Sunday, 1 October 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Jane Austen Project, Kathleen A. Flynn (2017)

Rachel Katzman, the protagonist of Kathleen A. Flynn’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Project, is offered a chance to do what many fans of the author of Sense and Sensbility and Emma must have longed for — to go back in time to meet the novelist herself, and, hopefully, unearth a long lost manuscript.

On reading the premise, I was expecting a riotous Austen/sci-fi mash up — Pride and Prejudice with time lords rather than zombies. What I got instead was — and it almost feels strange to write this — one of the most realistic depictions of time travel I’ve ever come across.

By this I don’t mean that Flynn has a well-developed theory about how to warp the space/time continuum — the mechanics of the operation remain unclear — but that she has devoted considerable effort to imagining what the experience of suddenly finding yourself in 1815 might be like, describing the sounds, tastes and smells, and allowing us to really feel it, rather than just marvel at the pretty costumes.

The impressiveness of this imaginative leap is added to by the fact that Rachel herself isn’t an early twenty-first century tourist. Her world is alien to us too. It’s one where Jane Austen’s cottage is the site of a sprawling theme park, Austenland, and where the Old British rule the world through a second, even more domineering empire.

Kathleen A. Flynn
Rachel approaches 1815 as she would any other exotic locale (she’s a medical doctor who’s travelled extensively) but the challenges here are different to any she’s experienced before. She and her colleague, Liam Finucane, struggle with how to rent suitable accommodation, secure an introduction to Henry Austen and his set, hire and manage servants. Any aberration from normal social protocol and etiquette could be the difference between their mission’s success and failure, adding an almost thriller-like layer to the usual web of Austenian misunderstanding and misalliance.

Rachel is also a mouthpiece for Flynn to explore why so many of us love Austen — for her keen understanding of humanity rather than a hackneyed ‘marriage plot’. It’s a joy to have a heroine who can love the period without subscribing to its values. Rachel is more comfortable with casual sex than her male colleague, Liam. She’s come armed (literally) with contraceptives so as not to deal with one particular aspect of early nineteenth-century hygiene. She’s the doctor on this mission even if Liam is posing as one.

What I liked best about the novel was the small canvas on which the story was depicted. The number of locations is limited — an echo of what Jane Austen’s life was like — and Flynn manages to introduce high drama with only limited corset ripping and surprisingly few deviations from behaviour one could imagine as contemporary.

I had two slight criticisms. First the ending suffers from the usual paradoxes of time travel and, second, the romance plot wasn’t as compelling and did feel a little predictable (perhaps mirroring where the writer’s interests really lie?).  There were only so many times I wanted to hear about Liam smelling like bay leaves and a taciturn Darcy-esque character is a little unbelievable when he’s just been blasted back centuries.

But, overall, The Jane Austen Project was a pleasant surprise — quirky and highly researched while being eminently readable. A quick shout out to mentions of the disastrous Bronte Projects too — these were very entertaining!

Do you know of any 21st-century novels about the 19th-century you think the Secret Victorianist should read next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Traces of Nineteenth-Century North America: The Secret Victorianist in Ontario and Hawaii

An accusation I hear a lot back home as a European transplant, living in the US, is that America has no history.

“How can you bear to live somewhere there’s no culture?” I’ve been asked, more than once. “Aren’t you the one who likes reading about the past?”

Yet, everywhere I’ve travelled since moving to this continent, I’ve found that history, and in particular nineteenth-century history, is very much alive and well in the popular imagination. Canada and the United States’ comparative youth makes this century (my century) loom even larger, and the sites and monuments that comprise their visible history, while fewer in number, seem to have a greater influence on the shaping of the countries’ current national identities.

Today I want to talk about two very different places I’ve visited in the last month — Fort George in Ontario, Canada and Iolani Palace, once home to Hawaiian royalty in Honolulu.

Fort George

Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort George was a British military structure that housed soldiers and saw combat during the War of 1812.

Today’s reconstruction allows visitors not only to explore buildings designed to mirror those of the early 1800s (living quarters, workshops and the original powder magazine), but also to watch and interact with costumed ‘soldiers’. These re-enactors march, play the fife and drum and shoot rounds from their muskets, with such serious commitment to the tasks at hand that it’s easy to imagine adversarial American troops ranged on the other side of the narrow river.


These volunteers bring the place to life (indeed it almost felt at times like we’d accidentally wandered into 1812!) but I couldn’t help but consider their motivations. What was so attractive to these men, women, and, in many cases, children, about reconnecting with the past, and indeed with Canada’s close ties to the British?

In one way it was surreal to hear ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ played so far from England, but then, that’s how it was sung by the Redcoats the world over — no matter how far the march, how deep the ditch or how exhausting the labour, there was always something connecting you to home.

Iolani Palace

At Iolani Palace in Honolulu I certainly wasn’t expecting to see this same reach and influence of empire. But this spectacular royal home (built 1879-1882) out-European-ed many of the stately houses I’ve seen in Britain and beyond.

Portraits at Iolani Palace
It had electric lights before Buckingham Palace, a fact that dazzled visiting dignitaries and notables (I didn’t realise that Robert Louis Stevenson was once received there). Its reception rooms were decked out with portraits of European, as well as Hawaiian, royals. And, while the palace’s exterior seems designed for the temperate climate and in keeping with Hawaiian styles and traditions, once inside the dining room, ballroom, or music room you could have guessed you were anywhere.

The Music Room at Iolani Palace
The palace also served as a gaol for nine months in 1895 for the then independent kingdom’s final queen, Liliʻuokalani, who was forced out of power by the mainland-backed provisional government. In one of the upper bedrooms you can see the quilt she and one of her ladies in waiting stitched during this period, sections of brightly coloured fabric telling the stories of Hawaii’s unification, royalty and republic.

Visiting an American state with a royal past was as strange as hearing stirrings of British spirit in Canada.

The veranda at Iolani Palace
And Iolani Palace also shared something else with Fort George — the site’s reliance on reconstruction and detective work. Many pieces of the royal family’s furniture and other possessions were sold and scattered, but the team here has worked, and is working tirelessly, to recreate a version of the Palace Hawaii’s kings would have recognised.

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

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Dressmaker’s Dowry, Meredith Jaeger (2017)

Meredith Jaeger’s debut novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, has a lot going for it — an unusual setting (1870s San Francisco), a well-paced plot and the perfect mix of intrigue, violence and romance.

Yet, getting to the end, I couldn’t help but feel the novel, which alternates between the stories of Sarah, a modern-day MFA student whose past holds a dark secret, and Hanna, a nineteenth-century dressmaker investigating the disappearance of her friend, could have done with better editing.

Reading the novel is a revealing experience for an aspiring novelist, as its cracks expose some of the challenges of writing successful historical fiction:


Jaeger has clearly studied her setting, immersed herself in stories of San Francisco’s poverty and crime and pored over contemporary maps. She weaves facts about the setting into her historical storyline well, bringing the world Hanna lives in to life through sensorial details.

But it’s in her nineteenth-century characters’ dialogue that the illusion slips. Their speech reads as very stiff and lacking in humanity, with old-fashioned phrases (‘lucky wench’, ‘I fret for them’, ‘feminine ailments’) peppered in the midst of twenty-first century sentences.

Building a Connection Between Past and Present

Adopting a dual POV is a common technique among writers of historical fiction today. It allows for more exposition and explanation of the past than a novel entirely set in another time period and gives readers a character to identify with, who ‘could be them’.

Jaeger though makes two fatal errors in how she uses this technique to build a connection between past and present.

First, she not only makes her present day character, Sara, a mouthpiece for expressing opinions about the 1870s (forgivable since this is a character whose actively researching the period), but also uses her to over-emphasize the parallels she wants to draw between the divided society of nineteenth-century SF and the city we see today. Sara drifts into Mary Sue territory, making her own story less emotionally impactful and leading the novel to feel, in parts, like a lecture, where little trust is placed in the reader.

Second, the tie between Sara and Hanna is fraught with coincidence, setting the very premise for the novel on shaky ground, and there hardly seems to be enough contrast between the women — here we are, over one hundred years later, and women are still being ‘saved’ by rich men from one particular, privileged family.

Good and Evil

Finally, Jaeger struggles to keep her novel from slipping into cliché, especially when it comes to depicting her characters. They are all very clearly good or bad, with no reversals in our expectations. Take this description of Robert Havensworth:

'Though he had a handsome face, his green eyes sent a chill down to her bones. His long fingers, adorned with gold rings, wrapped around the head of his cane, radiated power — and the darkness beneath it.'

I mean, would you trust this man?!

Sarah and Hanna are infallible judges of character, and thus so are Jaeger’s readers, making what should be a thrilling race to uncover the ending all too predictable.

Meredith Jaeger
What twenty-first century novel about the nineteenth century would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Art Review: Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, SFMOMA, San Francisco

The Secret Victorianist found herself in San Francisco last week and took the opportunity to see a second exhibition dedicated to the work of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at the SFMOMA.

'Between the Clock and the Bed' (1940-1943)
The New York City Neue Galerie’s Munch and Expressionism, which I reviewed back in February 2016, had looked at the relationship between the Norwegian painter and his expressionist peers and featured his most enduringly famous painting — ‘The Scream’ (1893). But this SF exhibit was focused on the artist himself, highlighting the synergies between works produced by Munch at very different points in his career and life in its thematic arrangement.

Munch’s numerous self-portraits make up the centrepiece of the show, which takes its title from the 1940-1943 painting ‘Between the Clock and the Bed’, in which the artist stands, his face blurred, apparently waiting for death.

'Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek' (1911)
Munch stares out at visitors from every side of the room, thoughtful in pastels (‘Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek’, 1911), despairing with a bottle of wine (‘Self-Portrait with Wine’, 1906) and even burning in Hell (‘Self-Portrait in Hell’, 1903), underlying his interest in rendering the psychological in paint.

'Self-Portrait with Wine’ (1906)
With similar artworks side by side, Munch’s obsession with specific scenes and images, sometimes across decades, becomes clear.

‘Self-Portrait in Hell’ (1903)
There’s the death of his fourteen-year-old sister, Johanne Sophie, which he dubs ‘The Sick Child’ and plays with, using various paint techniques.

'The Sick Child' (1907)
‘The Scream’ is recognisable in the dissolving faces of ‘The Kiss’ (1897) and the backdrop to ‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892).

‘The Kiss’ (1897)
Loneliness pervades the exhibition as the only way to form a relationship with others seems to be to lose something of yourself.

‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892)
The last work I viewed before exiting the gallery was ‘Eye in Eye’ (1894), a painting where skeletal male and female figures reminiscent of Adam and Eve stare at each other in a contentious, more than romantic, scene. That is the tension, the question Munch brings to life — what is the price of joining your personal psychological drama and pain with another’s?

‘Eye in Eye’ (1894)
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you’d like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.