Sic transit and so forth

March 31, 2019

Melba Toast

When I saw this display at the supermarket today, it sent my mind reeling back to an eposide of Downton Abbey in which the Australian soprano Nellie Melba was engaged to gave a recital at the Granthams’ mansion. More precisely, this display reminded me that among the historical inaccuracies presented in that series, the visit by Nellie Melba was one of the most glaring—to anachronisms such as I am, at least.

One feature of the episode was that Charles Carson, the Granthams’ head butler, was scandalized that a mere entertainer would be invited into the house. According to the Downton Abbey storyline, Carson had been a song-and-dance man before he took on the pompous persona of a butler, but apparently he didn’t see the irony in that.

Nellie Melba

NELLIE MELBA/Lilydale Historical Society

 

Carson treated Melba—portrayed by past-her-prime soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa—as though she were a hired hand, leaving her in her room with nothing but a cup of tea. Others in the house made caustic remarks about having to sit through her performance.

Actually, by 1922, when this was supposed to have occurred, Nellie Melba was a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire for her charity work during World War I. More to it, she was one of the most celebrated singers in the world, eagerly received by royalty.

As Robert Christiansen, the opera critic for The Telegraph pointed out when the episode was first broadcast, Nellie Melba “would only have sung at a private party as a personal favour to her host. Melba was nobody’s hireling: she called all the shots, and the Granthams and their staff would have quaked at her approach.”

A story by Tom Huizenga of National Public Radio included this passage:

“Even today, Melba’s recorded voice rings clearly as a favorite of Tim Page, Pulitzer winner for criticism and professor of music and journalism at USC.

“‘There’s something sort of unreal about it,’ Page says. ‘It’s a voice of ethereal purity with perhaps the only perfect trill I’ve ever heard.’ Another celebrated Melba attribute is accuracy: ‘She hit things absolutely on pitch,’ he continues. ‘You never hear Melba sliding into a note. Her tone was as reliable as a keyed instrument. She’s just dead on.'”

Incidentally, while Melba—whose birth name was Helen Porter Mitchell—has been forgotten by all but opera buffs, her professional name lives on in the product you see above, which was named after her, as was peach melba and several other delicacies.

You can hear Nellie Melba with Enrico Caruso in the duet “O Soave Fanciulla” from Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme by clicking HERE.

 

JUDI DENCH and JIM BROADBENT

JUDI DENCH and JIM BROADBENT


Having seen the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease up close — having lived with them actually, we don’t go out of our way to see the subject dramatized. The other night, however, we were glad we stumbled on Iris, a 2001 movie starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville. This film is based on the life of Iris Murdoch, a prominent British novelist and philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century. While she was a young woman teaching at Oxford, Murdoch fell in love with another Oxford academic, John Bayley, and eventually married him. It was what Puccini’s librettists might have called “a strange harmony of contrasts. Winslet was confident, high-spirited, articulate, and promiscuous, and Bayley was awkward, stuttering, shy, and virgin.
KATE WINSLET and HUGH BONNEVILLE

KATE WINSLET and HUGH BONNEVILLE


Their story, based on Bayley’s written accounts, is told in turns by flashbacks to the tumult of their early life together and a portrayal of the gradual deterioration of the elderly Iris’s mind. At the center of the story is John Bayley’s enduring love for this woman, even when her dementia frightens him and strains his patience. Dench and Winslet play the elder and younger Iris, and Broadbent and Bonneville play the elder and younger Bayley. This casting was inspired, because in both cases the premise that we are watching the same people at different stages of their lives is convincing. The quality of the performances is reflected by the fact that, among many accolades, Jim Broadbent won an Oscar and Judi Dench and Kate Winslet were nominated. Why Hugh Bonneville wasn’t nominated I can’t imagine. Those who are familiar with him in vehicles such as Belle and Downton Abbey will learn something about his range by watching him in this film. Incidentally, fans of Downton Abbey and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might be pleased to see Penelope Wilton’s performance in a significant supporting role in Iris.
IRIS MURDOCH and JOHN BAYLEY

IRIS MURDOCH and JOHN BAYLEY

NOAH WEBSTER

NOAH WEBSTER

When we were watching episodes of Downton Abbey on a DVD, we turned on the English subtitles, because we had trouble understanding a couple of the actors — particularly Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason.
It turned out that while some of our difficulty with the dialogue had to do with the one actor’s mumbling and the other one’s accent, some of it also had to do with the vocabulary itself — British terms that we did not know.

  Most of us are familiar with terms like “lorry,” “loo,” and “lift,” but we saw others in the captions that we had never heard before.
It was to be expected that the English used in Britain and the English used in the United States would evolve differently, but I learned recently that that didn’t happen only over time but was done deliberately, on our side of the ocean, soon after the American Revolution.
That’s what Paul Dickson reports in his book Words from the White House, which is a compilation of words and phrases that either were either coined or made popular by presidents and other prominent Americans.

  According to Dickson, an 18th century sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, was that Americans had to craft for themselves a language that was distinct from the “king’s English.”
Webster was so confident that this goal could be achieved that he wrote in 1806 that “In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people than all the other dialects of the language.”

THOMAS JEFFERSON

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Part of the process by which language evolves is “neologizing” — that is, inventing words or phrases from whole cloth.
Dickson writes that the word “neologize” was itself neologized by Jefferson in 1813 in a letter to John Adams.
So Theodore Roosevelt, who — for my money — is disproportionately represented in this book, was neologizing when he invented the term “pussyfooter,” and his distant cousin FDR was doing the same when he created the useful word “iffy.”
Some presidents have been accused of using non-standard terms, not because they were being inventive but because they didn’t know any better.
In this regard, for instance, Dickson mentions Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush.
Harding has often been ridiculed for his 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy,” but Dickson points out that the word “normalcy” had been already in use in several fields, including mathematics.
Harding’s innovation was to give the term a political meaning — and, the author reminds us, it worked.

WARREN G. HARDING

WARREN G. HARDING

The second Bush — who could be hard on English — was kidded mercilessly for his used of the term “decider” which he applied to himself when the press asked him about calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”) Dickson gives Bush credit for coining this word, but apparently the author didn’t check a dictionary: that word was around before George Bush was president, meaning exactly what he used it to mean.