Sunday, 21 June 2015

Introducing Victorian Poetry to Children

A few months ago, I posted my top tips for introducing your kids to Victorian literature with the belief that their first run-in with Dickens, Bronte or Hardy doesn’t have to be a painful classroom encounter. In this post, I offer some suggestions for making nineteenth-century poetry in particular more fun and less intimidating.

1. Start with poems written for kids: Many nineteenth-century poems, especially those in the nonsense poetry tradition, were written to be read by (or read to) children. One of my favourites is Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, published in 1871, which he originally penned for a three-year-old girl. It begins:

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.

Edward Lear's illustration for 'The Owl and the Pussycat'
The poem is great because it has a lot of similarities with the nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and modern children’s books young children may already be used to reading or hearing.

2. Choose poems with a story: Even if not primarily intended for children, poems with a narrative are a much easier introduction to poetry and there are many Victorian examples that may appeal to older kids.

'The Lady of Shallott', John William Waterhouse (1888)
I would recommend Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’ (1833) and Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ (1859). Both have linear stories with clear conclusions and tap into mythic tropes and traditions children will already be comfortable with. Both are also highly visual, marking a great opportunity for asking kids how they imagine the world of each poem. You could even have them draw scenes from the poems or look at artists’ interpretations.

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries; —
All ripe together
In summer weather

3. Use poems kids may have encountered elsewhere: A lot of nineteenth-century poems are so famous they are quoted and referenced in many other forms of entertainment. Why not show your kids a Simpsons episode to get them interested in Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (1845)? You’ll even get some bonus critical commentary from Lisa.


4. When in doubt go with simple language: You shouldn’t underestimate children’s ability to respond to mature themes and complex ideas, but giving them a poem where they need to look up every second word of vocabulary may be a stretch. Instead start with poems like Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ (1862) or Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ (1891), which shouldn’t pose a challenge in terms of individual words. That way you can go straight into a discussion of how the poems make them feel and what they think they’re trying to say.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know! 

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!

5. Don’t underestimate the power of love: As children move into their teenage years they may find famous romantic (with a small ‘r’!) poems the most compelling (and/or cringe-worthy). Give them XLIII from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and you might even inspire them to start attempting the sonnet form themselves!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

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

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Silent Service in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

In so many novels, what we call ‘plot’ is really a series of revelations. A mystery is resolved, characters come to understand each others’ motivations, secrets are made common knowledge, and society can move on. Life may be filled with unexplained occurrences, but in the Victorian novel – whether realist or sensational – it is rare for a text to end with even one of its events still shrouded in obscurity for its characters.

In this, as in so many ways, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851-3) is a strange novel. Whether the series of stories, first appearing in Household Words, can be called a novel at all has been hotly debated. They clearly weren’t initially designed as such, they are tonally dissonant, and they are narrated by a character – Mary Smith – who is herself shrouded in never-to-be-explained mystery. Yet one of Gaskell’s most interesting deviations from readerly expectations is in her repeated concentration on (particularly selfless) acts that are never revealed.

The cast of the BBC's adaptation of Cranford (2007)
The narrator Mary, for instance, is instrumental in returning the errant Peter to his long lost sister Miss Matty. Yet her part in this happy event is never made clear to the other characters and she suffers intense guilt about having interfered at all. She even claims that she is usually at fault for being indiscreet, even though we see her act throughout the novel with the utmost discretion and tact:

In my own home, whenever people had nothing else to do, they blamed me for want of discretion.  Indiscretion was my bug-bear fault.  Everybody has a bug-bear fault, a sort of standing characteristic—a pièce de résistance for their friends to cut at; and in general they cut and come again.  I was tired of being called indiscreet and incautious; and I determined for once to prove myself a model of prudence and wisdom. 

This is not the only example. Again and again through the novel, characters protect each others’ feelings with acts of service that are never spoken of, most climactically when the Cranford ladies band together to save Miss Matty from financial ruin and supplement her income. This kindness is not only never known by the recipient, it also involves secrecy amongst the group:

Every lady wrote down the sum she could give annually, signed the paper, and sealed it mysteriously.  If their proposal was acceded to, my father was to be allowed to open the papers, under pledge of secrecy.

These hidden demonstrations of care and affection are definitely gendered. Cranford is dominated by women, but the men who do live there are able to act in a more straightforward manner, whether they are acting carelessly (like the young cross-dressing Peter who recklessly endangers his sister’s reputation) or, like Captain Brown, being kind in a much more direct and highly visible manner:

We…discussed the circumstance of the Captain taking a poor old woman’s dinner out of her hands one very slippery Sunday.  He had met her returning from the bakehouse as he came from church, and noticed her precarious footing; and, with the grave dignity with which he did everything, he relieved her of her burden, and steered along the street by her side, carrying her baked mutton and potatoes safely home.  This was thought very eccentric.

Mary’s comments about her friends’ remarks on her indiscretion point to why this might be so. Cranford’s women are conditioned to obey certain social strictures, even when acting on behalf of those other than themselves. This is not to say that they are repressed – they vigorously defend and enforce these social norms, as they give them a sense of community and identity.

Gaskell’s strange novel then – where plot is secondary, and quiet community is preferred to overt demonstration – could be seen as a novel that is particularly female. In its 16 chapters, she examines the condition of spinsterhood from many angles – often with humour, sometimes with pathos. And in her concentration on the acts of service that so often go unseen, she gives us not only a model for a novel about a women, she gives us a glimpse into women’s history.

Which lesser-known Victorian text would you like the Secret Victorianist to write on next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Nineteenth-Century Settlement Houses - Jane Addams’s Hull House, Chicago

Settlement houses, often pioneered and headed by women, were a key feature of social reform efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so, when visiting Chicago a couple of weeks ago, the Secret Victorianist took the opportunity to visit one of the most famous – Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889.

All that now remains of Hull House, located in the city’s Near West Side, is two buildings, overshadowed by the very modern neighbouring campus of the University of Illinois. Inside a miniature model gives you an idea of its previous scale - by 1911 there were 13 buildings, home to a community of university-educated reformers who believed communal living between the middle class and the poor was one of the best ways of curing society’s ills.

The Secret Victorianist at Hull House in Chicago
The House, from its inception, was ‘open’ to the immigrant communities surrounding it. In 1889, Italian immigrants were the most common, but a series of 1920s maps on display in the museum show just how diverse the neighbourhood was to become. The middle class ‘residents’ of the House aided these communities in numerous ways – from acting as midwives to providing childcare, from running pottery and bookbinding classes to staging amateur dramatics.

The majority of the residents were single women, with the kind of social and educational values associated with the New Woman movement of the 1890s. Notably, and similarly progressively, Hull House was also secular in its ethos, unlike other similar institutions with strong links to religious institutions. Addams’s doctrine was comprised of three Rs - Residence, Research, and Reform. She worked for ‘close cooperation with the neighbourhood people, scientific study of the causes of poverty and dependence, communication of these facts to the public, and persistent pressure for reform’ at a legislative and social level.

Hull House, Chicago
Yet in another way, Addams’s community was also founded on an idea that was recognisably Victorian, and even conservative – that women have an essential role as carers and peacekeepers. In 1931 she became the first American women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her life’s work, but that was only after her insistence on peace had seen her branded by some of her countrymen as unpatriotic.

Visiting Hull House today gives you little idea of the bustling community it must once have been. There are index cards describing the numerous residents – many of them noteworthy in their various fields - and some material vestiges of the organisation, like the first sets of keys, furniture from its nursery school, some signage and ephemera. Addams’s bedroom exists as it would have looked in her time and acts a strange, solitary memorial – with the house and even the museum’s name (Jane Addams Hull House) making it come across as the hosting the story of an individual, rather than a long line of interesting people (residents and immigrants) who benefitted from its existence.

Jane Addams's bedroom in Hull House
Rotating exhibitions do try to nod to how the idea of reform as a continuing mission. When I was there, I saw a room dedicated to the importance of work/life balance and the long American working week, linking the desire for a universal living wage to the opportunities for play and entertainment Hull House provided in its heyday. But, with the Hull House organisation having closed itself in 2012, this is all tinged with more than a hint of sadness. A building that was once beyond anything useful, has now become a relic – and not because the work of communal integration and the eradication of poverty in the US is over.

Have you ever visited Hull House or other nineteenth-century settlement houses? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The London Satyr, Robert Edric (2011)

As I argued in one of my very first blog posts, Victorian novels are obsessed with sex – the legalities that surround it in marriage, its results when unsanctioned by law, the power dynamics of attraction, the results of its absence and repression. Yet writers in the nineteenth century faced significant constraints when approaching this topic. Its very exploration is reliant on a level of awareness from readers about what can, and cannot, be said, and so, in novels of the period, writing about sex is often just as much about not writing about sex.

Enter contemporary writers taking Victorian England for their setting. They’re faced with a conundrum. Neo-Victorianism is an opportunity to dial up the sexual content of a period novel, to say what couldn’t be said before, and to expose the dark underbelly of what can seem from a distance a puritanical society. Yet by making sex explicit, modern writers in a Victorian mode risk destroying the suggestive elisions that some readers find most appealing about the period’s writing, and the text coming across as too modern – destroying our faith in the verisimilitude of the worlds they create.

Robert Edric has one solution. His The London Satyr (2011) is all about sex and its trade. The mysterious Marlow runs a pornography racket in 1890s London, with the narrator, Charles Webster, illicitly supplying him with costumes from the Lyceum – the theatre where he works – for use in his explicit photographs. It’s not the kind of novel that could in any way be conceived of as having been written at the time.

Yet, despite this frank summary, Edric doesn’t get to the sexual content immediately. The novel opens with, and continues to be obsessed by, an examination of what it means to be followed, to be paranoid, to be aware that you are doing wrong. Webster, like Marlow’s other associates, doesn’t have moral concerns about what he is doing – even when a 12-year-old prostitute is murdered. What he is obsessed by is the fear of discovery and punishment in a society that, as a whole, disapproves of what many of its inhabitants are doing. Here’s a representative paragraph in the early pages:

But there was no one. There had never been anyone. I had been acting out these small subterfuges and dramas for almost three years. And each time I remarked on this to Marlow, he dismissed my concerns and complaints with the amused remark that I knew nothing of what was happening in the world around me; that I was blind and deaf, ignorant of the wider scheme of things, oblivious to those putative, secretive followers, all those others who sought only to expose and undermine and destroy him. And every time he told me this, of course – every exaggerated word and dramatic flourish – what he did not say, what he did not need to say, was that if he was destroyed and punished, then the same thing, in its lesser way, would surely befall me too.

There’s a lot going on here. Webster’s series of ‘subterfuges and dramas’ could almost refer to how sex is spoken about in Victorian writing more widely and how it plays out in the lives of people in societies that condemn or control it. Even more importantly the idea of ignorance when it comes to the ‘wider scheme of things’ is one of the book’s central themes. Many characters have, and barter with, partial knowledge, especially when it comes to Marlow’s shady dealings. But rather than accepting this ignorance and paranoia as a universal truth, Webster is preoccupied with the idea that somebody must know everything – Marlow himself, his associate Bliss, or the London Vigilance Committee and its leader, hot on the heals of the pornographers.

Diagram of a panopticon
In this way, Webster can be seen as suffering from the kind of self-repression and discipline described by Michel Foucault in his 1975 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Foucault uses the image of the panopticon – a prison designed by Jeremny Bentham in the late eighteenth century, where no one prisoner can ever be sure if he is the one being watched. Foucault writes:

Traditionally, power was what was seen, what was shown, and what was manifested...Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.

This model has been taken by many critics since to explain the self-policing of nineteenth-century society, especially when it came to sexual behaviour – and its close relation to much of Webster’s narrative is clear. By giving his central character this kind of internal struggle, Edric does something very clever – he manages to suggest the milieu of Victorian society, even when writing about a topic that would have been impossible to write about in a novel at the time.

Robert Edric (1956-)
Another key strategy Edric employs in the novel is to make Webster’s own responses to the sex and sexual moments he witnesses highly ambiguous. The narrator goes through the whole novel without appearing to have any sex himself at all, even while moving in these circles. He certainly doesn’t appear to be having any sex with his wife – although, in typical Victorian novel style this isn’t discussed directly but suggested by their lack of closeness and separate bedrooms. And he wakes up following an orgy like this:

I nudged the girl with my foot. She moaned incoherently but made no attempt to rouse herself. I struggled to remember what – if anything – had happened between us, but little came. All our clothing – what little she still wore – remained intact.

There’s a strange tension here. This night – watching a pornographic stage show before falling asleep beside a topless girl in a room full of other copulating people – is a major social transgression, but, at the same time, for Webster, it is also something of a non-event. Even in a room filled with every sexual temptation, the narrator doesn’t find satisfaction or resolution, allowing him to remain the frustrated nineteenth-century hero. Even when the novel reaches its most explicit and we, and Webster, get to witness one of the infamous photo shoots, his reactions remain very difficult to read:

I glanced at the boy, his organ now in the woman’s mouth, her hands clasping his buttocks, her lips formed in a perfect circle against the dark skin and stiffening flesh. The boy had moved his hands to his hips. He was grinning – arrogant almost – his eyes wide and watching the top of the woman’s head. They were perfectly still, though their motions, the gentle rocking and swaying, drawing and pulling, were easy to imagine, and I watched them for a moment before realising how closely Marlow was now watching me. ‘Go closer,’ he suggested to me. I shook my head at the offer.

For Webster, revealing anything of his own sexual desires to Marlow is an impossibility and a sign of weakness, despite the trade they both participate in. The man or woman who inspires desire – either personally, or in a directorial capacity – is always the one with the power in the novel. This is most clearly seen in the scenes with Marlow, and also the scenes between Webster and his cunning and sexually provocative maid Isobel – where Edric reverses the usual sexual power dynamics between male employer and female servant.

In The London Satyr, sex can be written about more directly than in a nineteenth-century novel, but the sex that the novel is obsessed with is far from ‘modern’ and never straightforward.

Which novel should be next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Theatre Review: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: A New Musical (Shakespeare Theater, Chicago)

Last weekend, the Secret Victorianist was in Chicago, and caught a production of a new musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) at the Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

McGinnis and Rietkerk as Marianne and Elinor
Paul Gordon’s musical retains the wit and charm of the source text but strips back the novel to concentrate on the two sisters, with two very different personalities, at its heart – Elinor (played by Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne (Megan McGinnis). Their mother and younger sister are absent here, and Austen purists will find some other differences of plot, but the intention is clear - by making the siblings’ relationship the focus of the play, the piece has a dramatic singularity of vision that serves it well.

Kevin Depinet's set design
This choice, with the sisters’ similarities and differences highlighted by mirrored staging, emotional duets, and (a little heavy-handedly) symbolic costume colours, means at times the production comes off as Jane Austen for the Frozen generation. The romantic interests are almost incidental to what even the welcome note in the programme tells us is the real love story – ‘the safe harbour of unconditional love’ between the two sisters. As Marianne and Elinor advance hand in hand at the show’s finale, Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars left to the side, the sincerity is a real contrast to the more sardonic note of the novel’s conclusion:

‘Among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.’

But, as in Frozen, a simple story leads to a strong musical and it’s easy to get swept along in the fun.

Rietkerk and McGinnis do a great job with a strong cast of actors in support. Sean Allan Krill, as Brandon, nearly steals the show at times and his simultaneously funny and moving ‘Wrong Side of Five & Thirty’ proves one of the most memorable and hummable musical numbers. Emily Berman is also strong as Lucy Steele, managing to come off as simultaneously naïve and threatening. Tiffany Scott is a bit too pantomime villain for me as Fanny Dashwood, but David Schlumpf is very believable as her weak-minded husband John.

Anna and Elsa in Disney's Frozen
McGinnis as Marianne was at her best when singing – ‘Rain’ and its reprise were her strongest numbers. Rietkerk as Elinor was strong when singing too but also had beautiful reactions, conveying the most emotion in a play that was largely lighthearted and often comedic and Wayne Wilcox as Edward was a perfect counterpoint to her pathos, engendering sympathy from the audience as well as laughs at his awkwardness. It would have been nice to see more obvious differentiation between Brandon and Willoughby (Peter Saide), as the two seemed similar in age, bearing, and physicality. Kevin Depinet’s set is beautiful – suggesting place and period without hindering the fast pace and fluidity of the space.

Sean Allan Krill as Colonel Brandon
Overall, BarbaraGaines’s production is a great entertainment. What it offers is a night of escapism – high romance, beautiful costumes, and satisfyingly soaring music. Yet its loyalty lies with the ‘rules’ of theatrical storytelling - if you’re looking for textual fidelity, return to reading or a cinematic adaptation.

Do you know of any theatre productions (in New York) set in the nineteenth century you think the Secret Victorianist should review? Let me know - here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Review: Self-Defence for Gentlemen and Ladies, Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery (1877-8), ed. Ben Miller (2015)

This week’s post proves there’s a book out there for any combination of interests. While I blog as the Secret Victorianist, writing about nineteenth-century literature and culture, I trained throughout my childhood in martial arts. So when I heard about Self-Defence for Gentlemen and Ladies – the first compilation of an 1870s treatise on armed and unarmed fighting styles – I was intrigued to check it out.

The writer, Colonel Monstery, seems to have been a fascinating character and, for many readers, the first section of this text, in which Miller takes us through his life and the work’s genesis, will no doubt be the most interesting. A Danish-American, who established a New York fencing academy, Monstery toured the world, mastering various fighting styles, fighting in numerous conflicts, and competing in over 50 duels. In his treatise, his instructions come most to life when he draws on this vast experience, casually slipping into anecdotes about moments when he escaped death:

Suddenly, without a world of warning, he whipped out his knife and made a furious stab for my heart over my left arm. I knew it by the flash of the blade in the starlight, and, with the common instinct of humanity, I shrunk back and half raised my bent arm as a shield.

A left-cross-parry in boxing
His views on the various arts discussed here – boxing, natural weapons (i.e. the hands, feet, and head), the cane, the quarterstaff, fencing – first appeared as a series of articles in New York publication The Spirit of the Times, with these words of introduction:

In this number appears the first of an important and valuable series of articles, entitled Physical Education for Gentlemen, prepared by the celebrated master-at-arms, Col. Thomas H. Monstery.’

Guards with a cane
Miller’s change of title reflects his exclusion of the chapter on swimming and Monstery’s own (admittedly brief) references to how women can defend themselves in the text:

A lady can defend herself from outrage with her parasol in the same way. If she struck a ruffian over the head with it, he would laugh at her, but I remember a certain girl who killed a ruffian who assaulted her by a stab with the point of her parasol.’

Monstery’s style is eminently readable and the technical aspects of his instructions made clearer through the inclusion of some of the original illustrations, and nineteenth-century photographs. For anyone with an on-going interest in these sports, there is a lot of continuity between his thinking and contemporary practice, but what stands out as remarkable is his focus on the real-life application of these skills – this is certainly not an instruction manual for how to win a refereed boxing match.

Monstery had a high sense of honour. He rarely killed opponents in duels, but was unflinching in his commitment to self-defence and in his belief that all honourable men should learn to defend themselves:

Be civil to all, and never seek a quarrel, but if one is forced on you, strike quick and surprise your opponent.’

Of course, at times this takes on a class dimension (being a gentleman is not just about chivalry!) and, despite Miller’s opening note in which he lays out the ways in which Monstery was progressive (in his instruction of female pupils for instance and in his enthusiastic comments about mingling with people of various races and nationalities in Paris), there are passages which may well make a modern reader uncomfortable. There is a section in which he elucidates defending against ‘unscientific Negro-style head-butting’ and another in which he describes the unfair tactics employed by ‘men of the criminal classes, butchers, frontiersmen, and determined, desperate characters of that sort’. As a Victorianist, his views are fascinating to read, but, if you’re looking for instruction in martial arts, you might find such asides frustrating.

Overall though, I was struck personally by just how much of Monstery’s writing chimed with what I had been taught in the Asian tradition of martial arts. His explanations for striking, standing, and parrying (blocking) in certain ways meshed with things I’d been told and aspects of his personal ideology and codes of conduct for his classes could well have a place in a modern martial arts school. Miller leaves us with some of Monstery’s maxims, and, this week I’m happy to sign off with the same:

He who lives by the sword, lives long.’

Follow nature in your living. Don’t eat too much, but eat enough. Avoid dieting, and exercise in the open air when you can.’

Above all things, never lose your presence of mind.’

Which book would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!