted. She gave her debut at the age of 7 for the Opera L’Armide, composed by his father. Later on she performed at 14 Rossina from Barber of Seville, just before she was sent to England to study in boarding school, supported by her grandfather.

Stage of the King's Theatre, Haymarket, as seen on the opening night, 4 July 1821

She join the choir of the King’s Theatre in London, but when the prima donna became indisposed, the conductor suggested that she should take over in the role in La Cenerentola. The audience loved the young singer, and she continued to sing this role until the end of the season. When the season closed, the troupe went to New York, and she was allowed to travel with her father and younger sister, Diana. This was the second time that Italian opera was performed in New York. Over a period of nine months, Lydia sang the lead roles in eight operas, two of which were written by her father. After that, her career was a solid one and was developed in Madrid, Seville, London, Paris, New York, Naples, …

At her return to London she met Sir Christopher, familiarly known as ‘Khoisan’ in London’s political and literary circles, a liberal writer and illegitimate son of some noble man who well supported his son to get into his political liberal movements as well as writings. Lydia continued a brilliant career in Europe and the United States, and in 1829 finally got married to Khoisan and established in London.

Khoisan and Lydia  travelled for some time, went to Germany so that she could learn some Shubert from direct disciples and friends. They came to know Donizzeti, and Felix Mendelssohn wrote an aria especially for the couple.

Khoisan and Lydia often visit Paris, where her father lives and still works as composer and occasional conductor, but they also like to enjoy Paris, even if she speaks more English than French, after all she is of French ascendant and has friends and acquaintances that support her.

Sir Christopher

A scryer might, peering far into the future, have precognition of an “Indiana Jones”, a “Crocodile Dundee”, or a “Bulldog Drummond”. Here, in our present times, in this glorious decade of the 1830s, we present to you a more modest Sir Christopher “Khoisan” Fisher, so knighted in recognition of his services to the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa (founded 1788) and so named in acknowledgement of his vivid and informative narratives, first published in serial form in The London Chronicle between 1815 and 1818, relating his encounters with the Khoi and San peoples of the Cape and his explorations in the then uncharted interior of southern Africa.

Born in Clerkenwell in 1796 to a Drury Lane actress, Lucy Fisher, the illegitimate son of an unknown father–some say a French nobleman, some suggest a last fling by radical journalist and Parliamentarian John Wilkes, neither rumour plausible–Christopher nonetheless enjoyed the generous clandestine support of an unnamed benefactor through his years at Kingston Grammar School, through Cambridge University, and into his chosen career of journalist and explorer.

Christopher had, as an impressionable young man of sixteen, been marvelously intrigued and yet greatly perturbed by the grotesque public exhibition of Saartjie Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, at Bartholomew Fair in 1812. (Between 1810 and 1814 she would be exhibited in several London locations, including 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair, and Haymarket.) Thenceforth a committed abolitionist, Christopher had sworn to himself that, should his circumstances permit him to do so, he would journey to the land of Saartjie’s birth to bring true knowledge of her peoples to the British public and to the learnèd societies of London.

In 1815, with some influence undoubtedly exerted by his unnamed benefactor, he joined the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa–many of the Association’s members were abolitionists–and began to prepare for his voyage to the Cape.  The military might of King George III had wrested the Kaap de Goede Hoop from the Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie in 1806 following the battle of Bloubergstrand; and in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814, Cape Town was permanently ceded to Britain, becoming the capital of the newly formed Cape Colony.  It was from an East India Company vessel on route to Malabar that, on 17th February 1817, Christopher Fisher disembarked in Cape Town on the adventure that would later bring him acclaim in London and his sobriquet of ‘KhoiSan’.  The details of his sojourn in Africa are now so well known through the learnèd circles of Europe that it would be otiose to recount them here.

Returning from the Cape Colony to England in 1819, a mere 23 three years of age, he was surprised to be honoured with the knighthood bestowed upon him by His Majesty King George III on the recommendations of the then ailing Sir Joseph Banks, founder of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, of abolitionist William Wilberforce Esq, and of prime minister Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool.  One again, however, suspects the hidden hand of his unnamed benefactor.

He would return again to Africa in 1821, this time to Nubia, where he would remain some twelve months; and again in 1825, returning to his beloved Cape from where in 1823 he published his Dispatches from a Mission into the Interior of Africa in 1821-1822 and, in 1825, his Journal of Travels into the Lands of the Hottentot and Bushman.

It was in 1827, bachelor still at the age of 31, that he was to meet his then-to-be wife, the 21 year old accomplished and highly acclaimed opera singer Mademoiselle Lydia Yalin, on the occasion of her remarkable performance as Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.  Following two years of entrancing courtship, Khoisan and Mademoiselle Lydia finally married  in 1829 and established a home in London, where he continued to frequent the Raleigh Club, a dining club meeting at the Thatched House tavern in St James at which real exploring travellers could meet, exchange tales, and try the cuisine of far-off lands.

Sir Christopher and Lady Fisher travelled extensively in those years, to Italy and Greece, to Egypt and Hungary, and to Germany so that she might learn some Shubert from direct disciples and friends. They came to know Donizzeti, and Felix Mendelssohn who wrote an aria especially for the couple.  Enthusiastic amateur poet, Khoisan wrote libretti for Lady Lydia to music by Mendelssohn and by Scottish composer John Thomson.

Khoisan and Lydia frequently visit Paris, where Lady Lydia’s father lives and still works as composer and occasional conductor.

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About Christopher Hutchison

Museologist, cognitive dissident, political grouch, curmudgeonly bibliophage, and all round jolly nice chap.
This entry was posted in Arts, Case studies, Museums and history. Bookmark the permalink.

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