Thursday, 25 August 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: Girl in the Afternoon, Serena Burdick (2016)

Dripping with sensuality, dancing with tragedy and ripe with secrets, Serena Burdick’s debut novel, Girl in the Afternoon (2016), brings to life Belle Epoque Paris through the eyes of Aimee, an aspiring painter from a wealthy but dysfunctional family. Aimee is a protégé of Edouard Manet and, at eighteen, has already suffered from losing the man she loves (her stepbrother Henri) and suffering the ultimate betrayal at the hands of her coquettish and unpredictable mother, Colette.

 Aimee’s tale is a deeply personal one, but one set against periods of tumultuous change in France, politically and in the world of art. Studios and exhibitions provide the canvas for our story, while painting and modelling come to stand for the subjects of love and loss. But the novel isn’t just about Aimee. Burdick deftly gives us access to a variety of viewpoints — most effectively, for me, that of the often ignored yet deeply perceptive grandmother, Madame Savaray. The ending is as happy as this web of conflicting desires and perspectives can allow — that is to say not straightforwardly happy at all.

Girl in the Afternoon is subtitled ‘A Novel of Paris’ and it is in capturing France — the city, the countryside and the people — that is most successful. The transition to England in the latter half of the novel is a little jarring and I was pleased when we returned the more vivid setting. The frame narrative, while brief, wasn’t as emotionally affecting as the core story, although I understood the impulse to bookend the messiness of human life, emotions and relationships.

Serena Burdick
What impressed me most about Girl in the Afternoon was its avoidance of cliché and ability to surprise, even though the reader may initially feel in a position to observe what the characters cannot. Burdick has written a love story that isn’t a romance, an homage to the Impressionists and a portrait of parenthood that encompasses the difficulties of nineteenth-century childbirth, the pain of uncertain paternity and the ability of men and women to parent children who aren’t theirs at all.

Do you have any suggestions for what the Secret Victorianist should read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Monday, 8 August 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: Hotel de Dream, Edmund White (2007)

Edmund White sets himself a difficult challenge in his 2007 Hotel de Dream: A New York novel — can he dream up and recreate nineteenth-century American literary icon Stephen Crane’s debated lost novel, the tale of a male prostitute, a supposed companion piece to his Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)?

Evidence for the novel comes from a testimonial from James Gibbons Huneker (a literary critic and Crane’s friend). He describes witnessing a chance encounter between Crane and a ‘painted’ kid and how the author interviewed him for information, before beginning a novel including ‘the best passage of prose [he] ever wrote’.

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
It’s a lofty claim to live up to. In White’s text the fabled novel is entitled ‘The Painted Boy’ and tells the story of Elliott, a syphilic newsboy who earns his living from providing special favours to his customers, and Theodore Koch, a married middle-aged banker, who destroys his life for his love of the boy.

It’s a master class in literary mimicry, taking on an admired forebear’s style, but White also interweaves the narrative with a frame story, a slow moving look at Crane’s final weeks and days with his ‘wife’ Cora in England and then Germany as he dies of tuberculosis aged only 28 and dictates this controversial novel to her.

Edmund White (1940 - )
While Crane and Cora are rendered well, with depth and originality, White seems more invested in Elliott’s story (the portion of the novel which is, after all, actually set in New York). Once ‘The Painted Boy’ picks up in pace, Hotel de Dream is a faster and more satisfying read, while our interest is held in early pages more by the cameos of other literary greats, like an (unflattering appearance) of Henry James.

Both stories revolve around love, death, poverty and public image but exploring the homosexual underworld of 1890s New York is especially fascinating. Elliott moves among fellow sex workers and transsexuals, is loved by middle class men and a mafia boss, is abused by his father, his brothers, his friends. In Theodore White is careful to create not a victim of repressed sexuality but a slave to the eclipsing power of an overwhelming love. It is the specificity of the tale and the recognisable humanity of its telling that makes it relatable.

Do you have any suggestions for what the Secret Victorianist should read next as part of my Neo-VictorianVoices series? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Gilded Hour, Sara Donati (2015)

Part mystery, part family saga, part romance, Sara Donati’s The Gilded Hour transports you to the streets of 1880s New York, as it traces the story of two female physicians, white surgeon Anna Savard and her mixed race cousin, Sophie Savard, a physician specialising in women’s medicine.

Donati’s late nineteenth-century New York is a melting pot of different immigrant communities, a city teeming with orphaned children, a place marked by extreme inequality. The novel is certainly not for the squeamish. At the centre of the story is a criminal case involving an ‘illegal operation’ (read: abortion) and the message about the importance of women’s reproductive rights (now or then) is clear, often voiced by our primary heroine Anna.

There are multiple plot lines beyond the case (two missing children, a crackdown on the distribution of contraceptive information, a nun who gives up her vocation to pursue medicine, the man Sophie loves dying of tuberculosis, Anna falling for a Jewish/Italian police detective), and at least four different point of views (although we return to Anna’s most frequently).

The conclusion certainly hints towards a sequel to wrap up the loose ends (don’t expect neat resolutions to many of the questions raised) and the feeling that this novel is setting up something larger than these 700+ pages is hard to escape. Initially I wondered what kind of novel I was reading and The Gilded Hour to some extent defies categorisation even upon completion.

Rosina Lippi ('Sara Donati') (1956-)
I loved the richness of the setting, the depth of the characters and the quality of the historical research, but found the romance elements clichéd and Anna a little too liberal to be believable as an (even progressive) woman from the nineteenth century. With her progressive views about race, gender, sexuality, rational dress, even keeping her surname post-marriage, Anna reads more as a product of twenty-first-century than nineteenth-century New York.

Donati is strongest in building a world—a world of human connections as well as sensual detail. The complex cast is always distinguishable, she hops from head to head without losing the reader and she makes us feel at home with a cast of characters who leap from the page. It’s a tour de force in the transportive power of historical fiction and I’d be up for taking a ride on Donati’s time machine again.

Do you know of any novels you think the Secret Victorianist should review next as part of her Neo-VictorianVoices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Maggie and Family: A Litany of Violence

Stephen Crane’s 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets shocked with its realistic portrayal of nineteenth-century New York tenements and the life of a girl, Maggie, who suffers a difficult childhood, loses her virtue and is ultimately murdered.

But Maggie is also a fascinating example of naturalism in American literature. With his journalistic eye, Crane records in detail the appalling conditions for New York’s poor and then uses his powers as a storyteller to argue for the causal connection between Maggie’s sorry upbringing and her moral and physical downfall.

Most famously propounded by the French novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902), naturalism is concerned with determinism—the idea that humans are governed by natural laws—and so intergenerational inheritance is a key theme that Crane, Zola and other writers, like Thomas Hardy, often dwell on.

In the case of Maggie, her inheritance is violence. When she first speaks in the novella it is to upbraid her brother for fighting (“Ah, Jimmie, youse bin fightin’ agin”) and her complaint is founded on the idea that the run of violence will continue:

“Youse allus fightin’, Jimmie, an’ yeh knows it puts mudder out when yehs come home half dead, an’ it’s like we’ll all get a poundin’.”

Maggie is a victim but also has the potential to be dangerous herself. She is described as a ‘tigress’ as a child. Fighting—for survival, but also as a way of life—is the favoured collective pastime in these slums, where gender is initially no indicator of who will beat and who will be beaten:

“Eh, Gawd, child, what is it dis time? Is yer fader beatin’ yer mudder, or yer mudder beatin’ yer fader?”

Yet as the story continues, and Maggie matures, being a woman marks her out as a particular target. Her love for Pete ruins her and, just before her death, the man who presumably kills her is shown noticing her feminine features and height, indicative of her physical vulnerability:

His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl’s upturned face.

What’s more Maggie’s family and neighbours can’t conceive of an afterlife where this run of violence will not continue:

“She’s gone where her sins will be judged,” cried the other women, like a choir at a funeral.

All that lies in store for Maggie is punishment, for crimes she was born, and raised, to commit.

Are there any other works set in nineteenth-century New York you’d like the Secret Victorianist to discuss? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.