Monday, 20 March 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: Fingersmith, Sarah Waters (2002)

Unwanted wives incarcerated in asylums, unwanted babies farmed out to criminals, a drawing master seducing his young lady student and a scholarly uncle sequestering his heiress ward from the rest of the world. If you’re well versed in the building blocks of Victorian sensation novels, there’s much about Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith that may seem familiar.


Yet this 2002 thriller manages to defy expectations in new and exciting ways – not just by introducing sensational plotlines and dialogue that would have been inadmissible to Collins, Braddon and Reade (a central female/female romance, a bibliographical study of pornography, plenty of ‘fucks’, ‘cunts’, and, my personal favourite, ‘fucksters’), but by forcing us to reassess who we can trust and the false security our previous literary knowledge might have given us.

The novel starts in the unforgiving world of Borough, where men and women eat by stealing purses and skinning dogs. A debonair trickster known as ‘Gentleman’ has a plan - petty thief Susan Trinder, daughter of a murderess, must leave London for Briar, a country house near Maidenhead, to become maid to Maud Lilly and help him steal her away along with her fortune.

Sarah Waters (1966-)
This is the point at which we expect Sue to enter the Victorian world we know from novels – a world of hierarchy, etiquette and morality – but soon it becomes clear that she is in much more danger here, and it is dirty, amoral Borough that is the novel’s pattern for love and domesticity.

What comes next is a few hundred pages of twists and turns, double crossing and, at times, brutality. Could it have done with a more extensive edit? Yes, but Waters keep you guessing to the very end and reading fast to the finish line. The title Fingersmith hints at thievery, midwifery and female masturbation, yet it also conjures up the idea of a wordsmith, playing with readers’ emotions and stirring up their imaginations – appropriate given the novel’s final moments, and the original conception of sensation fiction.

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

Sunday, 5 March 2017

A Dickensian Master Class in Powerful Openings: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.


The opening to Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities is so famous today that the words seem timeless, even as its themes – a polarisation of political opinion and a desire to designate everything as either good or evil – feel peculiarly timely.

Dickens’s 100+ word sentence is one that would make most English language teachers blanche, so what is it about this opening that readers find so evocative? And what can we learn from this bending of grammatical rules?

Repetition isn’t always a sin
As writers, we’re often warned against repeating words or sentence formations. Yet parallel structures can be powerful when employed wisely.  As a writer you need to be aware of the effect this has. Dickens’s repeated clauses make the passage feel solemn, liturgical, and even funereal – fitting, in light of what’s to come.

Keep your readers guessing
Readers love to make predictions about what’s coming next – in your plot and in your prose. By pairing opposites (‘best’ and ‘worst’, ‘hope’ and ‘despair’) Dickens allows us to guess the word that will complete the next clause. This is so effective that he doesn’t even need to include the word ‘hell’. It hangs in the air, an unspoken threat.

Lead with drama
Dickens leads with this series of hyperbolic statements only to undercut what he has just said, labelling these descriptors as the protestations of the ‘noisiest authorities’. Yet it is the catchy opening that we remember. As writers, we are often advised to start our novels and chapters with something memorable but we should be aware of how this can alter our prose’s meaning and reception. 

Are there any other famous passages you would like the Secret Victorianist to write about next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Exhibition Review: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Whether it’s because of their waspish waists, their uncomfortably large bustles and crinolines, or their much-mentioned prudishness, we have a continued fascination with what Victorians were like under their clothes.


So, finding myself in London unexpectedly this week, the Secret Victorianist paid a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum for the Undressed exhibition, a brief history of fashionable unmentionables, which is now entering its last month on display to the public.


The exhibition covers three centuries and includes a huge array of pieces, from an eighteen-century working woman’s stays to David Beckham’s tighty whities for H&M. But of course it was the Victorian items I was here to see. Here were some of my highlights:


The Duchess of Kent’s drawers: The exhibition didn’t quite allow you to peak under Queen Vic’s petticoats, but you did get to gawk at a pair of her mother’s drawers. These were cumbersome and knee-length and could have provided enough material for 20+ modern day thongs, but the waist was incredibly small, especially given their cut suggests they might have been used for maternity-wear.


A cartoon on the dangers of lacing: I’ve written before (here) about the internal damage that could be done by corsetry. And the V and A displayed this cartoon showing the grim reaper promoting the trend of tight lacing:


Summer corsets: This was something I knew less about previously. The exhibition included several lighter corsets for summer months, which were used by naturally slim women and ladies living in the colonies. In these, whalebone was replaced by strips of ribbon or by netting, making them marginally more comfortable, although I still won’t be racing to try them out in hot weather (especially minus air conditioning…).



David’s fig leaf: Queen Victoria was so horrified when she saw Michelangelo’s David that a fig leaf was commissioned to protect his modesty, or, at least, attendees’ sensibilities. Seeing it here, divided from the statue, made me think about how easy it is to find an exhibition on underwear solely intellectually stimulating, devoid of the ability to shock, shame or titillate.


The exhibition does a wonderful job of exposing the bizarreness of our continued fascination with undergarments (think waist trainers, fetish-wear, underwear as outwear) by divorcing the items on display from the body. What’s left is an enlightening lens through which to examine culture – the Victorians’ and our own.

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