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.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Dressmaker’s Dowry, Meredith Jaeger (2017)

Meredith Jaeger’s debut novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, has a lot going for it — an unusual setting (1870s San Francisco), a well-paced plot and the perfect mix of intrigue, violence and romance.

Yet, getting to the end, I couldn’t help but feel the novel, which alternates between the stories of Sarah, a modern-day MFA student whose past holds a dark secret, and Hanna, a nineteenth-century dressmaker investigating the disappearance of her friend, could have done with better editing.

Reading the novel is a revealing experience for an aspiring novelist, as its cracks expose some of the challenges of writing successful historical fiction:


Jaeger has clearly studied her setting, immersed herself in stories of San Francisco’s poverty and crime and pored over contemporary maps. She weaves facts about the setting into her historical storyline well, bringing the world Hanna lives in to life through sensorial details.

But it’s in her nineteenth-century characters’ dialogue that the illusion slips. Their speech reads as very stiff and lacking in humanity, with old-fashioned phrases (‘lucky wench’, ‘I fret for them’, ‘feminine ailments’) peppered in the midst of twenty-first century sentences.

Building a Connection Between Past and Present

Adopting a dual POV is a common technique among writers of historical fiction today. It allows for more exposition and explanation of the past than a novel entirely set in another time period and gives readers a character to identify with, who ‘could be them’.

Jaeger though makes two fatal errors in how she uses this technique to build a connection between past and present.

First, she not only makes her present day character, Sara, a mouthpiece for expressing opinions about the 1870s (forgivable since this is a character whose actively researching the period), but also uses her to over-emphasize the parallels she wants to draw between the divided society of nineteenth-century SF and the city we see today. Sara drifts into Mary Sue territory, making her own story less emotionally impactful and leading the novel to feel, in parts, like a lecture, where little trust is placed in the reader.

Second, the tie between Sara and Hanna is fraught with coincidence, setting the very premise for the novel on shaky ground, and there hardly seems to be enough contrast between the women — here we are, over one hundred years later, and women are still being ‘saved’ by rich men from one particular, privileged family.

Good and Evil

Finally, Jaeger struggles to keep her novel from slipping into cliché, especially when it comes to depicting her characters. They are all very clearly good or bad, with no reversals in our expectations. Take this description of Robert Havensworth:

'Though he had a handsome face, his green eyes sent a chill down to her bones. His long fingers, adorned with gold rings, wrapped around the head of his cane, radiated power — and the darkness beneath it.'

I mean, would you trust this man?!

Sarah and Hanna are infallible judges of character, and thus so are Jaeger’s readers, making what should be a thrilling race to uncover the ending all too predictable.

Meredith Jaeger
What twenty-first century novel about the nineteenth century would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Art Review: Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, SFMOMA, San Francisco

The Secret Victorianist found herself in San Francisco last week and took the opportunity to see a second exhibition dedicated to the work of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at the SFMOMA.

'Between the Clock and the Bed' (1940-1943)
The New York City Neue Galerie’s Munch and Expressionism, which I reviewed back in February 2016, had looked at the relationship between the Norwegian painter and his expressionist peers and featured his most enduringly famous painting — ‘The Scream’ (1893). But this SF exhibit was focused on the artist himself, highlighting the synergies between works produced by Munch at very different points in his career and life in its thematic arrangement.

Munch’s numerous self-portraits make up the centrepiece of the show, which takes its title from the 1940-1943 painting ‘Between the Clock and the Bed’, in which the artist stands, his face blurred, apparently waiting for death.

'Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek' (1911)
Munch stares out at visitors from every side of the room, thoughtful in pastels (‘Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek’, 1911), despairing with a bottle of wine (‘Self-Portrait with Wine’, 1906) and even burning in Hell (‘Self-Portrait in Hell’, 1903), underlying his interest in rendering the psychological in paint.

'Self-Portrait with Wine’ (1906)
With similar artworks side by side, Munch’s obsession with specific scenes and images, sometimes across decades, becomes clear.

‘Self-Portrait in Hell’ (1903)
There’s the death of his fourteen-year-old sister, Johanne Sophie, which he dubs ‘The Sick Child’ and plays with, using various paint techniques.

'The Sick Child' (1907)
‘The Scream’ is recognisable in the dissolving faces of ‘The Kiss’ (1897) and the backdrop to ‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892).

‘The Kiss’ (1897)
Loneliness pervades the exhibition as the only way to form a relationship with others seems to be to lose something of yourself.

‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892)
The last work I viewed before exiting the gallery was ‘Eye in Eye’ (1894), a painting where skeletal male and female figures reminiscent of Adam and Eve stare at each other in a contentious, more than romantic, scene. That is the tension, the question Munch brings to life — what is the price of joining your personal psychological drama and pain with another’s?

‘Eye in Eye’ (1894)
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you’d like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Film Review: The Beguiled (2017)

A little girl weaves in and out of the shadows of trees in Virginia, digging her fingers into the earth and picking mushrooms, before stumbling across a bloodied Union soldier. It sets the mood — dark, visceral and gritty (especially by costume drama standards) — for Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 movie.

Deserter John McBurney (Colin Farrell) finds himself transported from the horrors of battle to the perhaps even more brutal world of a girls’ school, where two teachers (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) and five students (including Elle Fanning) live in intense isolation, waiting for news of the outside world, breath baited in fear (and, in some cases, anticipation) at the thought that Union soldiers may attack, rob from them and rape them.

The film does a beautiful job of bringing us into these women’s world. They stitch, cook, garden with visible effort, compared to the lacklustre embroidery efforts we’re used to seeing in film adaptations of nineteenth-century works. The school’s slaves have fled. There are no men. We almost feel the effort as the girls pump water or lift the hoe.

The lighting is also incredible. The candles aren’t just period props but appear to be the only source of light, giving the film the appearance of a Gothic painting, with girls, dressed in white, flitting through the shadows. The camerawork puts us in the position of a voyeur, peeping into the house and spying from behind tree branches.

Where then does the movie go so wrong?

Despite a talented cast and the gorgeous production, the movie feels vapid. Characters are underdeveloped, motivations unclear, and the dynamics between the women, which have real promise in the early scenes after McBurney’s arrival, go undeveloped. The story has little more depth than the film’s overly revealing trailer and, consequently, there’s no emotional payoff to match the atmosphere.

Dunst and Farrell in particular struggle to make something of their characters’ few lines of feeble backstory and we’re left with so many questions that it’s hard to see this world as three-dimensional at all. It’s more compelling as a series of beautiful tableaux, the viewer’s imagination creating what the filmmakers could not.

What did you think of the 2017 The Beguiled? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.