Ok. So one of the most famous, or notorious, features of Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest must surely be the quasi-mysterious offstage character of Algy’s alter ego, the permanent invalid Bunbury. This fictitious friend, always at death’s door, provides Algernon with a convenient excuse, ready on demand, to get out of town or out of responsibilities whenever he likes. All he has to do is claim that Bunbury is having a relapse, and off he goes to the country—where he can behave as badly as he likes. Ludicrous as the name may seem (and yes, potentially rather suggestive in unfortunate ways), it actually belonged to a classmate and acquaintance of Wilde’s, Henry S. Bunbury.
Fine, so far as that goes. However, in doing a little research on request for rehearsal, looking into some possible musical elements (see another post), we found a really tidy coincidence extending from Mr. Bunbury. Turns out that there the family is quite an old and established one in Wilde’s native Ireland; indeed, it continues today, represented quite ably by the marvelously named Turtle Bunbury—who has compiled quite the geneological site. Go ahead and visit. But here’s the juicy bit: we were looking up background on the popular parlour song “Come into the Garden, Maude” and what did we find? This a setting of a Tennyson poem has a Bunbury family connection!!!! Read on below, and then check out the tune.
Upon his death in 1790, Thomas Bunbury was succeeded at Cranavonane by his fourth son, 19-year-old Hamilton Welch Bunbury (1772-1833), a soldier who rose to become a Colonel in the 3rd Buffs. It is not clear why none of the older brothers - Benjamin, Harrison or Hugh - succeeded. He joined the army as ‘Welch Hamilton Bunbury’, being appointed an Ensign in the 60th Foot on 24 October 1787, the eve of the French Revolution. He was promoted Lieutenant in the same regiment four years later on 29 March 1791. […] He served in the Peninsula from September 1808 to February 1810, commanding the 1st Battalion of Detachments from February to September 1809. He again fought in the Peninsula from June 1812 to December 1813, seeing action at the Douro, Talavera, Vittoria, the Pyrenees, Nivelle, and Nive. He received the Gold Medal for Talavera. He retired and sold his commission on 16 May 1814, five weeks after the abdication of Emperor Napoleon.
Colonel Bunbury famously received a glass of wine in his face from his nephew, Thomas Bunbury, while having dinner with his brother Benjamin Bunbury and sister-in-law Anne Bunbury at Marlstone House. In 1810, he married Mary Russell, daughter of Durham coal baron Matthew Russell, MP for Saltash. Russell was reputedly the richest commoner in England at the time. In 1817, he instigated the virtual rebuilding of Brancepeth Castle in Durham which his wealthy father had purchased from the Tempests 20 years earlier. […] Matthew’s wife Elizabeth Tennyson was an aunt of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) who reputedly composed “Come into the Garden Maude” during a visit to Brancepeth.
Right, so, getting past my random fear of posting anything here…
It’s been a regular Importance of Being Earnest fest. The cast hit the ground running with the initial read-through last Friday, and they’ve been working away at it ever since.
Down in the land of dramaturgy, we’ve found ourselves caught up in the streets of Victorian England (check out that map in the last post) and the zany fun that was upper class life. Since I’ve had my face buried in etiquette books, we’re going to have a brief chat about society’s rules. And I mean brief as in: the Victorians were big on etiquette, and big on cutting, or excluding from society, anyone who didn’t care to follow their rules (including everyone’s favorite aesthere, Oscar Wilde). More to come on that as soon as the Earnest website is up and running; consider this a sort of, ah, preview. Or something.
In the meantime, I do have a few diverting links for your perusal. First, The Victorian Period. Test your mad etiquette skills in this flash game from the McCord Museum of Canadian History. No, really, try it out; it’s a good time.
Need to brush up on your etiquette? Check out some etiquette guides of the period. I particularly recommend Etiquette for Every Day, though if you’d like a taste of etiquette taken to almost anal extremes in terms of detail, check out Etiquette: What to Do, and How to Do It. Everything you’ve ever or never wanted to know about paying a call and leaving cards, using the proper silverware, and all manner of other societal excitement.
I’ll leave you with a final few works from Lady Colin Campbell: “[T]he first and great characteristic of what is called good-breeding is perfect ease of manner and the absence of all fussiness. Whatever the company we may be thrown into, whatever the circumstances, this quiet ease should never be allowed to forsake us, neither diverging into unbending stiffness on the one hand, nor into too much familiarity on the other. Perfect politeness requires presence of mind, a quick sense of propriety, and an ability to form an instantaneous judgment of what is fittest to be said and done on every occasion as it offers.”
Happy times, happy times.