Friday, 24 October 2014

Review: The Tragic Muse, Henry James (1889-1890)

The Victorian stage
For better or for worse, Henry James is hard. His novels aren’t the kind of books you can doze off while reading and still have a pretty accurate awareness of what’s going on. That’s fine – improving, character building - but coupled with the fact that all I had heard about his 1889-1890 The Tragic Muse was that a) it was one of his least acclaimed works, b) the novel was linked to his disastrous attempt to succeed in the theatre, and c) the plot revolved around two artists’ creative struggles, I have to admit that I wasn’t overly hopeful about the level of enjoyment I was going to derive from this one.

I was very wrong. Okay, I still didn’t fly through this at the pace at which I can devour Braddon, Dickens and Collins but The Tragic Muse was well-constructed, engaging and eminently enjoyable – here’s why.

For general readers: Nick Dormer (one of the aforementioned artists) is a character who faces the Victorian equivalent of a First World Problem. His family expects and assumes he will be an eminent politician (like his late father), while he wants to devote his life to art, specifically portrait painting. The novel deals with some of the fallout from this clash – and from Nick’s ‘double nature’, which sees him responding to elements of each potential lifestyle and career path. This fallout isn’t dramatic – this isn’t the stuff of divorce courts, murder attempts and bigamy trials – but it’s exquisitely realised from multiple perspectives. There is Nick himself, burdened with responsibility but with an agency not granted to his female relations. There is his long-suffering mother, reduced to living largely off others and begging her son to appease her. And there are his sisters – one totally unlike Nick and unable to understand his position, the other akin to him in spirit, but limited by her gender.

And that’s just one strand of the plot. In a novel with over 50 named characters, James allows you to appreciate, even fleetingly, almost everyone’s point of view. This comes out most impressively in his complex multi-speaker dialogues, which feel real, and in his pivotal duologues, which also pack an emotional punch. Nick’s proposal to his rich widowed cousin Julia is one of the most finely balanced chapters I’ve encountered in nineteenth-century literature and demonstrates an understanding of humans as thinking, feeling and social animals which any reader will respond to.

For students: Some critics have called The Tragic Muse un-Jamesian. I don’t agree that it is, as it shares the same social concerns and the same methods of inspection that you come to expect from James’s most popular novels, but it certainly has points of difference from James’s other novels, which are worthy of comment. For a start, James strays away here from one of his favourite themes – the differences between the English and Americans. The novel is entirely European, as it begins in Paris and is largely set in London (with one character enjoying a jaunt to the colonies). Miriam Rooth – the actress who is the tragic muse herself – has Jewish heritage, but this is not explored in detail.

The interest with the theatre is also idiosyncratic and is, no doubt, one of the biggest reasons students may choose to read the novel. As well as casting light on James’s personal experiences with the art form, the novel is interesting because Miriam joins a raft of other fictional actresses and performers in the period (e.g. I’ve writtenpreviously on Bianca in Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half Sisters and Miriam, as active artist, may be a neat point of comparison with George du Maurier’s passive and eponymous Trilby). Nick’s cousin Peter is an important character whose views on whether or not Miriam is marriageable while she remains on the stage, could well inform historical studies on the respectability of actresses (who often retired upon marriage) in the period.

Which nineteenth-century novel should the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Friday, 17 October 2014

Theatre Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray (The Alchemic Order, London)

It’s a Friday night in South East London and I’m standing at the door of an unmarked house, exchanging nervous glances with the stranger beside me. A few seconds pass and a mustachioed man answers the door, inquiring furtively if we wish to see Mr Dorian Gray (we do).

Samuel Orange as Lord Henry
This is the weird world of The Alchemic Order’s immersive adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novella – a world which director Samuel Orange (who doubles as a dominating Lord Henry Wotton) and set designers Feix & Merlin have lovingly crafted, by transforming a London townhouse. There are secret doors, mirrored ceilings and unexpected peepholes into rooms below. A columned structure in the garden is at once Sybil Vane’s theatre and the area from which the audience peer into Dorian’s (Jamie Walker) home, catching glimpses of his narcissistic and homoerotic dalliances with the man who plays his portrait (Tommy Fitzer) and his brutal murder of Basil Hallwood (Johannes Lundberg).

What suits The Picture of Dorian Gray to such a treatment is the story’s obsession with the sensual – we can actually smell strong fragrances, inhale the cigar smoke, touch the silk sheets which moments before a naked Dorian writhed under, enter the hazy atmosphere of a basement opium den. The performance shows an admirable attention to detail, and an acquaintance with the text bordering on fandom (similar to the adaptation of Sherlock Holmes I reviewed a few months ago). Its success is somewhat reliant on its novelty (the acting isn’t perfect and some scenes shine through more than others, just as in Wilde’s story) but this doesn’t make it gimmicky. It’s a Dorian Gray experience, a really decadent way to spend a Friday evening, and, on a good night like the one I went to, an engaged and responsive audience means the promenade style never feels awkward.

Fun, well-conceived and close to the text, I’d recommend the show to Wilde fans, Wilde novices and anyone who fancies a fun and different night out (you can even order drinks from the bar throughout the performance and at one point you’re offered an absinthe shot).

Jamie Walker as Dorian and Tommy Fitzer as the portrait

The Picture of Dorian Gray is running Wednesdays-Saturdays until 1st November.
Tickets cost between £37.50 and £47.50 and are available here. 

Friday, 10 October 2014

A Dickensian Master Class in Storytelling



Strictly speaking I haven’t read Charles Dickens’s ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ (1854). I listened to it on Librivox – an amazing website/app which allows you to listen to audio-books for free, thanks to the efforts of volunteer readers. Because Librivox records only works which are out of copyright, it’s one of my go-to sites for nineteenth-century literature and, if you’re a writer who wants to fit more time in for ‘reading’, it’s a wonderful tool to check out!

Listening to literature is a different experience – and one which throws into sharp relief a writer’s storytelling abilities. With other distractions, and wandering eyes, what keeps your brain engaged in a story? When Dickens wrote for his magazine Household Words he knew many of his fans would have the story read aloud to them, as part of a family’s evening entertainment, so, having already looked at Dickens’s expert handling of first person narration and repetition, I thought I’d take you through some aspects of this short story which could help you improve your own storytelling technique. 

Know your place: ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ was Dickens’s story for his fifth Christmas edition of Household Words, meaning his fame would have been known to almost all his readers. But, for any writer, it can be very effective to establish your own relationship to your story – especially if you’ll be delivering your story orally. Dickens begins in the first person and roots his story firmly in the present and in reality – the reality of an actual charity institution in Rochester he says he visited. The story he goes on to tell is actually about the Napoleonic Wars but establishing believability from the outset helps draw the reader in, while inflecting a story with personality captures listeners’ attention, much like in a conversation.

Layer up: In ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’, Dickens’s trip to Rochester, and Christmas celebrations with the poor travellers there, proves to be a frame narrative, with the story proper starting only when the party begin to talk. For Victorian listeners this would mean they were, at points, listening to the family’s reader reading a story by Dickens about a conversation he had with a group of strangers, including a story about a Napoleonic soldier, who, in some sections, is telling the story of his life to his interlocutors. This layering of narrative isn’t just a question of a plausible opening – it creates depth. Drawn in, it’s like you’re falling down a rabbit hole, passing through layers from which it’s difficult to extract yourself, like a dream within a dream. Lost in the inner story, at times it can be a shock to remember that moments before we were hearing about a meagre Christmas celebration, and moments before that we were leading our everyday lives, separate from the story at all. There are plenty of other examples of this (ancient, modern, literary, musical and cinematic) – cf. Arabian Nights, folk ballads, Canterbury Tales, The Princess Bride. Try it – it works. 

Mood matters: Have you ever noticed how movie and film makers adapt their credits to genre? Whether it’s the Harry Potter music playing over the production company logo, or the Simpsons cavorting before the title appears? It helps establish mood – and quickly. Viewers need to know what they are getting – magic and mystery (darker as the films progress) or comedy and slapstick. Stories need to do that too. It’s okay if you’re writing a story which will be read aloud to use quick cues – even stereotypes – to help your listeners get their heads in the right space and start to supply further details mentally. Christmas works like this for Dickens, as does solitude. The two ideas – of Yuletide celebration and of isolation from fellow men (which the poor travellers suffer constantly, and Dickens on this occasion) need only the slightest of descriptions, as we already know the rest. It’s a kind of storytelling shorthand which helps people feel involved. When you’re delivering a story aloud you shouldn’t go in for paragraph after paragraph of description and explanation. Which are the telling details? Dickens tells us about the soldier’s fleeting memories from his fevered hospital bed, or how the widowed mother whose son has died spends just one of her many lonely evenings, because there’s no need to say more about the layout of the sick room, or a poor sad woman’s day to day routine. 

Raise the stakes: Short stories usually have anything but a slight subject matter and a good storyteller can distil some of life’s most important issues into the briefest of tales. Dickens’s story is the story of a man’s life and spiritual transformation and he doesn’t need to write a novel to tell it well. You’ll need to play with time, refer to the past, and skip into the future, while choosing for the present the events which require and/or reward particular attention. Just don’t forget – people want stories with drama and emotional resonance. Think about those embarrassing stories in magazines, successful TV advertisements, that 6-word Hemingway short story. Why not set yourself a flash fiction challenge to explore a powerful important issue in under 200 words?

I hope you found this post useful if you write! Don’t forget to check out my other ‘Master Classes’, courtesy of Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton and let me know if there are any other topics where you think the Secret Victorianist could help, by commenting below or on Facebook / Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Art Review: Black Chronicles II (Autograph ABP), Rivington Place, London




When you study the past there are sometimes elisions – noticeable gaps which you know make your understanding incomplete. In Victorian literature I’ve talked about the lack of pregnancy bumps, despite the frequent babies. There’s the obsession with sex, without explicit sex scenes. And, while I’ve rejected the idea that novels of this period concentrate only on the rich, servants and poor tenants can, at times, seem like cut-out figures, and our understanding of their lives incomplete.

But one of the biggest elisions – perhaps one of the most jarring distinctions from modern life – is the absence of race. Okay, Bertha Mason, in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre, may be part Creole, and there are multiple other novels which include ‘exotic’ jaunts to Africa or the East, but that doesn’t really cut it when you’re looking for something resembling black subjectivity.

Enter Black Chronicles II, an exhibition presented by Autograph ABP, currently running in London’s Shoreditch. The exhibition brings together studio portrait photographs (most never before on display) of black subjects in the nineteenth century –clergymen and missionaries, servants, former slaves, African princes, ambassadors, and, given pride of place, fourteen members of The African Choir, which toured England between 1891 and 1893. Many of the sitters are as yet unidentified, but what they testify to is the presence of the many black Victorians who history books (and fiction) have largely ignored.


Just how unusual it seems to see photographs of black men and women in top hats or crinolines confirms the exhibition’s importance. In the second room, where over 100 original cartes-de-visites and cabinet cards are on display, there is an audio recording of the late Professor Stuart Hall, whose lecture provides an academic context for the systematic forgetting which plays an important part of the construction of a national history. Rivington Place may not be one of London’s major art venues, but this exhibition is anything but offbeat or niche – it simply puts back what should already be there and forces us to confront the fact that it so often isn’t.

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


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Secret Victorianist at Open House London



The Secret Victorianist at Leighton House
Last weekend, the Secret Victorianist enjoyed Open HouseLondon – two days when hundreds of London’s historic buildings are open to the public for free. The sheer number of properties to choose from is staggering, even when you limit yourself by period, but I avoided the chaos of the city centre and crowds and queues of Whitehall in favour of a civilised Saturday in Kensington. Here I looked around two nineteenth-century properties, important for their contents as well as their former occupants – 18 Stafford Terrace and the Leighton House Museum.

18 Stafford Terrace is a building stuck in time. The servants’ rooms are gone, but otherwise the house is much as it was when it was home to famous Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne and his wife Marion. The couple moved into the house in 1875 and lovingly furnished it with furniture and ornaments reflective of late nineteenth-century aestheticism. On Saturday a bustling costumed ‘housekeeper’ showed us round the property but unfortunately only two rooms were on display.

Stained glass panel, 18 Stafford Terrace
 Other treasures the house holds which weren’t on show on Open House weekend include Sambourne’s collections of photographs and photography equipment. Working to tight deadlines for his Punch cartoons, photographing people was Linley’s way of cataloguing potential subjects and he used the same technique to plan the sketches for his book illustrations - notably Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) and Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales (various). The Sambourne residence is beautiful, fascinating and familial – and well worth another visit on a quieter day.

Edward Linley Sambourne photograph for Little Mermaid illustration

The resulting illustration
 Leighton House on the other hand is grand and spacious –not kitted out like a home, like 18 Stafford Terrace. You enter an extravagant atrium – domed ceilings, Moroccan tiles, a water feature, a rich blue and turquoise colour scheme and even a stuffed peacock - and wander through rooms which are largely empty, except for the impressive collection of paintings – Frederic Leighton’s and some of his contemporaries’ – which lines the walls. A significant portion of the first floor is taken up by Lord Leighton’s incredible studio space – home to much of the art collection and large enough for working on the very biggest canvasses. In comparison to the grand entrance, massive studio and large garden, Leighton’s bedroom is small and plain, furnished much as it would have been at his death in 1896. The museum is a must-see for anyone interested in Victorian art.

Leighton House
 If you find yourself in London for Open House weekend in 2015, you should definitely check it out – the buildings featured range from historic to cutting edge, beautiful to functional, and are dotted throughout the city. And learning more about Edward Linley Sambourne or Frederic Leighton from visiting their houses would make a great day out throughout the year. 

Did you visit any London attractions on Open House weekend? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: V is for Vulnerable Victorian Virginity



Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) is one of the most famous nineteenth-century novels to deal with a ‘fallen woman’, who loses her virginity before marriage and bears an illegitimate child. And sympathetic as the novel is to Ruth, a dressmaker’s apprentice who is only 15 at the time of her seduction, and designed as it is to highlight the ill treatment of women like her, the novel is instructive when it comes to understanding Victorian constructions of (female) virginity and explanations as to what can make it ‘vulnerable’.

There are many ways in which Ruth is presented as the archetypal virgin, whose seduction is, if not inevitable, far from surprising and maybe even a ‘natural’ result of her characteristics and the attendant circumstances of her situation:


1. The virgin is youthful, but physically developed
Like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, Gaskell’s Ruth has a dangerous (and apparently dangerously attractive!) mixture of extreme youth, with its corresponding naivety, and a sexually mature body. She first meets Henry Bellingham, who seduces her, through attending the Shire Ball as a sort of in situ lady’s maid, an office for which her employer picks her specifically because her ‘waving outline of figure’ will be ‘a credit to the [dressmaker’s] house’. Yet to Ruth her selection is ‘inexplicable’- a sure sign of her unworldliness. Ruth’s youth is such that, even when she is pregnant and abandoned, the servant Sally describes her as a ‘chit’ who cannot possibly be a widow and the narrator tells us, when her child is nearing year old, Ruth still looks so young that ‘she hardly seemed she could be the mother of the noble babe’. While emphasising Ruth’s age cements her victim status it is a crucial component of what attracts people to her – whether the caddish Bellingham (who, at 23, enjoys that he is her senior) or the kind clergyman Mr Benson who takes her in.

2. The virgin is beautiful
It almost goes without saying that Gaskell’s heroine will be beautiful and – importantly – artlessly and simply so. Ruth comes to Bellingham’s attention not only because of her good looks but because in them she contrasts with the ‘flippant, bright and artificial girl’ who is his dance partner at the ball. Ruth’s beauty is set off by its naturalness, as well as its childishness. When Bellingham begins to pursue her, we are told ‘He did not know why he was so fascinated by her. She was very beautiful, but he had seen others equally beautiful, and with many more agaceries calculated to set off the effect of their charms. There was, perhaps, something bewitching in the union of grace and loveliness of womanhood with the naiveté, simplicity, and innocence of an intelligent child’. Beauty is important (note how Gaskell does not say Bellingham has seen anyone more beautiful!) but it is not enough in itself to typify the idealised virginal figure of the Victorian period. 

Portrait of a Girld, John Everett Millais
3. The virgin is prized for her purity of thought, as well as body
Linked to these ideas of childishness and artless beauty is the virgin’s ignorance when it comes to all things sexual. It isn’t just that the virgin hasn’t had sex – we are led to believe she has never even thought of it. Gaskell is at pains to make this explicit for us: ‘She was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice respecting the subject of a woman’s life…Ruth was innocent and snow-pure. She had heard of falling in love, but did not know the signs and the symptoms thereof’. Gaskell’s use of the phrase ‘falling in love’ here isn’t just nineteenth-century delicacy – the phrases mirrors Ruth’s few thoughts on the matter which have been emotional, not sexual – and her argument is almost contradictory. On the one hand Ruth’s ignorance is abnormal – the consequence of being orphaned young – but on the other it is entirely natural. The virgin is untouched by any polluting conversation or by any stirrings of desire from within. 

4. The virgin is linked to nature (for good and bad)
The naturalness of the virgin state – but also the fact that this state makes her a prime ‘target’ for men and ‘ready’ for reproduction – is also indicated through the pleasure fictional Victorian virgins are of shown to derive from their natural surroundings. Ruth’s claustrophobic urban quarters may be the inhospitable home from which she is tempted away by Bellington’s advances, but things only come to a crisis as a result of long country walks. And Ruth, as she appears when framed by nature, is all the more attractive in this environment: ‘She wound in and out in natural, graceful, wavy lines between the luxuriant and overgrown shrubs, which were fragrant with a leafy smell of spring growth; she went on, careless of watchful eyes, indeed unconscious, for the time, of their existence.’ The wavy lines of the country garden recall the ‘waving outline’ of Ruth’s own curvaceous figure and the almost overwhelming fecundity of nature also suggests her sexual readiness, even if her mind is ‘for the time’ unaware of this. In this way she again prefigures Tess – Hardy’s ‘pure woman’ – watched by Alex and Angel in fertile natural environments. 

5. The virgin is free from familial ties (and protection)
Ruth’s orphaned state (alluded to in point three) doesn’t just mark her out as ignorant of men’s desires – conversely it also labels her even more directly as a potential sexual partner. Without a home to leave, she is primed to create another family and show other people affection – both emotionally and economically. She has already done this platonically with her fellow apprentice Jenny, but, with Jenny ill and Bellingham pursuing her we are told ‘Jenny’s place in Ruth’s heart was filled up’. Ruth’s fertility and natural affection could have be beneficial to her, if only Henry Bellingham was a man willing to offer her a true (legitimate and marital) home.

When it comes to apportioning blame for Ruth’s ‘fall’, the fact that Ruth is such an embodiment of desirable virginity is not the only factor in her downfall. Many are blamed for her failure to adhere to strict Victorian codes of morality, including her seducer, class and economic factors, the unkindness of other women (particularly Mrs Mason and Miss Duncombe), her guardian and, of course, Ruth herself.

Gaskell was criticised for giving Ruth too many mitigating factors to excuse her behaviour (i.e. failing to confront Ruth’s own sexuality), but importantly she does not let her off the hook. Although it is rescinded later, and given under duress, there is a moment at which Ruth gives her consent: ‘Low, and soft, with much hesitation, came the “Yes”; the fatal word of which she so little imagined the infinite consequences.’ Many factors may make a young Victorian woman vulnerable – but the responsibility for protecting her virginity is ultimately her own.

What should ‘W’ be in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist! And you can check out further posts on Elizabeth Gaskell here.