Sunday, 14 September 2014

Review: Keats House, Hampstead, London

The Secret Victorianist at Keats House

John Keats didn’t live at the house which was then known as Wentworth Place for long (only from 1818 until 1820), but the period was an important one for the poet. It was here, in Hampstead, that Keats wrote some of his most famous poems, including his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, whose family occupied the smaller ‘half’ of the then divided dwelling.

Today Keats House is a single property which has been restored with décor the man himself might have recognised and completed with period furnishings and artefacts from Keats’s life. 

The Chester Room

The house is beautiful, set among tranquil gardens on a serene side street in a leafy residential area, and at times it’s hard to believe you’re in London at all (which of course you wouldn’t have been in the early 1800s!).

It is this feel of the place and the chance to see a well restored Regency property which is the attraction of visiting, rather than the items which are here from Keats’s life. It’s a lovely setting in which to read a little Keats or learn about his acquaintances, and, since your ticket remains valid for a year, I’d recommend visiting as something of an introduction to the poet, before returning a few weeks or months later, having got stuck into his poems in a little more detail. 

Fanny Brawne's Room

The house was also later home to actress Eliza Jane Chester, so there are also prints and portraits in the room she added which might be of interest to lovers of nineteenth-century theatre. If you're in London with an afternoon to spare I'd heartily recommend visiting the museum.

Do you know of any other attractions from nineteenth-century London the Secret Victorianist should visit before she moves to the US? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Keats's Parlour
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades: 
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Monday, 8 September 2014

Review: What’s Bred in the Bone, Grant Allen (1891)

Last week one of my Facebook fans recommended I read perhaps the craziest nineteenth-century novel I’ve ever come across –Grant Allen’s 1891 What’s Bred in the Bone. If you’re after a novel with identical twin heroes who get toothache simultaneously, a heroine who struggles to overcome an overwhelming desire to dance with snakes (or feather boas), murder, illegitimacy and a rather morally dubious spell of diamond-hunting in South Africa, (after all who isn’t?!) then this one’s definitely for you. Thanks for the recommendation, Brian! 

The Snake-Charmer, John Evan Hodgson
For general readers: Allen wrote this novel as a competition entry and it’s not difficult to see why he beat 20,000 other entries to pocket the sizeable £1,000 prize money. What’s Bred in the Bone is ridiculous but also ridiculously fun, and well-written enough to be incredibly readable. The novel isn’t one which leaves readers guessing – it’s apparent to us immediately who the father of the Waring twins must be and, later in the novel, that neither of them is responsible for murder – but it is difficult to guess exactly how everything will work out, especially as the odds mount against the ‘good’ characters. The plot is well thought through (if coincidence-laden), although the central moral – that the pedigree of your breeding will shine through in your actions – may seem a little unsavoury. The ending ties everything together nicely, although I was left with a few important questions. How is Elma an abbreviation of Esmeralda? Did Gilbert Gildersleeve QC ever see his wife do the crazy snake dance? And did Cyril get rid of his snake?! 

For students: I think this is definitely one to throw into an essay to impress and amuse your lecturers. What’s Bred in the Bone is interesting in its treatment of criminal justice, Africa and the diamond trade, foreign blood (described as Romanian, gypsy and Oriental), and railway accidents (of which there is a particularly dramatic example in the opening pages). The importance of marital records, level of detail as regards transportation times and written correspondence and trial scene also link the novel to many of the tropes of sensation fiction.

Canadian born Grant Allen is largely under-studied today, apart from his 1895 novel The Woman Who Did (an example of New Woman literature), and What’s Bred in the Bone would be a lively example of some of his lesser-known work. Allen’s prominence as a scientific writer and proponent of evolution is also a notable context for the rather more dubious scientific claims made at times in the novel, which could merit from further study.

Have you read any Grant Allen? Do you know of an even stranger nineteenth-century novel you’d love the Secret Victorianist to review? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Emigration Quiz: The Secret Victorianist heads to America

Exciting news! In the next few weeks the Secret Victorianist will be packing her bags and heading off to a new life in New York! Expect plenty of posts dealing with American nineteenth-century fiction and send any recommendations my way by tweeting @SVictorianist!

And in the meantime you can test your knowledge of literary emigrants! How will you do?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Review: The Marriage of Elinor, Margaret Oliphant (1892)

A Victorian wedding

My second foray into Mrs Oliphant has been to read the 1892 The Marriage of Elinor – a full-length novel about a woman who marries the wrong man. The wilful Elinor marries notorious gambler Philip Compton against the advice of all who love her, particularly her long-suffering mother and ever loyal (and ever ignored) distant cousin John, with the novel tracing the course of her marriage, from engagement to wedding to estrangement and reconciliation. 

For general readers: In the realistic world of Oliphant, inconvenient spouses don’t tend to die in time for the closing chapter and moral choices aren’t always clean cut so expect a novel which feels closer to life than fiction and is painstakingly concerned with the minutiae of human motivations. Elinor’s trials are entirely relatable, both as a love-struck young woman and as a mother in her forties terrified about the reaction of her teenage son to finding out his father is still living. But what really makes the novel is the strength of the characters on the periphery of her story – Elinor’s mother Mrs Dennistoun and her cousin John Tatham.

Both these characters have a rough time of it – both love Elinor and see her suffer, while Mrs Dennistoun fears being viewed as an interfering mother and mother-in-law and is left lonely at the marriage of her only daughter, and John represses his romantic feelings for his cousin and faces losing her and her son all over again as it were with the reappearance of the errant husband. And, compellingly, both never express their feelings to Elinor, giving the novel at times a real pathos and poignancy.

The familial themes the novel deals with and humanity of its characters make the novel feel highly relevant (even if marrying the wrong man today can be more easily remedied!) and what The Marriage of Elinor lacks in specific dramatic incident, it more than makes up for in terms of human interest. 

For students: There’s obviously a lot here for students looking at marital breakdown in the nineteenth century and its implications – social and financial. But there’s much more besides. Elinor’s pregnancy - another pregnancy not made all that apparent to readers until after the fact - is a key factor in the crisis of her marriage, and is worthy of closer attention.

Meanwhile Elinor’s appearance as a witness in a court case displays many of the tropes covered off in Women in the Witness Box series, with Elinor’s ability to speak an untruth truthfully skewing the trial, having a drastic impact on her domestic life at two important junctures in her life and providing the context for the final lines of the novel, when she asks John if she has done the ‘right’ thing.

Elinor’s son is also an interesting character – with references to his grammar schooling sitting neatly with the kind of educational environments described in Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain, which I reviewed earlier in the year.

Any student studying Victorian attitudes to marriage would do well to include The Marriage of Elinor as a lesser-known example.

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, 24 August 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: U is for 'Ulysses' and You

Alfred, Lord  Tennyson probably wasn’t thinking of the ageing head of a British intelligence service giving evidence at a government inquiry when he wrote the closing lines of the 1833 poem ‘Ulysses’, any more than Homer was when he wrote the epic which featured this same title character.

Yet there’s something about Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ which gives it a universal resonance – a resonance which Sam Mendes taps into in the 23rd Bond film Skyfall - despite the foreignness of the names and places the speaker mentions (‘the rainy Hyades’, ‘windy Troy’, ‘Telemachos’, ‘the great Achilles’) and the exceptional nature of Ulysses’s experiences.

This identification between speaker and reader is as a result of several factors. The dramatic monologue form which the poem exemplifies is all about eliciting sympathy for the speaker from the reader. As our sympathy increases here, so Tennyson’s language becomes less specific, allowing us not just to feel with, but to feel ourselves aligned to, the speaker. In the closing section, which Judi Dench’s M quotes from, individualised classical place names are replaced by a desire to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and ‘seek a newer world’, while Ulysses’s final words are addressed to the suitably vague, yet emotive, ‘my friends’.

The other reason of course that so many see themselves in ‘Ulysses’, is that the poem is ultimately about the contemplation of mortality – something unmistakeably universal. The claim ‘that which we are, we are’ is as firm and absolute an assertion, as it is a generic one, while the famous ambiguity of the final line, suggesting defeat by ending on the word ‘yield’ even as it declares the opposite, combines two of societies fantasies about death and how the old meet it – either with acceptance or defiance.

Yet what makes ‘Ulysses’ an even more appropriate choice of poem for M, than for you or me, is the poem’s commentary on (specifically British) empire. Tennyson’s poem has often been read with an eye to colonialism, as Ulysses longs to conquer new worlds, despite reduced strength, and fuelled by desire to live up to former glory. In a changing world, M argues that individual valour, ambition and camaraderie are still relevant. And these are the qualities which Western literature’s first great individual hero – and James Bond! – exemplify.

What should be ‘V’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist! And you can check out A-T here!