Monday, 12 June 2017

A Window to the Past: Victorian Ouseburn, George Whitehead

We may think we have a good idea of what life was like in the nineteenth century, but what of the world outside novels, divorced from royalty, far distant from the gas lamps of London and the dramas attendant on the personalities who came to define an era?

Anne Bronte's sketch of Holy Trinity Church, Little Ouseburn
The journal of George Whitehead (1823-1913), sometime carpenter and consummate busybody, is a portal to such a world. For over 60 years, in journals dedicated to births, marriages, deaths and ‘sundries’, he recorded the comings and goings of life in Yorkshire villages Little Ouseburn and Great Ouseburn, with meticulous detail and limited, if blunt, commentary.

He records everything, from the mundane…

Two gates hung across back lane against Clarkes stack yard corner July 6th 1847

To the dramatic…

John Johnson Mr Woodd’s cowman at Thorpe Green hung himself in the cart horse stable March 14 aged 53 years 1856

Boswell Atkinson of Whixley died Nov 5th he cut his throat Oct 26th Mrs Ibbotson confined Nov 15th & died Nov 18th through Atkinson cutting her throat & shock to the system 1893

To the personal:

Our little pony died suddenly Janry 30th 1858

I cut my great toe nearly off Oct 22nd I went on crutches for one month then a fortnight with the boot front cut off then one week with Father’ boots then began with my own all right 1866

And, as you read on, a picture emerges of a village that’s representative of the great changes the century is witnessing:

I sat at Mr Monkhouse’s Lendal York for my first Cartes devisits 6/- pr dozen August 13th 1864

The eleventh telegraph wire on our high road put up July or Augst, 1891

It’s a fascinating read. You never know what the next sentence will bring and start to feel part of a community you can never enter into.

Equally interesting is the book’s very existence in print. It was published in 1990 with all proceeds going to Holy Trinity Church in Little Ouseburn and mentions three intended audiences in its Editor’s Note – inhabitants of the Ouseburns, historians and those tracing their family history. Many readers, like me, stumble over the journals due to their connection to the Brontes. Anne and Branwell Bronte both worked in the area in the 1840s at Thorp Green, a local manor.

The journals’ existence and survival are exceptional, even if the central life it records is not, and they seem destined for a vibrant afterlife, whether fuelling scholars or looked at as a transportive curiosity.

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

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin, 2016

It’s 1886 and Paris is divided over the ‘monstrosity’ of a tower being built in its midst. Scottish widow Caitriona Wallace is playing chaperone to the wealthy and unworldly Alice Arroll and her hapless engineering apprentice brother Jamie. And Emile Nouguier, a partner of Gustave Eiffel, is looking to soar higher, in his designs or in hot air balloons, over a city filled with gossip, intrigue and seduction.


To Capture What We Cannot Keep manages to evoke the atmosphere of Paris in the 1880s, while keeping us at something of arm’s length, never letting us forget that Cait and the Arrolls are outsiders, uneasily navigating a society where morality is optional but reputation is paramount.

Colin gives us rich historical detail and the characters do feel like products of their time, helping the novel read like a story that could have unfolded. But lovers of plot and unexpected twists may be disappointed. The romance unfolds with few surprises and its pacing suffers at times. Cait is complex and Emile a worthy love interest for her, but the supporting cast plays stereotypical roles — devilish count, foolish virgin, plotting former mistress.

Beatrice Colin, 1963-
The novel also suffers from an overloading of sensual detail common to the genre, where historical heroines often read as more enamoured of scents, fabrics and their corresponding metaphors than their male counterparts. The exception to this is in her descriptions of the tower, where Colin does a good job of capturing its delicate precision balanced against its growing domination of the city’s skyline, its masculine assertion against the fear that it may sway, teeter and fall.

The novel takes patience and will appeal to Francophiles and romance readers perhaps more than to lovers of literature from the period. One of the best things about it is the title, which encapsulated my feelings upon finishing the novel. It’s a story of transition, of longing for something that we cannot hang onto, as the story, and the building of the tower, moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Do you know of any more 21st-century novels set in the 19th century that you think the Secret Victorianist should read? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Secret Victorianist and Manga?

Since starting the Secret Victorianist four years ago I've seen shows, read books and attended events I might never have heard of was it not for this blog. That's how I ended up working as a Consultant on a translation of Kazuhiro Fujita's The Ghost and the Lady - a two-volume manga starring Florence Nightingale as one of its central characters.


Check out my interview with The OASG about the story and what I learned about this unfamiliar genre and the challenges of bringing two very different cultures together.

Are you working on a project you'd love the Secret Victorianist to be involved with? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Art Review: Monet: The Early Years, Legion of Honor, San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago the Secret Victorianist was in San Francisco, where I took the opportunity to see the first major US exhibition dedicated to Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) early years as an artist.

The Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide (1865)
Covering the period 1858 to 1872, the exhibition includes Monet’s early exhibits at the Salon, such as The Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide (exhibited in 1865), works rejected by the Salon, including innovative snowscape The Magpie (1868-9), and paintings that show his debt to other artists, like Luncheon on the Grass (1863), an homage to Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting of the same name.

The Magpie (1868-9)
What emerges is a picture of Monet as a rule-breaker — something hard for us to imagine given his prominent place in the art history canon today. The term Impressionism wasn’t coined until the 1870s, taking its name from Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), and the exhibition does a good job of outlining why many of Monet’s experiments were rejected by the Parisian art world.

Luncheon on the Grass (1863)
But the exhibition also gives us a glimpse of Monet as a young man, struggling to survive with a young family. His 1878 The Red Kerchief, for instance, is a portrait of his first wife, Camille Doncieux, who died only a year later, Jean Monet Sleeping (1868) shows the artist’s oldest child at only a year old and Adolphe Monet Reading in the Garden (1866) captures a serene day in Monet’s often difficult relationship with his father.

The Red Kerchief (1878)
There are also paintings that conjure up different locations, which may be surprising to those who are most familiar with Monet’s Water Lilies series, painted at Giverny (where he first rented a house in May 1883). In 1871 he travelled to the Netherlands, painting landscapes and studies of the Dutch buildings, such as Houses on the Zaan River at Zaandam. This exhibition features many works from this trip as well as his journey to London, where he captured the bleak British weather in paintings such as Hyde Park (1871), using the same techniques we often associate with his skill in depicting brilliant sunlight.

Houses on the Zaan River at Zaandam (1871)
Monet: The Late Years is slated for 2019 and will no doubt contain even more of the artist’s most famous and loved paintings. But this exhibition, on display in San Francisco until May 29, brings you into the life and mind of a talented young artist, with the vision to create and encapsulate a movement.

Hyde Park (1871)
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would like? Let me know — here, on Google+, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Adolphe Monet Reading in the Garden (1866)