Tuesday 30 July 2013

TV Review: The Mill (2013)

Sacha Parkinson as Miriam Catterall in The Mill
If you thought costume dramas were all frills and flounces, non-threatening marriage proposals and rich people at leisure, think again. Channel 4 has decided what our Sunday nights really need is a dose of gritty realism. That means industrial accidents, child labour and sexual harassment, all at a grim Cheshire mill in 1833. This is a drama based on historical events and filmed on location at Quarry Bank Mill, with a script which references topical issues (abolition, imperialism, working conditions) at such a rate so as to leave us in no doubt as to its verisimilitude.

The problem is that, while the production looks good (great costumes, accurate machinery and arty shots of the bleak surrounding landscape), the psychological is definitely lacking from this brand of realism. John Fay’s script (unsurprisingly due to his soap-writing background) is TV drama by numbers. Every point is hammered home unrelentingly – parallels between imperial interests abroad and labour conditions at home made cringe-worthy-ly obvious (along with the hypocrisy of factory owner’s wives in supporting the abolition movement), or the factory overseer telling the apprentice girls that no one will believe them if they report his sexual advances with all the subtlety of a pantomime villain.

Donald Sumpter as Samuel Greg in The Mill
In this first episode, factory worker Miriam gets assaulted by the overseer, and her comrade Esther urges her to tell. You can guess our girl Esther is going to be feisty from the very colour of her hair (red, obviously), while what could have been an interesting exploration of the ways in which shame acts to silence abuse victims is undercut by giving Miriam a straightforward motivation for not backing up Esther’s complaint (fear of the exposure of her sister’s pregnancy). Meanwhile a mechanic gets rescued from debtors’ prison only to beat up a campaigner for the Ten Hour Movement. Reasons as yet unclear, except to make sure that we – the audience – are fully aware that this is hard hitting stuff. Oh, and little Tommy gets his hand taken off by a machine, largely so factory owners can parade around his stretcher mid-amputation, talking about the possible damage to their business and assuring everyone of their callousness.

It’s not just the plotting. The language doesn't feel right – it’s not enough to use ‘privy’ instead of ‘toilet’ to catapult us back to the 1830s. Production makers could plead issues of accessibility but the incongruously modern language cheapens the show and is more off-putting than anything. Fay would have done better to immerse himself in more Gaskell.

With only three more episodes to go, I’ll probably be sticking with this one, if only for its aesthetic appeal, but I have a feeling it will annoy as much as entertain. If you want the real deal– powerful stories, well told, which are engaged in all these social and political issues in a much more provocative and intelligent way, turn to North and South (1855), Hard Times (1854) and Shirley (1849). It would take a lot to match them.

What did you think of Episode One? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday 28 July 2013

Are YOU an Elizabeth Bennet?

The Secret Victorianist assesses
her heroine potential
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you read too many nineteenth-century novels, it won’t be long before you start imagining yourself to be in one. And while I've done my bit to debunk the myth that the literature of the period is all romance, parties, and pretty dresses, like most of the women who dream of being a heroine, it’s invariably this sort of novel I imagine myself in. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is a particular site for playing out these reader fantasies, as the high volume of sequels and reworkings it has inspired suggests. The reasons for this may well extend beyond the visual appeal of adaptations – lush locations, jaw-dropping houses and Colin Firth – to the archetypal structure of its romance plot (I’d recommend Radway for an accessible academic treatment of the genre’s motifs). So, for better or for worse, I’m going to assess my suitability as a nineteenth-century heroine, and hopefully get this out of my system. You’re welcome to join me for some self-reflection along the way:

1. Appearance: Let’s get this over with. Elizabeth isn't even the prettiest sister, right? That’s Jane. And yet our Lizzy still bags the man with more of a backbone (and five thousand more a year). My sister might read this so I’m not going to comment, but sibling rivalry aside, I may already have some issues. No hair dye! Yet judgement if your hair is the ‘wrong’ colour. No make-up to covers my sins, without suggesting I’m a whore. Not to mention those ridiculous waist measurements I dealt with in an earlier post. At least my teeth might compare favourably if suddenly whisked back to a time of poor oral hygiene. Still, it’s not looking good. At least I’d be so blind without contact lenses I couldn't see my eventual husband anyway.

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet
2. Accomplishments: My father still likes to quote Mr Bennet’s ‘You have delighted us long enough’ when he wants me to be quiet and, while I may not be tone deaf, I fear my pianoforte playing still may not quite be up to making anyone fall head over heels in love with me. While, selfishly, the idea of singing after dinner without even drunkenness for an excuse sounds quite fun, not sure anyone else would agree. Oh, and I can’t draw. At all. Even stick people. And I’d  definitely go the wrong way during those complicated dances. Oh dear – it seems I've misspent my youth!

3. Witty conversation: This is the bit we all like to believe we’d be good at. Blistering put-downs and fascinating conversation, perfectly articulated with as little effort as it takes to flutter a fan. But I was born in 1991 – not 1791 – and my flirting is of quite a different calibre. We’re a generation who consult with friends over text responses, take days to reply to an email, double check our facts on extra tabs. I’m going to say I still have the Elizabeth Bennet spirit, but I may well have to introduce Darcy to sexting.

4. Morality: Not sure I could hack it. Give me a fortnight of playing at being a lady and I’ll probably do a Lydia. It’s not flighty – it’s enlightened. Promise.

Julia Sawalha as Lydia Bennet
5. Youth: Ok, I have it. I’m not quite old enough to be on the shelf. But what then? Elizabeth is 20 and gets MARRIED. Life over, story done, will probably die in childbirth. Now we have decades to get it wrong – say the wrong thing, wear the wrong outfit, date the wrong people, and I definitely appreciate that. Plus, it doesn’t matter what my parents think (sorry, Mum) and there are other ways for me to make money.

Definitely a Fail - think I’ll leave the fantasy for bedtime reading. How about you? Let me know how you’d measure up as an Austen heroine here or on Facebook!

Friday 26 July 2013

'True Action is Impossible': Aurora Leigh and Female Subjectivity

you Aurora, with the large live brow
And steady eyelids, cannot condescend
To play at art, as children play at swords,
To show a pretty spirit, chiefly admired
Because true action is impossible.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) is a work which takes on the impossible – combining poetry and the novel in its form and feminising the epic genre. Its narrative has many of the ingredients of your typical Victorian novel – orphan-hood, illegitimacy, frustrated love matches and familial pressure – but its main subject is to prove that its heroine is not an impossibility, that there is scope for a serious female artist. Romney, the cousin of our protagonist, the aspiring poet Aurora, is of a different opinion. For him the female artist or poet can only ever be a weak imitation of the male and admired as such for displaying ‘a pretty spirit’ like a playacting child. While Aurora, for him, is above such juvenile behaviour, this does not mean she can transcend the limitations of her sex – Aurora as an active agent of her story cannot exist.

Aurora Leigh's Dismissal of Romney ('The Tryst'), Arthur Hughes
Romney expresses his views shortly after Aurora has put forth her own poetic manifesto on the morning of her sixteenth birthday. Aurora is crowning herself as a poet in the garden of her home and chooses her plants carefully, symbolically rejecting the more feminine pursuit of love in favour of her artistic ambitions as a writer:

Nor myrtle - which means chiefly love; and love
Is something awful which one dare not touch
So early o' mornings

Aurora’s caution here (‘dare not’) suggests that she too anticipates difficulties in being a woman poet, but it is not until Romney’s entrance to the scene that she struggles to retain her subjectivity  and is converted instantly into an art object, losing all agency as a creator. As she goes to fasten her garland, Romney disturbs her:

And fastening it behind so, turning faced
...My public! - Cousin Romney - with a mouth
Twice graver than his eyes.
I stood there fixed –
My arms up, like the caryatid, sole
Of some abolished temple, helplessly
Persistent in a gesture which derides
A former purpose.

The comparison with a caryatid is telling. Romney’s gaze turns Aurora to stone, not only converting her to a female statue (the ultimate symbol of the man as artist/woman as art object dichotomy in the Pygmalion myth) but to a type of statue whose architectural function and very etymology suggests entrapment and punishment.

This is not the first time Aurora has faced the alignment of the feminine with the passive and objectified in art. From her earliest years, in one of the poem/novel’s most memorable passages, she has viewed her mother’s portrait and the weight of cultural heritage which comes along with the depiction of women in art. Her mother is compared to a list of stereotyped and specified mythic models:

Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love,
A still Medusa, with mild milky brows
All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes
Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or, anon,
Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords
Where the Babe sucked; or, Lamia in her first
Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked,
And, shuddering, wriggled down to the unclean;
Or, my own mother, leaving her last smile
In her last kiss, upon the baby−mouth

This is not just a list but one in which the women listed are increasingly passive and robbed of all activity themselves. The Muse can only ‘eye’, Psyche cannot see at all, and the powerful Medusa is bereft of her powers, ‘still’ now and so paired with passive verbs (‘curdled’, ‘clothed’). The choice of the Lady of the Passion takes the most famous example of female passivity – Mary who acts as a vessel for God’s will – and chooses to depict her as the object of phallic violence, seeing the stabbing, alarmingly, as a continuation of the passive suffering of motherhood. Lamia isn't even a whole person – ‘wriggled down to the unclean’ suggests the version of the myth where she is a serpent from the waist down and it is this inhuman characteristic, as well as her suffering, which is emphasised, not her own violent actions. The list culminates in Aurora’s mother who, while active here, is in fact painted only after her death – her body an object for the male artist to work from.
It is this burden of cultural inheritance then, not only Romney’s prejudice, which Aurora (and Barrett Browning) must undo in order to establish herself as a true artist.

Michele Gordigiani's portrait of
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1858)
While many have discussed Romney’s blinding at the end of the novel/poem as a symbol for his enlightenment, comparing him with Rochester in Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), few have noted that, while Rochester is blinded attempting to save Bertha, Romney has returned to the burning house in order to save another portrait – that of his ancestor Lady Maud. At this moment the female art object becomes active and exerts revenge on the man who previously described artistic action by a woman such as Aurora as ‘impossible’.

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Wednesday 24 July 2013

'This Genealogical Passion': Hardy, Incest and Degeneration

Gemma Arterton as Tess in the BBC's 2008 adaptation
‘He seemed to have such prescriptive rights in women of her blood.’

A brief plot summary of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved (1897), published in its original form as a serial in 1892 as The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, is enough to convince most of the oddity of this novel, which reads like a perverted fairytale with less pretence to realism than Hardy’s more famous works. Jocelyn Pierston, the protagonist, falls in love with three generations of the same family of women across a forty-year period – the original Avice Caro, her daughter, and then finally her granddaughter, with the repetition of events being a fuelling reason for his passion. Yet this strange novel, with its concentration on familial ties, genealogical inheritance and potential incest brings to light themes which dominate throughout Hardy’s more canonical novels.

The above quote brings to issue many of these concerns. Jocelyn’s ‘rights’ stem in part from his kinship with the women of the Caro family – the original Avice is his first cousin. Cousin marriage was a fraught topic in the period and one which is dwelt on at various points by Hardy. Marriage between first cousins was legal in Britain, as it remains now, and far from frowned upon. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were cousins, and intrafamilial marriage was a useful tool for keeping property in the family for both the aristocratic and middle classes. But the emerging field of genetics, combined with an increasing interest and belief in evolutionary theory, meant that some were concerned about the potentially negative impact of a lack of variation within family lines. Anthropologist John Lubbock tried (unsuccessfully) to have a question on cousin marriage included on the 1870 census, and Charles Darwin’s uneasiness on the topic, due to his own marriage to first cousin Emma Wedgwood is made clear in his The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868). Darwin writes on the problem:

‘Before turning on to Birds, I ought to refer to man, though I am unwilling to enter on this subject, as it is surrounded by natural prejudices.’

From Walter Paget's illustrations for The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved
In Hardy, both sides of the argument are made clear. Take Sue and Jude – a pair of first cousins from the more famous Jude the Obscure (1895). For Jude, at least, part of their attraction stems from their sameness, which is clear from when he first sees Sue’s picture and later when he sees her in his own clothing:

‘Sitting in his only arm-chair he saw a slim and fragile being masquerading as himself on a Sunday.’

Yet the couple’s offspring are weak compared to the child produced by Jude with the genealogically distinct and biologically robust Arabella. Sameness isn't straightforwardly attractive or desirable. Jocelyn’s relationship with the first Avice demonstrates similar reservations. He does not marry her, but abandons her for Marcia – the daughter of a different family, the enemy of his own, and thus the most perfect example of exogamy. Their difference is what drives their attraction – ‘But hereditarily we are mortal enemies, dear Juliet’, Jocelyn tells her playfully – yet, not only is their happiness is short-lived, but part of their sexual play is to elide this familial difference, posing as brother and sister in order to enjoy their first night together.

Confusion over the desirability of cousinhood continues in The Return of the Native (1878) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). In the former, it is hard to doubt Mrs Yeobright’s conclusion that it would have been better for her son Clym to have married his docile first-cousin Thomasin than the outsider Eustacia. And yet, in Tess, the suggestion of kinship between the lowly Durbeyfields and the d’Urbervilles is the precipitating event of the heroine’s ruin.

The repeated nature of Jocelyn’s romantic obsession however goes further to raise issues beyond those surrounding cousin marriage. His involvement with Avice the first and second goes some way to rendering his marriage to the third incest by affinity (the religious law forbidding sexual relationships with connections through marriage as well as through blood). Concern over the biological consequences of potentially incestuous relationships is therefore paired with the moral dubiousness of having sex with those too closely connected to a previous partner, casting a hint of uneasiness over Angel’s companionship with Tess’s sister Liza-Lu at the end of the 1891 novel. Marriage with the deceased wife’s sister was not legalised until 1907, meaning that ‘incest’ with those who are not blood relations is potentially more worrying than repeated intermarriage within a family, in a way which seems very alien from our modern ideas.

Finally, Jocelyn’s obsession with the blood link between all three Avices (‘it was the historic ingredient in this genealogical passion – if its continuity through three generations may be so described – which appealed to his perseverance at the expense of his wisdom’) mirrors Hardy’s own with the larger narratives at work in his fictions. These are the macro-narratives of landscape, whether the rocky peninsula of The Well-Beloved or the unchanging wilderness of Egdon Heath, as well as the narratives of human inheritance. While landscapes remain unchanged however, the story of human life is one of degeneration and loss. Just as each successive Avice fails to live up to the first, Hardy’s fiction is filled with the idea that, whoever we marry, the race is deteriorating. In The Return of the Native, Hardy writes:

‘Physically beautiful men--the glory of the race when it was young--are almost an anachronism now; and we may wonder whether, at some time or other, physically beautiful women may not be an anachronism likewise.’

And he leaves it to Tess to suggest that, beyond the physical deterioration and even extinction which could result from natural processes of evolution, the grand narrative of history could make all stories repetitions (like Jocelyn’s), which are ultimately futile:

‘Because what's the use of learning that I am one of a long row only—finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that's all. The best is not to remember that your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands' and thousands', and that your coming life and doings 'll be like thousands' and thousands.’

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Further Walter Paget illustrations from the novel available from Victorian Web.

Monday 22 July 2013

Theatre Review: Alice in Wonderland, OUDS Summer Tour, Oxford

‘We’re all mad here.’

In Oxford – birthplace of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland – at a matinee on the hottest day of the year The Secret Victorianist and the rest of the small audience were clustered into a fenced-in arena in Christ Church Meadows to be transported into the weird and wonderful world of the first Alice novel (1865). Matt Parvin’s hour-long adaptation took some of the most famous moments from the children’s novel – Alice’s growth spurts and shrinking spells, the tea party, the crazed flamingo-wielding game of croquet – and interweaved these with scenes from Alice’s ‘real’ world of familial problems, and the difficulties of growing up. The ensemble, with the exception of Alice (played by watchable but perhaps at times overly infantile Phoebe Hames), took on a vast array of characters, relying on physical theatre with minimal props and costume changes to guide us through the story.

The Secret Victorianist goes to Alice in Wonderland
The effectiveness, of the script and production, was very uneven. There were some really lovely ideas and good moments – whether using the whole cast to play the Cheshire Cat, allowing him to ‘appear’ and ‘disappear’ and talk as if a ventriloquist’s dummy, or employing two additional actors to give the caterpillar (Richard Hill) extra hands – and the execution of these demonstrated the cohesion and hard work of a fully committed cast. The best scene of the play was undoubtedly the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where the staging in the round really worked with the constant switching of places and Johnny Purkiss (as the Hatter) and Tom Lambert (the Hare) put in great performances.

Other ideas however were not as well thought-through. Director Josie Mitchell has spoken about her improvisational methods in the rehearsal room and I couldn't help but get the feeling throughout that I was watching Alice being workshopped, rather than performed. Alice obeyed a sign reading ‘eat me’ and became large, hoisted on the shoulders of the other actors, her arms elongated by theirs. We smiled and nodded but asked ‘then what?’ as we hurriedly skipped on to the next episode, the conceit abandoned. While Alice mentions later that she is only 3 inches tall, it is unclear when she was shrunk again and the playwright and director never bothered to return her to her proper size for the play’s conclusion.

Flyer for Alice in Wonderland
On a language level there were also disappointments. Parvin’s text was simply at its best when it quoted verbatim from Carroll and the innovative external narrative was confused and unclear as a plot, and clunky in its expression. There were just too many ideas in the melting pot – political speechifying, social commentary on the conditions faced by child factory workers, medical intrusion as Alice approached puberty, and bizarre relationships between the heroine and her uncle and father. One might have been interesting, but as it was the audience sighed with relief each time we returned to caucus races and the odd beheading.

While the play captured the mad-cap spirit of the novel, and the intimacy of the setting had some benefits (making us feel trapped in a strange world and allowing the cast to appear from all directions and play with surprising sound effects), what was lost was the sense of adventure and discovery which a more visually stimulating production might have provided. While the production is continuing its run in London and Edinburgh, much more could have been made of the Oxford connection and glorious outdoor setting and, when extra costume was donned on top of the ubiquitous white tops and leggings, this seemed to help the actors with characterisation no end.

All in all this was a production of a nineteenth-century classic which left the audience debating the desirability of modern theatrical conventions. Nice ideas and an enthusiastic cast, but ultimately it is the continued appeal of Carroll’s story, however mutilated, which saves the play. 

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Alice in Wonderland Production Website: Link

Friday 19 July 2013

'Can you mention Clara's name, and that woman's name, in the same breath?'

‘Nice name. Clara. You should definitely keep it.’, The Doctor, Doctor Who: The Snowmen (2012).

Matt Smith as The Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald

I recently reviewed Wilkie Collins’s Basil (1852) for this blog and mentioned the character of Clara – the virtuous sexless sister whose pure love serves as a redemptive antidote to the dangerous and destructive sexuality of Margaret Sherwin. So far, so standard. Clara, from the Latin, meaning ‘famous’, ‘clear’, ‘bright’, seems an obviously symbolic choice of name for the fair and angelic woman who tries to save Basil in his dreams and in reality, and who is spoken of throughout in the language of praise (‘My sister!—well may I linger over your beloved name in such a record as this!’).

But on reflection, I noticed that Basil’s Clara isn't the only fictional Victorian sister named Clara to have these qualities. Sticking to the world of sensation, there are two more – this time in the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. First up, Clara Talboys, in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), who is another woman defined by her relationship with her brother. She says:

I have been allowed neither friends nor lovers. My mother died when I was very young. My father has always been to me what you saw him today. I have had no one but my brother. All the love that my heart can hold has been centred upon him.’

And, like Basil’s Clara, her beauty and worth is located firmly in her capacity for self-sacrificing suffering:

‘His cousin was pretty, his uncle's wife was lovely, but Clara Talboys was beautiful. Niobe's face, sublimated by sorrow, could scarcely have been more purely classical than hers.’

Using the classical figure of Niobe, the archetypal suffering mother, highlights the sexlessness of Clara’ passion here – and it is this purity, conversely, which Robert Audley finds so attractive. Throughout the novel, the other figure Clara is compared with is her brother George (it is the first thing Robert notices about her: ‘the whole length of the room divided this lady from Robert, but he could see that she was young, and that she was like George Talboys’), so much so that Robert’s eventual union with her has been read as a surrogate for his homosexual longing for his friend. The marriage between these two – whose passions have been more focussed on Clara’s brother than each other – is similar to the conclusion of Basil, where the hero’s life alone with his sister, both unmarried, has incestuous undertones, and also to Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), where Marian’s presence in Walter’s household sets up a strange three-way union where the boundaries between sibling and sexual love are not clearly determined.

Second, Braddon’s Black Band; or the Mysteries of Midnight (1861-2) deals with the trials of ballet-girl Clara Melville, whose purity in the face of attempted rapes, seductions and kidnaps serves as a foil to the immorality of the sexually loose and murderous Lady Edith, just as Collins’s Clara is contrasted with Margaret, and Clara Talboys is compared with Lady Audley. Clara is also a sister, who works long hours to support her family, but, with a sleight of hand which gestures towards a more controversial viewpoint, Braddon actually goes so far as to suggest that women who fail to live up the ideal of sexual purity could have similarly familial motivations. The narrator says of the ballet-girls who succumb to prostitution:

‘Weep for them; pity; but do not harshly blame them! Poorly paid at the best, with perhaps a drunken father or an invalid mother to support- perhaps the only provider for a band of helpless little sisters – sorely tempted by base and cruel men who hold the ballet-girl only as a toy made to minister to their amusement , and to be cast aside for some newer fancy.

‘Weep for them, poor erring sisters! and remember that frail though many of them may have been, yet in the ranks of the ballet are still every day to be found devoted daughters, self-sacrificing sisters, and true and affectionate wives.’

Braddon professes to maintain a distinction between girls who ‘fall’ and those who do not - her conclusion that ‘in the ranks of the ballet are still every day to be found’ examples of female virtue, can be read as suggesting the continuance of some of the performers’ chastity. But the whole force of the passage works against this distinction.

The repetition of the word ‘sisters’, along with pathetic adjectives, for the fallen women (‘poor erring sisters’), the chaste women (‘self-sacrificing sisters’),  and the households both groups support (‘helpless little sisters’) suggests that there is no difference between the ballet-girls. Domestic feeling can lead to prostitution as these women struggle to help their families, and, even more directly, the qualities attributed to those who are ‘true’ - being affectionate, devoted and self-sacrificing - can be the very qualities which lead to becoming a man’s mistress.

As we see Braddon and Collins playing with the figure of the pure and selfless sister to different effect, the question remains about why they choose the name Clara to do this, beyond its obvious symbolism. The increasing popularity of the name in the nineteenth century could prove a clue – how fashionable it was across Europe is suggested by the use of the name in Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker (1892) for the heroine, who in Hoffman’s source story (1816) had been called 'Marie'. But if you come across any more self-sacrificing nineteenth-century Claras, let me know – this pattern makes the choice of the name Clara for the Doctor Who companion who has been a Victorian governess and was ‘born to save the doctor’ particularly apt. 

Clara in The Nutcracker

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Wednesday 17 July 2013

Misconceptions about Victorian Literature

In a previous post I took on the view that Victorian fiction is by default long and unwieldy by recommending some shorter works you might want to give a go. Today it’s time to debunk a few more myths about nineteenth-century writing which I've come across whenever I tell people what I like to read.

1. There’s no sex: Yes, yes – we all know those Victorians. They fainted at a glimpse of ankle, right, and covered up table legs. They were all so prudish it’s a miracle they had any children at all, regardless of the massive population increase in the UK in the period, and the example of the very fertile monarch herself. Victorian literature is crammed with sex, even if the novels are (thankfully) not quite Fifty Shades of Grey. Try George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893) for discussion of prostitution and bawdry, Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) deals with rape and John Sutherland even detects a reference to sodomy in Hardy’s earlier The Woodlanders (1886-7). Meanwhile, Ellen Wood’s bestselling sensation novel East Lynne (1861) centres on a heroine who commits adultery because she wants to, finds her lover attractive and is bored by her dependable husband, in a initial plotline which could easily be taken from a modern paperback (before a railway disaster, facial disfigurement and high levels of infant mortality situate it firmly in the 1860s!). If you want even more, you can always trust the French to turn things up a notch, but once you've glutted yourself on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1851), I’d suggest turning to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s A Doctor’s Wife (1863). Laurie Garrison argues surprisingly convincingly that while here the heroine Isabel doesn't commit adultery like her model Emma Bovary, her novel-reading obsession is code for an addiction to masturbation. Erotic rewrites of Victorian novels are hot property for publishers right now, but often the sexual content is already there in the originals.

The Secret Victorianist spots Wuthering Heights erotica on sale at a European airport

2. It’s only for girls: First up, this is sexist. And I very much doubt Dickens, Trollope, Tennyson, Browning and the rest of the century’s celebrated male writers would agree. My guess is when people say this they mean that the literature is all about marriage and relationships, even if these (whisper it) obviously affect men too. But don’t despair, those who’d rather die than wear pink, there are battles (try Walter Scott and Alfred, Lord Tennyson), trade union disputes (Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855)), aliens (H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898)) – all sorts of things girls couldn't possibly understand.

3. It’s very romantic: The reality is that reading nineteenth-century novels has seen my romantic notions disposed of as brutally as Marianne Dashwood’s. Marriage is a mercantile business and the century’s novelists are much more likely to go into the details of household economy (cf. particularly Braddon’s Hostages to Fortune (1875)), than rhapsodise over weddings. Marriage ceremonies are, despite their ubiquitous concurrence with end credits in television adaptations, usually dispensed with in their entirety – to take three famous examples, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2). When they are detailed, it is also for their legal irregularity (Wilkie Collins’s ‘Miss or Mrs?’ (1872) and The Law and the Lady (1875).

4. It’s all about the rich people: It doesn't get much grittier than Arthur Morrison’s tale of London slum life A Child of the Jago (1896), or Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), set the other side of the Atlantic. Inner city life in all its squalor and violence is rendered hyper-realistically, with Morrison’s attention to dialect particularly impressive. Both works are the products of research and firsthand experience – unapologetically un-sanitised and not for the faint-hearted.

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Monday 15 July 2013

Review: Basil, Wilkie Collins (1852)

Wilkie Collins’s Basil (1852) is a novel which asks life’s important questions – should I marry a girl if I happen to fall in love with her on an omnibus? (Er…no). Should I leave my marriage unconsummated for a full year if her father wishes it? (Again…not such a good idea). The eponymous Basil is the first person narrator for most of the novel and the cast of characters small by Collins’s standards (dark, passionate, tradesman’s daughter Margaret Sherwin, fair virtuous sexless sister Clara, reformed reprobate brother Ralph, handsome clerk Mannion, with his mysterious past, and a host of incompetent and ineffectual parents). The plot is relatively straightforward with few reversals of expectation but the elements which would become central to the age of sensation in the 1860s are all there – familial strife and secrets, violence, mental anguish with an almost proto-Freudian obsession with dreams and the subconscious and a focus on the destructive potential of female sexuality. 

Title page to Basil
For the general reader: Basil is very readable and a manageable length, but clearly the work of a writer learning his craft. There are imperfections here and don’t expect the narrative shocks of a whodunit. Basil as a narrator can be a little frustrating as the other characters, with the exception perhaps of Clara, are on the whole much more interesting. Yet the novel does appeal in its openness about sexual subject matters (for which it was heavily criticised), which makes it seem very modern, in the realistic details it gives about London’s merchant communities in the period and in its unexpected move to dramatic Cornish landscapes in the closing chapters. I’d recommend it to those who have already had a taste of Collins and want to give one of his lesser known works a go. 

For students: This is a good one for unpicking Collins’s working methods as it is not as tightly plotted as the later novels but shows him toying with several ideas which he would return to (for instance, multiple narration, including different media, as in The Moonstone (1868) and The Woman in White (1859), and the use of coincidence on a structural level in order to discuss the idea of Fatality, which is most central in Armadale (1866)). The changes made to the novel after its lampooning by the critics for its perceived immorality are also interesting – infrequent enough to get to grips with, while significant enough to merit comment. If you don’t have time to read the whole novel, the prefatory ‘Dedication’ (to Collins’s friend Charles James Ward) is still a must-read, as it discusses the relationship between Fiction and Drama which is so important to the Collins canon. Anyone interested in Collins’s biography and personal life may also want to look at the presentation of Basil’s literary pursuits, as the character’s historical novel seems to recall Collins’s previous work Antonina; or the Fall of Rome (1850), and at the character Ralph’s successful relationship with a woman who lives with, unmarried, in circumstances recalling Collins’s own life with Caroline Graves.

What's your favourite Collins novel? Have you read Basil? Let me know below! Stay up to date with all things Victorian by following The Secret Victorianist on Twitter (@SVictorianist) and liking The Secret Victorianist on Facebook.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Theatre Review: An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen, Gate Theatre, Dublin

Henrik Ibsen is one of those writers you can cite when people don’t believe nineteenth-century literature is relevant to today. ‘Look!’ you can cry, ‘political commentary, analysis of gender constructs, even discussion of venereal disease!’ But the problem with director Wayne Jordan’s production of An Enemy of the People at the Gate Theatre in Dublin is that it hammers home this relevance at expense of all else. Further difficulty is caused by the fact that the text used is Arthur Miller’s translation from the 1950s (the period suggested by Paul O’Mahony’s set and Joan O’Clery’s costumes). What exactly is the analogy here? Between fin-de-siècle Norway and Miller’s America in the time of McCarthyism? Or the latter and modern Ireland in the wake of financial crisis, ‘an inconceivable time when the many must take the consequences for the risks taken by a few’, as the director notes?

The Secret Victorianist goes to An Enemy of the People

 An Enemy of the People (1882) is the story of a man, Dr Stockmann, who thinks there is a problem with the water supply to the town’s therapeutic baths. His brother, Peter, who is Mayor, is worried about the economic impact of such a theory becoming public knowledge and so sets out to silence him.

The decision to highlight the play’s Scandinavian setting despite the obvious Americanisation of Miller’s script – on a linguistic and ideological level – was always going to be problematic and the result was a curious blend of preachiness and overstatement, which I hadn’t found in reading Christopher Hampton’s wonderful translation, with confusion as to what the play was actually preaching. Denis Conway’s Peter Stockmann was very much the villain to Declan Conlon’s heroic Dr Stockmann in a move which robbed Ibsen’s play of much of its subtlety and moral subjectivity. The journalists Billing (Mark Huberman) and Hovstad (Ronan Leahy)’s sexual interest in the doctor’s daughter Petra (Jill Harding) was also made much more overt from the outset, making the later revelation of their ulterior motives much less shocking and decidedly predictable.

Declan Conlon and Denis Conway in An Enemy of the People

 Throughout there was a feeling of being spoken down to, in a way which had much less to do with the original play I think, than with staging and delivery. It wasn’t only during the climactic town meeting that the audience felt lectured, and here our alignment with the crowd, as the citizens moved amongst us, felt ill thought through as the paucity of actors made their attack on the doctor far from intimidating. The irritating scene changes, in which suited men and women moved furniture officiously while glaring out at us against the noise of static interference on a radio, also felt heavy-handed, as the clever device by which the set increasingly narrowed the stage space available would have been enough to indicate the family’s increasing entrapment.

With a strong cast (particularly Bosco Hogan as Morten Kiil and Barry McGovern as Aslaksen), the whole production felt a little like a missed opportunity and it was disappointing that the implications of certain directorial decisions seemed to have been ignored. The successful commentary on women’s exclusion from political questions which earlier scenes in the Stockmann household had raised for instance was undercut by having one of the vocal citizens at the meeting be a woman. And the potentially fascist direction in which the doctor’s belief in a superior elite took his speech felt hurried over and unexplored, as the production celebrated his revolutionary spirit entirely uncritically.

Sheridan Smith in Hedda Gabler

 After seeing two wonderful Ibsen productions in London in the last year – A Doll’s House at the Young Vic and Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic – I was a little disappointed. If you want the real deal, and to appreciate Ibsen’s unflinching moral complexity, this play is one to read, and probably not in Miller’s translation. 

Dominic Rowan and Hattie Morahan in The Doll's House

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Friday 12 July 2013

A 19th Centurist Joins the 21st Century!

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