On a day when the news is filled with stories about a hate crime in Kansas, an assassination by nerve gas in Malaysia, and the exclusion of our most reliable news sources from a presidential briefing, it is a relief to turn to the wonders of the natural world. Along with scores of other people I visited the Pacific Orchid Exhibition in San Francisco and was refreshed by the silent, wondrous beauty of flowers.
Orchids, of course, are more than flowers. They are symbols of luxury, wealth and ambition. Perhaps because Westerners had to search so hard for them during the 19th century when they were first discovered, they have been associated with kings, queens, rich men and beautiful women. Queen Victoria had her own personal orchid hunter who scoured jungles throughout the world to find plants for the royal conservatory.
Wealth and orchids often went together in early films such as Carole Lombard’s hit No More Orchids in 1932. The perfect film title to link orchids and wealth was a 1927 silent film called Orchids and Ermine, which featured young attractive girls trying to find themselves rich husbands. The movie version of a sensational World War II book (said to be the most-read book among British troops during the war) No Orchids for Miss Blandish again offered orchids as a symbol of wealth and privilege.
Novels that feature orchids usually qualify as escapist fiction and the Nero Wolfe series of books by Rex Stout certainly fits that category. I depend on the Kindle downloads from the San Francisco Public Library for much of my reading and this weekend I was lucky enough to find the Nero Wolfe story Black Orchids. It’s delightful to travel back in imagination to the 1940s and visit an orchid show in New York where Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, go to an orchid show not unlike the one I visited. The flowers there were still as beautiful, the growers as dedicated, and the visitors just as enchanted as the ones I saw. The only thing not on display at the California show was a mysterious murder. Nero Wolfe’s love of orchids lives on and so do Stout’s books about him. They are well worth revisiting.
One of the things I like best about reading mysteries, and about writing them, is the intriguing subjects I learn about. In my recently published Charlotte Edgerton mystery, Death Calls at the Palace, Charlotte and her husband discover the excitement and anger of people involved in the Chartist movement in England during the early 19th century, just as I learned about them in researching the book. Deep divisions between the rich and poor, the demand for jobs that have disappeared, and the angry demonstrations that grow out of injustice echo some of the themes we see in our world today. And so do the strong convictions expressed in this “Chartist Anthem”.
The time shall come when wrong shall end,
When peasant to peer no more shall bend;
When the lordly Few shall lose their sway,
And the Man no more their frown obey.
Toil, brother, toil till the work is done,
Till the struggle is o’er and the Charter won.
With a national election coming up soon, there has been much talk about whether or not the national election might be “rigged”. When Donald Trump said, during the third presidential debate, that he wasn’t sure he would accept the results of the election, reporters and the social media went wild. The idea that an election must be fair and accepted by the country is basic to maintaining a democracy. Trust in elections has worked well for American voters and there have not been serious challenges to a national election for many years. But if you look back in history, the struggle for free and fair elections has been long and hard.
The American way of voting was based largely on the British system, but that was badly flawed. Only men who owned property were allowed to vote at all. Men who were elected to Parliament were not paid for their service, so you had to be wealthy if you wanted to run for a position in Parliament. Actually, the British don’t say they “run” for office; they “stand” for election. I guess that sounds more genteel.
The elections, however, were not very genteel. Even though an important reform bill was passed in 1832 to do away with some of the most obvious unfairness in elections—like having a member of Parliament who represented no one but himself –the elections were still not honest. Candidates would bribe men to vote for them. Pubs were filled on election day with representatives of the candidates who would buy drinks for any voter who promised to cast his vote for their candidate.
During the 1840s, a surge of protest against the way things were for the average working man began to grow. The Chartists was an organization formed to take power away from the aristocrats and make sure that average people would get fair treatment. They had six demands:
- Manhood suffrage. Every man, regardless of class or property, should have the vote.
- Annual elections.
- An end to the regional differences in the electoral system.
- Secret ballots (no one else would know for whom you voted).
- The end to property qualifications for MPs. This would mean that a man wishing to be an MP would no longer have to own property or land worth a set amount of money.
- Payment for MPs. This would enable men who were not already wealthy to stand for election to Parliament.
Both men and women joined the Chartist struggle and women were especially scorned by many anti-chartists in the media. Here is one view from the opposition:
The struggle was hard and long. I’ve been living with it for the past year and more as I’ve been writing my newest Charlotte Edgerton mystery Death Calls at the Palace. Finally my book is about to appear and you will be able to buy it on Amazon.com in plenty of time for holiday gifts. I’ll announce its appearance as soon as it becomes available.