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!

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Convictions of John Delahunt: A Story of Murder, Andrew Hughes (2013)

In today’s post I’m considering whether Neo-Victorian writing is simply a sub-genre of historical fiction through blogging about Irish writer Andrew Hughes’s debut novel, published in 2013, The Convictions of John Delahunt: A Story of Murder.

The pure definition of ‘historical fiction’ is a novel, or other work, where ‘the plot takes place in a setting located in the past’. Reading this, the texts I’ve looked at previously as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series – Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night and John Harding’s Florence and Giles – and Hughes’s novel definitely all fall into this genre.

The Convictions of John Delahunt: A Story of Murder (2013)
However, it is very noticeable that, in the case of the Cox and Harding, other important elements, which we’ve come to expect from historical fiction (at all levels of quality), are missing. First, there is the inclusion (or here exclusion) of actual historical figures. A key tenant of historical writing has been to offer a new perspective on famous historical events, or to educate the reader about events and/or people whose stories have previously been ignored. While The Meaning of Night uses the conceit of a newly discovered manuscript (labelled ‘Fiction?’), none of its events or characters have basis in truth. The novel is an escapist fantasy, and it fits self-consciously into the traditions of Victorian literary sensationism. Florence and Giles is even more indebted to a literary (rather than an historical) inheritance, as it is a reworking of a Henry James plot. There are no ‘real’ characters here – only layer upon layer of fiction and artistic response.

Hughes’s project, however, is very different. John Delahunt was a real person, hanged for the murder of Thomas Maguire (a real child) in Dublin in 1841. Hughes’s project is far removed from Cox’s or Harding’s – it’s about composing a compelling narrative from the details we know of Delahunt’s life, combined with his own imaginative embellishments. What’s more, it is presumed (correctly!) that the reader’s first response on finishing the novel will be to want to learn more about the text’s veracity – an Afterward supplies the answers we may have wondered about throughout and also adds the information (for example about the execution) which Delahunt (the narrator) cannot, in some ways acting not as a note on the text, but as the novel’s final chapter.

Along with the insertion of real people, historical fiction is also often rich in detail about the times in which it is set. Of the three novels, again The Convictions fits into this mould most comfortably. Having worked as an archivist and previously published a book on nineteenth-century Dubliners (Lives Less Ordinary: Dulin’s Fitzwilliam Square, 1798-1922), Hughes has a lot of knowledge of the period to draw upon. He does this very skilfully, with a light touch, suggesting the political milieu of the time without turning what is a suspenseful crime novel into a political history, and weaving details of forgotten ways of living seamlessly into the plot. One of the most effective passages is the partial description of a backstreet abortion, yet Delahunt’s wife’s struggles with the termination and contraception don’t just add colour – they’re integral to the story.

Andrew Hughes (1979 - )
Some details were occasionally overwhelming (although they may well be welcome to readers with a better grasp than me of Dublin’s geography!) and the inclusion of other ‘real’ characters from the period (e.g. Professor Lloyd and Dr Moore), as outlined in the Afterward, seems more like an in-joke for the author than of substantive benefit to the text. But largely, Hughes does a wonderful job of propelling us into the city as it stood in the 1840s and informing us about its society, without ever coming off as didactic.

While Florence and Giles is almost totally free from this kind of factual peppering, the level of detail in The Meaning of Night was also extraordinary, but occasionally more gratuitous than it comes off in The Convictions. For me, the distinction comes from whether there is a need to introduce a detail. (Does it advance the plot? Does it explain a character’s motivation?). Without a reason behind each detail, it risks changing the tenure of the novel, making it into some sort of immersive time travel, rather than a narrative entertainment.

So where does this leave our categorisation and definition of Neo-Victorianism? Some of the concerns of the movement I’ve discussed in previous posts (e.g. the prioritisation of previously repressed voices and the self-aware revisitation of standard Victorian literary tropes from a modern perspective) suggest something more is going on here than a spate of historical novels set in the Victorian period. If we take Neo-Victorianism as combining nineteenth-century setting with twenty-first century sensibilities and preoccupations, there is very much a space for The Convictions in this category. Hughes’s first novel is ‘historical’, but, in its very modern interrogations of personhood, morality, sexual relationships, power, and corruption, it has a strong claim to ‘Neo-Victorianism’ too.

Which novel should the Secret Victorianist read next as part of her Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Theatre Review: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Walter Kerr Theatre (New York)

Last week the Secret Victorianist caught a show on Broadway – A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Although it’s set in 1907-9, I wanted to write about the play because of how much it owes dramaturgically to nineteenth-century melodrama.

The premise is simple – after his mother’s death, Monty Navarro finds there are only eight members of the D’Ysquith family between him and an earldom and so sets out on a murderous rampage, removing them one by one. Along the way he must also juggle his fiancée and mistress. The story is told retrospectively through a confession written in his prison cell prior to his execution for the one murder he did not commit.

The Secret Victorianist at A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

The staging of the production demonstrates a self-conscious interplay with the conventions of the Victorian theatre. The scenes of Monty’s confession are played out on a stage within the stage – an ornately decorated proscenium arch, similar to those I saw in miniature at Pollock’s Toy Shop. Different locales, such as the frozen lake where one relative meets his demise, are suggested by 2D scenery, a nod to the painted backdrops which conveyed place in plays such as Wilkie Collins’s and Dickens’s The Frozen Deep (1856).

Portraits in Victorian and earlier dress come alive to deliver old-fashioned views on the purity of the bloodline and the prudence of rigidly enforced class distinctions, making Monty’s bloody ascent seem to stand for a new era of improved social mobility.

The set for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
What’s most Victorian about the play, however, is the co-conspiratorial relationship between the audience and the murderer (here more hero than villain). As in so many melodramas, the suspense doesn’t come from doubting what will occur, so much as waiting for actions we’ve already anticipated to happen. Instead, surprise comes from the innovative staging and comedic delivery – it’s like watching a magician at work.

Another layer of audience awareness is added by the use of one actor (on the night I went, Greg Jackson) to play the entire D’Ysquith family. The dramatic play is doubled as the audience enjoys each murderous plot devised by Monty (Jeff Kready), along with each new character assumed by Jackson.

The lack or ‘moral’ resolution may set the play apart from its historical models, but the opportunity to identify with a wrongdoer and revel in his societally disruptive behaviours (undermining marriage, class, inheritance) is distinctly familiar.

If you have the opportunity to watch the musical, I’d take it – it’s a riotously fun production, and an imaginative reworking of some staple dramatic traditions. Find out more here.

Do you know of any other theatre in New York you think the Secret Victorianist would enjoy? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: Florence and Giles, John Harding (2010)

With so many great Victorian novels out there, many of them now largely neglected, what exactly is the point of neo-Victorian fiction? Put another way – what is drawing twenty-first century writers to the nineteenth century, when there is so much drama in contemporary life?

I’ve heard multiple explanations – from a sort of collective nostalgia, to a response to social inequality post-financial collapse. Yet a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to unpacking neo-Victorianism, and something I am keen to explore further in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, is the interest these writers so often show in giving narrative privileges – a forum for self-expression – to those characters, and those sections of society, which area so often barred from ‘speaking’ or even existing in writing which actually dates from this period.

What this creates is a fertile landscape for creative exploration. Characters in neo-Victorian writing can push the boundaries when it comes to examining the period’s social strictures – their sexualities can be more directly explored and delineated, they can give us a new appreciation of the workings of race and class relations, and they can exist outside the realm of conventional morality without, necessarily, being punished for it.

John Harding joins a rich tradition of giving voice to the other side in later reworkings of Victorian novels in his 2010 Florence and Giles. But rather than giving a voice to the madwoman in the attic, or retelling a classic tale from the perspective of a servant, the particular voice he gives narrative space to is the voice of a child – a child named Florence modelled on Flora in Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw.

This Gothic tale is self-conscious revisiting of James’s classic ghost story and for a full, critical look at its intertextuality, I recommend Sandra Dinter’s 2012 essay (available here). What I want to consider here, however, is how Harding draws attention to the radicalness of what he is doing – and what neo-Victorianism often does generally – in ‘giving voice’ to a previously excluded individual.

Florence is not only a child. She is a female child and, as such, she has been denied an education and been forbidden to read by her uncle. Flouting these restrictions, however, Florence not only educates herself, but narrates the entire novel. And Harding has her do so in her own unique idiolect, never letting his readers forget Florence’s identity as a literary outcast.

This idiolect is categorised by non-standard usage of English, particularly the use of words as alternative parts of speech from those as which they usually appear. Florence tells us she lives in Blithe, ‘a house uncomfortabled and shabbied by prudence’, her brother Giles it at one point ‘suspicioned’ by their governess (where we might expect ‘suspected’), and at one point the narrator tells us she ‘smugged’ herself, to express her satisfaction.

This takes some getting used to as a reader. It is jarring at first, before you come to accept Florence as a speaker. But Harding is clear from the outset that Florence’s peculiar voice is an asset – not a weakness. This is how the novel opens:

‘It is a curious story to tell, one not easily absorbed and understood, so it is fortunate I have the words for the task. If I say so myself, who probably shouldn’t, for a girl my age I am very well worded. Exceeding well worded, to speak plain. But because of the strict views of my uncle regarding the education of females, I have hidden my eloquence, under-a-bushelled it, and kept any but the simplest forms of expression bridewelled within my brain.’

There is a tension here, between Florence’s description of herself as excelling in expression, and our reactions to her unusual English - a tension which forces us to confront our own inherited assumptions around who has the right to write a literary text. Yet, in these first few lines, Florence also demonstrates her skill for conveying a lot of information, with extreme brevity. In four sentences what do we learn?

1. Florence is telling us her story
2. Florence is confident in regarding herself as a good communicator, despite the non-standard qualities of her writing
3. Florence has been told girls should be modest
4. Florence’s life is under the control of her uncle
5. Florence has been told girls should not be educated
6. Florence’s behaviour is duplicitous as regards her level of comprehension
7. Florence is capable of extreme repression and self-control

John Harding (1951-)
This is how, at the novel’s best, Harding uses Florence-isms – as a sort of shorthand. Thus, when she believes she is being watched by ghostly apparitions of her governess in the mansion’s mirrors, Florence describes herself as being ‘unmirrored’ whenever she is in a room without a looking glass. The brevity helps avoid repeated explanations and helps the reader feel like Florence’s co-conspirator.

Their use is less successful, however, when Harding uses them for repetition and emphasis, or piles them on top of each other, as if doubting their efficacy. For instance Florence describes herself as ‘fairytaled’ in one of the mansion’s towers, but supplements this by also describing herself as ‘Rapunzelled’. And occasionally there are sentences like this, where the unusual usage is all-pervasive and irritating, without aiding pace or adding anything: ‘It didn’t matter if it blizzarded, or galed or howled like the end of the world outside, he Blithed it every afternoon for the next couple of weeks’.

Florence does not offer us any concluding statements at the end of the story. It is enough for her that she and Giles are together, without the self-conscious nod to the novel’s literariness with which it starts. As from The Turning of the Screw, we come away unsettled and unsure about what we have heard, but here two, highly connected, things are certainly not in doubt. First Florence, despite her sex, youth, and dependence, is a powerful force, who has her own agency, and second, she can channel this power through writing. And the fact that she can do so, demonstrates the ‘point’ (or one point) of neo-Victorian writing.

Did you miss the first post in my Neo-Victorian Voices series on Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night? You can check it out here. And which contemporary writer or artist with an interest in the nineteenth century should I consider next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Victorian Literature for Kids

Have you always loved nineteenth-century novels and want the same for your children? Or did you learn to like literature later in life and want your kids to embrace classic literature earlier? In this post I’ll be giving you my top tips for getting children interested in Victorian writing and also suggesting a few things to avoid.

'A Life Well Spent', Charles West Cope (1862)

Foster a love of reading generally:
Presenting a seven year old, who isn’t in the habit of reading regularly, with a copy of Bleak House, is a bit like giving a six month old a steak. It’s not going to end well, however bright they are. So incorporate reading into children’s lives from early on. Make bedtime stories part of your night-time routine, give your kids books as gifts, and encourage them to read for fun and tell you what they enjoy about what they’re reading. At this stage, the amount kids read and how much they enjoy it is so much more important than being prescriptive about what they read.

Give them modern books which deal with Victorianism:
Nineteenth-century novels can be challenging because of the style in which they are written, more so than their content. Starting with contemporary novels and history books can introduce kids to some of the themes of Victorian writing and help them build up knowledge about the period, without dealing with difficult prose.

There are historical novels specifically written for children, like Jacqueline Wilson’s The Lottie Project (1997) and Hetty Feather (2010) and Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), and kids’ history books like Terry Deary’s Vile Victorians (1994) in the Horrible Histories series. Chat with them about differences they might have noticed between then and now. How was life different for boys and girls? What would life as a servant have been like? How did people travel and communicate with each other before cars and telephones? Appreciating lives very different from your own is a key reading skill and you’ll be encouraging critical engagement with texts as your children grow into more sophisticated readers.

'Teasing the Cat', William Henry Gore (c. 1900)
Read Victorian children’s literature:
Rather than diving straight in with Jane Eyre, when the time comes when you think your kids are ready to read nineteenth-century texts (or to have you read to them), turn to children’s literature. Books like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales (1835-1872), E. Nesbit’s The Treasure-Seekers (1899) and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) have an enduring appeal for kids and, unlike many nineteenth-century texts, do not deal with themes (e.g. illegitimacy, murder, inheritance) which may be too adult for your children at this stage.

Nineteenth-century poetry written for kids, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), can also be a low commitment way to get your kids reading some older writing and increasing their familiarity with poetry.

Watch TV and film adaptations of famous novels:
There’s absolutely no rule that people should read famous texts before watching adaptations of them and, for kids, already having familiarity with a story can be invaluable when it comes to tackling harder texts. Watching together also gives you the opportunity to talk about what’s going on and pause whenever something isn’t clear. I recommend BBC mini-series, like North and South (2004), Pride and Prejudice (1994) and Bleak House (2005), for quality and digestibility.

'Storytime', Charles Haigh-Wood (1893)

And what not to do:
Don’t tell your kids there are books they ‘should’ read. Similarly, I’d avoid the term ‘classics’. Reading should be fun – not a chore – and pushing too hard can have the opposite effect. It’s already sadly very likely that kids will come to dislike set texts they’re made to study at school (see my post on secondary school English literature teaching here), so don’t let the same happen at home!

Don’t make a big deal about length and number of pages. Lots of Victorian novels are quite long and, for a while, the ability to boast about having read a 300-page book may be motivating. But it won’t last and focussing on length will make reading seem a drag.

I’d also avoid abridged versions of nineteenth-century novels which are often marketed for children. Truncated and butchered versions of great texts aren’t that great at all. If you don’t think your kids are ready for the full-length version, I’d simply read something else and come back to this one in a couple of years!

Are you a parent? Do you agree and do you have any other advice or book recommendations? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!