Sunday, 22 March 2015

Art Review: “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School” (L.A. County Museum of Art, Los Angeles)

The other week, the Secret Victorianist left behind the cold of New York to visit the West Coast of the US for the first time. Although much of my visit was spent basking in the sun in Santa Monica and Malibu, there was still time to soak up some nineteenth-century culture and, ironically, to learn about a group of artists who immortalised the landscape here in the East.

'The Course of Empire: The Savage State', Thomas Cole
A special exhibition at LACMA - “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School” - displays forty five landscape paintings from the New-York Historical Society collection by renowned nineteenth-century artists including Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Albert Bierstadt.

'The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State', Thomas Cole
The paintings are beautiful representations of an unspoiled and idealised American landscape and give a wonderful insight into the American Grand Tour, which unlike its European equivalent, focussed on natural, not manmade wonders. It as an artistic movement grappling with how to best create a national identity – borrowing from the landscapes which appear in Italian art and from Romantic styles of composition, while at the same time highlighting America’s difference, its vastness, its beauty, and the continuance of its Native peoples.

'The Course of Empire: The Consummation', Thomas Cole
This last concern can seem a bit uncomfortable when viewing the exhibition. In a collection largely devoid of human subjects, the inclusion of Native Americans in the occasional examples of portraiture can feel colonial and is a forcible reminder of how much has changed in terms of how this country is populated, as well as in how the landscape surrounding New York has changed.

'The Course of Empire: Destruction', Thomas Cole
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a wonderful series of five paintings by Thomas Cole entitled The Course of Empire (1834-6), which offers an insight into another concern which has been a preoccupation in American culture, from nineteenth-century art and literature up until late twentieth-century and contemporary apocalyptic disaster movies. Cole’s paintings trace the patterns of rise and fall in civilisations – savagery giving way to an Arcadian pastoral existence, followed by the consummation of empire, its violent destruction and finally the desolation which follows.

'The Course of Empire: Desolation', Thomas Cole
That America’s ascendency can – like other great empires - only end with a violent overthrow is a powerful idea and the series also suggests doubt as to whether romanticising America in the way this art movement does is not in some ways a contributory factor towards its eventual decline. The self-consciousness with which Cole raises this concern in these paintings is also in some ways reminiscent of Victorian approaches to literary epics (which I’ve dealt with previously).

Inside the exhibition
The exhibition is running at LACMA until June 7th with tickets priced at $25. If you’re in LA it’s well worth a visit (even if it’s not a rainy day).

The Secret Victorianist at LACMA
Do you know of any art exhibitions dealing with the nineteenth century the Secret Victorianist should visit in New York? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Monday, 16 March 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: A Retrospect

Eighteen months ago, I began a series looking at twenty-six themes and topics in Victorian literature linked to the letters of the alphabet. Now, having recently posted Z (for Zuleika!), I’ll be recapping what we covered and linking to any posts you might have missed.


In ‘A is for Animals in Agnes Grey’, I look at how cruelty or kindness to animals is often indicative of moral fibre in the works of Emily and Anne Brontë. The fate of animals in literature can often foreshadow or mirror the lives of characters, but can also provide some of the most memorable incidents in a plot, making this theme a powerful tool for philosophical and moral exploration.

In ‘B is for Brownies in the Brain’, I examine Robert Louis Stevenson’s conception of the creative process in his essay ‘A Chapter on Dreams’. Where does literary inspiration come from and what forces could be at work in a writer’s subconscious?

In ‘C is for Caroline’s Coriolanus’, I review the use of Shakespeare in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and in the relationship between two of her characters (Robert and Caroline). Brontë argues for literature as a vehicle for emotional, as well as academic, education.

In ‘D is for Defending Daniel Deronda’, I argue for the complimentary nature of the Jewish and romantic ‘halves’ of George Eliot’s most divisive novel. Gwendolen and Daniel are united in their quest to find a vocation, whether religious or secular.

In ‘E is for the Eloi and Elysium’, I trace the heritage of nineteenth-century science fiction, and in particular H.G. Wells, in a modern flick starring Matt Damon. How does Victorian thinking on class, economics and evolution inform modern cinema?

In ‘F is for Fern Fever’, I write about the strange Victorian phenomenon of ‘pteridomania’ through the lens of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Vixen. How do hot houses relate to social status and what can women’s gardening habits tell us about them?

In ‘G is for Graves in Great Expectations’, I look at the graves which inspired those of Pip’s parents and siblings in Charles Dickens’s most popular novel. The graves also act as signs for the illiterate Pip to ‘read’, signifying the dangers of partial knowledge as well as the virtues of ignorance  - important ideas in a bildungsroman.

In ‘H is for Hardy’s Hair Extensions’, I expose the link between hair and attractive femininity in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders. What does it mean to take another woman’s hair? And how do Victorian ideas of ageing compare with our own?

In ‘I is for Infants, Industrialisation and Imagination’, Victorian novels dealing with factory workers are put under the microscope. What does it mean to infantilise the working classes and why does Dickens choose to deal with the position of workers and the education of children in the same novel (Hard Times)?

In ‘J is for Jealousy in Jewsbury’, I consider how stereotypes about actresses and wives are difficult to reconcile for male characters, but also the author, in Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half-Sisters.

In ‘K is for ‘The Kraken’’, I provide a line-by-line reading of Tennyson’s poem about a fearsome sea monster, helping students approach new poems and dig into this poem in particular.

In ‘L is for Laura’s Landscapes’, I probe the gendered differences between landscape painting and portraiture in the most famous Victorian sensation novels. How comfortable can we be as modern readers with a conclusion to The Woman in White which leaves Laura still deluded about her role as artist as well as object?

In ‘M is for Melodrama, Murder and Maria Marten’, I blog about a real life murder case which inspired a swathe of nineteenth- and twentieth-century creative treatments. Why did Maria Marten capture the imagination of Victorian audiences?

In ‘N is for Nelly as Narrator’, I argue for the unreliability of Nelly as a source of information in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

In ‘O is for Openings’, I dissect the openings of Lady Audley’s Secret and The Woman in White. What can we learn from Braddon and Collins about creating suspense and drama? And how can writing thrill us in ways movies cannot?

In ‘P is for Pregnancy’, I reveal the ‘hidden signs’ a female character you’re reading about may be pregnant. Tuning into Victorian innuendos and pregnancy ‘symptoms’ could help improve your reading experience.

In ‘Q is for Quiz!’, you get to find our which Victorian heroine YOU should be.

In ‘R is for Rome’, my trip to the Italian capital spurs a reconsideration of Dorothea’s trip there in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Dorothea’s sheltered upbringing, Protestantism, and recent marriage all impact on her response to the city and so the chapters here offer valuable insight into her character.

In ‘S is for Swinburne, Sappho and Sadomasochism’, I write about Swinburne’s adaptation of Sapphic fragments in nineteenth-century verse. What is the appeal of Sappho? Is it sexual, sadistic, or poetic?

In ‘T is for Text, Time (and Trains)’, I blog about the skillful way in which Thomas Hardy’s narrative techniques play with the passing of time. Moving from Victorian novels to romantic comedies and horror flicks, I offer my perspective on the manipulation of time in text.

In ‘U is for ‘Ulysses’ and You’, I remind you of the poetry scene in the latest James Bond movie and give a case for the continued appeal of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’.

In ‘V is for Vulnerable Victorian Virginity’, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth acts as an example of how female virginity is often presented in nineteenth-century literature.  

In ‘W is for Witchcraft’, I write about Hardy and Gaskell’s interest in magic and the supernatural. Witchcraft which we might think of as confined to earlier centuries is still very much alive in nineteenth-century rural England and in Victorian literature.

In ‘X is for Xmas’, I analyse the poem (and later carol) ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Which ideas about the Christmas period span the centuries and what was unique about celebrating the festival during the American Civil War.

In ‘Y is for Why Yellow?’, I answer the question about why this one colour was so important to writers in the 1890s. From fashionable magazines to madness-inducing wallpaper, why does yellow define the decade?

And finally, in ‘Z is for Zuleika’, Max Beerbohm’s letters offer an insight into the creative process which went into writing his novel – Zuleika Dobson.

Thank you so much to those who have stuck with me throughout the series and for all your comments and suggestions! I’m delighted to let you know I’ll be starting a new series in the next weeks, reviewing works of Neo-Victorian literature, so if you have any favourite works which fall into this category then let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: Z is for Zuleika

After 25 letters in my Victorian Alphabet, I’m cheating a little bit here, as Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story wasn’t actually published until 1911. But, having recently finished reading Rupert Hart-Davis’s Letters Of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1956and seen how Zuleika, as a character and a novel, is such a strong presence in Max’s life long before the text’s publication (he began writing it in 1898), I feel justified in using her to round off this very Victorian series.

Zuleika Dobson is a satirical novel about a girl so attractive she makes the students at Oxford University commit suicide en masse, destroying the city and its institutions. An untalented magician, Zuleika’s appeal is partially due to her beauty and partially to the contradictions of her character which make her unable to love anyone:

“I could no more marry a man about whom I could not make a fool of myself than I could marry one who made a fool of himself about me. Else had I long ceased to be a spinster”.

While the novel moves away from Zuleika at times – whether to the history of Oxford’s most elite drinking society, to the birds which are harbingers of death for holders of a particular dukedom, or to the muse of history Clio – she dominates the novel, and also seems to have dominated its creation.

In his letters, Max even uses the word ‘Zuleika-ing’ to denote the act of writing and, in 1904, not only does he seem to have a very clear idea of the eventual plot, but he’s also personifying his work, talking about his inability to write a ‘skeleton’ of the rest of the novel, without it becoming a ‘full-fleshed figure’.

At the novel’s appearance, Max writes the following note to Robert Ross (who had been a close friend of Oscar Wilde):

‘My dear Bobbie, Poor old Zuleika! She is at length to be dragged out, blinking and staggering, into the light of day. And Heinemann [his publisher] will be sending her to the Reform Club, to wait for you there. Be kind, be courteous, to the hag. Incline your ear to her mumblings. Pretend not to hear the horrid creakings of her joints. Tell her she does not look a day older than when you saw her or at any rate her head and shoulders all those years ago. Don’t hint to her that she makes a goblin of the sun. Yours affectionately, Max’.

Here we see Beerbohm referencing the long gestation period his novel has been through. And we also see him using an identification between Zuleika the woman and Zuleika the novel to reference the faults in his writing (mere ‘mumblings’ with ‘creaking…joints’), while simultaneously pleading for kind critical judgement on them (without seeming to plead for himself).

With the reference to Zuleika’s head and shoulders as having appeared first, Max also seems to be alluding to one of the most famous stories of male birth, the emergence of Artemis from the head of her father Zeus. Writing a novel as a sort of pregnancy is an idea he returns to again in a letter to Arnold Bennett:

‘You mustn’t expect from me a ‘diabolically ingenious defence’ of Zuleika, any more than you would expect a woman who has just borne a child to be diabolically ingenious of defence of that child… “Madam, this baby is in many respects a very fine baby. I observe many inimitable touches of you in it. But, Madam, I am bound to say that its screams are more penetrating than a baby’s screams ought to be. I notice in its complexion a mottled quality which jars my colour-sense. And I cannot help wishing it were” etc. etc.… Will the young mother floor you in well-chosen words?’

Max’s easy and familiar references to ‘Zuleika’ in his letters demonstrate beautifully the strong connection between artist and work (even an artist as humorous and, at times, flippant as Beerbohm). They also show the fascination ‘she’ as a character and as a project held over Max across several decades. Zuleika’s appeal may have decimated Oxford, but it has cemented Beerbohm’s place in literary history.

This is the last in my Victorian Alphabet series, so let me know if you have any new series ideas – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And, if you want to find out more about Beerbohm’s Oxford, then click here for my top tourist tips for Victorianists who find themselves in England’s best city!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Theatre Review: An Octoroon, Branden Jacob-Jenkins, Theatre for a New Audience (Brooklyn, New York)

Every other review I’ve read of Soho Rep’s An Octoroon, which premiered last spring and has now reopened at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, opens by mentioning how obscure playwright Dion Boucicault is, not to mention his 1859 melodrama The Octoroon. Maybe because of this, as I waited for the play to start on Wednesday evening, it struck me how very different my experience might be to that of most of the audience. I’ve not only heard of Boucicault, I’ve directed one of his plays (London Assurance, which I blogged about previously) and while, of course, aspects of 1850s dramas, especially when they deal with race in the American South, can be uncomfortable, the world of Victorian melodrama isn’t alien, but instead one in which I feel very much at home. My questions as the performance began were instead around what form the adaptation would take, and - the same question that Jacob-Jenkins, as played by Austin Smith, reports from his therapist in the play’s opening scene – ‘what appeal can a racist melodrama hold for black playwright in the 21stcentury?’


In search of an answer to this question, Jacob-Jenkins (Smith) dons whiteface to play both hero and villain in Boucicault’s drama and is joined by the original Irish playwright himself (Haynes Thigpen), playing a Native American in, er, redface, to act out the plot of the original play. Heir to the plantation George is in love with the illegitimate daughter of his late uncle, Zoe (Amber Gray), but Zoe, while she’s been raised as a lady, is an eighth black (and so an ‘octoroon’) and they soon find out her free papers aren’t in order. Add to that large debts attached to the plantation, an evil and lascivious neighbour (also played by Smith) who wants Zoe for himself, an aggressively forward local heiress (Mary Wiseman) with her sights set on George, and the slaves attached to the estate, and you have a play complete with court scenes, murder, slave auctions and intrigue. In Jacob-Jenkins’ adaptation the roles of the slaves are by far the most important, with the conversations between Minnie (Maechi Aharanwa) and Dido (Pascale Amand) providing commentary, in more contemporary language, on the play’s events. While others rush around the stage performing cross race (Ian Lassiter in particular donning blackface to play slave characters as they might have been presented on the Victorian stage), these characters (played by black actors), while they don’t have the same level of remove as the characters of Jacob-Jenkins and Boucicault from the action, almost seem to play out the role of a contemporary black reader approaching the play.

Amber Gray as Zoe
As the melodrama reaches its dramatic conclusion, the play takes a step back, drawing our attention to the artificiality of the heavily plotted action and instead delivering a killer punch of its own, exposing the brutal realities of the racism which has been a source of humour previously. Cleverly, the climax of An Octoroon comes with the display of a photograph and a period of intense silence in the theatre, just as, in the original melodrama The Octoroon, the murderer is foiled by (cutting edge) photographic evidence.

The play was fascinating, veering from the darkly entertaining to the frankly horrifying, and always delivered surprises – from the adaptations of the initially bare looking set, to the arrival of the actual Jacob-Jenkins wearing a rabbit head to aid transitions between scenes. Other reviewers, and a few audience members I spoke to on the night, have expressed some disappointment that the play doesn’t seem to reach any conclusions about what it means to receive this kind of text, to stage a story so removed from our contemporary ideas around what’s acceptable when dealing with race. For me though, this was its magic. As a Victorianist, I experience a similar range of emotions when reading and studying. How can I feel when reading about views I would find objectionable from my contemporaries? Is it wrong of me to enjoy these novels, these poems, these plays? By injecting new life into The Octoroon, using its effective dramatic qualities to expose the darkness of its moral assumptions, Jacob-Jenkins gives us one creative way in which these questions can be addressed. Writers like Boucicault don’t need to be left in the past, the preserve of academics, if writers today are brave enough to enter into a dialogue with them.



An Octoroon is on at the Theatre for a New Audience until 8th March 2015. Tickets cost $60-85 but under 30s and students can get tickets for $20 under the New Deal (what I did!).

If you know of any other productions and adaptations of 19th-century plays in the New York area you think the Secret Victorianist should see then let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A Nineteenth Centuryist in Washington D.C.

Rather appropriately for the President’s Day weekend, the Secret Victorianist spent the last few days in Washington D.C. It was my first visit to the US capital, and partially inspired by my recent review of Henry Adam’s Democracy, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the social and political milieu of the city in the 1800s. It was a culturally diverse weekend (from Renaissance art to 50 Shades of Grey, with lots in between), but I wanted to share some nineteenth-century highlights among the attractions I visited.

First up was the National Museum of American History, where three very different exhibitions which dealt with the period stood out. There was the original star-spangled banner – the huge flag which flew above Fort McHenry to mark its victory over the British in September 1814 and which inspired the poem by Francis Scott Key which would become the country’s national anthem.

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Etc.

The flag
What I found interesting here, aside from the impressively huge flag itself, was the story this told about the afterlife of objects and texts. Just as the flag has gone through changes – been invested with a meaning beyond its initial use, cut up to provide keepsakes, displayed in private homes and in public spaces, so too has Key’s poem been adapted and repurposed. Listening to older recordings of the anthem being sung and comparing to the conventions of anthem-singing today, for example, posed questions about cultural continuity and evolution. The exhibition isn’t just an important piece of US history – it’s a testament to the ongoing and ever-developing nature of history and an argument in itself for the value of reception studies.

Alexander Graham Bell
Meanwhile Hear my Voice was a (much emptier!) special exhibition featuring recordings and equipment from Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in Washington D.C. in the 1880s. Indistinct and crackling as the recordings are, hearing voices from the nineteenth century, testing equipment and reciting ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, is a real thrill, and one which draws attention to the impressive nature of the kind of technologies we now take for granted.

'The Mutiny on the Amistad', Hale Woodruff
If learning about the star-spangled banner led to reflections on American patriotism today, a way of looking back at the nineteenth century through a different lens, was the Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College exhibition. This series of six murals by Woodruff, painted in the 1930s, was commissioned by the Alabama college and portrays significant events in African American history, including the foundation of Talladega College in 1867 and the slave uprising on the Amistad in 1839.

Seeing a nineteenth-century slave ship and courtroom rendered in Woodruff’s colourful, geometric murals is vivid and compelling, and with recent interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives with black heroes and heroines at their centre (think Twelve Years a Slave and Belle), it seems like a timely moment for these wonderful murals to be touring the country, post-restoration.

Tudor Place
Away from the history museum, I also visited the historic Tudor Place – a family mansion in Georgetown, which was home to Thomas Peter, and his wife Martha (granddaughter of Martha Washington), and four generations of their descendants (until 1983). The beautiful house, which dates from 1814, holds many objects from Mount Vernon, and visiting gives you an insight into the life of one family throughout the entire nineteenth, and most of the twentieth, centuries, against a backdrop of large scale political and social change and upheaval. The family watched the White House burn from their windows in 1814, hosted Union soldiers, despite their Southern sympathies during the Civil War, and, throughout all, lovingly preserved the character of the house.

On what was one of the coldest days of the year in D.C., I was lucky enough to have the first tour of the day entirely to myself, but would love to visit again in the summer to wander around the tranquil and extensive gardens. If you’re fed up with the throngs at the city’s headline tourist attractions, this is a gem.

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
A final mention goes to the current display of works from the Corcoran Gallery at the National Gallery of Art, as the latter incorporates 6,000 works from the former into its collection. There’s so much here, but I particularly enjoyed Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara (1857). Catch it with its fellow pieces from the Corcoran while you can.

Do you know of any other great nineteenth-century attractions in D.C.? Let me know for next time I visit – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!


'Niagara', Frederic Edwin Church (1857)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Be my (Victorian) Valentine?

Last February, I shared some inspiration for literary lines to use whatever your romantic situation on Valentine’s Day. And this year, I’m bringing you even more potential card-fillers (thank me later!). Can you name the novel for each line?

The Engagement Kiss
1. For the long-term partner you love to hate, and wouldn’t even contemplate leaving:

“My love for you resembles the eternal rocks beneath; a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”

2. From a lover who aspires to a great and (in)famous passion:

“I want to make Romeo jealous. I want the dead lovers of the world to hear our laughter, and grow sad.”

3. For the love who has already rejected you at least once:

“My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever”.

4. For the love you have an up and down relationship with:

“Remember this, that if you’ve been hated, you’ve also been loved.”

5. From the lover who is realistic about a relationship’s future:

“Happiness is but a mere episode in the general drama of pain.”

6. From a sugar daddy to his lover:

“I dare say I am a romantic old fool; but if you do not dislike me, and if you do not love any one else, I see no reason why we should not make a very happy couple”.

7. For the love who has reformed you, after years of sowing your wild oats:

“I have found for the first time what I can truly love – I have found you. You are my sympathy – my better self – my good angel.”

8. From a lover who is about to sacrifice himself for the greater good:

“I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.”

9. For the cruel object of your affection:

“What have you to do with hearts except for dissection?”

10. From the spurned and creepy lover:

“You look as if you thought it tainted you to be loved by me. You cannot avoid it.”

Do you have any other Victorian Valentine's Day suggestions? Let me know - here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

1. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte; 2. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde; 3. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen; 4. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James; 5. The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy; 6. Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon; 7. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte; 8. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens; 9. Good Lady Ducayne, Mary Elizabeth Braddon; 10. North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: Y is for Why Yellow??

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) is a staple nineteenth-century text for students of literature in the English-speaking world, and especially the US. The 6,000-word short story is an account written in the first person of a woman, Jane, who has been confined to an upper room in a secluded house by her husband John as a result of a nervous disorder. There, having been prescribed a ‘rest cure’ for her hysteria, separated from her baby, and barred from writing, she goes slowly mad, convinced there is something living behind the room’s yellow wallpaper.

Even this straightforward summary raises lots of questions (and contains plenty of content for future blog posts!), but one central question stood out to me the first time I read the text (and seems to have occurred to multiple other students turning to Yahoo Answers for clarity!) – why is the wallpaper yellow, rather than any other shade?

The choice isn’t an accidental one, and is closely linked with contemporary ideas about the colour. Here’s how Jane introduces it first:

The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

Two important and recurrent associations with yellow are noticeable – yellow is the colour of putrification and also of a milder kind of fading, caused by the passage of time.

Earlier in the century, Dickens had used yellow in the same way, frequently linking the colour to particular characters who are older and somehow linked to decay. This is how Pip first describes the home of Miss Havisham, perhaps the character in the English canon most associated with physical deterioration and the passage of time, in Great Expectations (1860-1):

I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. 



In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman is at pains to highlight that the paper is a yellow of these very associations of festering age, rather than say a sunny yellow:

It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.

Jane even links the rotting smell she finds pervading her room with the yellow paper itself:

The only thing I can think of that it is like is the COLOUR of the paper! A yellow smell.

In doing so, she is not merely exhibiting an increasing monomania with the paper. ‘Jane’, isolated though she is, is acting just like many other writers of the 1890s! For many (especially European) writers of the Fin de Siècle, yellow was the defining colour of the period, with its associations with degeneracy, the wasting away of the age, a sickliness brought on by inbreeding, boredom or excess.

There was a practical link too. In the nineteenth-century, scandalous French novels were bound in yellow paper to warn browsers of their racy contents. It is one of these books which helps to corrupt the impressionable Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, published the year before Gilman’s story.

Lord Henry gives Dorian a ‘book bound in yellow paper, the cover slightly torn and the edges soiled’. Note how its state of dilapidation is similar to Jane’s paper:

It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down.

Later, in Wilde’s novella, Dorian pins the blame for his moral decline squarely on this book:

"Yet you poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to any one. It does harm."

This suggestion – that a book, even a yellow book, can really poison a mind – is one which Wilde rejects firmly:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

But it is interesting to note that Dorian’s book is not generic. It has a particular model as Wilde’s description of it makes clear. It is À Rebours (1884), by Joris-Karl Huysmans (which I reviewed on this blog in September 2013), a novel which is the quintessential story of the degenerate (French) life.



Here’s the effect the novel has on Dorian:

It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

Dorian’s feelings of discovery and revelation here before a later fall match perfectly with the early stages of Jane’s fixation with the yellow wallpaper. The novel and the paper feel incomplete, raiments, something torn, but they inspire what could be described as creativity – Jane’s writing, Dorian’s beautiful life – but could also be identified as self-destructive madness.

When it came to naming a quarterly literary journal in London in 1894, its founders were in no doubt what to name it – The Yellow Book was the perfect descriptor of the age although it (fittingly!) died out before the end of the century (1897). With contributors including Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, H.G. Wells and Henry James, The Yellow Book shows just how much yellowness meant to writers of this period.

It is within this context too then that The Yellow Wallpaper should be read. The question is not ‘why is the paper yellow?’. It might rather be ‘how do these ideas of degeneracy, and this link to the Aestheticism of the period, play into to Gilman’s other concerns, with gender, motherhood and madness?’

We’re nearly there! What should be 'Z' in my Victorian Alphabet?? It’s a tricky one so send me your suggestions – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!