Saturday, 14 July 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: Snow Flower and The Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)

While reading most of the novels in my Neo-Victorian Voices series I’ve felt like I’m returning to a familiar world. Even if the authors of the twenty-first century have different sensibilities and interests than those of the nineteenth, including lesbian liaisons, magical circuses and mechanical octopuses against their Victorian backdrops, there is much that is the same—familiar social structures, story stakes, etiquette.

But in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Lisa See transported me to a new world, the Hunan Province in mid-nineteenth-century China. This is a culture with gender segregation more absolute than in your typical Victorian marriage plot, a culture in which young girls undergo excruciating (and vividly described) footbinding to render them attractive husbands they won’t see until their wedding nights, where women communicate the stories of their lives in a secret language, nu shu, before their words are burned upon their deaths.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005)
The novel is the story of Lily and the most meaningful relationship of her life. This relationship isn’t with her husband, who might as well be from a different planet, but with her ‘old same’ or laotong, Snow Flower, a girl from a more prestigious family who share’s Lily’s birth year and month, if not her fate.

See does an incredible job of bringing Lily to life through prose that maintains the pretence that it could have been translated. She explores the cruelties of her characters’ lives without turning them into mouthpieces for contemporary Western ideals. And, through an entirely first person narrative, she prompts us to understand Lily more clearly than she does herself, while maintaining our empathy for her, bringing the story of a passionate friendship to its agonising and inevitable conclusion.

Lisa See (1955-)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is historical fiction at its best—informative and transporting, even while timeless in its recognisable humanity.

Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016)

Sarah Perry’s 2016 The Essex Serpent is a fantasy, but not in the way you might expect from its cover. 

Yes, it deals with the apparent reappearance of a mythical river monster in coastal Essex in 1893. Villagers are drowning, missing and hysterical by turns. There’s definitely something lurking beneath the water.

The Essex Serpent (2016)
But the true fantasy of the novel in its depiction of the nineteenth century. Instead of the oppressive and gloomy setting we’ve come to expect in women-focused historical fiction, Perry’s world is one of glorious possibility, where science and religion harmonise, widowhood brings freedom to roam around the beautifully-described countryside unharassed, and true friendships survive even the messiest of sexual encounters.

The blurb led me to expect a thrilling search for a living fossil, but instead what impressed me most was the novel’s strong impact on my visual imagination. Whether she’s describing rustics skinning moles, a consumptive surrounding herself with beautiful shades of blue, a delectable meal or a sheep stuck in the mud, Perry entrances with her language, pulling you into the pages.

Sarah Perry (1979- )

The Essex Serpent is also a master class in point of view, with Perry moving deftly between her characters’ heads, exposing the nuances and misunderstandings that come with many of our social interactions. Her omniscient voice is the most Victorian aspect of a book, which felt to me, despite critical comparisons of the novel to Dickens, Collins and more, largely modern.

Less successful was the central character, Cora Seaborne, who suffers from two issues often seen in protagonists—an underexplored tragic backstory and an inexplicable ability to make most of the supporting characters fall in love with her. Yet the eccentricity of Cora’s interests (in geology and evolution) and her well-rendered relationship with her (presumably autistic) son keep her interesting. I cared about her story despite these minor quibbles.

One thing I loved about the novel was Perry’s refusal to simplify—to make the characters who believed in religion foolish and those who pursue science bastions of rational progress. Every character in the novel believes in something—in the serpent, counting feathers, housing reform, open heart surgery. And that meant that, while the novel does play at the limits of credulity for a ‘realistic’ work of historical fiction, I kept believing to the end.

Which novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to read next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Origins of Coppelia

A few weeks ago the Secret Victorianist was back at the New York City Ballet (see my thoughts on the NYCB’s Nutcracker here) for a production of Coppelia, the perennially popular story of a man who believes his doll has come to life. The ballet premiered in Paris in 1870, with music by Leo Delibes, libretto by Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter and choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon. The New York City Ballet uses Balachine and Danilova’s 1974 choreography.

The NYCB's Coppelia

Coppelia plays with many of the tropes of European folklore and fairy-tale. Lovers fight and are reunited, youngsters trick old men, reality isn’t always in line with appearances. But watching the NYCB’s production made me wonder about the origins of this nineteenth-century ballet, conceived in a time when clockwork toys were all the rage, not quaint reminders of a distant past.

Coppelia was in fact inspired a story penned by E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King inspired Christmas-favourite The Nutcracker. In 1815 short story Der Sandmann, protagonist Nathanael turns away from loving childhood sweetheart Clara, enraptured by the beautiful Olimpia, who turns out to be an automaton.

There are multiple similarities here. One of Olimpia’s creators goes by the names Copellius and Coppola, directly influencing the names used in the ballet. The dolls in both stories sit on balconies, apparently reading, while watched by pining lovers. And in both cases a man abandons his former love for a fantasy, calling into question the fragility of reality and the fickleness of masculine desire.

But the differences are even more revealing. In the ballet abandoned fiancée Swanhilda steals the show, mimicking the movements of a doll to trick lonely inventor Dr Coppelius and her untrustworthy lover. In Der Sandmann Clara merely suffers patiently and can only enjoy her happy ending after Nathanael’s death.

In the comedy it is the inventor who must be humbled by the end, with order returned to the village and youngsters dancing off neatly in pairs. But in the unnerving and Gothic story, Nathanael’s fate changes the nature of relationships between men and women, with lovers now doubting not only their partners’ sincerity, but also their humanity.

Finally a central theme of Hoffmann’s survives into the NYCB’s choreography in just a couple of moments, where Swanhilda mocks the blinking of the doll’s mechanical eyes. In Der Sandmann the idea of sight is ever present. The threat of the sandman blinding them is used to scare children to bed, a telescope allows Nathanael to ‘see’ Olimpia, without really understanding what she is, and the devastating revelation that she’s just a toy comes when he finds her eyes discarded on the ground.

'Ava' in Ex Machina
It’s easy to think of modern equivalents for these two very different approaches to the idea of women designed for men. The doll Coppelia is the precursor to the fem-bots in Austin Powers, the ballet equivalent of the blow-up doll carried around at a bachelor party. But Olimpia has more kinship with Ava in Ex Machina or an army of Stepford Wives.

Audiences will continue to delight in the unabashed silliness of one of the world’s most popular ballets, to revel in the quaintness of the toy store set, the nostalgia of Germanic villages decked out by ribbons and flowers. But I couldn’t help wishing for a modern take on Coppelia in a world of AI, sex-bots and catfishing.

Do you know of any NYC productions you’d love the Secret Victorianist to watch? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton (2013)

The Luminaries is the kind of novel that makes people uncomfortable (and not just due to its sheer size!). It pushes readers, rather than spoon-feeding them. It breaks many of the rules adhered to by aspiring writers (there are by some counts 19 protagonists—try selling that one to your creative writing professors). And, above all else, it plays with our love of logic—the reasoning and deduction that appeals to fans of mystery and detective fiction—while threatening this with a structure based on the astrological and a conclusion leaning towards the mystical.

Many of the negative reviews of the novel which you can find on Goodreads and Amazon (which aren’t nearly as numerous as those glowing with praise for this Man Booker winner) sound closer to break up letters. Reviewers tell the book they’re not sure if “it’s you or me”. They’re worried that they’ve failed a test, that they’re not the readers they thought they were, that they’ve missed the point.

Eleanor Catton (1985-)
But, as with most novels, The Luminaries, while a monumental achievement, has strengths and weaknesses. Whether you’ll enjoy the novel as much as I did depends on the value you ascribe to each area:

Many of us read historical fiction to be transported to a different place and time and Catton has a wonderful setting in 1860s Hokitika in New Zealand. There are many tropes of the nineteenth-century doorstopper here, in a novel more complex than Dickens’s Bleak House and with multiple narrators as in Collins’s The Woman in White, but the unique setting opens up new possibilities for a cast of gold-diggers, prospectors, politicians, prostitutes, all trying to make it in a new world, greater diversity, with Maori and Chinese characters as well as British transplants, and a spectacular natural backdrop to a very human drama.

Catton is a master of plotting. I’d give anything to see her outline document! If you love to puzzle out novels, obsess over the course of events in the podcast Serial, even draw out your own timelines to keep events straight, this novel might be for you. If not, it won’t be. This novel doesn’t go easy on the casual reader. Skim one sentence and you might miss something. Revelations aren’t repeated or greeted with fanfare.

Pacing and Structure
The structure of The Luminaries is one of its most distinctive features, with parts decreasing in length as the novel progresses to mirror the waning of the moon. The characters act and interact in accordance with the star signs and other astrological bodies they represent, with the star charts preceding each section bringing another dimension to the reading experience. This is all very interesting but the victim of this grand design is the novel’s pacing. The first section is overly long and it takes too much time for any pieces to fall together. The language and the promise of the magic to come was what kept me reading but I can understand why some might have lost their patience. Once the pace picks up so did my reading. It probably took me half the time to read the final 600 pages, than the first 300.

This was one of the most puzzling aspects of the novel for me. The astrological framework provides a distinct basis for each of Catton’s characters and yet they often didn’t feel differentiated enough. Bizarrely, I got more of a sense of personality when we weren’t in that character’s point of view, making me wonder if the omniscient narrative intrusions were keeping us at a distance from those whose heads we were meant to be in. In Victorian style, characters’ traits are described but I rarely saw them acted out in a memorable way. If your favourite thing about fiction is rooting for a hero or heroine you won’t find that here, but it wasn’t the lack of sympathetic protagonist that bothered me—rather the characters felt more like pieces on a chessboard than fully realised human beings.

The Luminaries is beautifully written. Long as the novel was I found myself rereading stellar sentences and pausing to marvel at Catton’s turns of phrase. The voice is simultaneously an homage to nineteenth-century fiction and fresh, bringing something new to our bookshelves. We often hear the maxim that literary fiction is character-driven, but The Luminaries proves the power of plot-driven literary writing.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.