Saturday, 22 October 2016

Review: Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will, Morgan Library and Museum, New York

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

The year 2016 marks 200 hundred years since the birth of Charlotte Bronte, the most celebrated of the three Bronte sister novelists, whose 1847 Jane Eyre continues to hold an important place in the English literary canon.

The Morgan Library and Museum’s incredible exhibition to mark the bicentenary is a treasure trove for Bronte fans, bringing together manuscripts, juvenilia and the only portraits of Charlotte produced in her lifetime.

Branwell's portrait of his sister, with painted over self-portrait (1834)
A volume of the Jane Eyre manuscript is exhibited in the US for the first time, but the real joy of the exhibition is in discovering the Brontes’ youthful writings (definitely use one of the museum’s magnifying glasses!), the tiny books in which Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne recorded the annals of their imaginary kingdoms, Angria and Gondol. In her childhood work, you can trace the influences Bronte drew upon. There’s the text of a play – The Poetaster – inspired by Ben Jonson, a sketch of John Milton’s Lycidas, and Gothic narrative poetry, such as her ‘Miss Hume’s Dream’ (1830).

Charlotte's sketch of Milton's Lycidas (1835)
Charlotte and Branwell also produced detailed miniature editions of their own periodical, the Young Men’s Magazine, inspired by their reading of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which you can study here. The tagline? ‘Published by no one, possessed by all.’

Charlotte’s talents as an artist are clear and I particularly enjoyed the sketches she made from Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, vol. 2 (1804), also on display, which many may recognise from the opening chapters of Jane Eyre.

An example of Charlotte Bronte's juvenilia
The layout of the exhibition allows you to grow up with Charlotte. The record of her birth is followed by her early work, letters from her schooldays, correspondence related to her literary successes, memorial cards for the deaths of her siblings, devastatingly close together, her marriage certificate and then, scarcely nine months later, materials related to her own death.

Charlotte's marriage certificate (1854)
It all feels very personal and it’s hard not to find it emotionally affecting. One of Charlotte’s dresses is on display, forcing you to confront her diminutive size, while the painted over figure of Branwell looms in the background of the only portrait of the three sisters, a missing piece in the story of the siblings at Haworth.

A memorial card for Charlotte's death (1855)
The exhibition is on display until January 2 2017. Go now while you can. New York may need to wait another 200 years before playing host to the Brontes again.

Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would like to visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

An Old-Fashioned Girl, or What We Taught Girls in the 1860s

The Secret Victorianist recently read 1869 novel An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott (of Little Women fame).

In her Preface, Alcott wrote of the story’s didacticism:

The Old-Fashioned Girl is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be - a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another.

What then ‘should’ a girl be and do to maintain domestic happiness, according to this nineteenth-century writer? Below are five lessons that Alcott and her heroine, Polly, taught me.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

1. She shouldn’t go to theatre

Fourteen-year-old Polly is scandalised when she is taken to a play with suggestive humour and beguiling actresses:

"I know it wasn't proper for little girls to see, or I shouldn't have been so ashamed!" cried sturdy Polly, perplexed, but not convinced, even by Mrs. Smythe Perkins.

"I think you are right, my dear; but you have lived in the country, and haven't yet learned that modesty has gone out of fashion." And with a good-night kiss, grandma left Polly to dream dreadfully of dancing in jockey costume, on a great stage; while Tom played a big drum in the orchestra; and the audience all wore the faces of her father and mother, looking sorrowfully at her, with eyes like saucers, and faces as red as Fanny's sash.

2. She shouldn’t lose her temper

Polly is (predictably) skilled in the kitchen but doesn’t lose her cool when her friend’s brother/her own future husband eats the fruits of her labour.

Polly was not a model girl by any means, and had her little pets and tempers like the rest of us; but she didn't fight, scream, and squabble with her brothers and sisters in this disgraceful way, and was much surprised to see her elegant friend in such a passion. "Oh, don't! Please, don't! You'll hurt her, Tom! Let him go, Fanny! It's no matter about the candy; we can make some more!" cried Polly, trying to part them, and looking so distressed, that they stopped ashamed, and in a minute sorry that she should see such a display of temper.

3. She should notice others’ failings but only correct them by example

Polly manages to transform the Shaw household but rarely by expressing her opinion.

Polly wished the children would be kinder to grandma; but it was not for her to tell them so, although it troubled her a good deal, and she could only try to make up for it by being as dutiful and affectionate as if their grandma was her own.

4. She should exercise, but not to display herself

Polly’s pursuits are entirely wholesome (the antithesis of novels).

Another thing that disturbed Polly was the want of exercise…At home, Polly ran and rode, coasted and skated, jumped rope and raked hay, worked in her garden and rowed her boat; so no wonder she longed for something more lively than a daily promenade with a flock of giddy girls, who tilted along in high-heeled boots, and costumes which made Polly ashamed to be seen with some of them. So she used to slip out alone sometimes, when Fanny was absorbed in novels, company, or millinery, and get fine brisk walks round the park, on the unfashionable side, where the babies took their airings; or she went inside, to watch the boys coasting, and to wish she could coast too, as she did at home. She never went far, and always came back rosy and gay.

5. She should love in silence

As an adult, Polly suffers silently with her love for Tom throughout his engagement to another and his lengthy absence after going west. Her modesty is so extreme that she never actively confesses it, even to her friend, and it's not even made overt in the narration.

"Polly, is it Tom?"

Poor Polly was so taken by surprise, that she had not a word to say. None were needed; her telltale face answered for her, as well as the impulse which made her hide her head in the sofa cushion, like a foolish ostrich when the hunters are after it.

No novels, no plays and no opinions, a foolish ostrich who cannot escape her own desire to wed – that’s what we taught girls then. What do we teach them today?

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

Monday, 26 September 2016

Art Review: Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, New York Botanical Garden, New York

As summer turns to Fall in New York City, the Secret Victorianist ventured up to the Bronx to New York’s Botanical Gardens for an exhibition centred on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American Impressionists and the importance of gardens and parks to their work.

Landscape: Shinnecock, Long Island, William Merritt Chase (c.1896)
The art component of the exhibition featured paintings by artists including Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) — rich, colourful canvases depicting scenes like private gardens (e.g. one belonging to writer Celia Thaxter (1835-1894)), the Horticulture Building at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893 and New York’s public parks.

Wildflowers, John Henry Twachtman (1891)
The Gardens’ Enid A. Haupt Conservatory was transformed into a complimentary living Impressionist garden, featuring plants favoured in the era, which saw a return to a more natural, ‘old-fashioned’ style of landscape design rather than more structured, formal gardens. You can sit in a rocking chair and enjoy the view, framed by the struts of a New England style porch.

Descending the Steps, Central Park, Frederick Childe Hassam (1895)
A common theme in the paintings seemed to be a high level of sympathy between the gardens and their inhabitants, whether hardworking gardeners crouched low to the ground, or dawdling strollers taking in the vista, their backs to the artist. Many were painted at artists’ colonies, where this kind of communion between men and nature was the goal, and it’s hard to look at the pieces without experiencing something of the same feeling of escape and peacefulness.

Horticultural Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Frederick Childe Hassam (1893)
The exhibition was designed to celebrate NYBG’s 125th anniversary and did a wonderful job of exploring the experience of Impressionism — an experience that felt more personal and immersive than the school’s most famous paintings. Many of these artists’ works make you want to walk into their painted gardens. Thanks to this exhibition I could.

Inside the Conservatory
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Fortune of the Rougons: The Origins of Les Rougon-Macquarts

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms.

This extract is taken from the final paragraph of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1851). It is perhaps the most famous nineteenth-century description of the implications of evolutionary theory — the interconnectedness of all living things and the inescapable importance of our genetic inheritance, yet still the potential for variation from what has come before and the relationship between death and extinction and survival.

Emile Zola suggested that an alternative title to The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), the first in a 20-novel cycle involving the Rougon-Macquart family, might be Origins. The novel deals with the emergence of this multi-branched family in the fictional town of Plassans (based on Aix-en-Provence) at the nascence of the Second Empire, Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851. In keeping with his Naturalist preoccupations, Zola traces the origins of the Rougon-Macquarts’ hereditary weaknesses — their cowardice, greed and susceptibility to nervous attacks or mental illness — that will form the basis of the nineteen later novels. In The Fortune of the Rougons, the Rougon portion of the family rises to pre-eminence in the chaos of social unrest, but only through spilling the blood of others — rivals, random strangers and, of course, relatives.

The family tree of the Rougon-Macquarts
The foil to the scheming of the novel’s long list of characters is an innocent pair of teenage sweethearts — Silvere and Miette — caught up by the idealism of the Republican insurgents. The novel opens with the lovers meeting at the Aire Saint-Mittre, a piece of land that bears a resemblance to Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’, a former graveyard now teeming with life:

The thick vegetation and the eerie stillness of the old cemetery can still be seen and felt in this lane, where the walls are covered in moss and the ground seems like a woollen carpet. On the hottest days you can feel the warm, voluptuous breath of the dead rising from the old graves. Around Plassans there is no spot so exciting, more alive with emotion, so heavy with warmth, solitude and love. It is a wonderful place for lovers. When the cemetery was being cleared the bones must have been piled up in this corner, for even today people feeling in the grass with their feet often kick up fragments of skull.

No spot is more promising for the fecundity of love than the resting place of former generations but Silvere and Miette are doomed to die before the consummation of their match. Why? Silvere simply lacks the requisite survival instincts of his crueller, more decisive, more fertile Rougon-Macquart relatives. Here’s how Miette’s death is described:

In the hour of her agony, in the terrible struggle between death and her sanguine nature, she regretted her virginity. Silvere, as he bent over her, understood the bitter tears of this passionate girl. He heard the distant cry of the old cemetery bones; he recalled their caresses and their burning kisses in the night, by the side of the road; he remembered how she had thrown her arms around him, yearning for his love, but he had not understood, and now he was letting her go forever, a virgin, grieving at the thought of never having tasted the deep pleasures of life.

Emile Zola (1840-1902)
It is back in the graveyard that Silvere meets his end, passive until just before the crucial moment, unlike his peasant companion who fights ‘like a pig being slaughtered’. Only the appearance of Miette’s cruel cousin Justin causes Silvere to long for survival:

[He] felt a surge of anger, a sudden desire to go on living. It was the last revolt of his blood, just for a second.

It is too little, too late. Silvere is not enough like his uncles to survive and second later he is shot, his ‘skull burst open like a ripe pomegranate’.

In the Rougons’ drawing room, the survivors feast, all marked out by the blood of those they have crushed in their desire for advancement. This is how the novel concludes:

But the strip of pink fastened to Pierre’s buttonhole was not the only splash of red that marked the triumph of the Rougons. A shoe with a bloodstained heel lay forgotten under the bed in the next room. The candle burning at Monsieur Peirotte’s bedside, on the opposite side of the street, shone in the darkness with the lurid redness of an open wound. And far away, in the depths of the Aire Saint-Mittre, a pool of blood was congealing on a tombstone.

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