Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Victorians - not as prudish as we think?

“Victorian morality” summons thoughts of sexually repressed people (solidified by later Freudian theories) who covered piano legs with bloomers because they were too erotic. Bathing costumes for women of that era were enveloping, heavy, dark, wool garments over black stockings and even slippers, and many used bathing machines so that no one saw even them in these concealing clothes. So I was astonished to discover that there was a nudist beach - popularly known as "Bare-assed Beach" - at Hanlon’s Point on the Toronto Islands from 1894 to 1930, when morally upright citizens finally succeeded in shutting it down. 

Skinny-dipping (swimming naked) was something that many people did - and still do - in lakes and rivers, but usually in same-sex groups or as couples. One Muskoka cottager related how his Victorian grandmother always had her morning bathe in the lake, and was almost caught in the buff by an unexpected visitor. My British grandfather-in-law states in his memoir that when he and his wife honeymooned in Normandy, France, they found a deserted beach, stripped off their clothes, and bathed “au naturel” in the sea. What a delightful picture that conjured up of these young Victorians being spontaneous and uninhibited. Had I known this when I met him at the age of 96, just a couple of years before his death, I would have been even more impressed by this “Victorian” gentleman.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Researching the Riviera

Just over a year ago my husband, daughter, and I were sitting on a cliff-top terrace in brilliant sunshine, savouring a gourmet lunch - scant food, artistically prepared, and way too expensive - with the ever-changing blues of the Mediterranean lapping at the bleached rocks below. Considering itself the most luxurious in Europe, The Hotel du Cap - Eden Roc at the southern tip of Cap d’Antibes, boasts about the many celebrities that have stayed there. At the prices they charge, only the super-rich can afford to!

We hadn’t come to ogle stars - and didn’t recognize anyone famous, although the Cannes Film Festival was just a week away - but were watched suspiciously by staff, who wouldn’t let us film even though we explained that my daughter was doing a documentary and was not paparazzi. The manager gave me short shrift when I requested some historical information, since the hotel is mentioned in my novels, shoving a piece of paper into my hands and refusing to answer questions. Could we take photos? Absolutely not! Good thing we had before asking. The staff were self-important and quietly disdainful to “nobodies” like us, although they seemed to fawn over others. Noticing a good many of the planet’s most expensive cars in the parking lot, I’m certain the staff are forever mindful of who’s who. 

The reason for our visit was to see the place where some of my characters dine when staying nearby in their own villa, and because I had just read about how some Americans helped to make the hotel and the Riviera popular in the 1920s - something that will be explored in Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels.

In the early days, the French Riviera was a winter retreat for the wealthy, but shut down during the heat of the summer.  Americans Sara and Gerald Murphy convinced the hotel to remain open one summer, in essence renting it, and invited friends to stay there with them - Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Picasso among them. So beguiled were the Murphys with Cap d’ Antibes, that they bought and then built their own villa there.

So it was exciting to see the places I had read about, to stroll the small beach at La Garoupe, which Gerald Murphy had virtually created by cleaning out the seaweed and daily raking the sand, and thus feel a connection to the past that I will write about. 

I think it’s ironic that now the Hotel du Cap - Eden Roc closes for the winter!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

(Mis)adventures in moving

The first evening in our new house didn’t turn out as we had expected - we spent it in a hotel! After a long, arduous, and chilly day moving, we were all looking forward to hot showers, but discovered that we had neither heat nor hot water. The gas supply had been disconnected! On a Friday night you can only reach the gas company’s emergency line. This was no emergency, they assured us. It was only going down to the freezing point that night. Have to wash in cold water? Think of it as camping. Nothing could be done until the business office opened on Monday morning. So by snuggling under warm duvets and showering at the gym, we did camp out in our house after that first night.

Our lawyer - my oldest friend - had done everything required to arrange for the transfer of services, but the gas company denied receiving the instructions. On Monday they told us we might have gas by Friday! After a heated discussion and a talk with the manager, we were finally told we might be reconnected on Tuesday. And were by late afternoon - a job that took only a matter of minutes.

None of the service providers, except for hydro, delivered on time. The phone company made a mistake - which they at least acknowledged - so, although we were supposed to have been connected on Friday, we finally had phone service on Sunday, but no Internet until Thursday. The cable company was also 2 days late, not that we had time to watch TV in any case.

Ironically, we had a card delivered this week from hydro stating that we would be disconnected if we didn’t call their office to set up an account! When I spoke with them, they said that they could no longer take instructions from lawyers because of the Privacy Act, so clients had to call directly to transfer their services. Someone could have informed us of that new policy.

My lawyer and I had a laugh when she told me that the utility providers in her jurisdiction (my old home town, only 2 hours away) refused to take direction from one of her clients, saying that the lawyer had to do it! Surely there should be some consistency in these services, even across municipalities.

Of course none of this has diminished our delight in our new house. But it did make us realize how easy and comfortable our lives usually are, with light, heat (or air conditioning) available with the flick of a switch, and hot running water with the turn of a tap.

My first novel, A Place To Call Home, was set in pioneer Ontario. I marvelled at how those intrepid people had survived harsh Canadian winters in draughty log cabins, so cold that water froze in pitchers set next to the fireplace. One “gentlewoman” wrote in her letters home to England that the temperature in her bedroom was only 3 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 C), and she had frost on her blankets in the mornings. (Is it any wonder people didn’t bathe often in those days?) Blistering summers, especially for women imprisoned in corsets and those encompassing Victorian gowns, could be just as challenging.

But we don’t need history to tell us how lucky we are. We need only look at other, less “developed” parts of the world to realize that.



my inspiration for a series of novels - visit for more info

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Gabriele Wills's books on Goodreads
The Summer Before The StormThe Summer Before The Storm
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A Place to Call HomeA Place to Call Home
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