In My Queue: Murdoch Mysteries

It has been a while since I’ve talked about the vintage/historical-set television I’ve been enjoying on Netflix. Well, sadly, Murdoch Mysteries, is no longer available on Netflix, so “In My Queue” will be expanding its reach! Of course, there are plenty of lovely historical series on Amazon Prime, which I’ve also been enjoying, but I recently subscribed to Hulu, and that is in very large part to the fact that Murdoch Mysteries is there. But rest assured that I will talk about some of my other favorites in the future.

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Murdoch Mysteries combines two of my favorite things: the late Victorian/Edwardian aesthetic and idealized historical science (i.e., the thing that makes steampunk ever so appealing). Detective William Murdoch is a detective with the Toronto Constabulary in the late 19th and early 20th century who uses his brilliant mind to catch criminals, while working alongside a more traditional bully-boy inspector and a young constable-turned-acolyte. Murdoch manages to take the trope of the socially-blind, yet brilliant detective and make the character so charming and likable because, unlike Sherlock Holmes and his derivatives, he’s not a jerk. He’s a devout Catholic, but not preachy about it, kind and respectful, even beyond the norms of the times, and is always good to his mother (I made that last bit up). He takes the cool, logical mind to it’s rational (pun intended) endpoint and doesn’t see the point of the prejudices of the day.

Which of course, sets the series up to have some pretty fantasy-aspirational female characters. When the series opens, the coroner with whom Murdoch works (and plays *wink*) is a woman who has clawed her way through medical school to be recognized as a doctor. Despite her occasionally annoyingly “girlish” voice, Dr. Julia Ogden is the foil to Murdoch’s seemingly-conventional straight man. She does not intend to fit any of society’s molds, be it chastity or demureness. And she does it all in fantastic costumes (though they do veer out of the area of historical accuracy at times) with impeccable hair.

After Dr. Ogden has to leave the morgue, she is replaced by Dr. Emily Grace, who is a foil in a different way to Murdoch, as well as to his increasingly-prominent constable. Dr. Grace is similarly uninterested in sticking to societies rules, even going so far as to bend Victorian heteronormative relationships, but her attitude is less emotional and passionate than Dr. Ogden, instead resembling Murdoch in a lot of ways, albeit in a more commonly-written “aloof brilliant mind” way. In fact, Dr. Grace’s similarities to Murdoch highlight what it is about Murdoch that makes him so appealing as a character, despite the fact that he’s a devotedly religious man who doesn’t drink and rarely uses colorful language.

But like all good shows, the real gems are in the supporting characters. As mentioned before, Constable George Crabtree is one of these stars. He desperately wants to be like Murdoch, but he just isn’t, and often that’s the best thing for the situation. He makes bizarre connections that are often nonsensical, but occasionally help Murdoch see something his rationality was hiding from him. And despite seeming much less intelligent than Murdoch, he is perhaps more creative. He’s just so sweet and endearing that sometimes I wish he were the main character so it were more likely he’d end up “getting the girl” (I haven’t finished the available episodes, yet, so I have hope).

Finally, Inspector Thomas Brackenreid is the slow burn of the series. While he initially comes off as a traditional, bully-boy, toxically-masculine caricature of a turn-of-the-century copper, he honestly shows the most growth throughout the series. And despite falling prey to plenty of the prejudices of the times, he is always willing to be proven wrong. I find his character oddly compelling, particularly as the series goes on and you see his relationships with his wife and children in more detail. I also find it cute that he keeps an autograph book with signatures of the various special guests in the show.

And that brings me to a key aspect of the series: Murdoch meets famous historical figures, from Nikola Tesla to Winston Churchill. And one of the main running threads of dramatic irony is having Murdoch (or occasionally another character, most often Crabtree) make some comment or suggestion that the audience knows becomes a famous aspect of that person’s life. Murdoch also invents things, often showing a remarkable prescience, such as when he invents a rudimentary polygraph machine. It’s just silly enough to be clear that the show’s creators aren’t intending this to be taken seriously, while being helped by Murdoch’s earnest bearing as a character. Again, the whiz-bang aspect is part of what makes steampunk so appealing. And while Murdoch Mysteries may not be steampunk, in it’s most literal sense, it certainly shares plenty of that appeal. At least, I find it so.

The Freedom of a Bicycle

Since starting my new job, I have discovered the joys of getting around a city, not only by the subway, but also under my own power. Most days, this means walking, about an hour every day. But my city also has a bicycle sharing program, which I have joined. So now, with a minimal cash outlay at the beginning, I can check out a bicycle whenever I want from one of the numerous stands around where I work, and take short trips around the city. It has come in marvelously handy when I miss an early train and get downtown a bit later than expected, or when I feel like stopping for breakfast and have less time to get to work. I can hop on a bicycle and be at work in less than half the time it takes me to walk.

But the most striking thing about bicycling is how it opens up your boundaries. Before, I was limited in my dining options to those places nearby where I worked or on the way to the train. By taking a bicycle, I can easily extend this reach many times over, taking weekday lunches at new local restaurants, or even meeting my mother at a tea room that would be an untenable walk. And when I stop for takeaway for dinner before rehearsal, I can give myself some extra time and distance and not be limited to the one sandwich shop right outside the train station.

It puts me in mind of something I saw when I first saw a film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the late 1990s: There was a statement that the film set the play in the Victorian era, around the time of the advent of the bicycle, when men and women found themselves with a new sense of freedom not afforded by more expensive modes of transportation. There was some truth to this in history, and indeed the bicycle was praised by such women’s rights leaders as Susan B. Anthony.

Personally, I like knowing that I can get around the city more quickly without resorting to bringing my car into downtown traffic. The step-through styling of the bikeshare bicycles are also something new. I can ride in my workday uniform of a below-the-knee dress without discomfort. On the rare occasion that a gust of wind pushes my skirt up a bit, I can simply stop and adjust quickly. The bicycles also have fenders and guards so I don’t arrive splashed with mud. I’m excited to be taking part in bicycle culture and it helps me feel much more urban.

A New Addition to the Boudoir

As someone who loves vintage style, particularly the Victorian aesthetic, I’ve started wearing nightgowns to sleep instead of t-shirt and shorts. I had my favorite Etsy seller, Sue Bradbury at Ellaina Boutique make me a three-quarter-sleeved nightgown in a lightweight purple material with cream lace trim. It has served me well, but as the days grow longer and warmer and the nights no longer chill me, I found I was in need of something lighter still.
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So I contacted Sue and we discussed using some new lightweight printed material she had gotten in. She had three floral prints that just shouted my name. So I chose one and had her make me a summer nightgown. It arrived earlier this week, and I’ve been wearing it to sleep ever since. I may have to order a couple more soon.

The material is so soft and light and doesn’t hang awkwardly, but also doesn’t cling. While it is a loose design, and somewhat old-fashioned, I find the delicious fabric drapes around me in a way that is not entirely unenticing. And it feels lovely against my skin. I find myself sweating less. The cream lace around the neckline and the hemline give it the perfect touch of something extra, but Sue is careful to sew the lace in where it won’t get ragged from wear.

Anyone looking for new, comfy clothing for the summer should definitely give Sue’s shop a look! I don’t receive anything for free from Sue, but I’ve bought much of my wardrobe from her.

In my Queue: The Paradise

One thing that is nice about watching mostly Netflix is that their algorithm for recommending things is generally better than my friends’ recommendations. Specifically, since I like things that are British and/or full of lovely costumes, I get a lot of recommendations for British costume dramas. The most recent suggestion I took was The Paradise, a Victorian-set drama about an early department store in a northern English town. It’s based on a novel by Emile Zola, although his story was set in France.

It focuses primarily on the character of Denise, a young woman from a small Scottish village who comes to live and work with her uncle, a draper, only to find that his store is barely staying afloat, so she has to take a position at the new department store, the Paradise. It’s a lot like Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs only in a store, not a manor house. It’s actually really interesting because the class dynamics include more about the merchant class, which seems to straddle a bit of a line, no doubt due to the original French material. But my favorite thing about The Paradise is that the story focuses so much on the women’s stories, rather than making everything about the men who, admittedly, would have dominated most of business life in that day and age.

But, seriously, this is a costume drama, so let’s talk about costumes. From the opening sequence, it becomes clear that The Paradise is about eye candy. The costumes are not only beautiful, they add to the feel of the show. From the elegant but understated attire of the shop girls to Moray’s somewhat flamboyant suits and waistcoats to Lady Katherine Glendenning’s dresses, the attire fits the characters. In season two, Lady Katherine finds herself in mourning (half mourning?) for most of the season and her attire becomes darker and more severe. And despite the fantastic costumes, I love that she wears dresses more than once. A real Victorian lady, no matter how wealthy, would not have had a new dress every single day without repeat. It just adds that special something.

My only complaints are twofold: the quick cancellation and the treatment of Lady Katherine in the second season. The show had only two seasons and, while it comes to a satisfying end, it still left me wishing I could see what happened next. It was not enough time spent with the characters they’d developed. Finally, I was displeased with how the plot treated Lady Katherine in the second season. She had been set as one of the antagonists to sweet, blonde Denise in the first season, and her plotline in the second season almost seemed like punishment, when really her only “crime” was to reach for what she wanted, contrary to society’s strictures. But some of her strength eventually came through and she remains a wonderfully flawed character.

I highly recommend The Paradise for a few weeks of eye-candy and Victorian period enjoyment. Perhaps someday something like it will come back.

A Victorian Calisthenics Workout

It’s January, and I’ve been lazy through the holidays. Coupled with the lack of sleep from late-night rehearsals, and I’ve found myself feeling run-down. This week, I decided I ought to do something about this. I ought to get up earlier and eat healthier. And I ought to exercise.

But what to do when it’s below freezing and dark outside in the morning? I could do yoga, but I’ve found myself getting bored with my yoga routine lately. And then I found a couple articles on zero-equpiment circuit routines. It made me think, hey, how did people exercise before things like yoga and running and six thousand machines came to the US? I mean, the short answer is that they didn’t because people in the past either didn’t realize the benefits of exercise, or else they led strenuous enough lives not to need specific exercise time.

And then I did some research and found this site, which reproduces a Victorian manual for women’s calisthenics. Now, I always thought of calisthenics as zero-equipment exercises that are usually used for warm-ups. But this manual seems to make the distinction between calisthenics and gymnastics, perhaps suggesting that women ought not to do the jumping around that gymnastics involved. But even the equipment is very minimal. Most of the exercises can be done with dumbbells, a lightweight wand of wood (like a broom handle), and a resistance band. And the free exercises, in addition to being a wonderful light workout, look like great actor’s warmups. I might bring them out before performances this week.

Now, it’s interesting that this Victorian reference specifically recommends strength-building exercises for women when so much conventional wisdom of the time (persisting into the 20th century) was that exercise would harm women. But with so many women experiencing muscle atrophy from corset-wearing, the author makes a good point that strength exercises are necessary for beauty. It’s the same idea behind Pilates, which is another vintage system of exercise. In addition, dancers have trained more strenuously for centuries.

So I’ve come up with a simple, low- or no-equipment plan for increasing my strength using vintage exercise. This morning, without the benefit of having dug my weight equipment out of the closet, I did a zero-equipment workout consisting of more modern-accepted calisthenics, like pushups, squats, windmills, and planks. I warmed up with some arm and foot circles, then then alternated exercises every thirty seconds for a little over ten minutes. Then, I finished off with a stretching routine I developed to increase my flexibility as a dancer. Perhaps in the future I’ll incorporate some Pilates or some of the Victorian calisthenics with a band or dumbbells, and even add some dancing to my routine. In the spring, when the weather warms, I can even do my routine outside.