Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Why Studying English will Ruin Your Life...

You may have heard that being a literature grad is a sure fire way to win worldly success - just consider the resulting parental pride, transferable employment skills, and high esteem of Tory politicians. But sadly, you were wrong – take it from the Secret Victorianist. Studying English will in fact destroy your life one area at a time…

1. Greetings Cards: The sentimental poem in the birthday card from your nan, a token of affection from a friend overseas - every missive designed to bring a tear to the eye and warmth to your heart is officially ruined for you. Some say it’s the thought which counts, but the lack of scansion and the clichéd sentiments will make you want to run a mile.

2. Shop signs: Which English grad doesn’t know the horror of the misplaced apostrophe? This obsession may be becoming a problem…

3. Your own writing: Remember as a child how you used to ‘make books’ and write stories? Not anymore! You can’t write a line without suffering extreme anxiety, serious writer’s block, and an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. 

4. Alcohol: Three years at uni and suddenly you find that far too many of your heroes were depressive alcoholics with dysfunctional relationships. Still feeling hopeful about how that ‘quiet drink’ tonight is going to go? I thought not. 

5. Love: A mutually destructive but passionate love affair with a fellow writer may have its downsides as well as perks, but the truth is most lovers just won’t be able to measure up to historical examples or fictional flings. My advice? Head to bed with a book – here’s some brief suggestions if you’re after a quick rebound!

How has studying English destroyed YOUR life? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or, as always, by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Review: The Black Robe, Wilkie Collins (1881)

Wilkie Collins’s 1881 The Black Robe tells the story of the misadventures of Lewis Romayne in a novel which deals with depression, madness, a fatal duel, marital breakdown, capture by South American ‘natives’, ill-motivated religious conversion, bigamy and disinheritance. The somewhat mad premise is that scheming Jesuit Father Branwell is out to win back a monastery seized by Henry VIII from the Church and the novel is best-known for its anti-Catholic prejudice but there are many other reasons why this Collins novel is well worth reading. 

For general readers: Romayne is a deeply egotistical and irritating protagonist and, while his wife Stella is realistic and rounded, if cultivating deep sympathies with characters is what’s most important to you, you may be a little disappointed. Father Branwell, on the other hand is a wonderful villain, worthy of comparison with Count Fosco in the much more widely-read The Woman in White (1859). We are acquainted with his plotting to such an extent, through the inclusion of his written correspondence, that we almost begin to sympathise with him, making for an interesting reading experience. At times the novel feels a little uneven, especially in its pacing and use of split narration - this is a novel which reads like it could have gone in several ways and not one in which Collins demonstrates the very best of his skill in multiple narration. But the moments of wonderfully human insight, Collins’s nuanced understanding of relationships and the sensational drama of some of the novel’s incidents more than make up for it. 

For students: The Black Robe is obviously extremely useful in terms of understanding nineteenth-century suspicions of Catholicism but the text is perhaps most well-suited to an analysis of marriage. Henry VIII isn’t just the pretence for the plot centred on Romayne’s property but a model for the debates which follow on what constitutes a ‘true’ union. The novel sees the sensation novelist’s usual preoccupation with the legalities of marriage set alongside religious considerations (the first time I’ve seen this), while Collins also details a breakdown in communication between husband and wife in a way which recalls his The Law and the Lady (1875) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Hostages to Fortune (1871), giving a wonderful insight into the pressures of Victorian domesticity. There is also, as usual, much material here for students working on madness, along with a wedding day very similar to Jane and Rochester’s interrupted nuptials in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre.

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, 29 June 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: S is for Swinburne, Sappho and Sadomasochism

Matthew Arnold criticised Algernon Charles Swinburne for his ‘fatal habit of using one hundred words when one would suffice’. So it is perhaps strange that Swinburne, a poet notable for his diffusiveness, should be so heavily indebted to that most fragmentary of poets, known for her enigmatic brevity – Sappho.

Sappho’s slight oeuvre is of course the result 2,600 years of imperfect transmission but the broken nature of her poetry has become one of the most identifiable reasons of its appeal. Swinburne loved and admired Sappho from his schooldays at Eton, but feminist critics have criticised nineteenth-century male poets such as Swinburne and Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier for exploiting the gaps in Sappho, inserting themselves in the silence and populating the elisions with expressions of their own sexual and poetic desires.

Swinburne certainly found Sappho spoke to him in very personal ways, encompassing, but also going beyond, questions of sexual preferences – the appeal of sadomasochism, the experience and expression of what we might label ‘bisexual’ love. Sappho is perhaps most directly prominent in Swinburne’s ‘Anactoria’ (published as part of Poems and Ballands in 1866).

In the Days of Sappho, John William Godward
Anactoria is a female lover of Sappho’s, mentioned by name in Fragment 16, but it is Fragment 31, traditionally referred to as the ‘Ode to Anactoria’ despite the lack of addressee, which informs Swinburne’s poem more directly. In Sappho’s poem it is the physical effects of love and particularly sexual jealousy on the poet herself which is the focus:

For whenever I glance at you, it seems that I can say nothing at all but my tongue is broken in silence, and that instant a light fire rushes beneath my skin. I can no longer see anything in my eyes and my ears are thundering, and cold sweat pours down me, and shuddering grasps me all over, and I am greener than grass, and I seem to myself to be little short of death.

And Swinburne’s poem, written in a voice which is later confirmed to be Sappho’s, starts in the same vein:

My life is bitter with thy love, thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.

But in Swinburne’s poem, the violence soon shifts to be directed towards Anactoria, not just caused by her: 

I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.
I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,
Intense device, and superflux of pain;
Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake
Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache

This violence isn’t only the result of jealousy – rather, it is a source of pleasure in itself and the natural result of a love which is imagined as being equally painful to both parties:

I feel thy blood against thy blood: my pain
Pains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.

For both Swinburne and Sappho, sex and pain are inexorably linked and in both poems the natural result of love is death, but Sappho’s importance to the later poet isn’t only a question of a shared interest in sadomasochism. In a 1914 article in The Saturday Review on Sappho, Swinburne wrote:

Judging even from the mutilated fragments fallen even within our reach from the broken altar of her sacrifice of a song, I for one have always agreed with all Grecian tradition in thinking Sappho to be beyond all question and comparison the very greatest poet that ever lived.

In ‘Anactoria’ the equal pain which Swinburne imagines, is not mirrored in an equal death – Sappho will survive, while her lovers will not, because of the uniqueness of her song:

Yea, they shall say, earth’s womb has borne in vain
New things, and never this best thing again;
Borne days and men, borne fruits and wars and wine,
Seasons and songs, but no song more like mine [emphasis mine]

In his 1914 article, Swinburne continues:

Aeschylus is the greatest poet who ever was also a prophet; Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist who ever was also a poet; but Sappho is simply nothing less – as she is certainly nothing more – than the greatest poet who ever was at all.

It is this ‘faith’ of Swinburne’s in the perfection of Sappho’s poetry, rather than her sexual subjects, which cements her worth.

What should be T in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Review: Merchant's House Museum, NYC

The house seen from the back garden
The Secret Victorianist was in New York City the other week and visited the Merchant’s House Museum – a detached house which has remained largely unchanged since it was home to the Tredwell family in the nineteenth century.

Built in 1832, the house (on East Fourth Street, between Layfayette Street and Bowery) was sold to Seabury Tredwell (an NYC merchant) in 1840. He and his wife lived there with their eight children (six girls and two boys), with the youngest daughter Gertrude maintaining the house in near original condition until her death in 1933.

You can still see the original décor and furniture – a dining table, with its extra leaves to extend when the Tredwells entertained, beds which family members were born and died in, bells rang to summon servants. And the museum even has a collection of the family’s clothes. While I was there, several of the family’s wedding dresses were on special display – from a plain empire line gown from the 1810s, to the more full-skirted and highly-decorated styles of the 1840s. Not that weddings were especially plentiful in the Tredwell family – only two daughter and one son of the eight ever married and no direct descendants remain.

Inside the Merchant's House Museum
This aids to the poignancy of the Merchant’s House Museum as a home stuck in a time warp. A recording of a piece from one of the family’s pianoforte exercise books plays on repeat in the front parlour and you feel throughout like you are intruding in somebody’s home. Unlike many of the grand National Trust properties you might visit in the UK, this building is very ordinary, and its former occupants’ lives understandable and relatable. It is all the more important and in some ways interesting for this – but its survival has relied on time, and this family, being unable to move on.

The museum’s continued survival however is not guaranteed. Wrangling over the development of an adjacent property which could affect the House’s structural integrity is ongoing and the staff are noticeably grateful when they see visitors. The Merchant’s House Museum is well worth a visit, giving a wonderful glimpse into the world of nineteenth-century New York for only $10. It’s a chance to duck off the busy streets and step back in time.

The Secret Victorianist is back in London, but will be returning to NYC come September. Do you know any other attractions she should visit? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

The Tredwells' kitchen

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Review: Wilton's Music Hall, London

The Secret Victorianist at Wilton's
Wilton’s Music Hall is a relic of London’s Victorian East End – a nineteenth-century music hall attached to an eighteenth-century terrace, which has functioned over the years as a venue for entertainment, drinking, prostitution, religious congregation and, er, rag storage.

Its heyday was in the 1860s when music hall – comedy, dance, song and dramatic tableau (all uncensored unlike full-length plays) – was all the rage in London but this is a relic which is also very much alive. While I joined one of Wilton’s regular historical tours, and enjoyed a cocktail in the Mahogany Bar, the great thing about the Hall is that its role as a performance venue continues, with a busy programme of dramatic and cultural events.

Wilton’s isn’t a museum. Throughout it feels definitively ‘lived in’. Adaptations to the Hall prior to its opening in 1859 and subsequent to a fire suffered in 1877, have given the building a somewhat haphazard air, with doors and windows leading nowhere and keeping the venue watertight a real challenge. Meanwhile the auditorium itself is decidedly shabby chic. You can still see the gilt of the barley twist pillars (which feature in many period dramas filmed here) and remnants of the older decorations, but the mirrored walls, bright paints and incredible gas-lit chandelier are all gone, while the original stage is covered for conservation reasons.

Wilton's Music Hall (Credit: James Perry)
This is not to say it’s not impressive. The auditorium is a tardis-like surprise, sandwiched as it is between narrow terraces, and the fairy lights strung up around it give a magical feel. The rowdiness of Champagne Charlie’s songs has been replaced by something which is much more serene but is absolutely still worth sampling.

As with most of Britain’s most fascinating buildings, Wilton’s survival has at times been perilous. It took the rallying of recent generations of actors, performers and poets to save it from demolition and work on the building has been slow. With recently secured National Lottery funding and ongoing renovation work to the terrace, Wilton’s attractiveness as a modern venue and historic attraction should only increase. The digitisation of its archive would also be invaluable for academics studying performance, local history or ephemera of the period.

The Mahogany Bar (Credit: James Perry)

But for now, for only £6, you can take a trip back in time on the tour, or alternatively head to Wilton’s for a drink or some great entertainment – two things this London stalwart has been providing for the best part of two centuries.

Do you know of any London sites you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: R is for Rome

The Secret Victorianist was in Rome last week to visit the same sites admired by Byron and Shelley, but it was the reaction of a fictional character to the eternal city which was playing most on my mind. Dorothea Brooke, a central character in George Eliot’s 1871-2 Middlemarch, is less than impressed by Rome and its history when on her honeymoon tour.

Rome, Eliot argues, can only be appreciated when its viewers possess knowledge as well as ardour:

'To those who have looked at Rome with the quickening power of a knowledge which breathes a growing soul into all historic shapes, and traces out the suppressed transitions which unite all contrasts, Rome may still be the spiritual centre and interpreter of the world.’

This historical and specifically classical knowledge is precisely what Dorothea lacks. I have already posted about women’s lack of access to classical education in the nineteenth century and, as a result of this, even Rome – the centre of the classical world – becomes meaningless here in the light of Dorothea’s ignorance.

The Secret Victorianist in Rome
‘But let them [those with knowledge] conceive one more historical contrast: the gigantic broken revelations of that Imperial and Papal city thrust abruptly on the notions of a girl who had been brought up in English and Swiss Puritanism, fed on meagre Protestant histories and on art chiefly of the hand-screen sort; a girl whose ardent nature turned all her small allowance of knowledge into principles, fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick emotions gave the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or a pain; a girl who had lately become a wife, and from the enthusiastic acceptance of untried duty found herself plunged in tumultuous preoccupation with her personal lot.’

This passage contains a lot. The ‘gigantic broken revelations’ of Rome suggest the fragmentary nature of Dorothea’s intellectual awareness as well as the physical realities of the ruined city, made more obvious to one who can’t ‘trace out’ the past from the surrounding ruins. Meanwhile, Rome’s subsequent role as centre of the Catholic faith has profound implications for how a puritanical Protestant will respond even to its classical past, with Eliot highlighting the more lowly nature of Protestant histories and passing negative judgement on their corresponding aesthetics.

Dorothea judges everything in terms of morality – her ‘ardent nature’ is inseparable from her moral code, leaving her uncertain as to how to respond to Rome. And added to this her personal circumstances, as a bride, navigating a new life role, compounds her confusion.

Rome for Dorothea is an unreadable cipher, emphasising her comparative ignorance, and a city which is morally, as well as mentally, unsettling, given its Catholicism and the separation between morality and aestheticism found in the classical art she encounters (and in front of which Will Ladislaw first sees her). And along with both these things, this confusing city becomes a manifestation of Dorothea’s inner turmoil as she reassesses her life role, following on from her marriage.

Rome confuses Dorothea then not because she thinks too little, but because she thinks too much, making her painfully aware of the cacophony of emotions explored above:

‘The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions.’

Rome then for Dorothea is a ‘vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation’ – hardly a line the tourist board should be adopting any time soon.

What should be ‘S’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.