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.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Traces of Nineteenth-Century North America: The Secret Victorianist in Ontario and Hawaii

An accusation I hear a lot back home as a European transplant, living in the US, is that America has no history.

“How can you bear to live somewhere there’s no culture?” I’ve been asked, more than once. “Aren’t you the one who likes reading about the past?”

Yet, everywhere I’ve travelled since moving to this continent, I’ve found that history, and in particular nineteenth-century history, is very much alive and well in the popular imagination. Canada and the United States’ comparative youth makes this century (my century) loom even larger, and the sites and monuments that comprise their visible history, while fewer in number, seem to have a greater influence on the shaping of the countries’ current national identities.

Today I want to talk about two very different places I’ve visited in the last month — Fort George in Ontario, Canada and Iolani Palace, once home to Hawaiian royalty in Honolulu.

Fort George

Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort George was a British military structure that housed soldiers and saw combat during the War of 1812.

Today’s reconstruction allows visitors not only to explore buildings designed to mirror those of the early 1800s (living quarters, workshops and the original powder magazine), but also to watch and interact with costumed ‘soldiers’. These re-enactors march, play the fife and drum and shoot rounds from their muskets, with such serious commitment to the tasks at hand that it’s easy to imagine adversarial American troops ranged on the other side of the narrow river.

These volunteers bring the place to life (indeed it almost felt at times like we’d accidentally wandered into 1812!) but I couldn’t help but consider their motivations. What was so attractive to these men, women, and, in many cases, children, about reconnecting with the past, and indeed with Canada’s close ties to the British?

In one way it was surreal to hear ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ played so far from England, but then, that’s how it was sung by the Redcoats the world over — no matter how far the march, how deep the ditch or how exhausting the labour, there was always something connecting you to home.

Iolani Palace

At Iolani Palace in Honolulu I certainly wasn’t expecting to see this same reach and influence of empire. But this spectacular royal home (built 1879-1882) out-European-ed many of the stately houses I’ve seen in Britain and beyond.

Portraits at Iolani Palace
It had electric lights before Buckingham Palace, a fact that dazzled visiting dignitaries and notables (I didn’t realise that Robert Louis Stevenson was once received there). Its reception rooms were decked out with portraits of European, as well as Hawaiian, royals. And, while the palace’s exterior seems designed for the temperate climate and in keeping with Hawaiian styles and traditions, once inside the dining room, ballroom, or music room you could have guessed you were anywhere.

The Music Room at Iolani Palace
The palace also served as a gaol for nine months in 1895 for the then independent kingdom’s final queen, Liliʻuokalani, who was forced out of power by the mainland-backed provisional government. In one of the upper bedrooms you can see the quilt she and one of her ladies in waiting stitched during this period, sections of brightly coloured fabric telling the stories of Hawaii’s unification, royalty and republic.

Visiting an American state with a royal past was as strange as hearing stirrings of British spirit in Canada.

The veranda at Iolani Palace
And Iolani Palace also shared something else with Fort George — the site’s reliance on reconstruction and detective work. Many pieces of the royal family’s furniture and other possessions were sold and scattered, but the team here has worked, and is working tirelessly, to recreate a version of the Palace Hawaii’s kings would have recognised.

Where else in North America would you like to see the Secret Victorianist visit? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.