Sunday, 25 January 2015

"We'll Always Have Paris": The Met's La Bohème and Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème

Some texts have an afterlife which is entirely reflective of the spirit in which they were written. One of these is Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (1851).

The other week I attended the New York Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful production of Puccini’s La Bohème, the world’s most popular opera, which premiered in 1896 in Turin. In preparation for the performance I decided to read Murger’s work (on which the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was based), even though every programme blurb is likely to tell you the adaptation is ‘loose’ at most.

A scene from the Met's production
Murger’s ‘novel’, which I read in translation, is more of a series of short stories set in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Characters recur, some with greater frequency than others, but timing is more nebulous and the plot hard to define. In the opera, Rodolph and Mimi’s relationship – its inception and conclusion – bookends the story. It is important in Murger too, but not central, and many of the features of Mimi’s story in the libretto (e.g. her profession and her death) are taken from an additional and minor character in the novel – Francine.

This is interesting. It suggests a dichotomisation of women in the opera – timid, initially chaste Mimi contrasted with worldly Musette – which is not the case in the text, where if anything the resourceful women trading on their beauty seem more sensible than their permanently broke and utterly deluded lovers. The stage world of great loves and tragedy is instead a constant comedy of bed-hopping and betrayal, where death is a constant feature, but life most always go on.

Rather than plot, what was lovely to see brought to life in the opera were details of the Bohemian life, which come up again and again while reading Murger’s vignettes. There is the cold, furniture sacrificed to open fires, near-continual drunkenness, tenants eluding the landlord, and strong emphasis on (male) friendship - which is more central than romantic love in the original.

This production did a great job of transporting the audience to Paris – whether the city’s bustling streets, or a quiet garret, set against a darkening skyline. When the curtain falls you’re suddenly back in New York, bereft of the idiosyncratic Bohemian life of the Latin Quarter. Finishing the novel is a similar experience. Characters and a way of life, with which a succession of stories has made you oddly familiar, fade away. If nineteenth-century Paris were a destination I could choose to visit, I’d have no hesitation in heading back for more.

Do you know of any other NYC events with a nineteenth-century link the Secret Victorianist could attend? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the Met: Madame Cézanne and Death Becomes Her

Yesterday, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York to see two very different exhibitions of a nineteenth-century flavour.

Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory (1891)
Madame Cézanne, which runs until 15th March 2015, brings together 24 of the 29 known paintings by Paul Cézanne of his wife Hortense Fiquet, along with additional sketches and watercolours. The paintings cover more than 20 years (from the 1870s-1890s) and simultaneously give a wonderful glimpse into the artist’s techniques and his private life.

Cézanne’s ready access to his subject meant he had an opportunity for many variations on a theme – most obviously the four ‘red dress’ portraits, including one from the Met’s permanent collection, (which date from 1888-1890) which see Hortense in the same garment, but posed slightly differently against varying backgrounds, as the painter experiments with different combinations of colour and compositions. The sitter can at times appear as formal an element as a tree branch or pot plant, her expressions enigmatic, at times even indistinct.

Yet the sketches suggest a very different story – one of an intimate and happy family life. Here is Hortense bent over her needlework, her sleeping head upon a pillow, their baby Paul fils feeding from her breast.

Madame Cézanne Sewing (c.1880)
This is hard to reconcile with what we know of Cézanne’s marriage – the hostility of his friends towards Hortense, the secrecy of the relationship for 17 years, as the artist feared his family’s disapproval, their late marriage (in 1886). You need only read the Wikipedia entry dedicated to her to see how Hortense’s failures as a wife and negative impact on her husband’s art have passed into the commonly accepted history of the artist’s life.

Portrait of Madame Cézanne (c.1877)

What this exhibition offers, if not exactly a rehabilitation of Hortense’s public image, is an opportunity to re-examine this relationship (one marked by the social and financial inequality common to many marriages in the period), along with some of Cézanne’s most wonderful paintings. Visit if you can!

Death Becomes Her, on the other hand, which runs until 1st February 2015 in the Anna Wintour Costume Institute at the museum, is an exhibition of nineteenth-century American and European mourning (largely women’s) fashion. Having visited, and blogged about, The Art of Mourning exhibition at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum a few months ago, which included examples of Victorian post-mortem photography and portraiture and hair-work, it was wonderful to see such fine examples of the clothes which would have been worn by the mourners in the period, who were participating in these other acts of memorialisation.

The Secret Victorianist at the Met
Spanning the entire century, and the very early 1900s, the dresses on display here ranged from the simple, to the extravagant – from afternoon and walking dresses, to those suitable for a ball or even a wedding. The exhibition does a good job of explaining the etiquette around mourning in the period, the influence of fashion plates (some of which are on display here and the criticism women could be subjected to for failing to display an ‘appropriate’ level of grief.

It also touches – briefly – on the highly interesting subject of the position of the widow in nineteenth-century culture. Available for marriage, but, unlike most girls, financially independent and sexually experienced, the widow, despite being subjected to the most demanding strictures around the displays of mourning, cuts a socially disruptive figure. A side room at the exhibition houses a series of satirical drawings, entitled ‘A Widow and Her Friends’, by Charles Dana Gibson which ran in LIFE magazine in 1900, which takes a humorous look at this very issue.

As ever, with displays of nineteenth-century fashion, the diminutive proportions of the clothes and, especially, the miniscule waistlines are particularly striking, with a dress worn by Queen Victoria herself being a notable exception! Steer clear if the sound of a darkened room with requiems blasting from the speakers isn’t your idea of fun, but otherwise this is a beautiful, fascinating, and well-curated exhibition.

The Met has a recommended (i.e. optional!) admission of fee of $25 – entrance to special exhibitions is at no additional cost. Find out more about visiting here.

Do you know of any other New York exhibitions with a nineteenth-century focus the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Nineteenth-Century House of Cards

“Who then is right? How can we all be right? Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right. There is only one thing in life that I must and will have before I die. I must know whether America is right or wrong.”

A novel concerned with the intricacies of the social milieu in 1870s Washington D.C. might not cross your mind as being the first place to look for an exploration of modern democracy and a cracking portrayal of political and personal intrigue. Yet there is so much in Henry Adams’ 1880 Democracy which resonates with modern concerns about the pursuit of power, the nature of governance and corruption of the political elite that it could easily be reimagined as a twenty-first century political drama.

Young New York widow Madeleine Lee heads to the heart of American democracy to discover ‘the gold of life’ she finds lacking in the philanthropy and philosophy with which she currently fills her days. Clever and attractive, with younger, less politically-minded sister in tow, what Madeleine finds there instead is Silas Ratcliffe, the Senator from Illinois, a man without moral scruples who has his eyes fixed firmly on the Presidency (and soon also Mrs Lee).

Silas Ratcliffe could give Frank Underwood a run for his money
Madeleine’s struggle throughout the book in determining the rights and wrongs of American democracy is brought to a crisis in the judgement she must make of Ratcliffe, as politician and as prospective husband: “If I throw him overboard, everything must go, for he is only a specimen.”

The novel is a wonderful satire on this incestuous and power-obsessed society, headed by the incompetent and ridiculed President and his much-hated First Lady, who Madeleine first sees as ‘two seemingly mechanical figures’, shaking the hands of their visitors as if they were only ‘automata, representatives of the society which streamed past them’. All seek only self-advancement – the men through office, the women through marriage.

Victoria Dare, who manages to snare herself an Irish lord, is one of the most conniving of political manipulators, while Madeleine herself is subject to rumours, gossip and harassment in the press, through her association with Ratcliffe. This society is one in which women too are powerful (although this power is dissipated upon marriage) – Madeleine, in a reversal of what you might expect from a novel of the period, regards ‘men as creatures made for women to dispose of’, thinking that they are ‘capable of being transferred like checks, or baggage-labels, from one woman to another, as desired’.

The men meanwhile are embroiled in manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres, in-party fighting, and large-scale bribery to replenish personal and campaign funds. Madeleine’s desire that Ratcliffe and his peers should act in the ‘interests of the people’ is naïve, extraneous to the realities of life in D.C., and, while she frames the choice she must make at the novel’s close in terms of wider principle, her friends and sister are looking out for her best interests likewise.

The morality of democracy, Adams suggests, comes back to the morality of the men who participate in it – and not just the power-hungry who find themselves in Washington. “The bitterest part of all this horrid story is that nine out of ten of our countrymen would say I had made a mistake” Madeleine opines. In other words, democracy is wrong.

Are there any other nineteenth-century American novels you would like the Secret Victorianist to blog about? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Review: Hester, Margaret Oliphant (1873)

A couple of posts back I looked at what literary realism is – and why it mattered so much to the Victorians – using George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Middlemarch as illustrative examples. Margaret Oliphant saw her own writing as much inferior to that of the most famous of nineteenth-century realist novelists, claiming that after her death ‘no one will mention me with the same breath as George Eliot’, but having just finished her novel Hester (1873) I think not only was she wrong, but that this novel ought to be considered one of the very finest examples of psychological realism.

Hester is like many Victorian heroines – poor and without prospects, but clever and attractive – yet, unlike many Victorian novels, the greatest dilemmas the heroine faces aren’t centred on marriageable men, but her complex relationships with other women. There is Catherine Vernon – a businesswoman who has saved the family’s bank, and continues to support her poor relatives (including Hester). Successful and revered, a local celebrity, Catherine faces old age knowing there are none who truly love her, investing all her emotional health in the ‘son’ she has chosen to succeed her in business. Then there is Hester’s mother, Mrs. John Vernon, who is of high importance in the novel, despite her near-constant blindness to the action unfolding around her. Like presumably many Victorian women, her sense of what it means to be a woman and pursuit of an ideal femininity has kept her in ignorance of many things and helpless in the face of her husband’s reckless endangerment of the family business and her later widowhood. Intimidated by her vibrant daughter, nostalgic for the days she lived in luxury and most at home discussing ball dress design or the preparation of strawberry jam, Mrs. John is the kind of character who is usually subject to contempt or criticism in the world of a novel – but this is not the case.

Photograph of Margaret Oliphant
What is extraordinary about the novel is the way in which Oliphant deals with sympathy with all these women, sketching out the inner turmoil of fourteen-year old Hester, brave but thrust suddenly into an unfamiliar social situation, with the corresponding teenage insecurities, sixty-five year old Catherine, called on yet again to be brave and to put aside her own emotional trauma to save the jobs of many men and the money of her own family, and Mrs. John, who years on is just as ignorant as to what the bank clerk meant when he burst into her parlour to saver her from ruin, many years before.

A cast of supporting characters get slightly less attention when it comes to their psychology, but they are wrought with believability and satirical humour. The ‘Vernonry’, where Catherine houses her poor relations is a peculiar world of boredom, gossip, resentment and rivalry. The Ashtons (distant relations of Catherine on her mother’s side) represent a different side of business to the noble pursuit of success for common good Vernon’s (the bank) comes to stand for. Roland Ashton, left alone to make his own fortune, plays the stock market to advance himself independently (in contrast to Hester’s cousins, now partners at the bank, Harry and Edward, who Catherine keeps a close eye on). His sister Emma meanwhile pursues her fortune likewise – plotting to marry with a pragmatic view to her prospects, which is an amusing contrast to many Victorian marriage plots.

The novel moves steadily towards its climax – the crisis of Hester’s young life – but when the shocks come, they aren’t as a consequence of surprise or revelation, but of Hester’s own realisation of the network she is a part of, the inadmissibility of abandoning her ‘post’, like her father did. Pressed to flee – in other words to act out the kind of sensation novel plot Oliphant so disapproved of – Hester knows that she cannot, observing the duty which comes with relationships, to the mother that she loves, but also to Catherine, for whom she has had so much enmity. In other ways Hester learns the same lesson as a character in Eliot – growing up means becoming a realist, and developing an awareness of the interiority of others.


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

Sunday, 21 December 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: X is for Xmas

Merry Christmas for a second year from the Secret Victorianist! Last year, at Christmas, I treated you to a tricky literary quiz and suggested some nineteenth-century party games to try with friends and family. This year, I’m taking a look at a Christmas poem from the period – ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1864).

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Longfellow’s poem begins in self-conscientiously typical festive fashion, referencing the cyclical nature of Christmases – each one resembling the last -, in the ‘familiar carols’ and regular bells of Christmas morning. There is reference to the longevity of Christmas in the use of words from the very first Christmas ‘carol’, the words of the angels to the shepherds in the Nativity story, ‘peace on earth, good-will to men!’.

More than this, the poet imagines that this cry has ‘rolled along’ continuously, as an ‘unbroken song’, since the birth of Christ, spreading around the world. Longfellow conveys this idea of global harmony, through use of singulars for the collective celebration - ‘A voice, a chime,/A chant sublime’.

The Angel Appearing Before the Shepherds, Thomas Buchanan Read
Soon however, this harmony is broken, for the poet and the world, by a disruptive force – the American Civil War. The sound of war (the ‘cannon’, emanating in the South) ‘drowns’ out this announcement of peace, suggesting the poet, and his countrymen’s, hopelessness. The domestically destructive nature of a civil war is suggested through the use of language suggestive of home for the American continent (‘It was as if an earthquake rent,/The hearth-stones of a continent’) and reference to the, explicitly Christian, ‘households’ now suffering from war, while founded on a theology of peace.

In the final two stanzas, we are given two reactions to this. The poet despairs (‘hate is strong’), only, apparently, to be answered by a message of hope about the continuance of God (‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep’), despite the current violence. However, the evenness of these stanzas (it’s not as if Longfellow introduces a second of celebration) means the poem does not end on an entirely convinced and joyous note. The sounds of peace and happiness, which begin the poem, do not return – the only comfort is the promise that they will. And it is even hinted, that this will come, not simply through the end of war, but through the military success of the ‘right’ side (‘The Wrong shall fail,/The Right prevail’).

What we have then, although this poem has subsequently been set to music and made a carol itself, is a poem, which, while it plays on the traditions of Christmas, and well-known themes of Christianity, speaks to a particular moment in nineteenth-century American history.

What should be ‘Y’ in my American Alphabet? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Theatre Review: Creditors, August Strindberg (Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, New York)

August Strindberg’s Creditors is a stark, brutal and intensely modern play, first performed in 1889. It’s a play without embellishment and with total focus on its three characters, who play out the plot in a series of intense duologues, ultimately destroying each other. There is Tekla, a successful novelist, her husband Adolph, a young painter, and her former husband Gustav, who gatecrashes the new couple’s life to assert his own power.

It may sound like heavy watching, but it’s also in many ways comedic, from Gustav’s machinations, to the instances of stage eavesdropping. The question at its heart is ‘what does marriage mean?’ and more particularly, ‘has the meaning of marriage changed now divorce and remarriage is a real possibility?’ Strindberg’s script – presented here in a new version by David Greig – is obsessed with the playing out of gender in this new world of relationships. Tekla (played here by Elise Stone), unlike most nineteenth-century women, is more sexually experienced than her husband. She is also older and more successful in her career (and calls him affectionately ‘little brother’). And it is in exploring the effect this has on Adolph that the play is at its strongest.

It is Gustav who combats Tekla’s independence with a return to misogynistic language and tropes. For him a woman is ‘just a fat boy with overdeveloped breasts’. He scorns her, her writing, and her accomplishments. He uses his sexual history with her to diminish her power. And he persuades Adolph to give up painting for sculpture – particularly the sculpting of the female form, with its corresponding overtones of a Pygmalion power dynamic between husband and wife. Josh Tyson, as Adolph, does a good job in displaying his insecurities – the fear that what attracted him to Tekla will also be what makes him lose her. ‘I’ve seen her when you’re not there’, Gustav tells him, trying to convince him that his wife is dangerously unknowable.

Compared to Adolph, Gustav and Tekla’s characters are a little two dimensional in this production. Craig Smith is more convincing as Gustav when he acts as the Machiavellian schemer in the opening portions, than when he comes into contact with Tekla. And Tekla falls short of being a feminist icon, much as Strindberg felt his play had contributed much to Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 Hedda Gabler, giving Stone, at times, little to work with. In a play obsessed with sex, the chemistry is sadly lacking – when the two pairs squabble it’s believable, when they fall into each others’ arms, it’s not. 

Overall, director Kevin Confoy has done a decent job in putting on a really interesting play which has much to recommend it. It’s not one to watch on a first date, or if you’re thinking about popping the question. The moral of the story is: romantic relationships are fraught, relationships between artists mutually destructive, and humans may be capable of loving two people at once, but definitely aren’t good at accepting that from their partners. Some things never change.

You can learn more about the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and upcoming productions here.

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

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Review: Poor Miss Finch, Wilkie Collins (1871-2)

Illustration from Poor Miss Finch

Writing in the 1880s, John Ruskin was dismissive about the merits of Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, summarising its plot as evidence of its ridiculousness: ‘the heroine is blind, the hero epileptic, and the obnoxious brother is found dead with his hands dropped off, in the Arctic region.’ He didn’t even think to mention that the epileptic hero, thanks to an (un-)healthy dose of Silver of Nitrate is now distinguishable from his otherwise identical twin brother through being bright blue (!). It’s one of those novels (like Allen’s What's Bred in the Bone which I reviewed a few months ago) which you can take great joy in telling people about, but the reading experience is a lot more uneven. So today I take you through the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the much maligned (e.g. Ruskin) – and occasionally defended (see T.S. Eliot) - Poor Miss Finch. 

The Good: 
Most of Collins’s later novels call for social change (often around marriage and legitimacy laws) but this one is an exception. Its central subject is instead a study of blindness – the experience of living in the world having been unable to see since infancy and the relative desirability of recovering sight. Collins researched meticulously for the novel. The heroine and title character, Lucilla, is even given words taken almost directly from testimonies of blind patients in scientific literature so interested Collins is in examining the realities of this different kind of existence. Lucilla is a stronger character when blind – she does not seem disabled, but, with her acute sense of touch, differently abled. She is independent financially, practically and mentally, and willing to disregard stifling moral conventions to win the man she loves (“[Concealing love] is very hard on the women. If they feel it first, they ought to own it first.”). All of this changes when she can see the world (and see the eyes of the world on her). Easily duped, unhappy and uncertain, Lucilla is in no doubt which life she prefers (“My love lives in blindness!”).

The same attention to medical detail is even there with poor Oscar’s complexion-altering epilepsy medication. That’s right, people, you can turn blue – here’s a guy who did just that and then went on TV to prove it:

Poor Miss Finch, whatever else it might be, is well-researched – and it is also populated by an array of memorable characters. Apart from Lucilla, there is the opinionated republican narrator Madame Pratolungo (a widowed French woman, previously married to a South American revolutionary) and then the Dubourg brothers who, in the distinction from each other, provide an interesting insight into how men were affected by Victorian ideals of masculinity. Lucilla’s perpetually half-dressed and breastfeeding stepmother and her 14+ children also make for an amusing satirical side note, with the Finch family’s ridiculous fecundity mocking the idealised Victorian home. 

The bad: 
Warning: this novel definitely drags and is hardly one of Collins’s best plotted. At times it is yelling-at-the-pages-frustrating, at others just disappointingly unbelievable.

Its central premise is that Lucilla is irrationally scared of dark colours, having been blind. Due to this, her fiancé Oscar tells her it is actually his twin, Nugent, who is blue, which is all very well until she recovers her sight and the brother take advantage of this case of mistaken identity.

It’s just mad and, while the characters might be interesting, they seem totally incapable of any rational behaviour.

There is also a lot of extraneous back story about a previous murder trial which, while interesting in itself, doesn’t really come back into play – just demonstrating how different this is to Collins’s mystery blockbusters like The Woman in White. 

The ugly: 
Having a crazy dislike of those with a dark complexion is as racist as it sounds (e.g. Lucilla is physically repulsed when someone invites a ‘Hindu’ to dinner) and this is just one of the things which makes it very difficult for modern readers to sympathise with the protagonist. The German oculist who treats her eyes is also a tiring and offensive stereotype – think lots of ‘Zs' and unnecessary plurals, and an obsession with food, especially Madame Pratolungo’s mayonnaise. 

The verdict: 
There’s a lot to study here, but I think if this was your first taste of Wilkie Collins you might be put off for life. Approach at your peril (and stay away from the Silver of Nitrate!).


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