Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The Secret Victorianist in 2018

It’s been a quiet few months on the Secret Victorianist blog, but a busy few months for the Secret Victorianist. Not only do I have an exciting new project in the works (more on that to come) but, as usual, I’ve been living my best nineteenth-century life, all while navigating a twenty-first century existence in New York.

Below is a snapshot of what I’ve been up to:
I watched…

The Eifman Ballet
Anna Karenina in ballet form:
This April the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg returned to New York with this moving dance adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. The cast is pared back and the story simplified to put Anna’s love life at its centre, and the choreography mixes the classical with the more avant-garde. Anna and Vronsky writhe on separate beds, struggling with their feelings for each other, a toy train circles our protagonist who appears trapped in a giant snow globe, the power and momentum of the lethal train is conveyed by the rhythmic motions of the chorus. The production manages to capture the emotional heart of the novel in a way that transcends cultures, decades and language.

To Walk Invisible (2016):
This BBC TV dramatization covering the years 1845-1848 in the lives of the Bronte siblings, directed by Sally Wainwright, is a treat for academics and fans of the literary family. Much of the script builds on the words of the Brontes and their associates, taken from letters and other written records. Not only is it meticulously researched, but this costume drama comes with grit and a heavy dose of reality. Characters wear the same dress (shock!) more than once, the three female co-leads appear not to be wearing makeup, Branwell’s alcoholism rings true. Shot on location in Haworth, it’s a delight for enthusiasts and a great introduction to the Bronte myth for the uninitiated. If teachers aren’t showing it in schools, they should be.

Film poster for Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth (2016):
This movie adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is beautifully shot and deliciously dark. The story now unfolds in rural England, where Katherine Lester (played by Florence Pugh) rages against the confines of her loveless marriage and unfulfilling life with ultimately murderous consequences.

I visited…

View towards the Bronte Parsonage Museum
Haworth—home of the Brontes:
After years of reading about the Bronte household and seeing it on film, I finally visited Yorkshire and spent two nights in Haworth, just round the corner from the parsonage itself. I was struck by how small the house felt when you consider how the family lived there as adults, the sheer number of nineteenth-century graves in the graveyard surrounding the house (testament to the poor sanitation and appalling conditions faced by many of the Brontes’ contemporaries) and by how unspoiled the surrounding landscape remains to this day. Enjoying unseasonably fine weather, I hiked across the moors and soaked in what felt like a spiritual homecoming.

I’m reading…

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013):
This Man Booker winning novel is set in New Zealand in 1866 at the height of the country’s booming gold rush. It’s a mammoth achievement, dealing with an intricate mystery. Full review to follow.

So that’s it, folks. I’m back to regularly scheduled programming, so let me know what you would like to see the Secret Victorianist—below, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Transformation, Catherine Chidgey (2005)

Tampa, Florida in 1898. The Tampa Bay Hotel looms over a city that enjoys endless summer, with the occasional hurricane, its minarets gleaming over swamps, orange groves, and displaced Cubans, who save up wages and lottery winnings to help their war-torn homeland.

The Transformation, Catherine Chidgey (2005)
Inside the hotel lives mysterious French wigmaker Lucien Goulet III. Residents and visitors flock to him for memorial jewellery, fashionable fringes, hairpieces to deceive their spouses and repairs to their rocking horses and dolls. And he mocks them all, in his disturbing first person narrative and with the pair of ‘actresses’ who perform for him at night.

Catherine Chidgey pulls off an incredible feat in pulling us into Goulet’s obsession. The novel’s many skeins are united by hair — hair cut off corpses in mausoleums, morgues and graves, hair stolen from lovers as they sleep, hair as the fabric of folktales and myth.

Goulet’s first person sections are interwoven with close third person passages following Rafael, a fifteen-year old cigar maker who enters the perruquier’s employ, and Marion Unger, a lonely widow with rare and entrancing white blonde hair. But it is Goulet who dominates — at once an outsider but also a reflection of this strange world where bodies are very much for sale. Ladies carry alligator handbags and deliver their dead pets to taxidermists, one character plucks out snails to amass a huge collection of their shells, cigars seem more valuable if rolled on Cuban women’s thighs.

Catherine Chidgey (1970- )
The novel’s biggest fault is that, rather than keeping you reading, often Chidgey seems to ask you to pause, to reread paragraphs loaded with such sensual detail they require time to take in. The opening pages, which deal with Marion’s arrival in Tampa and the history of her marriage, are a story in themselves — compelling, tragic, and enthused with the citrus fruits her husband chooses to plant. There’s a richness to the prose and imagery that can be overwhelming. I wanted to savour every line.

Immersed as the reader is in Goulet’s mind, its hard not to wish for a more brutal ending but the conclusion is still a fitting one. There are shades of Pygmalion here, and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, but in a world that’s as alien as it is recognisable.

Do you know any novels set in the nineteenth century and written in the twenty-first that you think the Secret Victorianist should read? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 6 November 2017

First Impression: Alias Grace, Netflix, Episode 1

On the heels of Hulu’s incredibly successful The Handmaid’s Tale, comes another Margaret Atwood adaptation — this time of her 1996 historical novel, Alias Grace. It’s Netflix’s foray into nineteenth-century costume drama but with more vomit, violence and child abuse than we’ve come to expect in the genre and that’s just in Episode 1.

Netflix's Alias Grace (2017)
Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) has been in prison for 15 years for a murder she may or may not have committed when alienist Dr Simon Jordan is sent to interview her by a group lobbying for her release. Grace, who is more used to doctors measuring her head than asking what goes on inside it, is suspicious, unsure what to make of the psychoanalysis we’ve come to expect in our modern crime dramas. But she begins her story nonetheless, and, through frequent flashbacks, we learn about her immigration from Ireland to Canada, mother’s death and father’s drunkenness.

Gadon is compelling, her Irish lilt believable and poetic, her stare intense. But Edward Holcroft, as Dr Simon, is a little two dimensional in this first instalment — a plot device to get Grace to talk. I hope that in later episodes the frame story is developed further to stop the interruptions from getting old.

Mary and Grace in Alias Grace
The art direction is dark and gritty. I preferred the close ups, for instance in the prison or below deck on the ship, to the scenes where we could see the unconvincing backdrops. There’s a particularly arresting montage where we see a succession of beds being covered by quilts, the camera dwelling on the detail. It’s in moments like this that the idiosyncrasies of nineteenth-century life feel more vivid — just as in The Beguiled, which I reviewed recently.

Overall the episode does a good job of drawing viewers in, letting Atwood’s first person prose work its magic. The subject of a murderess is a fascinating one for us, as it was for Victorians, and the fact that the show is based on a true story (a double murder in 1843) seems designed to appeal to those devouring crime documentaries on Netflix, as much as those with an interest in the period. I’ll be watching, if not bingeing, the rest.

Sarah Gadon as Grace in Alias Grace (2017)
Did you watch the first episode of Alias Grace? What did you think? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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.