Friday, 14 May 2021

The Good Bits of Nero - by L.J. Trafford

John William Waterhouse - The Remorse of Nero after the murder of his mother

The British Museum has been proudly boasting about the opening of its new blockbuster exhibition on the Emperor Nero, tagline The Man Behind The Myth.
Apparently, it questions the traditional narrative of the ruthless tyrant and eccentric performer revealing a different Nero” And asks whether he was the “merciless, matricidal megalomaniac history has painted him to be?”
This certainly attracted the attention of the tabloids who have gleefully rehashed all those stories about Nero you’ll no doubt have heard of that show him to be a merciless, matricidal megalomaniac.

Which all seems reason enough for me to jump on this particular bandwagon and write my own piece on Nero. Because like The British Museum exhibition sets out to show, Nero wasn't all bad. In fact sometimes he could be described as good. Let us put aside tales of matricide, eunuchs* and sexual depravity and consider the good bits of Nero.

*If you happen to be interested in eunuchs, or indeed sexual depravity, click here for one of my previous history girls posts that features Nero.

He knew how to impress

From Museum of
Archaeology, Cambridge

I’ve never understood the ‘bicycling’ monarchies of Europe. I mean what’s the point of a monarchy if it behaves just like you and I. Surely if you are going to have a royal family it should feel, well royal, with their preferred mode of transportation being huge golden coaches accompanied by many shiny helmeted soldiers riding a top the finest horses available. There should be crowns and jewels and full on grandiose pageantry. 

This is something that Nero really gets. He understands that to be Emperor is to put on show that demonstrates just how powerful, mighty and loaded Rome is to the rest of the world. He does this by never wearing the same outfit twice, refusing to travel anywhere with less than 1000 carriages (presumably to hold all the costume changes) and, most gloriously, fishing with a golden net woven with equally ludicrously expensive purple threads.

When the Armenian King, Tiridates was sent to Rome to be crowned as part of a peace settlement between Rome and its rival empire Parthia (both of whom fancied sucking up Armenia into their territory), no expense was spared. The visit cost a staggering 800,000 sesterces per day. 
Ancient currency is always difficult to equate meaningfully to modern money, but I shall attempt to put this in context: IT IS A SH*T LOAD OF MONEY.
You could in the 1st century AD buy 800 hectares of land for 800k sesterces, the equivalent of 1,976 football pitches. Alternatively, you could hire the services of 666 soldiers for a year or for the bird fancier among you, purchase 500 carrier pigeons.
But Nero wasn’t done, oh no. Pliny the Elder tells us he filled Pompey’s theatre with gold to impress the king – who he clearly hoped would go running to Parthia with stories of Rome’s inexhaustible resources. And just to hammer home that point with the subtly of, yes a hammer, Nero gave Tiridates a parting gift of a hundred million sesterces. We can only assume that King Tiridates went back to Armenia and instantly brought 62,500 pigeons.

Nero’s extravagance hits its peak with the building of his golden house whose walls squirted perfume onto visitors and which included a rotating ceiling (note a similar swirling effect can be achieved by over indulging in wine and laying down). 
With such colossal amounts of money available, Nero does what all of us would do once we’d sorted out our basic needs of accommodation, pigeons, golden nets and unlimited changes of clothes, he has a 98-feet high gold statue built of himself in the nude and commissions a 120-foot painting depicting his likeness.
A rear shot of that Nero statue. Picture Marco Pontuali, wikicomms CCBY  

This was the grandeur of Rome and its ruler on full display. Few visitors would leave the city without an appreciation of the might and wealth of the Empire. Not to mention a vision of what Nero looked like sans loincloth.

He was a man of passions
Bearded Nero, image in public domain

Nero’s famous much quoted final words were “what an artist dies in me!”
Nero’s pretension at art is something that sets our sources in full sneer. But I would argue that it’s nice that he has interests and hobbies. Everyone needs a passion in life and Nero has passions a plenty; he sings, he writes poetry, he plays the lyre and water organ, he acts and he races chariots. All things to round the character.

But these interests of Nero's are no whims mind, no passing fancies. The Emperor puts real efforts into his passions, as Suetonius tells us:
“For he used to lie upon his back and hold a leaden plate on his chest, purge himself by the syringe and by vomiting, and deny himself fruits and all foods injurious to the voice.”

Whilst in Greece he races a 10 horse chariot, yes he crashes but that he dares to attempt something so ludicrously dangerous (chariot racing even with the standard four horses has a high level of crash potential) surely shows a certain fearlessness and willingness to try new things.

But these aren’t just private passions Nero shares them with Rome. He inaugurates new games and festivals, including the Neronia which consisted of  events usually only seen in Greece, such as music, gymnastics, and riding.
Although I personally fancy the show that included a naval battle in sea monster inhabited waters alongside pyrrhic dances by Greek youths
Ships fighting! Monsters in the sea! Gyrating teenagers on a gap year! What’s not to love?

However, not only did the audience get a fabulous spectacle to enjoy, there were also prizes to be had:
“Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people; these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms.”
And to think all we get is the Royal Variety Show.

He had the popular touch.
Nero by Paulus Pontius
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Given Nero’s reputation today we might be forgiven for believing that his demise by his own hand aged only 32, was roundly greeted by all.
Not so at all, Suetonius tells us :”There were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies”
Tacitus talks about the dregs of the common people being distraught by Nero's death. Tacitus is quite the snob, so these dregs might likely constitute a majority. 

That he was a figure held in affection by Romans is shown by the lengths one of his near successors, Otho (who ruled briefly the year after Nero's suicide) took to associate himself with the late Emperor. He restored statues of one of Nero's wives, pledged to finish the construction of the golden house and began signing despatches as Nero Otho. That Otho saw this as a winning tactic is telling, there had to be a bubbling of public affection and love for the late emperor for him to capitalise on.

And this affection held sway because in the following two decades after Nero's death in 68 CE three men pop up claiming to be him. That each of those imposters is so enthusiastically embraced, at least for a short time, by their supporters shows how deep the hope went that their fallen Emperor might not have perished. In our times only Elvis Presley has attracted a similar style of afterlife.

But why? Why does Nero, of all the Emperors of Rome, manage to endear himself so firmly in the hearts of his people?
For all the reasons listed above; he was generous, he knew how to put on a show, he had passions which he shared, he built amazing statues and palaces. And then there's those sea monsters....
In short he knew what the people wanted in their Emperor.

L.J. Trafford is the author of Palatine, the story of the final days of Nero (good bits and bad). As well a guidebook to Rome in the year 95 CE, How to Survive in Ancient Rome.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Journeys with Miss Graham - Celia Rees

Every book is a journey. A journey from first idea to publication with all the adventures, challenges, pitfalls and complications that an actual journey can entail. Even after a book has been published, its journey is not over. It is out in the world, beyond the author's control, subject to the vagaries of the market, the judgement of readers and critics, transitioning from hardback to paperback with a new cover and in this case a new title. Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook, which I have blogged about here and here , is now Miss Graham's War.

When a book is published, it does not necessarily leave you. Miss Graham's War was eight years in the writing, a continual presence which comes back in glimpses and flashbacks. 

In the stasis of Covid, with travel impossible, I thought of the journeys taken by the eponymous Miss Graham and the journeys I had taken to follow her. It isn't completely necessary to visit the places that you are writing about, of course. The internet is a great resource, full of images and virtual tours. I find Trip Advisor particularly useful. There can't be anywhere on the planet that doesn't have an accompanying video or photomontage thoughtfully uploaded by a helpful traveller but, for me, research trips are important, giving travelling a clear purpose, sharpening awareness and observation. Research is an adventure in itself. It creates it's own stories and spying and writing have much in common: tracking your characters, their movements, where they go, who they meet. 

 Miss Graham's journey begins in London. My research began with scouting locations. I went on spy walks with my daughter, Catrin.  We went to the squares near Paddington Station to find Dori's house. It was now a particular house in a particular square. Then the journey is back through time to London in the war.

Dori's house was close to Paddington Station. One side was a great yawning cavity, the buildings flanking the gap showered with beams wedged against the walls. Dori's row was more or less intact, although some of the houses were boarded, either unsafe or waiting for their owners to return.
Miss Graham's War

From Dori's square we went to Baker Street to find SOE Headquarters. The building has kept its anonymity and is now offices above a Holland & Barratt. At the bottom of Baker Street, is a porticoed building which was also rumoured to be used by SOE. It was perfect. Not only that but just down the road was a spy shop selling surveillance equipment. Synchronicity. Always a good sign when researching. 

From London, Miss Graham goes to Northern Germany to her job with the Control Commission. She went by steam train from Liverpool Street Station to Harwich, then across to the Hook of Holland, on through Holland and into Germany, finally arriving in Hamburg. 

 I couldn't take that same journey, but I could map it in the Miss Graham's Notebook. For every book I keep a journal, just as one might when going on a real journey. It is a record of the progress of the book from first ideas to completion. 

Hamburg Station 1946
When she arrived in Hamburg, the station would have looked like this. Hamburg had been devastated by some of the most concentrated Allied bombing of the war. I flew to Hamburg and, of course, the city has healed but the church of St Nickolai has been left as it was, as a memorial, much like the cathedral in Coventry, Miss Graham's home city. She had seen devastation before, but not on the scale that confronted her in Hamburg. This is where fiction and life merge. Miss Graham is based on my aunt who took the same journey. Her story was where the book began. These and some of the photographs  she sent back to the family to show them what Germany was like in 1946. 

From Hamburg, her journey took her to Lübeck, the Hanseatic port on the Baltic where she was stationed. Lübeck had much in common with Coventry, both smallish, compact, medieval cities, both laid waste by bombing. Lübeck by the R.A.F on Palm Sunday, 1943; Coventry by the Luftwaffe on the evening of November 14th, 1940. Both city centres were devastated, both had cathedrals and churches destroyed.

When I arrived in Lübeck there were very few reminders of the destruction wrought on the city. The Marienkirche had been re-built, its iconic copper clad towers restored. Much of Lübeck's historic centre had been painstakingly re-developed, although a swathe of modern buildings through the centre indicated where the worst of the destruction had been. 

Marienkirche, Lübeck, Palm Sunday, 1943
Marienkirche now

Holsten Gate
Holsten Gate, Lübeck 

Miss Graham's journey did not end at Lübeck, she went to Berlin. I followed her there. Again, the city had been restored, re-built and was utterly changed from the city she found in 1946. 

The destruction wasn't necessarily worse than Hamburg or any other city. It was just bigger, more spread out, going on for mile after mile. 

Miss Graham's War

Berlin 1945 from the air

Brandenburg Gate 2013
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1946

Berlin had suffered doubly, not only from Allied bombing, but from Russian shelling. It would continue to be scarred by the division of the city into Allied and Russian Zones which would eventually become East and West Berlin, divided by a wall with acres of no man's land on either side. The Wall was an extension and expression of the Iron Curtain, the division right across Germany and on through Europe, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. 

The Iron Curtain started on the Baltic coast, only a few miles from Lübeck. A museum close to its starting point commemorates the division of a nation and a continent. A collection of concrete posts and rusting barbed wire fences, shows the border's evolution from a simple stringing of barbed wire between wooden posts and ending with three or more wire barriers, guarded by regular turrets,  the gaps between them sewn by mines. A chilling reminder of the development of the Cold War and the growth of the distrust between east and west. 

The land was the same on both sides. Undulating country, fields dotted with cattle ... The Green Border began on the Baltic. Lübeck was only a couple of miles away from it. An arbitrary line marked with sagging strands of barbed wire strung between rough-hewn poles from the forest. It followed the contours of the land, an inexorable progress up hill and down dale, through farmyards, railway stations, even houses, all the way to Czechoslovakia. The Great Divide had begun. The line had been drawn. A visible border for an invisible war. 
Miss Graham's War

I couldn't have written that if I hadn't been to that place. 

We can't travel back in time but we can go to the places we are researching. You will always see something, learn something that adds to the book, sometimes in profound ways. In the Marienkirche in Lübeck, the great bells that fell from the tower in that night of destruction are still there, melted and embedded into the stone floor. 
Marienkirche, Cross of Nails  

The bells in the Marienkirche, Lübeck

Close by, in an alcove, which still bears the signs of fierce destruction is a Cross of Nails sent from Coventry Cathedral to a sister city which had suffered just as cruelly. 

It seemed to me that in comparing Germany then to Germany now, I was witnessing a miracle of recovery and renewal, not just from the appalling and utter destruction of the Second World War, but the further bitterness and scarring of a Germany divided. 

I chose to start Miss Graham's War, not in 1946 but on the 10th November, 1989 and the falling of the Berlin Wall, a reminder of just how far and fast we have come on the road to redemption and reconciliation. 

Part of the Berlin Wall in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum

Celia Rees
Miss Graham's War, HarperCollins,  paperback publication, June 10th 2021

Friday, 30 April 2021

From Spare Oom to War Drobe; Travels in Narnia with my Nine Year Old Self by Katherine Langrish, Reflections by Penny Dolan

I know Katherine Langrish as a friend but also as a remarkable children’s writer, storyteller, folk and fairy-tale expert and enthusiast, as well as for her richly wonderful blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.

Even so, when I heard of her forthcoming book about her love for C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia I did wonder how she would write about such an odd collection of characters and creatures.

Would the book be a nostalgic memoir of mid-century childhood reading, in the style of Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm? Or would it remind me of Nicholas Tucker’s study, The Child and The Book, about the influence of reading on a growing boy?  

What would Katherine Langrish’s book be?


 From Spare Oom to War Drobe | Free Delivery @


 The slightly odd opening of the title is a clue, easily recognised by fans of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These words are spoken by Mr Tumnus the Faun as he formally addresses the young heroine, Lucy, after she has told him how she entered the snow-bound land of Narnia.

Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?” 

Unfortunately, there is more to his invitation than kindness . . .


 Mr Tumnus and Lucy (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ...

However, the next part of the title – Travels with my Nine Year Old Self – is what makes this book such a delight for me. 

This reflection on the Chronicles is not a distant critical study but one involving Katherine Langrish both her present and her own young self. We meet her as a young reader, experiencing the Narnia books for the first time and loving the Lion in this story almost as fiercely as Lucy does. 

When her young hopes of entering Lewis’s magical kingdoms bumped up against reality, and less obliging wardrobes, she responded by filling notebook after notebook with her own stories: creating her own magic portal, and starting off on her own life as a writer. 


I enjoyed meeting this child, whose younger viewpoint sits firmly but lightly within the tone of the book: she is like an imaginative, companionable bookish school-friend. As she reads through the seven books, her main interest  was and is how dramatically satisfying she finds each story. What will happen next? Does it feel true?

This approach allows Langrish to bring the understanding, feelings and disappointments of a young reader to what is otherwise a knowledgeable, grown-up study. 

Freed from the role of “literary critic”, she suggests that as a child she did not "read" the Christian messages that angered the author Phillip Pullman, and that she simply read “as a boy” rather than feeling herself limited by the lack of female role models. 

Besides, she is happy to simply skim or skip bits that are dull or of no interest, Interestingly, she is quite content to have cruel justice dealt out to baddies, where an adult writer, now, might feel they should demonstrate exemplary compassion. 

 Aslan's Creatures illustration by Pauline Baynes for The ...

Of course, the other voice in "From Spare Oom..." is that of Katherine Langrish today: fully-grown and well able to take the reader through all seven Chronicles which are presented in their narrative rather than their written order. 

In this role, she traces the sources and influences within Lewis’s writing, emphasising the rich seam threaded through the histories of Narnia. Lewis often mixed narrative cultures together, a practice that his friend JRR Tolkien apparently deplored and avoided in The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings. 

As she moves from one Chronicle to another, Langrish opens up Lewis’s “treasure house” - both the concious and unconscious rooms - for the reader. She reveals ideas drawn from British folk and fairy stories, from the collections of the Brothers Grimm, from the Tales of Romance, Arthurian legends, Celtic myths and from Arabian and Oriental folk tales. She also expands on literary echoes found within the titles, referencing Spencer’s “Faerie Queen”, Bunyans “Pilgrims Progress” and both Old and New Testaments. 


File:One Thousand and One Nights17.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

She examines the structure of the stories, welcoming their richness, but reminding herself that she would have ignored any puzzling or boring parts. She gives an occasional sharp reprimand to Lewis, for his casual unfair dismissal of the “worldly” Susan, the sin of “fatness”, his racist accounts of the dark-skinned Calormenes and more, as well as the interminable stretches of The Last Battle. She is shocked too, to find that, compared to the Tolkein’s warrior-filled sagas, Lewis’s supposedly gentler Narnian fantasies include vividly realistic gore, blood-thirsty attacks and casual slaughter.The young reader did not seem to noticed this overmuch.

Lewis’s ChroniclesTofered on particular gift that  offered the young Katherine. Each book has a different "flavour”, its own different inhabitants and its own sense of history and time. So, if the bold, young Prince Caspian can become the old, dying King Caspian between one book and another, might that mean that time moves differently between one world and another, or that there are worlds we cannot see? Could that be possible? Through his stories and writing Lewis gave his young reader a different way of thinking, introducing her to what later she would recognise as the concepts behind time travel, science fiction fantasy and philosophy. 

Through the Chronicles, his writing showed her that storybooks could be 

“as much about ideas as events”  

and so changed her understanding of the power of literature and writing.

As I finished squinting at my downloaded copy, I was very glad that my own order of “From Spare Oom” will arrive soon. This next time, I will read it with a set of the Chronicles of Narnia on hand for company and reference, as well as having my nine-year-old companion from Spare Oom sitting there too. We will enjoy a very fine reading adventure. 


About Katherine Langrish - Katherine Langrish


Good wishes to you this Saint Walpurgis Eve, a time of year when the bonfires are lit, and a happy May Day to follow.

Penny Dolan


“From Spare Oom to War Drobe” is published in hardback on 6th May 2021.

Friday, 23 April 2021

D H Lawrence, Shipley Hall, and a sad irony: Sue Purkiss

 When I was a child, we lived on the edge of a quite large town called Ilkeston, which is in Derbyshire, and which used to be a mining town. At that time the nearest pits had closed down, but there were still quite a few miners who still worked down the pit, but now had to travel. Probably the biggest employer was Stanton Ironworks, where one of my grandfathers had once worked. I'm reminded of Stanton often, because wherever you go in this country, if you look down you will see a draincover which is stamped Stanton PLC. There's a particularly pretty one at the Bristol dockyard where the SS Great Britain is moored.

Anyway, on Sundays we often used to go for a walk in Shipley Wood. There was a rather stately entrance on Heanor Road, and then you walked along a wide driveway, with trees on either side. To the left there were interesting dips, or holes, with a thick layer of dead leaves at the bottom. I don't know what had caused them - perhaps subsidence: more of that later. Whatever their origin, they were great for playing. You could hurtle down into them, or you could play hide and seek - they were excellent. In the spring, there were masses of bluebells, and we would take bunches home and put them in jamjars. I was always a little worried by the fierce signs up all over the place saying: NCB (National Coal Board): TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED! But nobody else seemed to bother and nobody ever got arrested.

If you carried on along the driveway, there would soon be a sharp change in the scenery, from sylvan to industrial. For this was the site of Shipley Colliery. It was no longer in use, but everything was still there: the winding gear, black and stark against the sky; a dark slagheap; and a gloomy reservoir. This must have been securely fenced off, because you never saw anyone there. It was ugly, lifeless, a place to walk quickly past.

The road carried on, past a rather nice looking house which had once been a lodge, and then up a hill. To the left, my mother told us, was the site of Shipley Hall. There was nothing left of it now, she said, but she remembered that when she was a child, there were garden parties or summer fetes there, and she had been to one. They were probably held for the miners' families: there's a description of something similar in Women In Love, by D H Lawrence; as I recall it, there's a double drowning in an ornamental lake shortly after it.

Shipley Hall

He may have pictured the scene at Shipley Hall itself, becuse Lawrence came from Eastwood, just a few miles away. He certainly used it as the setting for Connie and Clifford's house in Lady Chatterley's Lover: like the Miller Mundys, who owned Shipley, Clifford Chatterley was a mine owner. Once, when I was older, I was with my parents walking near the site of the hall, and we met an old man who remembered Lawrence. He shook his head and said disapprovingly, "He were a dutty bugger, he were. He put a lot of people from round here in his books, and they didn't like it."

Lawrence wasn't always overly complimentary about the locals, either. In Lady C's Lover, he says: 

'This country had a grim will of its own, and the people had guts. Connie wondered what else they had: certainly neither eyes nor minds. The people were as haggard, shapeless and dreary as the countryside, and as unfriendly. Only there was something in their deep-mouthed slurring of the dialect, and the thresh-thresh of their hob-nailed pit-boots as they trailed home in gangs on the asphalt from work, that was terrible and a bit mysterious.'

So, yes - thanks for that, Dave. Perhaps that's why he's not as popular round Ilkeston as, say, Hardy is in Dorset, or Jane Austen in Bath and Hampshire. Or perhaps it's just that his books, despite their many remarkable qualities, have gone out of fashion.

But the main reason Shipley Hall has always interested me is because of the sad irony of its ending. The hall, and the Miller Mundys, had been associated with coal mining since the 18th century. They knew about it, and they had been careful to ensure that no tunnelling took place underneath the house. In the early twentieth century, they were said, by the standards of the time, to have been good owners - hence, perhaps, the garden parties for the local children. But in the early twenties, the house, the land and the mine were sold to Shipley Colliery Company. The company decided to mine the rich seams of coal underneath the house. They planned to do it carefully, but then came the General Strike, and all work stopped. As a result, uneven subsidence damaged the house, and eventually it had to be knocked down.

The thought haunts me that this once-gracious house was destroyed by the very industry which had created the wealth of the family who had owned it. Perhaps this is because it echoes a bigger truth: that we have plundered our planet - for coal, and many other things - and are only just realising that in delving for wealth, we are in danger of destroying our home.

To end on a happier note: in Lawrence's novel, Clifford, looking at the wood, says to Connie: '"I want this wood perfect... untouched...Except for us, it would go... it would be gone already, like the rest of the forest. (He believes it to be a remnant of Sherwood.) One must preserve some of the old England!"'

But he got that wrong. The landowners did go, but the land - and the wood - have been preserved. The scars of industry have been cleared away, and the estate is now Shipley Country Park - a beautiful open space for the descendants of those 'shapeless and dreary' common people. (Of whom, incidentally, DHL was originally one.) Let's hope it's a lesson learned. 

Friday, 16 April 2021

Sumer is icumen in, but am I ready for it?

By Susan Vincent


You know how the (very) old song goes:

Sumer is icumen in (Summer is a coming in)
Lhude sing cuccu (loud sing cuckoo)
Groweþ sed (groweth seed)
And bloweþ med (bloometh mead)
And once again I start to shave my underarms and legs.

So, I’m kidding about the last line, but the return of warmer weather and the corresponding casting of clouts, does mean for me a return to depilation. Now well into middle age, I am much less commited to the whole enterprise though. Something that was once a year-round practice has shrunk to the few months that require summer clothing, and even then only when I can be bothered.

Like my own personal practice, the history of women’s hair removal has been closely tied to what she wore – or, put more accurately, what she didn’t wear. The ‘problem’ areas were limited to those body parts on show.
Back when garments covered mostly everything from neck to feet, shoulder to wrist, then faces were the sole target. Recipes and advice manuals from these centuries suggest ways of tending to eyebrows, upper lip, and those pesky foreheads, at the time admired with a high hairline.
Then, as now, women might pluck with tweezers, 'wax' with a mastic, or use chemical depilatories. The last of these, by necessity home-made, featured a range of ingredients on a continuum from anodyne to excoriating and ordinary to outré. So we have things like vinegar, nettle heads, cats' dung or horse leeches (both dried and powdered), arsenic compounds, and quicklime. In the words of the author of one early printed recipe,
Some that have the hair of their forehead growing too low, others the hair of their eyebrows growing too thick; and some women that have haire growing on their lips, (an unseemly sight to see) would give any thing for this Secret. (La Fountaine, A brief collection of many rare secrets (1650), sig. Br.)


As sleeves got shorter from the later seventeenth century, a new potential area was disclosed: forearms. 

A handwritten recipe in one manuscript collection advises that you can dispose of long arm hair by singeing it off with a candle at the wane of the moon (London, Wellcome Library, English Recipe Book, 17th-18th century, c.1675-c.1800, MS. 7721, 'To hinder haire from growing'). I'm assuming this would be effective but for the life of me can't see how you'd escape painful burns
– losing hair and skin, both. (One history lesson when I was fifteen was made memorable by the loud discussion between three of the girls about shaving forearms, with one demonstrating the results of her attempt. By contrast, I can remember nothing about that year’s actual curriculum.)
The Victorians, as we well know, were mad about head hair. For women it was an abundant crowning glory, brushed one hundred times (anecdotally anyway) and let down to her waist. Men had side whiskers, beards and a moustache; a manly beauty. But the Victorians were also vocal about the removal of hair from the wrong place. In the new world of print saturation, mass production and rampant advertising, the dread words ‘superfluous hair’ were presented as a suffering that could be relieved by the right product. Tweezers, mastics, creams, and now the newly invented electrolysis charged to the rescue, at a price.
This, except for the electrolysis, was little different from earlier ages. When sleeveless evening wear made an appearance though, the world definitely tilted, shifting closer to the precipice down which it would soon hurtle. 
And the destination at the bottom? The hairless woman. 

The next key moment came in the 1920s, and what a moment it was. Hemlines rose and for the first time, well, pretty much ever, adult women routinely showed that above the ankles, they had legs. And guess what, those legs needed to be hairless. 

And this was where the new invention of the safety razor was truly revolutionary. Breaking a centuries-old tradition linking masculinity and the open blade, the safety razor found a market with female users. Manufacturers were quick to spot the opening, developing dainty ‘women’s’ styles with attractive names and pretty cases. More helpfully, some even had design adapatations like a curved edge, easier for underarms.

But the history of women’s hair removal is like a corporeal whack-a-mole, with new areas popping up that now suddenly need attention too. The old zones are not forgotten, more are just added. 

And so after a brief flurry of hair in the 1960s, the 1980s brought highcut swim and gym wear and a new worry about the bikini line. Over the ensuing decades the permutations of pubic hair removal have been many, with different mini-fashions of sculpting all nibbling away at the hairy growth between our legs. Total pubic depiliation is common. (Who knows, it might be the norm – obviously, it’s a bit hard to gain a sense of this through mass observation . . .)

For women, superfluous hair is a social solecism. A failure of femininity. And here’s the irony, it’s an invented problem. Growing alongside her sartorial emancipation, this is a new, and voluntary, servitude.

But I get it. Who is brave enough to defy cultural norms? More importantly, who is able to recalibrate their own ideas of beauty and decency in defiance of received assumptions and the familiarity of habit? A few can, but sadly I’m not among them. 
On the other hand, I have – joy of joys – discovered the delight of swim shorts.

Picture credits
Imgae 1: ‘shaving my legs’ by Mario A. P. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Images 2 and 3: Queen Elizabeth I (The Ermine Portrait) by William Segar (and detail), c. 1585, Hatfield House, photo Wikimedia Commons
Image 4: Self-Portrait with a Harp by Rose Adélaïde Ducreux, oil on canvas, 1791. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Susan Dwight Bliss, Accession No. 67.55.1
Image 5: ‘Women 1888–1889, Plate 019’, Gift of Woodman Thompson, Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Image 6: Evening dress (silk, cotton), 1898–1900, House of Worth. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Miss Eva Drexel Dahlgren. Accession No. 1976.258.4a, b
Image 7: ‘Two women in pleated skirts’ by simpleinsomnia is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Images 8 and 9: Razorette miniature safety razor for women, case measures 2.25 inches in length, razor measures 1-5/8 inches, made In USA, c. 1930s–1940s, both photos by France1978 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Image 10: ‘Um Mergulho’ by Rodrigo Soldon Souza is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Image 11: My Home magazine, ad for Veet depilatory (1930s), photo by davydubbit (‘Superfluous Hair’) licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0