Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the London Metropolitan Archives: Victorian London in Photographs

Last weekend, I visited an exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives that brings to life the city as it looked to the Victorians, through a selection of photographs from the period.

London is explored here from many angles – there are shots of the city skyline (dominated by St Paul’s Cathedral), but also photographs of children in the city’s slums and portraits of famous actors and madhouse inmates.

The exhibition at the LMA (London Metropolitan Archives)
It’s a strange mash up of the unknown and the familiar. London has changed a lot and yet there are still photographs that feel instantly recognisable, albeit that all the images, of course, feel more distant due to the black and white colouring.

The patients of Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum are among the most ‘modern’ human subjects in terms of their appearance. With hair clipped short and in less restrictive clothing than most of their contemporaries, they don’t feel very different at all – making their incarceration for their mental – and, it appears at times, physical – disabilities all the more shocking.

Whitehall from Trafalgar Square (1839)
What’s most revealing about the exhibition is what these early photographers thought to take photographs of – what, for them, was worth memorialisation. There are images of buildings doomed for demolition, demonstrating an early interest in conservation (and not just the conservation of buildings considered grand or opulent). And one of my favourite selections of images was an album of children attending a fancy dress party at the turn of the century, all decked out in costume.

Perhaps the images of most historical interest are those documenting the construction of Tower Bridge (1886-1894) and those of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace (1851). These latter photographs were particularly notable for me, as, although I’ve read personal and fictional accounts of the Exhibition many times, I’ve never been able to see its impressive scale for myself.

Workers at the Crystal Palace
Those with an interest in early photographic methods will also enjoy seeing the small selection of cameras on show, although I wish there had been some more explanation of how these worked. And the vast array of photographers’ business cards in the exhibition aptly demonstrates the growth of this newly formed and booming industry.

Those visiting the Archives seemed mainly to be academics or those investigating their own personal family histories, but, since the exhibition is free, if you find yourself in Clerkenwell, why not drop in for a visit? Taking these photos took more than the press of a button and the quick application of an Instagram filter, and they are a valuable time portal allowing us to experience Victorian London today.

Children in fancy dress
You can visit Victorian London in Photographs at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell until 29 October 2015.

Do you know of any New York City exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Solitary House/Tom-All-Alone’s, Lynn Shepherd (2012)

While all of the neo-Victorian novels I have written about so far in this series owe an enormous debt to writers who lived in the nineteenth century, Lynn Shepherd’s The Solitary House (published as Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK) is only the second to rework and borrow heavily from a famous Victorian text (the first was John Harding’s 2010 Florence and Giles which I blogged on here).

Shepherd’s mystery is a story set in the world of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3), fused in the final pages with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859). She argues that she was able ‘to create a space between these two great novels, where [she] could locate a new and independent story of [her] own’.

Lynn Shepherd
It’s an interesting premise, but the terms of Shepherd’s experiment are slightly unclear. In some cases she borrows wholesale, especially from Dickens, using Bleak House’s most famous characters, including the lawyer Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket and Lady Dedlock. But elsewhere the rules are bent and characters changed to fit the new (and much more gruesome!) story. Esther becomes Hester, Mr Jarndyce Mr Jarvis, Ada Clara and Richard Rick.

As someone who knows Bleak House so well I found myself getting a little confused, unsure which plot points remained intact, and which information I was meant to be privy to as a reader, at each point. I’m almost inclined to agree with one Amazon reviewer who wrote that he/she ‘suspect[ed] someone who hasn't read Bleak House will enjoy it more than someone who has’.

Where Shepherd doesn’t turn to Dickens for inspiration is in incorporating passages of light relief. This novel is oppressively dark, without the humour offered by the Jellybys and Turveydrops. She’s at her best in graveyard scenes, grim discoveries, and action sequences. Lovers of modern crime fiction will enjoy her decidedly unsanitary London and it’s hard not to be drawn in by the sensory descriptions of this dangerous and violent city.

But whether you care about the protagonist – disgraced former policeman Charles Maddox – is another story. I don’t know if things would have been better had I read the first Charles Maddox mystery – Murder in Mansfield Park (2011), based on Jane Austen’s 1811-1813 novel – but I struggled to connect with the central character.

Maddox isn’t a brilliant detective. He is repeatedly stuck and has to go to his great uncle for help, in his slightly more coherent moments (as the older man is suffering from dementia). He is quite colourless as a character, with backstory - for instance his young sister’s kidnap - taking the place of true personality development. I think perhaps the novel suffered from the scale of its ambition in this respect. At less than a third of the size of Bleak House, The Solitary House still has a huge array of characters, making it difficult to effect the same level of intimacy with the protagonist we expect from modern detective-driven fiction.

In many of the neo-Victorian novels I’ve looked at – most recently Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White – there’s also been an interesting examination of the gender politics of nineteenth-century fiction, but, although The Solitary House is a story all about the abuse of women and children by aristocratic men, don’t expect this novel to pass the Bechdel test. If a female character is introduced, odds on she’ll be a) murdered, b) prostituted or c) abused (and probably all three), which is disappointing as much more interesting things could have been done here, even with a well-off white male protagonist.

Most unsettling of all is the character Molly – Maddox’s servant girl who is black and remains mute throughout the book. Shepherd relies on her readers’ discomfort about Molly’s position and her master’s treatment of her, but doesn’t give a satisfying conclusion to this storyline. As with the treatment of Collins’s and Dickens’s texts, I was left feeling frustrated by this aspect of the novel and a feeling that, with more care and revision, the text could have been substantially better.

If you’ve read The Solitary House/Tom-All-Alone’s, I’d love to know what you thought. And, if you have any suggestions on which neo-Victorian novel the Secret Victorianist should read next then let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Secret Victorianist at Brooklyn Historical Society

Two weekends ago, the Secret Victorianist visited the Brooklyn Historical Society to see two exhibitions relevant to anyone with an interest in nineteenth-century history.

Brooklyn Historical Society
The first, In Pursuit of Freedom – Brooklyn Abolitionists (on show until Winter 2018), celebrates the lives of the unsung heroes of Brooklyn’s anti-slavery movement.

Laid out chronologically and covering the period from the end of the Revolutionary War to post-Civil War Reconstruction, the exhibition uses written testimonials, maps, paintings, photographs and census records to explore the lives of black and white Abolitionists who lived in Brooklyn - the centre of New York slavery due to its high levels of agricultural labour.

The six towns of Kings County
What I particularly enjoyed about the exhibition was seeing the geographical changes in Brooklyn over the course of the nineteenth century and how the black communities that lived there had a large impact on the history of the area and country.

It was also fascinating to learn more about slavery in the North and the continued tensions about the issue, even post-Abolition - especially since the most many of the most famous examinations of the American slave trade, from a non-American perspective, focus on the South. New York, for instance, was home to anti-Abolition riots, and spats of extreme violence between former slave and Irish immigrant communities, who were often competing for the same jobs.

'In Pursuit of Freedom - Brooklyn Abolitionists'
The exhibition also features a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863).

Meanwhile, the second exhibition - Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn (on show until Spring 2016) – focuses on the 30,000 Brooklynites, from all backgrounds, who fought for the North in the Civil War, through the lens of their letters home.

The well-curated and interactive exhibit gives you insights into life on the battlefield and the lives in Brooklyn these men had left behind, drawing you into personal stories of loss and the human impact of war.

'Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn'
The Society’s beautiful building (constructed in 1878-1881) is a wonderful setting to learn more about the area’s history in, and there are also exhibits focusing on more modern features of life in the city – from a history of New York City’s Disability Rights Movement to a plotted history of the city’s sewerage systems. I would definitely recommend a visit.

Where in New York would you like to see the Secret Victorianist visit next? Let me know – here, in Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Review: A Laodicean, Thomas Hardy (1881)

The title page to Hardy's A Laodicean (1881)
The subtitle of Thomas Hardy’s lesser-known 1881 novel, A Laodicean, is ‘A Story of To-day’. This nods to one of the main points of difference between this novel and much of Hardy’s canon – nostalgic, and so often a swansong for a dying rural way of life.

A Laodicean is a novel whose plot relies on modern technology – on an exchange between lovers carried out via telegraph (and as fraught with misunderstandings as many text conversations today), on an altered photograph (possible even in the art’s early years, pre-Photoshop), and on the ability for its characters to race around Europe, almost colliding with each other in a series of missed connections.

The heroine at its centre, however, Paula Power, is, like Hardy, not so sure whether her loyalties lie with the past or the future. The daughter of a self-made railway magnate, she nevertheless lives in the decayed splendour of Castle de Stancy, a mediaeval pile fallen into dilapidation, and finds herself increasingly attracted to the hereditary grandeur it represents.

What is Paula? Low church or high, practical or romantic, a representative of a new ruling class or a new-moneyed misfit lacking the necessary refinement for her role as mistress here? These questions are at the heart of Hardy’s story, and are played out most obviously in Paula’s choice of husband.

"But, My Dear Lady, You Promised", George Du Maurier, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1880)
There is young George Somerset, an architect with youth and ambition to recommend him, but then again there is handsome army captain William de Stancy, older, morally questionable, and surrounded by the reflected glory of his family’s antiquated past.

Readers hoping for emotional access to Paula as she makes her choice though are doomed to disappointment. The novel’s title comes from an early Christian church, the Laodiceans, addressed by John in the Book of Revelation thus:

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Paula too remains lukewarm throughout the novel, inspiring sexual passion, rather than feeling it, and coming down on the side of modernity apparently more through chance, and the delinquent past of the aristocracy, than through any strong feeling for the modern age (and Somerset).

"What An Escape!" He Said., George Du Maurier, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1880)
This makes the novel feel, at times, like a comedy or errors (complete with villains who are either weak, scarred, or illegitimate), with only hints of Hardy’s usual tragic touch. Charlotte de Stancy, William’s sister and Paula’s confidante, and the castle itself are the martyrs to the coming age, with the happy couple blind to the suffering of the former, and in disagreement over the fate of the latter.

In the closing paragraphs of the novel, Somerset and Paula have the following conversation

[Somerset]: “We will build a new house from the ground, eclectic in style. We will remove the ashes, charred wood, and so on from the ruin, and plant more ivy. The winter rains will soon wash the unsightly smoke from the walls, and Stancy Castle will be beautiful in its decay. You, Paula, will be yourself again, and recover, if you have not already, from the warp given to your mind (according to Woodwell) by the medievalism of that place.”

[Paula]: “And be a perfect representative of ‘the modern spirit’?” she inquired; “representing neither the senses and understanding, nor the heart and imagination; but what a finished writer calls ‘the imaginative reason’?”

I won’t spoil the ending here, but suffice to say, it is the indecisive Paul who is given the final word.

De Stancy Screened Paula With His Umbrella As They Stood With Their Backs To The Wind., George Du Maurier, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1880)
If you decide to read A Laodicean, you’re in for an uneven experience – expect irritating characters, an unsatisfying conclusion, and a tedious lovers’ correspondence which you could say, with some justification, finds a modern equivalent in the email drama of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). But you’ll find here too an unusual premise, a heroine who defies stereotypes, some breathtaking prose, a rich display Hardy’s architectural knowledge, and insights into the very modern world of the 1880s.

Have you read A Laodicean? I’d love to know what you thought of the novel. Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the Tenement Museum, New York City

It’s Labor Day weekend here in the US, so I decided to honour the occasion by visiting the Tenement Museum in New York – a museum dedicated to preserving the stories of the immigrant workers who made the city what it is today.

Founded in 1988, by Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, the museum tells the stories of the 7,000 or so people who lived at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in the setting of the small apartments which were their homes between the 1860s and the 1930s.

You can only visit the museum on one of the guided tours. These are themed, and deal with different aspects of the building and area’s history. The tour I joined (naturally, as an Irishwoman and a Victorianist) was focused on an Irish immigrant family who lived in the tenement in the 1860s – the Moores.

Entitled ‘Irish Outsiders’, the tour told the sad story of the short period the Moores lived at 97 Orchard Street – their difference from their largely German neighbours, the discrimination they, and their countrymen and women, would have faced when seeking employment, and the death of their baby, Agnes, from malnutrition.

The living conditions were cramped. They were a family of five, living in three rooms, with no plumbing – a set up that helps you put into perspective the complaints of many New Yorkers about the size of their apartments today. Interior windows help some light penetrate the inner rooms (although they still feel dark and claustrophobic), yet these were installed not for aesthetic reasons, but to combat tuberculosis – a very real threat in this period.

The mother Bridget’s life is a particularly bleak one to think about. She had eight children prior to her death aged 36, four of whom survived. Her days would have been a constant fight against coal dust and a never-ending relay of bringing pail upon pail of water up four flights of stairs, filled with the pain of suffering her own ill health, and seeing her baby dying.

Yet the story isn’t without hope. For a start, 97 Orchard Street seems to have been far from the worst of these tenement buildings. The privies in the backyard flushed, redecoration was relatively frequent (as the museum found when the historians investigated the layers of wallpaper), and the landlord lived in the building and made renovations beyond those required by him legally.

What’s more, the Moores may not have been removed from their neighbours, despite their differences in origin and religion. The guide played us some recordings of Irish ditties dating from the period, including ‘McNally’s Row of Flats’ – a raucous song about the sense of community that could come from different peoples being thrown into close quarters with each other.

The story the tour tells is ultimately one of upward mobility. One moment we are asked to take a leap of imagination, piecing together what it might have been like to be an illiterate Irish immigrant in the mid-nineteenth century from the building, a baptismal certificate, and some census records. In the next, we are actually holding a photograph of one of the Moore children, taken in the 1930s, by which time she and her husband are well off enough to have their own backyard (in Queens).

A restored apartment in the tenement 
As Europeans, we can find it amusing – ridiculous even – when Americans identify strongly with the heritage of a country they’ve never seen. It’s something of a running joke how absolutely some Americans can assert their Irishness.  Yet, visiting the Tenement Museum, made the connection between New York today and the Ireland these men and women left behind feel much closer. And remembering the conditions your ancestors lived in when seeking out a new life must be very special.

Some aspects of life in 97 Orchard Street have all but faded from our modern world – but immigration is a real and living issue. Maybe investigating the histories of these families in the Tenement Museum won’t get us any closer to determining how the stories of today’s immigrants might end, but I firmly believe that learning about the lives of those who worked to make this city what it is can help us grow in tolerance, understanding and compassion.

Where else in New York City would you like to see the Secret Victorianist visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Teaching Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

These are the first lines of a poem that many of us met for the first time in our schooldays – Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (pub. 1833, rev. 1842).

I’ve already blogged about the importance of choosing poems with a strong narrative when introducing children to poetry, so it’s little wonder that this tale of enchantment, love at first sight, and death, remains an English class favourite.

In today’s post I’ll suggest a few creative ways to get a class excited about the poem and engaged with Victorian poetry from what may well be their first encounter with the period.

'I am half-sick of shadows - said the Lady of Shalott', John William Waterhouse (1915) 
1. Retell the story in prose: Most students will be more familiar with prose at this early point in their literary education than poetry. That means there’s more to helping them understand a poem than glossing any unfamiliar words. Asking them to retell the story as a prose narrative will increase their familiarity with the poem and also provides a great opportunity to discuss as a group those questions that Tennyson leaves unanswered.

She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay

What is this curse? Is it real or the result of the Lady’s unhappiness and isolation?

For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

What causes the Lady’s death? Can you think of any other examples of literary texts where singing and death are linked?

'The Lady of Shalott', Arthur Hughes (1873)
2. Write a Tennysonian stanza: ‘The Lady of Shalott’ has a distinctive rhyme scheme (AAAABCCCB). Ask students to compose a stanza of their own following this pattern – either on the subject matter of the story or on a topic of their choice.

Engaging with the poem’s structure in this creative way will be a much more memorable experience than simply learning to letter the lines. And, what’s more, it’ll help students start to think about rhymes in the poem that are less than perfect.

Does ‘barley’ really rhyme with ‘clearly’? Or ‘balcony’ with ‘by’?

'The Lady of Shalott', John William Waterhouse (1888)
3. Draw a mini-scene: Tennyson’s poem is awash with visual details, and every stanza tells a mini-story in itself. Give each student a stanza to illustrate. Examples could include:

The isle where the Lady lives where Four gray walls, and four gray towers/Overlook a space of flowers’;

The reaper who thinks he hears a ‘fairy’, while working at the end of the day;

The Lady, alone in her tower (‘A pearl garland winds her head:/ She leaneth on a velvet bed,/ Full royally apparelled’);

The villagers watched by the Lady (‘surly village churls,/ And the red cloaks of market girls');

The appearance of Lancelot (‘All in the blue unclouded weather/ Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,/ The helmet and the helmet-feather/ Burn'd like one burning flame together’).

'The Lady of Shalott looking at Lancelot', John William Waterhouse (1893)

4. Create a soundtrack: ‘The Lady of Shalott’ is divided into four Parts, each with a distinct mood and subject matter. Have your students imagine they were making the poem into a movie.

What songs/pieces of music would best accompany each section of the poem? Why? What if the movie was set in the twenty-first century?

'The Lady of Shalott', John Atkinson Grimshaw (1878)

If you teach ‘The Lady of Shalott’, I’d love to hear about how you inspire your class! Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber (2002)

‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have never been here before.’

So begins Michel Faber’s epic story about a prostitute called Sugar who rises through the ranks of society in Victorian London.

The narrator is right. While the city may be familiar to us from countless nineteenth-century novels, Faber shows us a side of Victorian life we have not seen before – sexually explicit and awash with all manner of bodily fluids, as well as filth.

Perfumer William Rackham spends his first night in Sugar’s bed marinating in his own urine, while passed out in a drunken stupor; his young daughter still wets the bed every night; his wife is so ignorant about the workings of her own body that she believes she is set upon by demons and dying each time she menstruates.

Romola Garai as Sugar in the 2011 miniseries of The Crimson Petal and the White
This is a world where servants must collect chamber pots of their superiors’ diarrhoea, where women douche with harsh chemicals as a contraceptive measure, and abortion is a dangerous and solitary endeavour, still slightly less risky than the trials of childbirth itself.

It is these details that Faber repeatedly draws our attention to over some 900 pages, but our intimacy with his characters extends beyond this insight into their most private physical moments. Hopping from head to head – without ever letting us doubt that this is Sugar’s story – Faber crafts fascinating and complex characters. Particularly notable are pious Henry Rackham, William’s brother, and Emmeline Fox, the woman he loves – an advocate for the Rescue Society, whose liberal views on prostitution see her ostracised by wider society. Religion is a theme second only to sexuality in this novel, where the two are frequently thrown into fierce opposition.

Michel Faber (1960-)
There are also a cast of lesser players – Dickensian in their vivid characterisation. There’s Bodley and Ashwell – a pair of permanent and debauched bachelors -, a scheming lady’s maid (a character type with a fine Victorian heritage), and an old man in a wheelchair who mans the entrance to one of London’s filthiest brothels, prophesying woe to all who will listen to him.

Yet, while lovers of Victorian literature will love the personalities they meet along the way in the novel, they may face disappointment if they expect to find a clever and tight plot. There’s little scheming or intrigue here - the main character doesn’t even think to change her name to something more suitable when making the transition from whore to governess. Several major characters die or disappear with no resolution to their storylines and you can feel deprived of a sense of closure in the novel’s closing pages.

This is a mood piece – a creative exploration of the darker side of Victorian London – with a fiercely feminist sub-text. Times are a-changing, the narrator reminds us. Men like William Rackham will see their industries depleted, their wives emancipated and their servants disappear over the next half-century.

Sugar, an inexplicably educated and enlightened girl raised up from the gutter, doesn’t need to be believable. Agnes, Rackham’s wife, in her madness, thinks her husband’s mistress is actually her own spiritual guardian – and the thing is, she’s not wrong. Sugar is an avenging angel who combines the sexual potency, intellectual power, and brave compassion that can undo the Victorian patriarchy. In the story, she abandons her novel, but its opening paragraphs make a neat counterpart to Faber’s own:

All men are the same. If there is one thing I have learned in my time on Earth, it is this. All men are the same.

‘How can I assert this with such conviction? Surely I have not known all the men there are to know? On the contrary, dear reader, perhaps I have!

‘How smug you are, Reader, if you are a member of the sex that boasts a scrag of gristle in your trousers! You fancy that this book will amuse you, thrill you, rescue you from the horror of boredom (the profoundest horror that your privileged sex must endure) and that, having consumed it like sweetmeat, you will be left at liberty to carry on exactly as before! Exactly as you have done since Eve was first betrayed in the Garden! But this book is different, dear Reader. This book is a KNIFE. Keep your wits about you; you will need them!

Which novel should be next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!