Sunday, 12 April 2015

Victorian Literature for Kids

Have you always loved nineteenth-century novels and want the same for your children? Or did you learn to like literature later in life and want your kids to embrace classic literature earlier? In this post I’ll be giving you my top tips for getting children interested in Victorian writing and also suggesting a few things to avoid.

'A Life Well Spent', Charles West Cope (1862)

Foster a love of reading generally:
Presenting a seven year old, who isn’t in the habit of reading regularly, with a copy of Bleak House, is a bit like giving a six month old a steak. It’s not going to end well, however bright they are. So incorporate reading into children’s lives from early on. Make bedtime stories part of your night-time routine, give your kids books as gifts, and encourage them to read for fun and tell you what they enjoy about what they’re reading. At this stage, the amount kids read and how much they enjoy it is so much more important than being prescriptive about what they read.

Give them modern books which deal with Victorianism:
Nineteenth-century novels can be challenging because of the style in which they are written, more so than their content. Starting with contemporary novels and history books can introduce kids to some of the themes of Victorian writing and help them build up knowledge about the period, without dealing with difficult prose.

There are historical novels specifically written for children, like Jacqueline Wilson’s The Lottie Project (1997) and Hetty Feather (2010) and Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), and kids’ history books like Terry Deary’s Vile Victorians (1994) in the Horrible Histories series. Chat with them about differences they might have noticed between then and now. How was life different for boys and girls? What would life as a servant have been like? How did people travel and communicate with each other before cars and telephones? Appreciating lives very different from your own is a key reading skill and you’ll be encouraging critical engagement with texts as your children grow into more sophisticated readers.

'Teasing the Cat', William Henry Gore (c. 1900)
Read Victorian children’s literature:
Rather than diving straight in with Jane Eyre, when the time comes when you think your kids are ready to read nineteenth-century texts (or to have you read to them), turn to children’s literature. Books like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales (1835-1872), E. Nesbit’s The Treasure-Seekers (1899) and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) have an enduring appeal for kids and, unlike many nineteenth-century texts, do not deal with themes (e.g. illegitimacy, murder, inheritance) which may be too adult for your children at this stage.

Nineteenth-century poetry written for kids, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), can also be a low commitment way to get your kids reading some older writing and increasing their familiarity with poetry.

Watch TV and film adaptations of famous novels:
There’s absolutely no rule that people should read famous texts before watching adaptations of them and, for kids, already having familiarity with a story can be invaluable when it comes to tackling harder texts. Watching together also gives you the opportunity to talk about what’s going on and pause whenever something isn’t clear. I recommend BBC mini-series, like North and South (2004), Pride and Prejudice (1994) and Bleak House (2005), for quality and digestibility.

'Storytime', Charles Haigh-Wood (1893)

And what not to do:
Don’t tell your kids there are books they ‘should’ read. Similarly, I’d avoid the term ‘classics’. Reading should be fun – not a chore – and pushing too hard can have the opposite effect. It’s already sadly very likely that kids will come to dislike set texts they’re made to study at school (see my post on secondary school English literature teaching here), so don’t let the same happen at home!

Don’t make a big deal about length and number of pages. Lots of Victorian novels are quite long and, for a while, the ability to boast about having read a 300-page book may be motivating. But it won’t last and focussing on length will make reading seem a drag.

I’d also avoid abridged versions of nineteenth-century novels which are often marketed for children. Truncated and butchered versions of great texts aren’t that great at all. If you don’t think your kids are ready for the full-length version, I’d simply read something else and come back to this one in a couple of years!

Are you a parent? Do you agree and do you have any other advice or book recommendations? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox (2006)

In the first instalment of my series on Neo-Victorianism (contemporary art, literature and style inspired by the nineteenth century), I’ll be looking at Michael Cox’s 2006 The Meaning of Night – one of the most acclaimed novels of this genre.

Cox’s novel is the lengthy, first person confession of one Edward Glyver – a mysterious, highly intellectual murderer seeking revenge on the nemesis who will wrongly come into his inheritance (a poet with the wonderful name Phoebus Gaunt).

The usual elements of nineteenth-century sensation are here – lost identity, secret documents, shady lawyers, and a beautiful and dangerous femme fatale. And these are blended skilfully with features you could only find in a neo-Victorian novel – greater sexual explicitness, vulgar (if archaic) language and a textual set up which posits this novel as a recently discovered manuscript, edited and annotated by a twenty-first-century Cambridge don.

The novel
Cox’s novel is a gripping read, which won much (well-deserved) acclaim at its publication (you can read a representative review from the New York Times here). Yet what the novel navigates is a series of traps for the writer of this kind of pastiche fiction and it does so to varying degrees of success. Below I look at three of these ‘problems’, and review Cox’s handling of them. In doing so, I quote real readers’ reviews from various websites, taking their criticisms not as the misguided opinions of those who don’t write for the New York Times, but as revelatory of the problem areas in constructing such a novel.

The Narrator Problem:
First person nineteenth-century writing is often much more digestible for a modern reader. It is a narrative style suited to faster moving plots (that’s why it was favoured by writers like Wilkie Collins) and, what’s more, it cuts out many of the aspects of Victorian writing that twenty-first-century readers find least appealing – including long paragraphs of description and, often moral, commentary from an omniscient narrator.

First person writing from the period is also easier to reproduce or parody (trust me, I’ve tried) than these strong authorial third person voices. And a combination of these reasons must have led Cox to decide on a first person voice throughout his novel.

In some ways this works. Glyver is an engaging and fascinating creation from the opening line (‘After killing the red-headed man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper’) and we are kept guessing about him, even as plot points become apparent, retaining the novel’s sense of mystery.

However, the limited perspective occasionally runs Cox into difficulties. Faced with information and scenes which we must be privy to, even if Glyver is not, Cox uses several techniques. There are inserted shorter sections of first person prose from other writers (including Lady Tansor and Gaunt himself) but these always come with the caveat that they must some how have come into Glyver’s possession (with varying degrees of plausibility). And there are passages which use the conceit of Glyver’s imagination – his thoughts adding colour to what would otherwise be factual intelligence. This means you have scene openings like this:

‘I sometimes like to imagine Dr Daunt, for whom I have always had a sincere regard, coming into his study of a morning – say a bright August morning in the year 1830’

Followed by repeated reminders of a scene’s ‘fictionality’ like this:

‘Observe him now, on this imagined morning’


‘Whether Dr Daunt was definitely anxious when he approached his patron, I cannot say; but he would have certainly been curious to know why he had been called up to the house so urgently on a Thursday afternoon.’

There is an argument to be made that this adds to the sense of play between fact and fiction in the novel (something I return to below), but a more negative effect is that we learn little about what should be an interesting cast of supporting characters, blocked out as we are from their emotional lives.

Glyver bears the full weight of carrying the novel – and for readers who reject the narrator there is little consolation. That’s why you end up with reviews like this:

‘I read the entire book thinking what a massive, unforgivable arsehole the main character was…How are we supposed to care about him unearthing the past and root for him in his pursuit to right the wrongs done to him, when he's a MURDEROUS TOOL?!’ Rae, Goodreads

‘Can't go on, after 200 pages, I'm done. I don't like the main character enough to finish.’ Slang, Amazon

Michael Cox (1948-2009)

The Authenticity Problem:
Cox faces a problem which dogs all writers of historical fiction – his desire to convey period can come off as fact-dropping, with his peppering of street names, restaurants and other details of London life coming across at times like a catalogue of his research.

Hence reviews like this:

‘In his attempts to dazzle us with the authenticity and breadth of his knowledge (something that the aforementioned real Victorian authors never had to bother with, after all), Cox has sacrificed pace, tension and focus; everything, in fact, that would make his plot (a good one, by the way), crackle and jump off the page.’ David Cady, Amazon

Cox’s name-checking sits in direct opposition to the novel’s pretence of being an authentic rediscovered manuscript. Cox plays with the truthfulness or otherwise of Glyver’s tale but he his set up means he cannot play with the fun inherent in being a modern writer writing a Victorian novel. The intertextual play isn’t in fact with nineteenth-century texts (despite their obvious influence), but instead with earlier words which ‘Glyver’ enjoys (the Sermons of John Donne, Felltham’s Resolves). This feels like a missed opportunity, sacrificed at the altar of the novel’s ‘authenticity’.

The Woman Problem:
Much critical effort has been expended over the past half century in reviewing the position of women in nineteenth-century texts. So much so in fact that it seems impossible to revisit the Victorian novel without taking a stance on this issue.

Yet here Cox is strangely colourless. His female characters are stereotypes – street whores, courtesans with golden hearts, sexually voracious servants, duplicitous aristocrats – and, initially I thought this was a self-conscious choice. But the reversal of expectations – Glyver’s and readers’ - never came. The narrator was freed from some of the shackles of nineteenth-century texts but the women he wrote about never were.

One reviewer writes:

‘As far as his love interest, Miss Carteret, goes, I could see that she was going to ruin him from a mile away. Why was that such a plot twist? It was so painfully obvious.’ Karyl, Goodreads

Attune to the types which pervade in Victorian texts, readers of neo-Victorianism expect something more and something new – that’s what makes these novels worth writing. And in this discrete area, I’d argue that Cox failed to deliver.

Cox’s novel is a wonderful achievement and an enjoyable read and it would take many more blog posts to list all writers could learn from its construction. But there are watch outs for the aspiring neo-Victorianist or historical fiction writer.

Don’t fashion yourself binding narrative constraints, fall in love with your own research or ignore the preoccupations of your modern audience. Even with an otherwise well-considered novel, you will run yourself into difficulties.

What should I write about next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? If you know of a modern writer or artist who’s revisiting the nineteenth century in new and exciting ways, let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Lucia Madness at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Last week, the Secret Victorianist, along with some student friends, attended MetStudents’ #LuciaMadness event before a production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Secret Victorianist at the Metropolitan Opera
Mary Zimmerman’s production has a mid-nineteenth-century setting, although Donizetti’s opera premiered in 1835, and Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor (the historical novel on which Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto was based) was published in 1819 and set in the seventeenth century.

Mara Blumenfeld’s sumptuous costumes are instrumental in suggesting this period in the production (with Daniel Ostling’s striking sets more focussed on creating a Romantic Scottish landscape), so it was apt for the drinks event to encourage young operagoers to don Victorian dress of their own. There was even the opportunity to pose in Lucia’s blood-drenched gloves and veil and brandish her knife (check out #LuciaMadness on Twitter for more photos).

The Secret Victorianist as Lucia Ashton
The emphasis on Lucia’s madness isn’t just a marketing ploy. The plot (familial feuds, love, betrayal) and the music move towards the climatic scene where Albina Shagimuratova’s blood-splattered bride loses her mind and hits the high notes in the beautiful aria ‘Il Dolce Suono’.

That Lucia’s madness is especially important to this production in particular is suggested from Act One, where Zimmerman chooses to stage the ghost during Lucia’s ‘Regnava Nel Silenzio’. Madness seems the natural result of a young girl living out her life on these misty moors, surrounded by ghosts, and torn between the passions of her brother and lover.

The Secret Victorianist brings nineteenth-century
dress to the streets of New York
Joseph Calleja sang Edgardo with strength and passion, producing a second climactic moment after Lucia’s mad scene, but the scenes between the siblings (Shagimuratova with Luca Salsi’s Enrico) perhaps showed more connection between the performers.

Other highlights included the injection of humour during the wedding scene. The cast pose for photographs as Lucia turns away from her groom and the camera, raising some titters from the audience just prior to the tragic and murderous turn of events.

Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera with a timeless plot of love and betrayal, but a nineteenth-century setting seemed an ideal one, given how Victorianism can at times be a sort of shorthand in popular culture for the repression of women in marriage and their resulting madness.

The production is running until April 10th so catch it if you can.

Do you know of any other nineteenth-century-based plays or productions the Secret Victorianist should attend in New York? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Art Review: “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School” (L.A. County Museum of Art, Los Angeles)

The other week, the Secret Victorianist left behind the cold of New York to visit the West Coast of the US for the first time. Although much of my visit was spent basking in the sun in Santa Monica and Malibu, there was still time to soak up some nineteenth-century culture and, ironically, to learn about a group of artists who immortalised the landscape here in the East.

'The Course of Empire: The Savage State', Thomas Cole
A special exhibition at LACMA - “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School” - displays forty five landscape paintings from the New-York Historical Society collection by renowned nineteenth-century artists including Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Albert Bierstadt.

'The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State', Thomas Cole
The paintings are beautiful representations of an unspoiled and idealised American landscape and give a wonderful insight into the American Grand Tour, which unlike its European equivalent, focussed on natural, not manmade wonders. It as an artistic movement grappling with how to best create a national identity – borrowing from the landscapes which appear in Italian art and from Romantic styles of composition, while at the same time highlighting America’s difference, its vastness, its beauty, and the continuance of its Native peoples.

'The Course of Empire: The Consummation', Thomas Cole
This last concern can seem a bit uncomfortable when viewing the exhibition. In a collection largely devoid of human subjects, the inclusion of Native Americans in the occasional examples of portraiture can feel colonial and is a forcible reminder of how much has changed in terms of how this country is populated, as well as in how the landscape surrounding New York has changed.

'The Course of Empire: Destruction', Thomas Cole
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a wonderful series of five paintings by Thomas Cole entitled The Course of Empire (1834-6), which offers an insight into another concern which has been a preoccupation in American culture, from nineteenth-century art and literature up until late twentieth-century and contemporary apocalyptic disaster movies. Cole’s paintings trace the patterns of rise and fall in civilisations – savagery giving way to an Arcadian pastoral existence, followed by the consummation of empire, its violent destruction and finally the desolation which follows.

'The Course of Empire: Desolation', Thomas Cole
That America’s ascendency can – like other great empires - only end with a violent overthrow is a powerful idea and the series also suggests doubt as to whether romanticising America in the way this art movement does is not in some ways a contributory factor towards its eventual decline. The self-consciousness with which Cole raises this concern in these paintings is also in some ways reminiscent of Victorian approaches to literary epics (which I’ve dealt with previously).

Inside the exhibition
The exhibition is running at LACMA until June 7th with tickets priced at $25. If you’re in LA it’s well worth a visit (even if it’s not a rainy day).

The Secret Victorianist at LACMA
Do you know of any art exhibitions dealing with the nineteenth century the Secret Victorianist should visit in New York? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Monday, 16 March 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: A Retrospect

Eighteen months ago, I began a series looking at twenty-six themes and topics in Victorian literature linked to the letters of the alphabet. Now, having recently posted Z (for Zuleika!), I’ll be recapping what we covered and linking to any posts you might have missed.

In ‘A is for Animals in Agnes Grey’, I look at how cruelty or kindness to animals is often indicative of moral fibre in the works of Emily and Anne Brontë. The fate of animals in literature can often foreshadow or mirror the lives of characters, but can also provide some of the most memorable incidents in a plot, making this theme a powerful tool for philosophical and moral exploration.

In ‘B is for Brownies in the Brain’, I examine Robert Louis Stevenson’s conception of the creative process in his essay ‘A Chapter on Dreams’. Where does literary inspiration come from and what forces could be at work in a writer’s subconscious?

In ‘C is for Caroline’s Coriolanus’, I review the use of Shakespeare in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and in the relationship between two of her characters (Robert and Caroline). Brontë argues for literature as a vehicle for emotional, as well as academic, education.

In ‘D is for Defending Daniel Deronda’, I argue for the complimentary nature of the Jewish and romantic ‘halves’ of George Eliot’s most divisive novel. Gwendolen and Daniel are united in their quest to find a vocation, whether religious or secular.

In ‘E is for the Eloi and Elysium’, I trace the heritage of nineteenth-century science fiction, and in particular H.G. Wells, in a modern flick starring Matt Damon. How does Victorian thinking on class, economics and evolution inform modern cinema?

In ‘F is for Fern Fever’, I write about the strange Victorian phenomenon of ‘pteridomania’ through the lens of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Vixen. How do hot houses relate to social status and what can women’s gardening habits tell us about them?

In ‘G is for Graves in Great Expectations’, I look at the graves which inspired those of Pip’s parents and siblings in Charles Dickens’s most popular novel. The graves also act as signs for the illiterate Pip to ‘read’, signifying the dangers of partial knowledge as well as the virtues of ignorance  - important ideas in a bildungsroman.

In ‘H is for Hardy’s Hair Extensions’, I expose the link between hair and attractive femininity in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders. What does it mean to take another woman’s hair? And how do Victorian ideas of ageing compare with our own?

In ‘I is for Infants, Industrialisation and Imagination’, Victorian novels dealing with factory workers are put under the microscope. What does it mean to infantilise the working classes and why does Dickens choose to deal with the position of workers and the education of children in the same novel (Hard Times)?

In ‘J is for Jealousy in Jewsbury’, I consider how stereotypes about actresses and wives are difficult to reconcile for male characters, but also the author, in Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half-Sisters.

In ‘K is for ‘The Kraken’’, I provide a line-by-line reading of Tennyson’s poem about a fearsome sea monster, helping students approach new poems and dig into this poem in particular.

In ‘L is for Laura’s Landscapes’, I probe the gendered differences between landscape painting and portraiture in the most famous Victorian sensation novels. How comfortable can we be as modern readers with a conclusion to The Woman in White which leaves Laura still deluded about her role as artist as well as object?

In ‘M is for Melodrama, Murder and Maria Marten’, I blog about a real life murder case which inspired a swathe of nineteenth- and twentieth-century creative treatments. Why did Maria Marten capture the imagination of Victorian audiences?

In ‘N is for Nelly as Narrator’, I argue for the unreliability of Nelly as a source of information in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

In ‘O is for Openings’, I dissect the openings of Lady Audley’s Secret and The Woman in White. What can we learn from Braddon and Collins about creating suspense and drama? And how can writing thrill us in ways movies cannot?

In ‘P is for Pregnancy’, I reveal the ‘hidden signs’ a female character you’re reading about may be pregnant. Tuning into Victorian innuendos and pregnancy ‘symptoms’ could help improve your reading experience.

In ‘Q is for Quiz!’, you get to find our which Victorian heroine YOU should be.

In ‘R is for Rome’, my trip to the Italian capital spurs a reconsideration of Dorothea’s trip there in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Dorothea’s sheltered upbringing, Protestantism, and recent marriage all impact on her response to the city and so the chapters here offer valuable insight into her character.

In ‘S is for Swinburne, Sappho and Sadomasochism’, I write about Swinburne’s adaptation of Sapphic fragments in nineteenth-century verse. What is the appeal of Sappho? Is it sexual, sadistic, or poetic?

In ‘T is for Text, Time (and Trains)’, I blog about the skillful way in which Thomas Hardy’s narrative techniques play with the passing of time. Moving from Victorian novels to romantic comedies and horror flicks, I offer my perspective on the manipulation of time in text.

In ‘U is for ‘Ulysses’ and You’, I remind you of the poetry scene in the latest James Bond movie and give a case for the continued appeal of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’.

In ‘V is for Vulnerable Victorian Virginity’, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth acts as an example of how female virginity is often presented in nineteenth-century literature.  

In ‘W is for Witchcraft’, I write about Hardy and Gaskell’s interest in magic and the supernatural. Witchcraft which we might think of as confined to earlier centuries is still very much alive in nineteenth-century rural England and in Victorian literature.

In ‘X is for Xmas’, I analyse the poem (and later carol) ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Which ideas about the Christmas period span the centuries and what was unique about celebrating the festival during the American Civil War.

In ‘Y is for Why Yellow?’, I answer the question about why this one colour was so important to writers in the 1890s. From fashionable magazines to madness-inducing wallpaper, why does yellow define the decade?

And finally, in ‘Z is for Zuleika’, Max Beerbohm’s letters offer an insight into the creative process which went into writing his novel – Zuleika Dobson.

Thank you so much to those who have stuck with me throughout the series and for all your comments and suggestions! I’m delighted to let you know I’ll be starting a new series in the next weeks, reviewing works of Neo-Victorian literature, so if you have any favourite works which fall into this category then let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: Z is for Zuleika

After 25 letters in my Victorian Alphabet, I’m cheating a little bit here, as Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story wasn’t actually published until 1911. But, having recently finished reading Rupert Hart-Davis’s Letters Of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1956and seen how Zuleika, as a character and a novel, is such a strong presence in Max’s life long before the text’s publication (he began writing it in 1898), I feel justified in using her to round off this very Victorian series.

Zuleika Dobson is a satirical novel about a girl so attractive she makes the students at Oxford University commit suicide en masse, destroying the city and its institutions. An untalented magician, Zuleika’s appeal is partially due to her beauty and partially to the contradictions of her character which make her unable to love anyone:

“I could no more marry a man about whom I could not make a fool of myself than I could marry one who made a fool of himself about me. Else had I long ceased to be a spinster”.

While the novel moves away from Zuleika at times – whether to the history of Oxford’s most elite drinking society, to the birds which are harbingers of death for holders of a particular dukedom, or to the muse of history Clio – she dominates the novel, and also seems to have dominated its creation.

In his letters, Max even uses the word ‘Zuleika-ing’ to denote the act of writing and, in 1904, not only does he seem to have a very clear idea of the eventual plot, but he’s also personifying his work, talking about his inability to write a ‘skeleton’ of the rest of the novel, without it becoming a ‘full-fleshed figure’.

At the novel’s appearance, Max writes the following note to Robert Ross (who had been a close friend of Oscar Wilde):

‘My dear Bobbie, Poor old Zuleika! She is at length to be dragged out, blinking and staggering, into the light of day. And Heinemann [his publisher] will be sending her to the Reform Club, to wait for you there. Be kind, be courteous, to the hag. Incline your ear to her mumblings. Pretend not to hear the horrid creakings of her joints. Tell her she does not look a day older than when you saw her or at any rate her head and shoulders all those years ago. Don’t hint to her that she makes a goblin of the sun. Yours affectionately, Max’.

Here we see Beerbohm referencing the long gestation period his novel has been through. And we also see him using an identification between Zuleika the woman and Zuleika the novel to reference the faults in his writing (mere ‘mumblings’ with ‘creaking…joints’), while simultaneously pleading for kind critical judgement on them (without seeming to plead for himself).

With the reference to Zuleika’s head and shoulders as having appeared first, Max also seems to be alluding to one of the most famous stories of male birth, the emergence of Artemis from the head of her father Zeus. Writing a novel as a sort of pregnancy is an idea he returns to again in a letter to Arnold Bennett:

‘You mustn’t expect from me a ‘diabolically ingenious defence’ of Zuleika, any more than you would expect a woman who has just borne a child to be diabolically ingenious of defence of that child… “Madam, this baby is in many respects a very fine baby. I observe many inimitable touches of you in it. But, Madam, I am bound to say that its screams are more penetrating than a baby’s screams ought to be. I notice in its complexion a mottled quality which jars my colour-sense. And I cannot help wishing it were” etc. etc.… Will the young mother floor you in well-chosen words?’

Max’s easy and familiar references to ‘Zuleika’ in his letters demonstrate beautifully the strong connection between artist and work (even an artist as humorous and, at times, flippant as Beerbohm). They also show the fascination ‘she’ as a character and as a project held over Max across several decades. Zuleika’s appeal may have decimated Oxford, but it has cemented Beerbohm’s place in literary history.

This is the last in my Victorian Alphabet series, so let me know if you have any new series ideas – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And, if you want to find out more about Beerbohm’s Oxford, then click here for my top tourist tips for Victorianists who find themselves in England’s best city!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Theatre Review: An Octoroon, Branden Jacob-Jenkins, Theatre for a New Audience (Brooklyn, New York)

Every other review I’ve read of Soho Rep’s An Octoroon, which premiered last spring and has now reopened at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, opens by mentioning how obscure playwright Dion Boucicault is, not to mention his 1859 melodrama The Octoroon. Maybe because of this, as I waited for the play to start on Wednesday evening, it struck me how very different my experience might be to that of most of the audience. I’ve not only heard of Boucicault, I’ve directed one of his plays (London Assurance, which I blogged about previously) and while, of course, aspects of 1850s dramas, especially when they deal with race in the American South, can be uncomfortable, the world of Victorian melodrama isn’t alien, but instead one in which I feel very much at home. My questions as the performance began were instead around what form the adaptation would take, and - the same question that Jacob-Jenkins, as played by Austin Smith, reports from his therapist in the play’s opening scene – ‘what appeal can a racist melodrama hold for black playwright in the 21stcentury?’

In search of an answer to this question, Jacob-Jenkins (Smith) dons whiteface to play both hero and villain in Boucicault’s drama and is joined by the original Irish playwright himself (Haynes Thigpen), playing a Native American in, er, redface, to act out the plot of the original play. Heir to the plantation George is in love with the illegitimate daughter of his late uncle, Zoe (Amber Gray), but Zoe, while she’s been raised as a lady, is an eighth black (and so an ‘octoroon’) and they soon find out her free papers aren’t in order. Add to that large debts attached to the plantation, an evil and lascivious neighbour (also played by Smith) who wants Zoe for himself, an aggressively forward local heiress (Mary Wiseman) with her sights set on George, and the slaves attached to the estate, and you have a play complete with court scenes, murder, slave auctions and intrigue. In Jacob-Jenkins’ adaptation the roles of the slaves are by far the most important, with the conversations between Minnie (Maechi Aharanwa) and Dido (Pascale Amand) providing commentary, in more contemporary language, on the play’s events. While others rush around the stage performing cross race (Ian Lassiter in particular donning blackface to play slave characters as they might have been presented on the Victorian stage), these characters (played by black actors), while they don’t have the same level of remove as the characters of Jacob-Jenkins and Boucicault from the action, almost seem to play out the role of a contemporary black reader approaching the play.

Amber Gray as Zoe
As the melodrama reaches its dramatic conclusion, the play takes a step back, drawing our attention to the artificiality of the heavily plotted action and instead delivering a killer punch of its own, exposing the brutal realities of the racism which has been a source of humour previously. Cleverly, the climax of An Octoroon comes with the display of a photograph and a period of intense silence in the theatre, just as, in the original melodrama The Octoroon, the murderer is foiled by (cutting edge) photographic evidence.

The play was fascinating, veering from the darkly entertaining to the frankly horrifying, and always delivered surprises – from the adaptations of the initially bare looking set, to the arrival of the actual Jacob-Jenkins wearing a rabbit head to aid transitions between scenes. Other reviewers, and a few audience members I spoke to on the night, have expressed some disappointment that the play doesn’t seem to reach any conclusions about what it means to receive this kind of text, to stage a story so removed from our contemporary ideas around what’s acceptable when dealing with race. For me though, this was its magic. As a Victorianist, I experience a similar range of emotions when reading and studying. How can I feel when reading about views I would find objectionable from my contemporaries? Is it wrong of me to enjoy these novels, these poems, these plays? By injecting new life into The Octoroon, using its effective dramatic qualities to expose the darkness of its moral assumptions, Jacob-Jenkins gives us one creative way in which these questions can be addressed. Writers like Boucicault don’t need to be left in the past, the preserve of academics, if writers today are brave enough to enter into a dialogue with them.

An Octoroon is on at the Theatre for a New Audience until 8th March 2015. Tickets cost $60-85 but under 30s and students can get tickets for $20 under the New Deal (what I did!).

If you know of any other productions and adaptations of 19th-century plays in the New York area you think the Secret Victorianist should see then let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!