Saturday, 1 August 2015

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Favourite Novel: The Cloister and the Hearth, Charles Reade (1861)

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
In an article published in January 1898, in Munsey’s Magazine, Arthur Conan Doyle was the latest in a series of contemporary big names to write about his favourite writers and books. The novel he talks about as his particular favourite – containing more ‘accurate knowledge and ripe wisdom and passionate human emotion’ than any other – was Charles Reade’s 1861 historical romance The Cloister and the Hearth.

Over the last couple of weeks, I read Reade’s classic to discover why it garnered so much praise in the nineteenth century, from Doyle and others, and to spot any clues as to why, since then, it has fallen into relative obscurity.

The Cloister and the Hearth is a mediaeval drama, set around 1450. The story begins in Holland, not far from Rotterdam, but deals with a journey that takes its hero through France and eventually to Rome. Much of Doyle’s praise is given to the research that went into Reade’s writing of the novel and the vividness with which a far-flung period of history is made real to us. He writes: ‘it is a human medievalism, neither stiff nor conventional nor unnatural, but palpitating with rude life and with primitive emotions.

The immediacy of the world Reade writes about certainly still holds true today. The novel is packed with excitement and incident (think bear attacks, sieges, prison escapes, bandits) and populated with characters so recognisable in their humanity that you can connect despite the archaic dialogue, and distinctly period vocabulary. Here, for instance, a mother-in-law forces advice and money on her daughter-in-law:

She then recapitulated her experiences of infants, and instructed Margaret what to do in each coming emergency, and pressed money upon her, Margaret declined it with thanks, Catherine insisted, and turned angry. Margaret made excuses all so reasonable that Catherine rejected them with calm contempt; to her mind they lacked femininity.’

Sometimes the characters, or at least their living conditions, do indeed seem ‘rude’ or ‘primitive’. This is how an inn that Gerard, our hero, must sleep in is described:

‘He had peeped into a large but low room, the middle of which was filled by a huge round stove, or clay oven, that reached to the ceiling; round this, wet clothes were drying-some on lines, and some more compendiously, on rustics. These latter habiliments, impregnated with the wet of the day, but the dirt of a life, and lined with what another foot traveller in these parts call "rammish clowns," evolved rank vapours and compound odours inexpressible, in steaming clouds. In one corner was a travelling family, a large one: thence flowed into the common stock the peculiar sickly smell of neglected brats. Garlic filled up the interstices of the air. And all this with closed window, and intense heat of the central furnace, and the breath of at least forty persons.

But Reade is careful not to let his Victorian readers sit back too secure in their superiority:

When men drive a bargain, they strive to get the sunny side of it; it matters not one straw whether it is with man or Heaven they are bargaining. In this respect we are the same now, at bottom, as we were four hundred years ago: only in those days we did it a grain or two more naively, and that naivete shone out more palpably, because, in that rude age, body prevailing over mind, all sentiments took material forms.

Less palatable to a modern reader than this mantra of shared humanity, however, is the moral assumptions that lead to the novel’s conclusion. Doyle writes of the novel that ‘such an indictment against celibacy of the clergy has never yet been penned’, yet, for a modern reader, Gerard’s prioritisation of the priesthood over his wedding vows is more difficult to understand – prompting not, as presumably intended, critical feelings towards the Catholic Church, but rather extreme irritation with the novel’s apparently admirable characters.

This in turn has a negative effect on the novel’s ability to evoke pathos. Doyle writes of one deathbed scene ‘the man who can read that chapter with dry eyes is a man whom I do not wish to know’, but a reader today might be inclined to dash his or her head at a brick wall, rather than to cry, so frustrating is the religiosity. It’s all a question of degree. A Victorian reader might sympathise with Margaret’s helpless and ambiguous position, and think she would be well suited to the role of clergyman’s wife. Yet a reader now might take exception to the very assumption of her inferiority (the phrase ‘I am but a woman’ appears in the novel 11 times).

Doyle writes about the particular appeal of this historical period for fictionalisation, explaining:

Printing was coming, the Reformation was coming, the revival of learning was just at hand, but the greater part of Europe still lay in that blackest night which precedes the dawn.

What’s interesting in this is the parallels I find in how writers now approach the nineteenth century. In my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I’ve seen how twenty-first century writers respond to the late 1800s as a period just on the cusp, focusing on the advent of evolutionary theory, women’s education and suffrage movements, and questions of race and colonialism. Victorianism is a period of relative darkness for us – a dangerous world in which are own social concerns can be played out by novelists – just as the Middle Ages fulfils that role for Reade.

The Cloister and the Hearth is probably only a handful of people’s ‘favourite’ novel today, but it’s a well-written book, that reveals as much about the period in which it was conceived as it does about the time in which it was set.

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

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Review: Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

Today the Secret Victorianist fell down the rabbit hole at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, visiting their special exhibition on the publication history of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), one of the most loved and enduringly popular novels in the English language.


One of Tenniel's illustrations
At the heart of the retrospective is a unique exhibit (on loan from the British Library) – the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground that Dodgson (Carroll) gave to Alice Liddell (the inspiration for Alice) in 1864. This manuscript does not include some incidents that were to become central to Wonderland as we know it (for instance, the duchess whose baby is transformed into a pig), so is especially valuable in demonstrating the evolution of the text from an extempore oral narrative composed on a sunny day in Oxford to a published novel. The manuscript also contains Carroll’s original illustrations, before he turned to the talents of Punch cartoonist John Tenniel for his now iconic renderings of Alice.

Alice's Adventures Under Ground manuscript
The exhibition does a good job of interesting visitors in questions of bibliography – no doubt largely because of the highly visual focus. The illustrations, in various levels of completion, and from several different hands, serve as a beautiful guide to the evolution of a book – they alone tell the story how a tale born from the imagination of one man or a woman will be transformed by the influencers it meets on its journey to publication and beyond.


One of Tenniel's illustrations
Along with illustrations, early print editions, and the Under Ground manuscript, the exhibition also puts on show: personal items belonging to Alice Liddell at the time of the story’s conception, Dodgson’s correspondence pertaining to the publication of the text, other children’s books originating from the period, and some pieces of contemporary Alice-themed ephemera (my favourite was a Wonderland-styled biscuit tin). They also displayed scenes from the novel’s first film adaptation, in 1903 (inserted here).




The exhibition title had led me to think there might have been a greater emphasis on the text’s reception history further into the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, but, while this is rich territory for discussion, (perhaps appropriately) it is not the focus at the Morgan. The early years of Wonderland give a fascinating glimpse into the publishing landscape of the mid-nineteenth century, appealing to any book-lover. So visit to discover how Carroll’s Alice was realised and became a milestone in children’s publishing, or for an accessible introduction to the study of bibliography.


First edition: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland is running until 11th October 2015 at the Morgan Library and Museum. Entrance to the museum is $19 for adults.


The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Do you know of any other NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should review? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Art Review: J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, De Young Museum, San Francisco

This week, the Secret Victorianist was in San Francisco and took the opportunity to see J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, the first major survey of nineteenth-century painter Turner’s late works (1835-1850), which is currently on view at the De Young museum in the city. The exhibition was originally on show at the Tate Britain in London and was at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles earlier in the year.
Mercury and Argus (pre-1836)
Known for his unrivalled and extraordinary use of light and colour, Turner (1771-1851) was a leading, and controversial, artist in his day. His late works demonstrate his continued inventiveness, as he takes mythical and biblical incidents as subjects for artistic experimentation.

Regulus (reworked 1837)
Take his Mercury and Argus (pre-1836). Rather than as a hundred-eyed guard, Argus is represented as a small indistinct figure and Mercury has few of his usual visual signifiers. Meanwhile, only the small bell around Io’s neck sets her apart from her fellow cattle. For Turner, the idealised pastoral landscape is of greater interest than the mythic plot, although this scene’s bloody aftermath, if recalled, creates a keen point of imaginative contrast. The placement of the beam of light is also more than an excuse to experiment with the play of light. The sun suggests Zeus – the original reason for Io’s transformation. In Regulus (reworked 1837), it is unclear which of the figures is the doomed Roman general preparing to return to Carthage. Yet the blinding sun directly references the fate that will meet him there. 

The Departure of the Fleet (1850)
Similarly, in The Departure of the Fleet (one of the four scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid Turner displayed at his final Royal Academy exhibition in 1850), the figures representing Dido and Aeneas are unimportant – the focus is on the setting sun marking the end of their relationship and how it touches the city the Trojans are leaving behind, soon to be illuminated likewise by its queen’s pyre.

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London (1841)
The exhibition also draws attention to Turner’s unusual working habits – his hasty watercolours Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London, painted in 1841 as the fire raged, the significant changes he made to works during ‘Varnishing Days’ at the Royal Academy when other artists were only making the minutest of alterations to their paintings. There is no greater apocryphal story demonstrating Turner’s commitment to his work than that attached to Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1841). Turner, then 67, claimed he was tied to the mast of the boat better to understand and capture the essence of a nocturnal storm.

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1841)
The scale and quality of the exhibition is incredible and leaving Turner’s world behind can be a little stepping back outside into a light of a disappointing and less brilliant sun.

Peace - Burial at Sea (1842)
J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free is on display at the De Young Museum in San Francisco until September 20th - tickets for adults cost $20. Do you know any art exhibitions back in New York you think the Secret Victorianist might enjoy? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Secret Victorianist in Brooklyn: Green-Wood Cemetery

Side by side are we still, though a shadow
Between us doth fall;
We are parted, and yet are not parted,
Not wholly, and all.

For still you are round and about me,
Almost in my reach,
Though I miss the old pleasant communion
Of smile, and of speech.

And I long to hear what you are seeing,
And what you have done,
Since the earth faded out from your vision,
And the heavens begun;

Since you dropped off the darkening fillet
Of clay from your sight,
And opened your eyes upon glory
Ineffably bright!
Excerpt from ‘Entered Into Rest’, Phoebe Cary

Last weekend, I made my first visit to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Founded in 1838, the burial ground sprawls across nearly 500 acres and houses extravagant monuments and mausoleums dating from the nineteenth-century.


Before the foundation of Prospect Park in 1869, the cemetery was Brooklyn’s main green space and was used as such, as well as for internments. It was also one of New York’s premier tourist attractions, due to the dignitaries and notable men and women buried there. Yet today it feels largely deserted. I saw only a handful of walkers when exploring the cemetery, despite its beautifully manicured paths and lawns.


Without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in New York, I’ll definitely be back – to walk (there are even some hills there!), to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, and to read and investigate the names on the older gravestones.


In my research since my visit I’ve already stumbled across some fascinating nineteenth-century female writers you can find there:

Alice (1820-1871) and Phoebe (1824-1871) Cary: Sisters from Ohio, poets Alice and Phoebe enjoyed some celebrity from the late 1830s, when their teenage writings were published in newspapers, and become even more prominent after 1849 with the appearance of a joint collection of poetry. Key figures in the New York literary scene up until their deaths, they died within five months of each other and are buried side by side in the cemetery.

Elizabeth F. Ellet (1818-1877): Elizabeth Ellet (nee Lummis) was a New York-born writer, best known for her involvement in a scandal concerning Edgar Allen Poe and Frances Sargent Osgood in the mid 1840s. Her major works include a tragedy, Teresa Contarini (1835), which was performed on the New York stage, and The Women of the American Revolution (1845) – the first work to document the role of women in the American Revolution.

Laura Jean Libbey (1862-1924): Libbey was an extremely popular writer of ‘dime novels’ (similar to modern day romance fiction). I’m sorely tempted to give one a read based on some of the titles alone! They include Daisy Brooks, or A Perilous Love (1883), Pretty Madcap Dorothy, or How She Won a Lover (1891), Jolly Sally Pendleton, or The Wife who was not a Wife (1897), Mischievous Maid Faynie (1899).

What other attractions would you recommend to a Victorianist in Brooklyn? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)

Next up in my very modern series is a book that isn’t Neo-Victorian at all, but rather neo-nineteenth-century. Susanna Clarke’s magical odyssey spans the years 1806-1817, as her unlikely pair of magicians help defeat Napoleon, squabble via rival periodicals, and accidentally inflict perpetual night on swathes on Austrian-ruled Venice.

Despite its early setting, I wanted to include the novel in my Neo-Victorian round-up not only due to its high quality and current popularity (given the 2015 BBC adaptation), but because, in tone, plot and structure, it stands apart from many other historical novels (and novels more generally), making it an interesting counterpoint to some of the novels I’ve previously blogged about.



Rather than trading on plot devices familiar to lovers of nineteenth-century novels (as we saw in Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night, or even more directly, due to its intertextual interests, in John Harding’s Florence and Giles), Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell continually defies readerly expectations. Clarke’s English magicians are capable of transporting whole cities to different continents and disappearing through mirrors, and at times it feels as if she herself is achieving something similar, as the novel lurches madly but masterfully between locations, subplots and consciences.

Susanna Clarke (1959-)
If some of the Neo-Victorian writers I’ve looked at so far can seem to go a bit heavy on proving the historical verisimilitude of their texts, their literary antecedents, and their academic leanings, Clarke’s novel reads as something of a witty rebuke. Here too there are footnotes, and a deep consciousness of the novel as text, but their content is an extended joke. Clarke has created an entire academic discipline of Theoretical Magic, complete with a cast of nineteenth-century, and earlier, scholars, canonical texts with which the reader becomes increasingly familiar, and vicious intellectual debates. What’s most clever is how this ‘history’ intersects with a history of England (and particularly the North of England) made more magical. The longer you read (there are more than 1000 pages in all) the harder it becomes to distinguish between history and fantasy, as if you were trying to traverse one of Norrell’s labyrinths.

Footnote: In this speech Mr Lascelles has managed to combine all Lord Portishead’s books into one. By the time Lord Portishead gave up the study of magic in early 1808 he had published three books: The Life of Jacques Belais, pub. Longman, London, 1801, The Life of Nicholas Goubert, pub. Longman, London, 1805, and A Child’s History of the Raven King, pub. Longman, London, 1807, engravings by Thomas Bewick.’

One of Portia Rosenberg's illustrations
If in some ways Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a very different kind of novel, in others, however, it bears all the hallmarks of its literary antecedents. In style, Clarke attempts a blend of Dickensian characterisation and caricature with a rye social humour most comparable with Jane Austen. The execution is a little uneven (and works better in passages exempt from references to magic), but means that there are points at which the novel fills less like a fantasy tome and more like a social comedy.

‘Lovers are rarely the most rational beings in creation and so it will come as no surprize to my readers to discover that Strange’s musings concerning Miss Woodhope had produced a most inexact portrait of her.’

Overall, the novel is a light, but long, entertainment, designed to delight academics and the well-read, complete with cameos from the likes of Byron and Lord Wellington, and using the past as a foreign country where even the magical becomes strangely plausible. Don’t expect emotional depths, a literary response to the literary canon, or a Victorian preoccupation with the human condition and morality. Neo-nineteenth-centuryism is, for Clarke, a device for creating her very own breed of magic realism.

What novel should the Secret Victorianist read next in her Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Introducing Victorian Poetry to Children

A few months ago, I posted my top tips for introducing your kids to Victorian literature with the belief that their first run-in with Dickens, Bronte or Hardy doesn’t have to be a painful classroom encounter. In this post, I offer some suggestions for making nineteenth-century poetry in particular more fun and less intimidating.

1. Start with poems written for kids: Many nineteenth-century poems, especially those in the nonsense poetry tradition, were written to be read by (or read to) children. One of my favourites is Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, published in 1871, which he originally penned for a three-year-old girl. It begins:

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.

Edward Lear's illustration for 'The Owl and the Pussycat'
The poem is great because it has a lot of similarities with the nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and modern children’s books young children may already be used to reading or hearing.

2. Choose poems with a story: Even if not primarily intended for children, poems with a narrative are a much easier introduction to poetry and there are many Victorian examples that may appeal to older kids.

'The Lady of Shallott', John William Waterhouse (1888)
I would recommend Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’ (1833) and Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ (1859). Both have linear stories with clear conclusions and tap into mythic tropes and traditions children will already be comfortable with. Both are also highly visual, marking a great opportunity for asking kids how they imagine the world of each poem. You could even have them draw scenes from the poems or look at artists’ interpretations.

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries; —
All ripe together
In summer weather

3. Use poems kids may have encountered elsewhere: A lot of nineteenth-century poems are so famous they are quoted and referenced in many other forms of entertainment. Why not show your kids a Simpsons episode to get them interested in Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (1845)? You’ll even get some bonus critical commentary from Lisa.

video


4. When in doubt go with simple language: You shouldn’t underestimate children’s ability to respond to mature themes and complex ideas, but giving them a poem where they need to look up every second word of vocabulary may be a stretch. Instead start with poems like Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ (1862) or Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ (1891), which shouldn’t pose a challenge in terms of individual words. That way you can go straight into a discussion of how the poems make them feel and what they think they’re trying to say.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know! 

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!

5. Don’t underestimate the power of love: As children move into their teenage years they may find famous romantic (with a small ‘r’!) poems the most compelling (and/or cringe-worthy). Give them XLIII from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and you might even inspire them to start attempting the sonnet form themselves!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

What topic would you like the Secret Victorianist to blog on next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!