A Jolly Good Word

Lately I’ve been researching the Aesthetic Movement, which began during the mid-Victorian era and flourished up until after the turn of the 20th century. Think of the pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde, James MacNeil Whistler, William Morris, Liberty Fabrics … and of course Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes, sunflowers and lilies and Japanese fans are my obsessions right now.

What’s surprised me is how often I’ve run across the word “jolly.” The Victorians seemed to toss “jolly” into their conversations all the time. But here I’d thought that the word meant happy and fat, like good old Saint Nick. Was there more to it than I had imagined?

For example,  Lucy Turner married William S. Gilbert (he of Gilbert & Sullivan fame). Speaking about their honeymoon trip in a letter to one of her aunts, the newly wed Lucy Gilbert explained that she and Will had traveled from Boulogne to Paris, after which they were heading back: “We return to the Hotel Christol [in Boulogne] when we leave this and are to have the same room – which will be jolly.”

Jolly? That seems too bland and nice a word for a honeymoon. It makes it seem as if the two of them sat around laughing uproariously, not… doing what newlyweds generally do. Which, given the deep love and affection between Lucy and Will, I’m reasonably sure they did.

Later on, in one of the letters Gilbert wrote to Lucy when he was training with his regiment, the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders, he called her “My darling old Girl,” and mentioned: “We had a jolly dance yesterday,” adding, “You should see me dance a reel!”

Well, okay, in this case, jolly sounds about right for an evening of dance and laughter. But then consider this example:

The actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (quoted in the book “The Aesthetic Movement” by Lionel Lambourne) described one of the rooms in architect E.W. Godwin’s house like this: The floor was covered in straw-coloured matting and there was a dado of the same material. Above the dado were white walls and the hangings were of cretonne with a fine Japanese pattern in a delicate grey and blue. The chairs were of wicker with cushions like the hangings and in the centre of the room was a full-sized cast of the Venus de Milo before which was a small pedestal holding a censer from which was curving round the Venus, ribbons of blue smoke…The whole effect was what students of my time would have called “awfully jolly.”

A room in soothing neutrals, with a statue of Venus de Milo and a bowl of incense, doesn’t sound like my idea of “jolly.” Sounds pretty absurd, frankly. But clearly the word in this context doesn’t mean Big Fun. So I’ve come up with a theory.

Maybe back then, “jolly” didn’t just mean nice and fun. Maybe meant something more like “super” or “cool” or “awesome.”

That would be jolly.