Category Archives: Analogy

Enamoured by Metaphor


I am about to embark on a new horror story, based around the concept of anatomical models from the 17th and 18th centuries. The original ‘Anatomical Venus’ by Clemente Susini  can still be seen at La Specola museum in Florence. She is known as ‘the Medici Venus’,  and is a life-size wax figure with real human hair, and can be dissected into seven anatomically correct layers. She spawned numerous copies, referred to as Slashed Beauties or Dissected Graces. My favourite is the one pictured above, with her gold crown and serene expression, while her innards lay exploded over her chest and stomach.

These models were both scientific educational tools and works of high art. The artists who produced them were often students of anatomy and witnessed dissections to get the details right; some even had a tiny fetus incorporated into the display. Like Snow White, they were kept in glass coffins.


After they were discarded by their medical institutes and museums, the anatomical models were often incorporated into the displays of fairground attractions. The languid nudity of the wax figures attracted the voyeurs, while the faux dissections attracted those individuals with morbid curiosity or scientific interests.


What a range of horrific possibilities for a writer! Who were the original models for each of these wax figures? Were these wax sculptures based on real women, or idealised ones? It isn’t a big jump to seeing an artist murdering a perfect, healthy girl to get  his details right…

The real tantalising detail is knowing the best of these Slashed Beauties could be broken down into seven anatomically correct layers. Not only is the name, Slashed Beauties, just wonderfully creepy, but think of the metaphor created by a woman with so many layers. As Shrek points out,  she has layers “Like an onion!” What is revealed as you peel those layers away?


Filed under Analogy, Horror genre, Metaphors, Uncategorized, Writing Style

The Paradox of Black and White

English is not the easiest language to learn, because it isn’t very logical. I can remember how frustrated my youngest child was with her first grade spelling, trying to understand how ‘going’ and ‘doing’ were spelt as if they rhymed, when they did nothing of the sort. But it isn’t just our spelling and pronunciation that can be a bugbear; our idioms can also be a conundrum for both writers and speakers.

Look at how the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ can have a multitude of meaning. We can’t just assume black symbolises bad, and that white stands for good.

Black had traditionally been seen as unlucky, sinister, or downright evil. There is a large number of sayings, similes, and idioms that use black in this sense: to be listed in someone’s black books, the black sheep of the family, black hats (particularly in Westerns), to blackball a candidate, to be black-hearted, to be in a black mood, to give a black look, to be blacklisted, to have a black mark against your name, the black arts, unlucky to have a black cat cross your path, black magic (as opposed to white magic), to blacken someone’s name, blackmail…  I’ll stop now, because I am sure you have the idea. And yet, to be in the black has the positive connotation of having money in the bank and not being in debt.

White is generally use to represent innocence and purity: as pure/white as the driven snow, white as a lily, white as a swan (Australian swans are black), fair skin is aristocratic, as mild as milk, brides wearing white to their weddings, little white lies, wearing white to your baptism, the white glove test for cleanliness, and so on and so forth. However, white seems to have more negative connotations than black has positive ones. White lips are a sign of pain or sadness – such as pale with suffering, or of anger – think of a white-hot fury. White skin can be pasty. If you are frightened, you are lily-livered and may need to be handed a white feather to shame you for your cowardice. You surrender by waving a white flag.

shadow cat

So, as you can see, the use of black or white in a metaphor isn’t black and white, and has something of a chequered history. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) If you are using black or white in your prose, you have to make sure that your audience knows exactly what your trying to say by using them. For example: “Her horse was as black and as gentle as the night, and as beautiful as the stars therein.”   From the deliberate use of the word ‘gentle’ you can surmise this steed isn’t a black charger snorting brimstone. But if ‘gentle’ had been left out, you might be uncertain of the nature of the black horse. A milk-white horse might not need the word ‘gentle’, because – as previously noted – as milk is generally associated with mildness. So if you have a wicked white steed, you need to make that clear from the start.

So, as you can see, English can be confusing for those who have grown up speaking it. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people trying to learn it as a second language.


Filed under Analogy, Language, Love of words, Metaphors, Writing Style

Keeping Busy: The Symbolism of Bees in the Victorian Era

Victorian Gold Bee Brooch

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

The Victorian loved naturalistic jewellery, and loved what each item of jewellery could present. With the Victorian obsession with hard work, loyalty (bees die when they sting an animals while defending their hive), team work, and industriousness, it isn’t very surprising to find that bees were a favourite with jewellers and their patrons. A person who modelled their behaviour on the bees’ example would be considered to have excellent moral fibre and work ethic. Can’t you just see a mother giving a ‘lazy’ child the gift of bee brooch to remind them to stay busy? After all, ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’.

And, let’s face it, bees are cute, and they make honey and pollinate our crops, and the droning of bees is one of the most pleasant sounds in the world (unless you allergic to their stings). The bright colours of bees is meant to be a warning that they can sting, but it also makes them a perfect model for jewellery, or to decorate a statement dress.AN ANTIQUE RUSSIAN BEE BROOCH  The tiger's eye and onyx body with diamond line detail to the ruby eyes and rose-cut diamond wings, mounted in silver and gold, circa 1870, 5.4 cm. wide, with St. Petersburg hallmark for gold

Bee decorated dress


Filed under Analogy, Bling, Fashion, History, Metaphors, Steampunk Genre, Writing Style

Glowing: A Steampunk Feminist Viewpoint on Radium in the Victorian & Edwardian Eras

“Tho-radia” powder, based on radium and thorium, according to the formula of Dr. Alfred Curie (not related to Pierre and Marie Curie) Image from Wikipedia

This article reads better if you have this music playing in the background.

Radium was discovered by Marie Sklodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre Curie on 21 December 1898. Apart from making Madame Curie one of the most famous female scientists in our culture, Radium was for a while a ‘wonder of the age’. The name Radium derives from ‘ray’, the French word, due to the element emitting energy in the form of rays. To the Victorian mind, anything invisible – like magnetism or electricity – immediately meant that it must be good for you. At least, that is what the Quacks with their miracle cures and Snake Oil merchants wanted the public to think.

Now, to us in the 21st century, the idea of using radiative substances as medicine seems like madness. Even the legitimate uses of radiation, such as X-rays and radiation therapy for cancer, are treated with respect by patients and the medical establishment; those lead barriers aren’t there for show. In the late Victorian era and Edwardian era, radium was being used to make things glow, like watch faces and the hands on clocks … so the Quacks’ inference was that it might make you glow with health. Seriously.

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Radium Bread

Radium was once added to a broad range of products such as toothpaste, hair creams, food items, bottled water, ‘health’ spas, and quack medical therapies, due to its supposed curative powers. (Remember: Invisible = Good) Radium is highly radioactive and one of its breakdown by-products is radon gas; radon gas is also radioactive. Exposure to radium and radon, internal or external, can cause cancer and other disorders, because radium and radon emit alpha and gamma rays upon their decay, which kill and mutate cells. So eating, drinking and bathing in the stuff wasn’t beneficial to anyone’s health. Then again, we are talking about a society that was using lead and arsenic in lethal quantities.

From Wikipedia: Uranium sand houses, where patients would sit on benches in a round room that had a floor composed of mildly radioactive sand (usually beach sand with crushed minerals like Carnotite). These were popular in Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado during the 1950s. Lying in a narrow box with sands that reputedly contained uranium ore was promoted as a treatment for arthritis, bursitis, and rheumatism as late as 1956.

As a writer, I can see how easily radiation can be used as a metaphor or an analogy in a narrative. It is invisible and yet toxic! Some people didn’t understand it, and misused it, before even the scientists had a chance to understand it. Pierre Curie and Marie Sklodowska-Curie were so intrigued by radiation that they sacrificed their health and ultimately their lives to the study of radium and other types of radioactivity. Marie is considered a role model for women scientists everywhere … but she died as a consequence of her contact with radioactive elements before it was understood how dangerous they were. However, I believe she would not have shied away from her research even if she knew of her ultimate fate.

Because of their levels of radioactive contamination, Marie’s papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.


Filed under Analogy, History, Metaphors, Science, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist

It’s all bout the Bass: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective of the Novelty Bustle

A novelty bustle made to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations was fitted with a musical box that played ‘God Save the Queen’ each time the wearer sat down.

  1. Rum-dispensing contraption hidden in a bustle and belt.

Novelty bustles have been around a long time. But I think both writers and cosplayers would find it a boon to think inside the cage (of a bustle) to warped creative mind. You could hide just about anything in there: an arsenal, a bomb, a mini lab, or a drinks cabinet (like the Steampunk Gin Bustle pictured below).

The Steampunk Gin Bustle

Of course, this isn’t a new concept, just an underutilized one. Most of these novelty bustles were humorous, but it isn’t too hard to see a serious application for these secret compartments in bustles. What a safe place to hide documents or maps.

Novelty Bustles

I’d like to see a few lady adventures with stealth bustles. I am most certainly writing a stealth bustle into my current Steampunk work-in-progress. And I would like to see more cosplayers with contraptions in their booties.

Punch, publication, 1874


Filed under Analogy, Fashion, History, Metaphors, Steampunk Cosplay, writing

Thematic Cast of Characters: A Steampunk Writer’s Perspective

A Steampunk version of the character Death from the Endless by Neil Gaiman's Sandman universe.

A Steampunk version of the character Death from the Endless, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman universe.

Thematic casting is when you base your characters around a central theme. Take the Fanastic Four as a fairly simplistic example of thematic casting. Mr Fantastic represents ‘water, Sue is ‘air’, the Human Torch is ‘fire’ and the Thing is ‘earth’; all four of the basic elements as understood by alchemists. The Planeteers from Captain Planet follow the same theme, adding ‘heart’ to the mix. In the Avatar series, the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra used the same for the various ‘benders’. Many children’s cartoons use thematic casting, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be used as a sophisticated writing tool.

The Victorian era version of the Fantastic Four.

When I think of sophisticated thematic casting, I think of Neil Gaiman’s Endless from his Sandman series. The Endless are seven siblings who rule the aspects of existence: Destiny, Death, Dream (Morpheus, then Daniel), the twins Desire and Despair, Destruction and Delirium (who used to be Delight). This list is also their ‘birth’ order. The Endless are above the gods, as even gods are subject to their forces. Dream is the titular protagonist of the Sandman series, with his siblings often taking centre stage in the plot and action.

Morpheus and Matthew, the Raven

Morpheus and Matthew, the Raven

Victorian-era Morpheus

Victorian-era Morpheus

The original Dream, who goes by the name Morpheus, is a Byronic hero, so that even the modern day version of him reminds me of a Victorian character, something thought up by Edgar Allan Poe. It isn’t a stretch to see him as a Steampunk character, with his sombre clothing and attitude. Of course, as the King of Dreams, he is also the font of inspiration for inventions and scientific discovery.

Death with Edgar Allan Poe

Death might seem at first glance to be the original Goth chick, but her nature is sunny, rational, and optimistic. I love Gaiman’s version of Death in the Sandman, as she breaks nearly every stereotype associated with character. Thematic casting doesn’t mean two dimensional characterization. It is meant to inspire and create a framework and structure; it isn’t meant to be a cage to entrap your creativity.

Gothic cosplay isn't the same thing as being a Goth in the alternative Goth subculture.

Gothic cosplay isn’t the same thing as being a Goth in the alternative Goth subculture.

As a writer, I love thematic writing, because it create deeper meanings to resonate with my audience. The Steampunk literary genre is easily adaptable to thematic casting, with the rich pickings of the Industrial Era available for inspiration. The various parts of a motor, the different types of metals, popular Victorian novels, the different sort of velocipedes, the items of clothing unique to the era … all of this and more is available for reinterpretation in your cast of characters.

I started off using ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as my inspirational stepping-off point for my characters in my Steampunk Work-in-Progress. I’ve strayed away from that original concept, but it was a great way to give me a feel for my characters at the start of writing process. But I find I am still using subtle Wonderland analogies throughout my narrative.

Steampunk Alice's tea party

And – after all – I am taking a leaf out of Neil Gaiman’s playbook. Who am I to argue with the Rock God of Fantasy Fiction?

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Filed under Analogy, Characterization, Metaphors, Steampunk, Steampunk Themes, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, Writing Style

Blonde, Brunette or Blazing Red: A Steampunk Perspective of Victorian-era Hair (Part Two)


Mary Ingalls

Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy’s. Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word. – Laura Ingalls Wilder “By the Shores of Silver Lake”

This image of a shorn Mary Ingalls stayed with me for years. In a lot of Victorian-era novels, you read of girls with a fever having their hair cut, as their hair was ‘draining their strength’. Anna Karenina has her hair cut while she has a fever, and it marks the change in her fortunes from respectable woman to ‘hysterical’ mad woman. There is the dramatic hair cutting scene in Jane Eyre, with poor Julia made to cut off her natural curls. The various types of symbology relating hair is a goldmine for a writer.

 This is how Alice should look.

Because long hair was the fashion for the 19th century, the cutting of a woman’s hair was a big deal. It was shocking to see a woman with short hair, as glorious long hair symbolised a woman’s youthfulness, femininity, and health. It would only be cut off for illness, including ‘brain fever’ or madness, or as a terrible punishment, because it was physically destroying her beauty and femininity. It could have a greater impact as seeing a woman today with her head shaved bald. This was why Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables, was kept at home after she cut her hair after the dreadful dye experiment. This was why Jo from Little Women was making such a great sacrifice when she cut her hair to make money for her mother’s trip to see Jo’s father. Both Anne and Jo regretted the loss of their hair, their ‘one beauty’.


As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

Your hair! Your beautiful hair! Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty. My dear girl, there was no need of this. She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!

As everyone exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive anyone a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush and trying to look as if she liked it, “It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth. It will be good for my vanity, I getting too proud of my wig. It will do my brains good to have that mop taken off. My head feels deliciously light and cool, and the barber said I could soon have a curly crop, which will be boyish, becoming, and easy to keep in order. I’m satisfied, so please take the money and let’s have supper.”

“Tell me all about it, Jo. I am not quite satisfied, but I can’t blame you, for I know how willingly you sacrificed your vanity, as you call it, to your love. But, my dear, it was not necessary, and I’m afraid you will regret it one of these days,” said Mrs. March. – Louisa May Alcott

With hair seen as a woman’s ‘crowning glory, it isn’t hard to imagine that hair was something of a Victorian obsession. I’ve mentioned hair jewellery before, but it is worth mentioning again. Hair was often used to create keepsakes, particularly of the deceased. Locks of hair were given out for friends and family to treasure, often at the request of the dearly departed. Or the living would give up a precious lock to create a love token.

Woven Hair Jewellery

Woven Hair Jewellery

Mourning locket, gold,  hairwork, seed pearls, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England, circa 1826. In the collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

Mourning locket, gold, hairwork, seed pearls, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England, circa 1826. In the collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

Bouquet Brooch made with the hair of 15 individuals including 2 men and 7 children.

Bouquet Brooch made with the hair of 15 individuals including 2 men and 7 children.

Hair was a large part of a woman’s public persona, which was another reason why cutting it short was so shocking. When women started bobbing their hair in the 1920s, it was a public signal of their freedom from the restrictions society had placed them in. When Victorian women criminals entered prison, their hair was shorn, it was claimed for reasons of ‘cleanliness’, but it was also the quickest way of shearing away a woman’s confidence, making her docile and compliant to the prison’s discipline. Women fraternizing with the enemy had their head shorn as punishment, ruining their allure and making their shame public. Shorn hair was a very public way of highlighting a statement (or showing you were a bit over enthusiastic with the curling iron and have burnt off all your hair).

Long hair

In my own Steampunk narrative, my main character has unfashionable red hair … and a calm and rational temperament. Alice is a deliberate break from the stereotype of the short-fused Scottish redhead, but her hair is long and glossy. I am toying with the idea of her deliberately cutting her own hair as part of a disguise. It will need to be a much more emotional scene than if a girl was to cut her hair today. But I can use the cutting of her hair as a symbol of cutting away her restrictions within a Patriarchal society. 

If you are a Steampunk Enthusiast, I also have a site on Facebook where I share articles and images:


Filed under Analogy, Author, Fashion, Historical Personage, History, Jewellery, Metaphors, Steampunk

A Night at the Museum: A Steampunk Perspective

The Victoria and Albert Museum,London, is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. It was founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Until quite recent times, museums were private collections that were open to the cleaner and nicer sort of public at the whim of the collection’s owner.  Having your own collection of art, antiquities or scientific curiosities was a status symbol for the rich and upper middle classes. For example, when the British Museum was opened to the public in 1759; the curators thought that large crowds could damage their priceless artifacts. So prospective visitors to the British Museum had to apply in writing for admission, and only small groups were allowed into the galleries each day. The British Museum became increasingly popular during the Victorian era as the amateur pursuit of Science became a ‘fashionable’ pastime for all age groups and social classes. Larger numbers of people visited the British Museum, especially on public holidays.

The Smithsonian Institution Building.jpg

The Smithsonian Institution Building – also known as the ‘Castle’.

In 1846, The Smithsonian Institute was established – to the unending delight of science nerds everywhere. (Personally, I hope to visit the Smithsonian one day, with a few weeks under my belt so that I can see all of it.) Surprisingly, it was due to the British scientist James Smithson that created the Institute. Smithson left most of his wealth to his nephew Henry James Hungerford; however, when Hungerford died childless in 1835, the estate passed “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men”, in accordance with Smithson’s will. The U.S. government was tempted to use the money for other purposes, but it eventually made the morally correct decision to found a museum such as had never been seen before. The Smithsonian now comprises of nineteen museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoological Park.

Also in America was Barnum’s American Museum, which was situated in New York and ran from 1841 until it burnt down in 1865. This a double tragedy, for not only were many exhibits destroyed, but as the animals struggled to escape the fire they were shot dead by policeman, who were only working in the interests of public safety.  Before it burnt down, it was closer to a cabinet of curiosities or a collection of sideshow attractions than a museum as we know it today. After it burnt down for a second time, Barnum converted most of the exhibits into attractions at his famous circus.

File:New Barnum's American Museum, New York City - jpg version.jpg

The main goal of our modern museums is to educate rather than just entertain.

As a writer, my mind resembles a cabinet of curiosities more than it does a true museum. I try to update the collection and fill in the holes, writing index cards and create logical categories, but my mind keeps turning back to the stranger bits tucked away in my muse’s files. However, I can’t make museums any stranger than what they already are, and this makes them the perfect Steampunk setting or metaphor. Best of all, you can tailor your fictional museum to fit your needs.

The Old Queensland Museum Building (the new building isn’t quite so interesting).


Filed under Analogy, History, Metaphors, Museums, Setting, Steampunk, writing, Writing Style

The Victorian Fashionable Fascination with Ferns: A Steampunk Perspective

Charles Sillem Lidderdale, 'The Fern Gatherer', circa 1877

Charles Sillem Lidderdale, ‘The Fern Gatherer’, circa 1877

The name of Pteridomania was coined by Charles Kingsley, who wrote: “Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’ and are collecting and buying ferns…and wrangling over inpronouncable names of species, (which seem to be different with every new fern that they buy), till the Pteridomania seems to you something of a bore.”

Fern gatherers - Victorian image from the collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra

Fern gatherers – Victorian image from the collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra

The Victorians had their fads, just like our modern Western society. In a previous blog post, I discussed their obsession with all things Egyptian: Egyptomania. Another of their passing passions was for collecting ferns: Pteridomania. This word for fern mania derives from the classification term, Pteridophyta, which refers to vascular plants that reproduce via spores rather than seeds. (The more correct taxonomic term for ferns is Monilophytes.) The Victorians became so consumed with the fascination with ferns that they even used the fern pattern to decorate their furniture, clothes and jewellery.

Antique Victorian Scottish Agate Large Silver Fern Leaf Brooch

Antique Victorian Scottish Agate Large Silver Fern Leaf Brooch

Fern-decorated Mauchlinware

Fern-decorated Mauchlin ware

1860's Fern and Plaid, Green and Black Dress

1860’s Fern and Plaid, Green and Black Dress

Victorian silver fern pin with beaded edge, circa 1880

Victorian silver fern pin with beaded edge, circa 1880

What created this craze? I think there is no single event, but a series of interlinked social and cultural phenomena that lead to the pteridomania of the mid-to-late Victorian era. First off, the practice scientific study wasn’t seen as restricted to academia, as it is today; most private citizens of means dabbled within the blossoming fields of science on some level. Some collected scientific curiosities – hence the increased fashion for curiosity cabinets to display their collections; some collected fossils; some were amateur biologist, chemists and geologists. And Pteridomania was a democratic hobby, as even the poorest of individuals could afford a fern collection of their local species, all they needed was to wander through their nearest woodland path with a fork and a bucket.

Hermann Kern's 'Der Botaniker' - a Victorian botanist with his vasculum

Hermann Kern’s ‘Der Botaniker’ – a Victorian botanist with his vasculum

Flowers and ferns were seen as ‘appropriate’ interest for ladylike women and girls with enquiring minds, unlike the ‘hard sciences’ of natural philosophy, maths and chemistry. Which is odd, because collecting botanical specimens can be hard work – ask Richard Spruce or any of the dozens of adventurous botanists who were discovering new species all over the world. I can’t help but wonder if these ‘rock star’ explorers had something of a following – and so these fans emulated their hero. This would account for the large number of young women who became fern fanciers and collectors. Of course, no matter how academic a woman’s study of ferns might have been, she was never recognised as a pteridologist. Real science was considered the prerogative of men only; remember that Beatrix Potter was an expert in English fungi and unable to find academic recognition for her work.

Gardener among the ferns in Scarsdale, Victoria, circa 1880

Gardener among the ferns in Scarsdale, Victoria, circa 1880

Another influence would have the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Crystal Palace was a huge hit with the public, and started a craze of its own for glasshouses, conservatories, orangeries, and Wardian boxes. It made glass easily available to the middle class, and they took to it with a passion. It follows that, if you have a conservatory, you must fill it with something. Ferns fitted the bill, being both decorative and thriving in the artificial environments.

Ferns under glass

Ferns under glass

Wardian Case in shape of mansion.

Wardian Case in shape of mansion.

And ferns are pretty, in the same way that flowers are pretty, with lush, lacy foliage. Some people bought their ferns, some people collected their ferns from the wild, and the real obsessives did a bit of both. The marketing experts of the era hopped on the bandwagon and ferns were soon a major feature of interior decorating and the fashion industries. Specialist suppliers, nurseries and street vendors competed to keep up with demand. Pteridomania even triggered a botanical crime wave. During the 1880s and 1890s a rash of fern-related felonies prompted a string of prosecutions as private land was plundered in search of rare specimens.

A young lady selling ferns. Titled 'Christmas is Coming', it appeared in the 'Illustrated Sydney News', 20th December, 1879

A young lady selling ferns. Titled ‘Christmas is Coming’, it appeared in the ‘Illustrated Sydney News’, 20th December, 1879

When you think about it, collecting ferns is a rather nice pastime if you don’t mind getting out into the fresh air and sunshine. For the casual collector, it was a pleasant outing for an afternoon, with a picnic lunch and good company. The really dedicated or professional pteridologist would wear rugged clothes and carry a vasculum for keeping the specimens safe. A vasculum is a tin lined with damp moss, used by botanists for all sort of plants, but vasculums are especially good at keeping delicate ferns from being crushed or bruised. The enthusiasm for collection had an enormous impact on the fern population in the British Isles; some wild population still haven’t recovered.

Vasculum for collecting botanical specimens.

Vasculum for collecting botanical specimens.

Vasculum with fern

The zeal of Victorian collectors led to significant reductions in the wild populations of a number of the rarer species. Oblong Woodsia came under severe threat in Scotland, especially in the Moffat Hills. This area once had the most extensive UK populations of the species but there now remain only a few small colonies whose future remains under threat. The related Alpine Woodsia suffered a similar fate, although the risks were not all to the plants. John Sadler, later a curator of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, nearly lost his life obtaining a fern tuft on a cliff near Moffat, and a botanical guide called William Williams died collecting Alpine Woodsia in Wales in 1861. His body was found at the foot of the cliff where Edward Lhwyd had first collected the species nearly two centuries earlier.

The Killarney Fern, considered to be one of Europe’s most threatened plants and once found on Arran, was thought to be extinct in Scotland due to the activities of 19th century collectors, but the species has since been discovered on Skye in its gametophyte form. Dickie’s Bladder-fern, which was discovered growing on base-rich rocks in a sea cave on the coast of Kincardineshire in 1838. By 1860 the original colony seemed to have been extirpated, although the species has recovered and today there is a population of more than 100 plants there, where it grows in a roof fissure. – from Wikipedia

There were who people pressed and dried their specimens, and either displayed them in frames or kept them in albums. Some people used their collections in craft projects. These preserved specimens have become highly collectable for modern enthusiasts.

FERN – Magic, Fascination, Confidence, Shelter

FERN (MAIDENHAIR) – Secret bond of love, Discretion

FERN (ROYAL) – Reverie

Victorian Language of Flowers

Mid-1800s Mourning Brooch

Mid-1800s Mourning Brooch

American Victorian-era gown, circa 1850

American Victorian-era gown, circa 1850

Victorian bog oak large fern brooch

Victorian bog oak large fern brooch

As a writer in the Steampunk genre, Pteridomania is a great resource for analogies and metaphors. Ferns are part of the Victorian language of flowers, and can be used to represent a handful of different things; it is rather ironic that ferns can symbolise fascination. The mania itself can represent society’s need for amusement, to conform, or a desire for more nature in humanity’s culture and environment. And – like the ferns themselves – you will be able to add grace and subtlety to your setting.

Fernware fan

Fernware fan

There is more Steampunk goodness to enjoy at


Filed under Analogy, History, Metaphors, Setting, Steampunk, Victorian-era Fashion

The Attraction of Ruins as a Steampunk Setting

“What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

― Henry David Thoreau

If you are looking for a dangerous or creepy setting, there is nothing quite as suitable as a ruin. You can use it as a straightforward setting for some action or a plot twist. It gives a writer the opportunity to use their descriptive skills to create an atmosphere. Go for the Gothic!

However, a ruin can be dangerous because it may be unstable or a rotted hulk, and that makes it a perfect metaphor for a relationship that may be crumbling from internal stresses. It might reflect the rot inside a person, as they erode their ethical and moral boundaries. It might even symbolize a crumbling ideal; the house was built for a pair of newlyweds full of hope for the future, and now it is falling apart like their hopes and dreams.

The best example I can think of is Dickens’ Miss Havisham and her ruined mansion, from Great Expectations. Her house is the metaphor for the pitiful ruins of her life, neglected and almost abandoned, rather than cared for. The clocks throughout the house were stopped at the time Miss Havisham received the letter from fiance, both jilting her and defrauding her of some of her wealth. The dining room is full of the dusty remains of the wedding banquet and cake, as dry and dusty as broken heart.

Then there is the enchanting concept of follies. Follies were often built to resemble picturesque ruins. Very fashionable at one time, 18th and 19th century garden follies often were built to resemble ruined abbeys or castles,  to represent different historical or classical eras. It isn’t much a jump to use a folly as a metaphor for a desperate or silly act or event, by using a folly as the setting.

Famine follies – from Wikipedia

The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 led to the building of several follies. The society of the day held that reward without labour was misguided. However, to hire the needy for work on useful projects would deprive existing workers of their jobs. Thus, construction projects termed “famine follies” came to be built. These include: roads in the middle of nowhere, between two seemingly random points; screen and estate walls; piers in the middle of bogs; etc

So, as you can see, a little research and you are bound to find ruins or a folly to use as a setting. And if not, you can can have the fun of designing your own.


Filed under Analogy, Metaphors, Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, writing, Writing Style