Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: T is for Text, Time (and Trains)

A few days ago, I watched Richard Curtis’ About Time (2013) – a film which deals with time travel but through a romantic and domestic lens. The movie struck me in two ways – one, in its concentration on only one character who could travel through time (meaning we could still trace his development chronologically) and two, in its message that time must progress (people grow up, move on, die) even if somebody could magically have the power to warp it. In these two points, the film’s play with time seemed analogous to many Victorian novels and particularly to a novel I’ve been reading recently – Thomas Hardy’s 1871 Desperate Remedies.

“I’m not the text” Miss Aldclyffe tells Cytherea Graye curtly, when the young companion questions her employer in Hardy’s Desperate Remedies, as to why she never married. She is right. Important as Miss Aldclyffe (also named Cytherea) is to Hardy’s first published novel, and central as ‘reading’ her and her secrets is to the unravelling of the plot, the characters which give shape and structure to the story are the young lovers – Cytherea Graye and Edward Springrove. It is not only Miss Aldclyffe who tells us so. Hardy’s very first sentence lays out for his readers who we should be concentrating on:

‘In the long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance which renders worthy of record some experiences of Cytherea Graye, Edward Springrove, and others, the first event directly influencing the issue was a Christmas visit.’

Immediately after this line we are confused by the introduction of another Graye (Ambrose, not Cytherea) and another Cytherea (Bradleigh, not Graye), while no Springrove appears at all. Yet, Hardy’s opener is a stake in the ground, alerting us to who this text will centre on and indicating that what will be related about these two characters – Ambrose Graye and Cytherea Bradleigh – is purely prefatory.

There is something else, of course, which alerts us to this. Hardy starts each section by indicating the timeframe it will take place within. This means we know this first section is to cover off ‘The Events of Thirty Years’. As the novel progresses, events become more concentrated in a period of time. In this first section, Hardy can cover off thirty years in one fell swoop, while the longest periods dealt with after this are ‘The Events of Ten Months’, the shortest ‘The Events of Three Hours’. The historical date (1835) and length of period covered, along with the knowledge that the characters named are not the main protagonists, helps readers label this section as introductory and signposts from the off our reading experience.

Why does this matter? A novelist has almost entirely free rein when it comes to time, with readers accepting the pace unquestioningly so Hardy’s headings could almost be seen as unnecessary. What they do do however is draw our attention to this strange power of the novelist (the time bending and omnipresent narrator) making us hyper-conscious of how the text can speed up or slow at important moments.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the passage describing the burning of the Three Tranters Inn. A burning heap of coach-grass sets fire to the nearby building, and Hardy traces the slow process which led to the catastrophe, repeatedly drawing our attention to shortening values of time.
The area behind the house has been a wasteland for ‘many years’, the uprooted coach-grass has been left, over a period of time, to ‘wither in the sun’, then ‘kindled three days previous’ to the events of tonight. Mr Springrove, the owner of the inn, checks on the fire ‘two or three times’ the first night, ‘the next morning’ and again at ‘bedtime’.  For the ‘whole of the third day’, the pile smoulders without change, then, after a cursory glance at it, Mr Springrove goes to bed at ‘half past ten o’clock’.  He is careless and misses the ‘quivering of the air around the heap’ which indicates the slowly rising temperature. ‘By eleven’ all are asleep. ‘At a quarter past eleven’ there is a crackle. Then ‘at twenty past eleven’ a piece of ignited fern is carried towards the building; ‘five minutes later’ the same happens to a second piece; ‘a minute later’ another piece lands on a heap of thatch.  When the building is finally set alight we are told:

‘The hurdles and straw roof of the frail erection became ignited in their turn , and, abutting as the shed did on the back of the inn, flamed up to the eaves of the main roof in less than thirty seconds’ [emphasis mine].

This whole passage is masterfully done, building suspense and making us acutely aware of the novelist’s ability to ration time, while the series of events leading to the fire are like something from a Final Destination death sequence. And it isn’t just natural developments (fire, breeze, the fluttering of a fern) – the human plot also relies on timings and often train timetables, which Hardy describes in minute detail on the night of Cytherea’s wedding. Catastrophe can, and often does, come down to missing a train, misreading a timetable, intercepting a letter carried on a mail-train.

Hardy and Hollywood may not seem natural bedfellows but the narratives of both the film and the novel which were on my mind this week are united by an obsession with time, what this means for character, and how it affects the crafting of a text.

What should be ‘U’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Why Studying English will Ruin Your Life...

You may have heard that being a literature grad is a sure fire way to win worldly success - just consider the resulting parental pride, transferable employment skills, and high esteem of Tory politicians. But sadly, you were wrong – take it from the Secret Victorianist. Studying English will in fact destroy your life one area at a time…

1. Greetings Cards: The sentimental poem in the birthday card from your nan, a token of affection from a friend overseas - every missive designed to bring a tear to the eye and warmth to your heart is officially ruined for you. Some say it’s the thought which counts, but the lack of scansion and the clichéd sentiments will make you want to run a mile.

2. Shop signs: Which English grad doesn’t know the horror of the misplaced apostrophe? This obsession may be becoming a problem…

3. Your own writing: Remember as a child how you used to ‘make books’ and write stories? Not anymore! You can’t write a line without suffering extreme anxiety, serious writer’s block, and an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. 

4. Alcohol: Three years at uni and suddenly you find that far too many of your heroes were depressive alcoholics with dysfunctional relationships. Still feeling hopeful about how that ‘quiet drink’ tonight is going to go? I thought not. 

5. Love: A mutually destructive but passionate love affair with a fellow writer may have its downsides as well as perks, but the truth is most lovers just won’t be able to measure up to historical examples or fictional flings. My advice? Head to bed with a book – here’s some brief suggestions if you’re after a quick rebound!

How has studying English destroyed YOUR life? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or, as always, by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Review: The Black Robe, Wilkie Collins (1881)

Wilkie Collins’s 1881 The Black Robe tells the story of the misadventures of Lewis Romayne in a novel which deals with depression, madness, a fatal duel, marital breakdown, capture by South American ‘natives’, ill-motivated religious conversion, bigamy and disinheritance. The somewhat mad premise is that scheming Jesuit Father Branwell is out to win back a monastery seized by Henry VIII from the Church and the novel is best-known for its anti-Catholic prejudice but there are many other reasons why this Collins novel is well worth reading. 

For general readers: Romayne is a deeply egotistical and irritating protagonist and, while his wife Stella is realistic and rounded, if cultivating deep sympathies with characters is what’s most important to you, you may be a little disappointed. Father Branwell, on the other hand is a wonderful villain, worthy of comparison with Count Fosco in the much more widely-read The Woman in White (1859). We are acquainted with his plotting to such an extent, through the inclusion of his written correspondence, that we almost begin to sympathise with him, making for an interesting reading experience. At times the novel feels a little uneven, especially in its pacing and use of split narration - this is a novel which reads like it could have gone in several ways and not one in which Collins demonstrates the very best of his skill in multiple narration. But the moments of wonderfully human insight, Collins’s nuanced understanding of relationships and the sensational drama of some of the novel’s incidents more than make up for it. 

For students: The Black Robe is obviously extremely useful in terms of understanding nineteenth-century suspicions of Catholicism but the text is perhaps most well-suited to an analysis of marriage. Henry VIII isn’t just the pretence for the plot centred on Romayne’s property but a model for the debates which follow on what constitutes a ‘true’ union. The novel sees the sensation novelist’s usual preoccupation with the legalities of marriage set alongside religious considerations (the first time I’ve seen this), while Collins also details a breakdown in communication between husband and wife in a way which recalls his The Law and the Lady (1875) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Hostages to Fortune (1871), giving a wonderful insight into the pressures of Victorian domesticity. There is also, as usual, much material here for students working on madness, along with a wedding day very similar to Jane and Rochester’s interrupted nuptials in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre.

Which lesser-known nineteenth-century novel should the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: S is for Swinburne, Sappho and Sadomasochism

Matthew Arnold criticised Algernon Charles Swinburne for his ‘fatal habit of using one hundred words when one would suffice’. So it is perhaps strange that Swinburne, a poet notable for his diffusiveness, should be so heavily indebted to that most fragmentary of poets, known for her enigmatic brevity – Sappho.

Sappho’s slight oeuvre is of course the result 2,600 years of imperfect transmission but the broken nature of her poetry has become one of the most identifiable reasons of its appeal. Swinburne loved and admired Sappho from his schooldays at Eton, but feminist critics have criticised nineteenth-century male poets such as Swinburne and Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier for exploiting the gaps in Sappho, inserting themselves in the silence and populating the elisions with expressions of their own sexual and poetic desires.

Swinburne certainly found Sappho spoke to him in very personal ways, encompassing, but also going beyond, questions of sexual preferences – the appeal of sadomasochism, the experience and expression of what we might label ‘bisexual’ love. Sappho is perhaps most directly prominent in Swinburne’s ‘Anactoria’ (published as part of Poems and Ballands in 1866).

In the Days of Sappho, John William Godward
Anactoria is a female lover of Sappho’s, mentioned by name in Fragment 16, but it is Fragment 31, traditionally referred to as the ‘Ode to Anactoria’ despite the lack of addressee, which informs Swinburne’s poem more directly. In Sappho’s poem it is the physical effects of love and particularly sexual jealousy on the poet herself which is the focus:

For whenever I glance at you, it seems that I can say nothing at all but my tongue is broken in silence, and that instant a light fire rushes beneath my skin. I can no longer see anything in my eyes and my ears are thundering, and cold sweat pours down me, and shuddering grasps me all over, and I am greener than grass, and I seem to myself to be little short of death.

And Swinburne’s poem, written in a voice which is later confirmed to be Sappho’s, starts in the same vein:

My life is bitter with thy love, thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.

But in Swinburne’s poem, the violence soon shifts to be directed towards Anactoria, not just caused by her: 

I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.
I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,
Intense device, and superflux of pain;
Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake
Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache

This violence isn’t only the result of jealousy – rather, it is a source of pleasure in itself and the natural result of a love which is imagined as being equally painful to both parties:

I feel thy blood against thy blood: my pain
Pains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.

For both Swinburne and Sappho, sex and pain are inexorably linked and in both poems the natural result of love is death, but Sappho’s importance to the later poet isn’t only a question of a shared interest in sadomasochism. In a 1914 article in The Saturday Review on Sappho, Swinburne wrote:

Judging even from the mutilated fragments fallen even within our reach from the broken altar of her sacrifice of a song, I for one have always agreed with all Grecian tradition in thinking Sappho to be beyond all question and comparison the very greatest poet that ever lived.

In ‘Anactoria’ the equal pain which Swinburne imagines, is not mirrored in an equal death – Sappho will survive, while her lovers will not, because of the uniqueness of her song:

Yea, they shall say, earth’s womb has borne in vain
New things, and never this best thing again;
Borne days and men, borne fruits and wars and wine,
Seasons and songs, but no song more like mine [emphasis mine]

In his 1914 article, Swinburne continues:

Aeschylus is the greatest poet who ever was also a prophet; Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist who ever was also a poet; but Sappho is simply nothing less – as she is certainly nothing more – than the greatest poet who ever was at all.

It is this ‘faith’ of Swinburne’s in the perfection of Sappho’s poetry, rather than her sexual subjects, which cements her worth.

What should be T in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Review: Merchant's House Museum, NYC

The house seen from the back garden
The Secret Victorianist was in New York City the other week and visited the Merchant’s House Museum – a detached house which has remained largely unchanged since it was home to the Tredwell family in the nineteenth century.

Built in 1832, the house (on East Fourth Street, between Layfayette Street and Bowery) was sold to Seabury Tredwell (an NYC merchant) in 1840. He and his wife lived there with their eight children (six girls and two boys), with the youngest daughter Gertrude maintaining the house in near original condition until her death in 1933.

You can still see the original décor and furniture – a dining table, with its extra leaves to extend when the Tredwells entertained, beds which family members were born and died in, bells rang to summon servants. And the museum even has a collection of the family’s clothes. While I was there, several of the family’s wedding dresses were on special display – from a plain empire line gown from the 1810s, to the more full-skirted and highly-decorated styles of the 1840s. Not that weddings were especially plentiful in the Tredwell family – only two daughter and one son of the eight ever married and no direct descendants remain.

Inside the Merchant's House Museum
This aids to the poignancy of the Merchant’s House Museum as a home stuck in a time warp. A recording of a piece from one of the family’s pianoforte exercise books plays on repeat in the front parlour and you feel throughout like you are intruding in somebody’s home. Unlike many of the grand National Trust properties you might visit in the UK, this building is very ordinary, and its former occupants’ lives understandable and relatable. It is all the more important and in some ways interesting for this – but its survival has relied on time, and this family, being unable to move on.

The museum’s continued survival however is not guaranteed. Wrangling over the development of an adjacent property which could affect the House’s structural integrity is ongoing and the staff are noticeably grateful when they see visitors. The Merchant’s House Museum is well worth a visit, giving a wonderful glimpse into the world of nineteenth-century New York for only $10. It’s a chance to duck off the busy streets and step back in time.

The Secret Victorianist is back in London, but will be returning to NYC come September. Do you know any other attractions she should visit? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

The Tredwells' kitchen