Friday, 30 August 2013

Film Review: What Maisie Knew

Film poster for What Maisie Knew
Henry James’s 1897 What Maisie Knew is a brave choice for adaptation. The novel charts the developing understanding of a young girl (Maisie) who is caught between her battling parents following their separation. It’s a compelling study of growing consciousness which could be seen as offering what film can’t – direct access to a character’s thoughts. Yet there is much to attract filmmakers too. The story is fresh – easily transported from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, and from London, to New York. The plot is salacious and the characters are at least superficially attractive – little Maisie (a spellbinding Onata Aprile) is the best-dressed child in New York, whose (step-) parents are Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham.

And it’s not all about looking good. The challenge of telling this story from Maisie’s point of view leads to interesting cinematography. At times we see things literally from her angle, cameras level with adults’ waists, or moving as she sits on a swing. We become acquainted with her toys through the camera’s repeated focus on them. We watch through the cracks in doorways, and are left in the dark about what has happened in the court hearings from which Maisie has been protected (read: excluded). What remains opaque though is what exactly Maisie does know – sharing her partial knowledge of the situation she finds herself in doesn't quite give us access to a child’s method of interpreting what she sees.

Solely focussing on the love plots also cuts much which was good about the novel – Maisie’s own occasional carelessness towards the lonely Mrs Wix (who does not appear) and what she learns from this, and the detrimental effect of her parents’ selfishness on her formal education (not the case here where Maisie’s school seems positively idyllic).

James’s world is a cruel one, the lessons Maisie learns are hard. But this adaptation can’t quite bring itself to go there. There’s a lot of tear-jerking in the middle, but, ultimately, adults (the two step parents) do show responsibility, and those who don’t, particularly Maisie’s mother (Moore), recognise their failings. This makes for a saccharine and unrealistic ending, where love, romantic and familial, overcomes all other obstacles, including (in an especially un-Jamesian tough) financial ones.

I found the film enjoyable and brilliantly acted, but it won’t leave you thinking much, beyond the usual condemnation of bad parenting. Reading James forces you to think about what it means to be a person and the damage which people inflict on each other – but maybe that doesn't make for a stampede to the box office.

What did you make of What Maisie Knew (on the page or screen)? Let me know below or on Twitter (@SVictorianist). And don’t forget to like The Secret Victorianist on Facebook for more posts and discussions!

What Maisie Knew was released in UK cinemas on 23rd August. It is also available on demand from the Sky Store.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Lady Audley and Phoebe

‘But Lady Audley doesn’t appear in court!’ I imagine quick-witted readers of M.E. Braddon’s 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret protesting. She doesn't. My consideration of female witnesses in fictional Victorian courts (introduced here) continues with someone very different from Mary Barton or Esther Lyon - someone who is not only very guilty, but who is infamously kept from appearing in court.

A nineteenth-century divorce court
Lady Audley does not stand in a dock – she is sequestered in an asylum. The doctor who attends her presumes Robert Audley wishes to deny Lady Audley a court appearance ‘to save the esclandre of a Chancery suit’, casting the court as an arena of shameful display. But Robert has another fear. Lucy will not only face a divorce hearing, but be tried for murder, and she is simply too good (and too attractive) an actress for this to be allowed to happen. It is the ‘sea of eager faces’ looking at the woman he himself has fetishised which he fears – Lady Audley could excite the jury’s sympathy through her falsity, just as Esther Lyon does in Felix Holt with her sincerity, and her innocent appearance will allow her to do this.

Lucy’s 'sister' in the Braddon canon does just this – the child-killing Phoebe in the 1894 short story ‘Sweet Simplicity’. Phoebe’s closeness to Lady Audley is clear. Like Lucy, she is blonde, blue-eyed and child-like. Like Lucy, she is guilty of a heinous crime and has a history of sexual transgression. And, like Lucy, she has had a semi-servile role (she is a nursemaid, while the future Lady Audley was a governess). Phoebe’s adversary is called Roger, Lucy’s Robert, and each man is a member of the central household’s extended family, but inhabits an outside position in the home. Phoebe’s own name also conjures up the earlier novel (Braddon’s most popular from its publication to today). The name ‘Phoebe’ is shared with Lady Audley’s servant, who acts as Lucy’s double in many ways in the book (‘Do you know, Phoebe, I have heard some people say you and I are alike?’).

The Phoebe of ‘Sweet Simplicity’ finds herself appearing at the inquest of the child killed in her care and very nearly manages to act her way out of punishment:

‘There was an inquest the following day, and Phoebe repeated her story of Roger’s sending her to the house for letters, in exactly the same words as she had used in the study at the Cliff, and with the same flood of tears; and again Roger declared, this time upon oath, that Phoebe’s story was a tissue of lies; but Roger’s white angry face made a very bad impression upon the jury, as compared with the roses and lilies of Phoebe’s childlike countenance, and the simplicity of her words and manner.’

This passage is a strong contrast to the ideal of the court as an arena for truth presented in Mary Barton. Roger is innocent – but does not appear so. Phoebe is the opposite. There is a disconnect between presentation and reality – the very difficulty which makes the theatre suspect is applied to a court setting. The narration goes on to call the inquest ‘a triumph for Phoebe, her tears and her childlike prettiness having touched all hearts’, in language evoking theatrical reviews, and Phoebe’s earlier misdemeanours centre around her involvement with ‘a theatrical gentlemen in Londesborough’.

As in Lady Audley’s Secret, eventually a lawyer saves the day, but in each case he must do so by operating outside the courtroom. The realist novels we have looked at have true-hearted women reflecting the justice of the court system – in the world of sensation, women perform, and allowing them into the witness box can be very dangerous.

Who should be my next woman in the witness box? Let me know here, on Twitter (@SVictorianist) or on Facebook!

The only modern reprint of ‘Sweet Simplicity’ (to my knowledge) is from the Sensation Press in The Fatal Marriage and Other Stories.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Review: One Thousand and One Ghosts, Alexandre Dumas (1849)

This small collection of short stories, linked by their retelling at a dinner party gathered under gruesome circumstances, is an eerie read. Dumas’s novella is about points of crossover – between life and death, science and superstition, the body and the soul, reality and fiction. Heads roll but continue talking, a vampire pierces his victim at night, criminals return to hang the hangman. Dumas begins (and ends) matter-of-fact-ly - the narrator is none other than the writer himself. What is terrifying is the commonness of these tales, despite their strangeness.

The guillotine
For the general reader: This isn’t gripping from page one, but the relatively slow opening is soon succeeded by an array of memorable and haunting stories once the scene is set. The intrusion of murder into the everyday is sudden and startling, and the initial, almost detective story opening, is replaced by a world in which nothing is certain and there are more questions than answers. Little is wrapped up, and while the guests may pose questions about the nature of existence, they certainly come to no conclusions. I found this gory enough to still be effective in a somewhat desensitised age. Highly recommended (if not for bedtime reading!).

For students: As well as (obviously) appealing to anyone with an interest in the Gothic, the novella is also an interesting example of literary responses to the French revolution, with its preoccupations with the guillotine, political intrigue and the lingering effects of national violence. Its viscerality (an eight year old drowning in the trough of blood at the Place de la Révolution, a worker being dragged into quicklime by the bodies of kings excavated from their graves) is in stark contrast to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which also deals with the threat of execution. The narrative technique employed for the dinner party stories reminded me of Wells’s (later) The Time Machine (1895), where occasional returns to the ‘real’ setting suddenly catapult the reader back to the ‘present’ in the same way. It could also be interesting to consider how the narration is gendered. The final story (and only one narrated by a female character, the pale and listless Hedwige) is very distinct from the others in style, with Hedwige’s ordeal recalling those of many virgins in Gothic fiction, and her slower pacing reminiscent of Ann Radcliffe’s style of suspense.

Which lesser-known work of nineteenth-century literature should The Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know here, on Twitter (@SVictorianist) or on Facebook!

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Esther Lyon

A nineteenth-century divorce court
The court, much like the theatre, is a place of revelation and display, and trials, inquests and other court hearings play a prominent role in Victorian fiction, providing great opportunities for dramatic action and the analysis of ‘truth’. When women appear in fictional courts they are subject to the same concerns about performance that I have discussed in relation to the theatrical. Some authors choose to use the court as an arena in which true feelings can be revealed, as loquaciousness is demanded, rather than the usual emotional repression; others – largely sensation writers – do the opposite, depicting the court as the perfect stage for deceptive performance, with its corresponding associations with sexual deviancy. Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at several women who appear as witnesses in fictional trials – looking at how the theatricality of the justice system is played against its ‘detective’ role, in uncovering truth. I began by looking at the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel Mary Barton. Today it’s the turn of Esther Lyon from George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866).

The two women, Mary and Esther, despite their different social backgrounds, find themselves in strikingly similar positions, acting as witnesses as the man they love is tried for murder. Each has had rival suitors for her affections and, for each, her appearance in court reveals the true bent of her romantic feelings, giving her the opportunity to express what society demands she repress under more usual circumstances. There are, however, two important differences. Esther has not, like Mary, been called upon to act as witness. She chooses to speak, disrupting the normal course of court proceedings. And, in a related point, while both women speak ‘truth’, Eliot locates this truth as similarly outside the remit of legal process, not as its natural result (as Job had it in Mary Barton). She writes:

‘When a woman feels purely and nobly, that ardour of hers which breaks through formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs, makes one of her most precious influences: she is the added impulse that shatters the stiffening crust of cautious experience. Her inspired ignorance gives a sublimity to actions so incongruously simple, that otherwise they would make men smile. Some of that ardour which has flashed out and illuminated all poetry and history was burning today in the bosom of sweet Esther Lyon. In this, at least, her woman's lot was perfect: that the man she loved was her hero; that her woman's passion and her reverence for rarest goodness rushed together in an undivided current. And today they were making one danger, one terror, one irresistible impulse for her heart. Her feelings were growing into a necessity for action, rather than a resolve to act. She could not support the thought that the trial would come to an end, that sentence would be passed on Felix, and that all the while something had been omitted which might have been said for him.’

The above passage is highly gendered, with women being associated with feelings and impulses restrained by a male-dominated society. The passage’s inclusion at this point in the trial associates the Law with the ‘formulas’ opposed to the expression of Esther’s pure and noble feelings, while the scholarly knowledge of the lawyers praised in Mary Barton is rejected in favour of a woman’s ‘inspired ignorance’. Yet this is not unproblematic. Esther is undermined repeatedly. Only ‘some’ of the ardour which has informed the past deeds of the famous (presumably men) is found in her action which comes across as a little bathetic. And Eliot’s qualifiers add to this effect – in these feelings, ‘at least’, she is perfect, but how worthy are her actions of praise at all if they arise from ‘necessity’, not ‘resolve’?

But Esther’s actions also provoke a further, more serious, suspicion. She is not, like Mary, unaware of the effect her appearance may have on the assembled crowd:

‘If it was the jury who were to be acted on, she argued to herself, there might have been an impression made on their feelings which would determine their verdict. Was it not constantly said and seen that juries pronounced Guilty or Not Guilty from sympathy for or against the accused?

The vocabulary here is interesting. The phrase ‘acted on’ suggests the performative nature of court testimony, while the appeal to ‘sympathy’ fits in with contemporary acting theory. When Esther speaks, we are told:

There was no blush on her face: she stood, divested of all personal considerations whether of vanity or shyness.’

But while this excuses her of the sexual suspicion arising from an awareness of the effect she can have on a viewer, the prospect of a woman ‘divested of all personal considerations’ again suggests the task of an actress. Esther, even at her most active, is a vessel, a vessel for feeling, influenced by others. And while, in her case, she is acted upon by an individual – Felix -, in allowing herself to act as a vehicle for the expression of feeling, regardless of social etiquette and decorum, she is aligned with the actress who must do likewise:

‘This bright, delicate, beautiful-shaped thing that seemed most like a toy or ornament—some hand had touched the chords, and there came forth music that brought tears.’

Which fictional Victorian trial should come under the microscope next? Let me know below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

'Life imitates Art': Wilde and James

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in the
1996 adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady
In the essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ (1891), Oscar Wilde claims that ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’. For those writing at the fin-de-siècle with an interest in aestheticism the prospect that life is performative had rich possibilities and drastically alters how we should read ‘character’ in their fictions. In Henry James in particular, a character’s naivety or otherwise is indicated by how well he (or more often she) appreciates the aesthetics of self-presentation. While in mid-century realist novels maturation is linked to awareness of one’s inner life and the inner lives of others (Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke gaining sympathy for those she does and does not know, Dickens’s Pip being able to assess his own past behaviour critically), in James, development consists in social performance and presentation.

In The Portrait of the Lady (1881), Madame Merle, unlike the protagonist Isabel Archer, is worldly – not only in terms of her sexual experience (the revelation of which forms the climax of the plot) but in terms of her belief in this Wildean idea: ‘One’s self—for other people-  is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps—these things are all expressive’. Isabel’s artlessness does not exclude her from the observations inherent in this performative scheme. She is repeatedly cast as an art object, by other characters and by the narrator (the very name of the novel flagging up her existence in a work of art). Ralph observes her in a gallery surrounded by other art objects:

‘He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting range of concession.’

Isabel is not important in herself here – it is the ideas she inspires in other people which Ralph and the narrator dwell on. And while Isabel’s ‘performance’ – natural as it is – presents her positively (as ‘worth looking at’, ‘light’, ‘tall’, ‘willowy’, ‘enchanting’), we can already see how it could also lead to negative responses, making her into an ‘object of envy’ in a way she is unaware of. As the novel progresses, Isabel’s tragedy (her marriage) is instigated by this attractiveness and her husband Oswald’s desire to collect and curate art works. Her naivety – in not understanding that she is a performer in life’s drama – is what leads to her being  put on show, while Madame Merle, whose performance is a deceitful one, can protect her own interests.

Returning to Wilde, the actress Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), shows a similar ignorance. Abandoning acting upon finding love, she fails to realise that ‘real life’ is as much a performance (at least for an aesthete like Dorian), as the Shakespearean roles she performs onstage. She repulses him and loses his love entirely not just by failing to act well but when she tells Dorian: ‘you taught me what reality really is’. For someone who believes in the artistry of life, like Wilde or Dorian, such a declaration is abhorrent.

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Monday, 19 August 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Mary Barton

A nineteenth-century divorce court
The court, much like the theatre, is a place of revelation and display, and trials, inquests and other court hearings play a prominent role in Victorian fiction, providing great opportunities for dramatic action and the analysis of ‘truth’. When women appear in fictional courts they are subject to the same concerns about performance that I have discussed in relation to the theatrical. Some authors choose to use the court as an arena in which true feelings can be revealed, as loquaciousness is demanded from female witnesses, rather than the usual emotional repression; others – largely sensation writers – do the opposite, depicting the court as the perfect stage for deceptive performance, with its corresponding associations with sexual deviancy. Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at several women who appear as witnesses in fictional trials – looking at how the theatricality of the justice system is played against its ‘detective’ role, in uncovering truth. First up is Mary Barton.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s eponymous heroine in Mary Barton (1848) finds herself as a witness for the prosecution against her lover Jem in a murder trial, although he is (of course) innocent. She asks the advice of her friend Job for dealing with this situation. His answer indicates an idealised view of the law court as a place where performance is futile:

‘Thou canst do nought better than tell the truth. Truth's best at all times, they say; and for sure it is when folk have to do with lawyers; for they're 'cute and cunning enough to get it out sooner or later, and it makes folk look like Tom Noddies, when truth follows falsehood, against their will.’

Job’s answer may be a pragmatic and practical one, with a humorous overtone (truth is necessary when dealing with educated lawyers). But his belief in the essential supremacy of truth in the justice system sets the tone for Mary’s appearance in court and testimony. Not only does the truth about the murder win out, but the court even gives Mary the opportunity to speak a further truth - about the romantic feelings she would otherwise be unable to express. The moment at which Mary chooses to speak truthfully is a personal climax, prompted by a very public scenario. Asked if she loved Jem or the victim, we have access to her inner reaction:

‘And who was he, the questioner, that he should dare so lightly to ask of her heart's secrets? That he should dare to ask her to tell, before that multitude assembled there, what woman usually whispers with blushes and tears, and many hesitations, to one ear alone?

‘So, for an instant, a look of indignation contracted Mary's brow, as she steadily met the eyes of the impertinent counsellor. But, in that instant, she saw the hands removed from a face beyond, behind; and a countenance revealed of such intense love and woe,—such a deprecating dread of her answer; and suddenly her resolution was taken. The present was everything; the future, that vast shroud, it was maddening to think upon; but NOW she might own her fault, but NOW she might even own her love. Now, when the beloved stood thus, abhorred of men, there would be no feminine shame to stand between her and her avowal.'

Mary’s virtue here is demonstrated not only by her truthfulness, but by the lack of concern she shows for how she will appear in her conclusive thoughts. Her initial questions deal with this worry about self-revelation, but this is subsumed by her love and concern for Jem which is greater, as her focus shifts to looking at him and thinking about how he appears to the rest of the courtroom ‘audience’. Throughout this chapter Gaskell is at pains to demonstrate how closely connected Mary’s appearance is to her thoughts and feelings – the way she looks is no act, but the organic manifestation of her emotions. The ‘look of indignation’ which crosses her brow can reveal to those watching the feelings which the narration gives us access to, and, a few lines earlier, Mary has been shown to disappoint those looking for a woman who plays up her beauty in her courtroom ‘performance’:

Many who were looking for mere flesh and blood beauty, mere colouring, were disappointed; for her face was deadly white, and almost set in its expression, while a mournful bewildered soul looked out of the depths of those soft, deep, grey eyes. But others recognised a higher and a stranger kind of beauty; one that would keep its hold on the memory for many after years.’

This passage is interesting in several ways. Mary, although beautiful, is disassociated from fleshy beauty with its carnal implications. Her beauty provides direct access to the soul (and so truth). The artificiality of the other imagined woman is indicated by the use of the word ‘colouring’, which suggests make-up, while Mary’s almost fixed expression is a direct contrast to the fluid expressiveness praised in stage acting of the period. Mary is still on display in court, and is an object of admiration. But she does not set out to be attractive. She has little concern for how she appears at all, so focussed is she on Jem. In these ways, she is not so much shown to be opposed to the theatrical – she is a natural actress, who allows her body to become a vessel for the expression of emotion, giving the kind of a natural, artless but affective performance which garners praise.

Which fictional Victorian trial should I write about next? Let me know here, on Facebook, or on Twitter (@SVictorianist)!

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Theatre Review: Jane Eyre, Shanghai Ballet, London Coliseum

Fan Xiaofeng as Bertha Mason
The programme for the Shanghai Ballet’s Jane Eyre at the London Coliseum stresses the popularity of Bronte’s novel in China – ‘it is a must-read for lovers of great writing and English language learners’. And, if the production is anything to go by, copies of The Madwoman in the Attic must be selling well there too. This is very much Jane Eyre, The Psychological Drama. Bertha (Fan Xiaofeng) and Jane (Xiang Jieyan) are onstage together through much of the performance, dancing in turn with Rochester (Wu Husheng) or mirroring each other’s movements. The production focuses on Thornfield, dispensing with Jane’s early life and beginning with her arrival at the house, to such an extent that the scene at the Rivers’ house feels strangely out of place. The ballet makes this a story about one man and two women, who may be aspects of each other.

The way this is staged is at times very effective. The production plays with the watcher and the watched, Bertha or Jane gliding past the great windows of the house much like the title character in The Woman in Black, Jane and Rochester rarely left alone even when they believe themselves to be so. The set is very bare save the windows behind, but both costume and set convey the period, without losing this minimalist feel. At times things become a lot more abstract – a chorus of male dancers perform the two fires, along with brilliant lighting effects. And Bertha’s dance inside a Perspex box worked curiously well given its incongruity.

Wu Husheng as Rochester and Zhou Jiawen as Blanche
The production made me think about the reception of Bronte’s story, even if it did not bring much out of the original. Removing the character of Adele meant that Jane seemed an archetypal virgin arriving at a great Gothic mansion, surrounded by the dark silhouettes of great trees. Concentrating so extensively on Bertha (as Jane’s rival and double) meant the role of Blanche Ingram seemed a little superfluous. Both impulses - highlighting the novel’s Gothic inheritance and theorising it based solely on the role of Bertha – have, I think, been very damaging in critical treatments of the novel in the last forty years, but it was fascinating to see these critical preferences played out in a different medium. The use of well-known pieces of classical music in the score – Greensleeves, Elgar, Debussy – also seemed an interesting reflection on the novel’s canonicity.

As a viewing experience, the ballet must have been extremely hard to follow without a very good knowledge of the novel, but it was visually exciting, beautifully danced and fast-moving. The music was a little uneven – occasionally over-repetitive, and almost painful when up in higher registers (presumably to indicate Jane’s anguished state). Dance was a very effective way to suggest relationships between characters and their relative status – formalised, repeated movements marked the formal deference of the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, the narrowing space between Jane and Rochester conveyed the progression of their relationship, and the pivotal moment of the production was when Bertha finally touched Jane. I wasn't sure how you would go about turning a Victorian novel into a ballet – this production offered one answer, and the vast array of choices they could have made indicate the richness of the material they were working with.

Bertha, Rochester and Jane
Did you see Jane Eyre at the Coliseum? Let The Secret Victorianist know what you thought here, on Twitter (@SVictorianist) or on Facebook.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Victorian Latin (and Love) Lessons

A couple of posts ago I spoke about how the study of classical subjects at Britain’s foremost universities in the nineteenth century provided an opportunity for male bonding (often with an eroticised edge). This alignment of the classical with all-male institutions and areas of discourse is also found in the fiction of the period, which often deals with women’s exclusion from the Classics either as a symptom of their inferior position in society at large or as a topic which has importance in itself.

Constantin Heger (a model for M. Paul?)
Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853) sees narrator Lucy Snowe responding to women’s exclusion from academia, in her reactions to the figure of M. Paul. Debate about the Classics forms an important part of this conflict between the pair. Lucy is a teacher – of female pupils. Her knowledge (and that of her pupils) is limited to those subjects which formed the core ingredients of middle-class femininity in England and on the continent. Yet, in relation to M. Paul, she is a pupil, and her ignorance of classical subjects helps maintain his superior position. M. Paul guards this knowledge jealously. Lucy writes:

‘[M.Paul’s] soul rankled a chronic suspicion that I knew both Greek and Latin. As monkeys are said to have the power of speech if they would but use it…so to me was ascribed a fund of knowledge which I was supposed criminally and craftily to conceal.’

Her caustic commentary reveals the multiplicity of M. Paul’s errors. He thinks Lucy may be able to read classical languages while she cannot. Yet neither is this because Lucy – and the rest of her sex – is possessed of only animal consciousness, as the comparison with monkeys attributed to him suggests. However, M. Paul’s suspicions are not as unfounded as the belief in monkeys’ powers of speech. Crafty, if not criminal, concealment comes naturally to Lucy – she does conceal her ability to speak (in front of other characters, and even by withholding information from her readers), like the imagined monkeys. What Lucy chooses to hide, throughout the novel, reveals that M. Paul is incorrect in believing classical knowledge, the marker of traditional male education, to be the only knowledge worthy of concealment. Lucy goes on:

‘The privileges of a "classical education," it was insinuated, had been mine; on flowers of Hymettus I had revelled; a golden store, hived in memory, now silently sustained my efforts, and privily nurtured my wits.’

There is much of interest here – not least the (potentially sexual?) suspicion which a woman having knowledge of Latin and Greek arouses and Lucy’s adoption of a metaphor (of bees) found in much classical verse at the very moment she is forswearing any knowledge of such literature. But the passage also leads us to consider what does sustain Lucy, what the ‘golden store’ is which nourishes her intelligence, if not the appreciation of the Classics imagined by M. Paul. What readers have access to, despite Lucy’s occasional silences and elisions, is an awareness of Lucy’s emotional and imaginative knowledge, garnered from her experiences. Importantly, when Lucy does wish for classical knowledge, it is not an end in itself, but as a means to an end in her ongoing emotional drama:

‘At moments I did wish that his suspicions had been better founded. There were times when I would have given my right hand to possess the treasures he ascribed to me. He deserved condign punishment for his testy crotchets. I could have gloried in bringing home to him his worst apprehensions astoundingly realised. I could have exulted to burst on his vision, confront and confound his ‘lunettes’, one blaze of acquirements. Oh! why did nobody undertake to make me clever while I was young enough to learn, that I might, by one grand, sudden, inhuman revelation—one cold, cruel, overwhelming triumph—have forever crushed the mocking spirit out of Paul Carl David Emanuel!’

Quoted out of context, Lucy’s desire to ‘possess the treasures’ of traditionally male areas of knowledge and spirited interjection (‘Oh! why did nobody undertake’) could be taken as an angry reaction to the limitation of Victorian female education, but Bronte’s tone is clearly humorous here. That Lucy would ‘give her right [and presumably writing] hand’ also suggests her reasons for doing so would not be academic. Rather, the prioritisation of the emotional and romantic which Lucy’s wish implies is in fact in keeping with the importance of her store of emotional knowledge noted above. It also fits neatly with wider patterns of female engagement with the Classics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focussed as this often is on imaginative engagement with earlier literature, rather than detailed understanding of the languages it is written in.

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Monday, 12 August 2013

A Dickensian Master Class in First Person Narration

Christmas edition of All Year Round (1863)
I recently read Charles Dickens’s Mrs Lirriper’s Lodgings (1863) for the first time. Initially published in a Christmas edition of Dickens’s publication – All Year Round – this first person story, narrated by landlady Emma Lirriper, forms the introduction to a series of stories about her lodgers by other writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Collins (brother of Wilkie, who had married Dickens’s daughter Kate in 1860). Mrs Lirriper is a charming, believable and funny narrator, and the story displays all Dickens’s artistry in crafting a first person voice. Before approaching novel-length first person narrators – Esther in her half of Bleak House (1852-3), David in David Copperfield (1850) – it could help students to unpack what Dickens does in a shorter piece with a first person speaker. And, as a writer, reading Dickens while paying attention to his narrative techniques, is always a brilliant way to learn.

1. Not getting too ‘literary’: Letting your narrator sound too much like a ‘writer’ (especially when they are meant to be unused to writing like Emma Lirriper) ruins believability. And yet you don’t want to write badly or put off readers. Dickens deals with this issue deftly. The mood needed for the arrival of the Edson couple needs to be a sombre one – given later events – for the success of the story. But it would be out of character for Mrs Lirriper to launch into a lengthy description. This technique is unavailable in this type of narration. To get around this Dickens inserts discussion of the weather into the course of Emma’s story, incorporating details which readers will interpret as indicating a certain mood into the very fabric of the story:

‘I well remember that I had been looking out of the window and had watched them [the Edsons] and the heavy sleet driving down the street together looking for bills.’

The sleet shares its position, even grammatically with the story’s characters and Dickens is able to convey mood without extraneous passages of description. Another easy way to show your narrator is ‘unused’ to writing is to use long sentences more frequently. Ever the fan of a long sentence, even when writing in third person, Dickens does this even more here. Take the full sentence which the quote above comes from:

‘It was the third year nearly up of the Major’s being in the parlours that early one morning in the month of February when Parliament was coming on and you may therefore suppose a number of impostors were about ready to take hold of anything they could get, a gentleman and a lady from the country came in to view the Second, and I well remember that I had been looking out of the window and had watched them and the heavy sleet driving down the street together looking for bills.’

Mrs Lirriper tells everything we need to know for the narrative – the relation this incident bears to her previous topic (the arrival of the Major), the time of year and day at which it took place (early and in February), her own state of mind (suspicious at possible ‘impostors’), and what she knew of the couple at the time (i.e. not much). As we have seen above, the sentence also includes narrative markers of the mood which the story is designed to create, framed as the artless result of Mrs Lirriper’s natural approach to storytelling, not as a Dickensian intrusion. However, by piling these details (all of which point to sophisticated narrative) into multiple clauses, which take a while for us to unpack, Dickens maintains our faith in Emma Lirriper as a real non-literary narrator.

2. Have your narrator make mistakes: Whatever the character of a first person narrator, you often find they are fond of digression. Mrs Lirriper pulls herself up repeatedly (‘But it was about the Lodgings that I was intending to hold forth-’) for going off topic, when, of course, Dickens’s ‘real’ topic is what these digressions reveal about his narrator as character. A narrator needs to be unaware that they are the writer’s subject and so self-reproach about digression is a helpful shortcut to creating this effect. Digression and correction are also valuable tools for making your narrative resemble speech patterns – something Dickens employs masterfully for humorous effect:

‘Norfolk is a delightful street to lodge in – provided you don’t go lower down’

Emma’s correction here is not just a dig at the woman who provides lodgings at the other end of the street – the whole section following goes on to suggest the street is less than delightful. Another instance is when, talking of her adopted grandson, she tells us he was ‘always good and minding what he was told (upon the whole)’. A narrator’s self –correction and even contradiction bizarrely confirms their honesty to a reader.

3. Give your narrator markers of an individual voice: In real life, people repeat themselves – they have favoured words and phrases. So does a Dickensian narrator. The trick is not overdoing it. Mrs Lirriper uses set phrases of set people. Mr Lirriper (deceased) is always referred to as ‘a handsome figure of a man’; her grandchild is ‘a remarkable boy’. Repetition gives us familiarity with her character. It can also serve for emphasis – as when Emma uses the word ‘mope’ (and variants) to describe the behaviour of the Major seven times in the course of one page. Another easy way of individuating a narrator’s voice is to have them use colloquialisms, which will further distinguish them from the typical third person narrator. Mrs Lirriper tells us ‘my mind had been all in a maze’ and complains of ‘the mud and mizzle’. But, importantly, she also demonstrates an awareness that her language is not always suited for a literary narrative:

‘a thought which I think must have been doing about looking for an owner somewhere dropped into my old noddle if you will excuse the expression.’ [emphasis mine]

It is this awareness which ensures that Dickens story doesn't appear parodic.

4. Handling simile and metaphor. This is obviously linked to the avoidance of the literary I dealt with in Point 1. Dickens has several strategies for introducing literary comparisons without undermining first person narrative coherence. The first option is to source your objects of comparison from within the speaker’s realm of experience:

‘he wrote and wrote and wrote with his pen scratching like rats behind the wainscot.’

Another is to show your narrator is aware when their comparisons don’t quite come off or need clarification:

‘in summer we were as happy as the days were long, and in winter we were as happy as the days were short’

Emma is not a writer. She is more literal. And so she modifies an existing comparison, hoping to promote clarity. A final (and comedic) strategy is to have your narrator lose sight of their own comparison, digress without completing a simile or metaphor:

‘Girls as I was beginning to remark are one of your first and your lasting troubles, being like your teeth which begin with convulsions and never cease tormenting you from the time you cut them till they cut you, and then you don’t want to part with them which seems hard but we must all succumb or buy artificial, and even where you get a will nine times out of ten you get a dirty face with it and naturally lodgers do not like good society to be shown in with a smear of black across the nose or a smudgy eyebrow.’

This comparison begins clearly. Servant girls and teeth are both trouble – painful to obtain but then dreadful to lose. But Mrs Lirriper gets so wrapped up talking about teeth, Dickens has her forget they are part of a metaphor (‘we must all succumb and buy artificial’). When she returns to talk of the girls, she forgets the teeth all together. Their dirty faces have no point of comparison within the world of dental hygiene.

Conclusion: Near the close of her story, Mrs Lirriper quotes the Major: "Spoken Madam’ says the Major ‘like Emma Lirriper." Examining how Mrs Lirriper speaks and why this is central to the story is vital for unpacking Dickens’s methods.

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Saturday, 10 August 2013

Laughing with the Victorians: Staging 19th Century Comedy

Alfred Bryan's illustration for Charley's Aunt
I've directed two Victorian comedies in the past few years – Brandon Thomas’s Charley’s Aunt (1892) and Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance (1841). Both were incredibly popular in their time - Thomas’s play for instance had a staggering initial run of over 1400 performances – and both are far from obscure today, as Charley’s Aunt remains an amateur dramatic favourite and London Assurance enjoyed an acclaimed revival at the National in 2010. Yet, despite their enduring appeal, the experience of directing these plays forced me to consider what the Victorians found funny, and how it resembles and differs from what audiences want today.

1. Character Types: There are certain character types which are naturally butts in Victorian comedies, and some of these fulfill a similar role in modern comedy. Lawyers spring naturally to mind (Spettigue in Charley’s Aunt, Meddle in London Assurance). In both plays they are stereotyped as immoral, money-grabbing and manipulative (all stereotypes found in modern humour also). Jokes which rely on assuming all lawyers are social climbers and men who are sexually repulsive to women however (found in both plays), don’t sit quite so well in the current climate where the Law is an aspirational career, rather than bourgeois, and women have formed more than half the entrants to the profession each year since 1993. Older lovers are also subject to derision (Sir Francis Chesney and Sir Harcourt Courtly), but modern audiences can find the sight of old men wooing teenage girls more distasteful than funny.

2. Money: Although the plots of both plays are romantic, it is money – not sex (the stalwart of modern comedy) - which is central to them. Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez’s fortune (from ‘Brazil where the nuts come from’) enables the action and conclusion of Charley’s Aunt, while Charles’s debts set in motion the opening and close of London Assurance. Modern audiences get it…to a degree…but there’s a lot that’s lost. Most people’s point of reference (if any) for how much was a lot in the nineteenth century is the fortune of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy, so jokes which rely on discussing marriage portions and forging bills fall a little flat.

3. Gender play: The sight of a man in a dress is still funny – maybe even more so, unused as we are to layers of petticoats and veils. So is seeing Grace Harkaway get one over on her suitor Charles – not because we think women are stupid, but because we are tuned into what is expected generically of the comedic heroine. I think it was the same then.

4. Servants: Modern audiences love servant characters. So do adaptors and TV writers (think Downton Abbey). Working class characters are seen as more like us – they say risqué things, and are often shown as more sexually active, while liking them is more democratic, not tinged with guilt. Charley’s Aunt features a servant – the scout, Brassett – who is cleverer than his master, and so does London Assurance – the valet, Cool. Audiences now and then find this funny. The difference is that audiences today laugh a little self-righteously, aware that they disapprove of domestic servitude.

5. Comic timing: Both plays need editing to be enjoyable in performance. Not because the language is obscure – it’s not. But because modern audiences are impatient. They’re nervous until the first laugh. And they’re not used to waiting for a comic situation to be set up. Nineteenth-century audiences must have been better at sitting through Act One expectantly. As it is, I ended up trying to get through the first scenes quickly and introducing more physical humour.


Do you still laugh at Victorian theatre? Or is comedy tied to its time? Get in touch here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Sexing up the Cambridge Greek Play


F.H. Lucas as Clytemnestra (Granta souvenir)
In the 1892 novel The Junior Dean by Alan St Aubyn (the pseudonym of Frances Marshall), Cambridge students are described attending the hotly anticipated Greek Play – the institution which began with the 1882 Ajax, and which was to become triennial in the years which followed. The narrator explains:

‘the Newnhamites and the Girtonites had seized upon the most favourable position in the house, and maintained it…there had been great searchings of heart at Newnham for some weeks before the Greek play, and the Cambridge dressmakers had had a bad time of it.’

Clearly here the Greek Play prompts the same attention to dress and display as a social event, while the spectacle of young men performing on stage – some of them as male characters, others as female – is imagined as having erotic appeal for the women in the audience, students of Newnham and Girton Colleges, founded in 1871 and 1869 respectively.

Yet while it is women here who subject the performers to scrutiny (at the same time hoping to be scrutinised themselves), elsewhere in contemporary commentary on the Greek Play it is the homoerotic potential of staging Greek drama which is most frequently stressed. Much of this seems to have been related to the symposiastic relationship between teacher and student suggested by Greek models. Against this backdrop, gender confusion is as much a part of the Greek Play experience as the ‘historically accurate’ sets commissioned by the Greek Play Committee or the texts of the plays themselves. A reviewer of the 1900 Cambridge Greek Play (Aeschylus’s Agamemnon) for the Manchester Guardian (identified as J. B. Atkins by The Spectator) argues that:

‘no one has really been seized by the spirit of the Greek play…who does not see that it is right and natural to speak of every man who plays a woman’s part as “she”.’

He records the actor playing Agamemnon (Humphrey Hastings King) as being disgruntled to see ‘Clytemnestra’ (Francis Herman Lucas) smoking a pipe – spoiling the illusion of his femininity. And lists one of stage manager (and founder of the Greek Play) John Willis Clark’s responsibilities as training actors to have suitably graceful arms. Atkins’s newspaper article (like several others) also concentrates on the overlap between participation in the Greek Play and sporting prowess – recording that members of the play’s chorus spoke Ancient Greek on the hockey pitch to ensure victory. This emphasis on sport on one level reasserts the masculinity of the performers, but on another fetishes the performers’ bodies still further. In a memoir on the origins of the Greek Play (published in the 1898 Amateur Clubs & Actors by W.G. Elliott) Clark has no qualms in describing his casting process for the hero of the 1882 Ajax:

‘his [‘Jim Stephen’s] splendid physique pointed him out as almost an ideal Ajax.'


Cambridge Graphic illustration: 'An Argive
sailor going home'
The early years of the Greek Play in Cambridge are a fascinating and unique study, bringing together ancient Greek culture and that of the late nineteenth century, with the accompanying tensions about the distinctness of the two’s sexual practices, while dealing with the same suspicion of performance I have discussed with relation to female sexuality elsewhere. Sexual scandal had seen amateur dramatics banned for a period in Oxford in 1870, following the arrest of two students for, in the words of The Times ‘personating women at public resort for unlawful purposes’. Keeping women off the stage, here for the historical purity of the Greek Play, could be just as dangerous, just as sexually charged, as when they were allowed on it.

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Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Victorian Epic: Remodelling Models


The death of Arthur in the BBC's Merlin


Tennyson’s poem 'The Epic' (1842) is a frame to his ‘Morte d’Arthur’, a description of the death of the legendary king. The use of a frame in such a poem is hardly unusual in itself  - it ties into the oral tradition associated with epic verse and some of the most famous passages in classical epic (Aeneas telling his tale to Dido, Odysseus listening to the bard Demodocus). What is striking about the frame however is its historical distinctness from the medievalism of the poem it contains – here we are undoubtedly in nineteenth-century Britain. ‘The Epic’ opens with a contemporary Christmas Eve scene, almost Dickensian in its depiction of festive domesticity (forfeits, kissing and ice-skating). Yet there are more sombre notes here – the social discord referred to by the guests’ conversation (‘The parson taking wide and wider sweeps,/Now harping on the church-commissioners,/Now hawking at geology and schism’), and, from the outset, an emphasis on decline (‘all the old honour had from Christmas gone’), hinting at the uneasy relationship with the poetic past which Tennyson’s treatment of epic in the poem will indicate.

For the ‘Morte d’Arthur’ is incomplete – a fragment of the poet Everard Hall, whose work is introduced in the following terms:

“You know,” said Frank,
“he burnt
His epic, his King Arthur, some twelve books” –
And then to me demanding why: “O, sir,
He thought that nothing new was said, or else
Something so said ’t was nothing – that a truth
Looks freshest in the fashion of the day;
God knows; he has a mint of reasons; ask.
It pleased me well enough.” “Nay, nay,” said
Hall,
“Why take the style of those heroic times?
For nature brings not back the mastodon,
Nor we those times; and why should any man
Remodel models? these twelve books of mine
Were faint Homeric echoes, nothing worth.
Mere chaff and draff, much better burnt.”

The opposing arguments given here by Frank and the poet Hall are at the crux of Victorian engagements with epic. Hall thinks his work overly imitative and concludes that modern verse must deal with modern times - the very conclusion Elizabeth Barrett Browning also comes to her in modernising strategy for epic in Aurora Leigh (1856). In a previous post I dealt with the gendered inflections of dealing with the poetic past, but Barrett Browning also faces the same difficulties with epic as Tennyson. She resists the idea of decline by arguing that it is simply hard to see the heroism of the age you live in:

All actual heroes are essential men,
And all men possible heroes: every age,
Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
Looks backwards and before, expects a morn
And claims an epos.

Yet, while these assertions aggrandise her own work, they also diminish the status of the poets she follows, as when she claims that ‘Helen’s hair turned gray/Like any plain Miss Smith’s who wears a front’ (i.e. a hairpiece). It is not enough to claim heroism for your own age – you must kill off your predecessors, and so she does, radically altering the genre she inherits by combining epic and the novel. In her correspondence she writes: 'I am inclined to think that we want new forms.., as well as thoughts . . . Why should we go back to the antique moulds?’, her question closely resembling Hall’s ‘Why take the style of those heroic times?’.

Hall, however, is unconvincing, for, in his desire to burn his epic, he is in fact being all the more imitative – nearly succeeding where Virgil (who allegedly requested his Aeneid be burnt) had failed. Tennyson – the real poet behind the fictional Hall - is being even more referential; his incomplete engagement with Arthurianism in epic verse here mimicking Milton’s early abandoned attempts at epic in a similar vein.

Of course, Tennyson would go on to deal with Arthurian legend at much greater length in his Idylls of the King, but for these also he was conflicted about the ‘epic’ label, resisting overall narrative coherence to some extent, and referring to pastoral, rather than epic, in his choice of title (an allusion to Theocritus).

Epic, for the Victorians, often needs to be explained, theorised, justified and framed. Yet Tennyson’s ‘The Epic’, as it returns to a bright clear Christmas morning at the close of the poem, offers no definitive conclusions as to the difficulties of modern engagement with it.

Let me know what you think of Tennyson’s ‘The Epic’ here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Review: A Terrible Temptation, Charles Reade (1871)


Cartoon of Charles Reade

Warring cousins, mistresses, missing children, changelings and lunatic asylums could be a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Charles Reade’s A Terrible Temptation (1871), a sensation novel which makes Lady Audley’s Secret look uneventful and The Woman in White slow-moving. The novel opens with Sir Charles Bassett paying off his mistress, ‘the Somerset’, in order to marry Bella Bruce. His cousin Richard Bassett (who feels the family estates should by right be his and, moreover, also loves Bella) intervenes to make things awkward for Sir Charles, and the plot is set in motion. Yet readerly expectations about the swift exaction of revenge by the slighted beauty and villainous cousin are soon thwarted by a novel so full of twists and turns that it takes many more years, and a whole new generation of children to set things finally to rights.

For the general reader: Taken as a whole, the novel is a little baffling - unstable in terms of pacing and a little unclear in its focus. The revelation of the ‘terrible temptation’ won’t come as much of a surprise and is a little anticlimactic so it’s best not to read with a detective fiction mindset. That said, the novel is so fast-paced, that it is a quick and entertaining read. There’s no lengthy description – hardly any description at all – and the language is modern, the sentences short and the text very dialogue-heavy, which may suit those put off by the verbosity of much nineteenth-century literature. The importance of servant characters to the plot is also well-suited to modern tastes and the events of the novel still scandalous enough to resonate.

For students: This is a good text to put alongside novels which deal with female madness and incarceration (Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret etc.), as here the sequestered ‘lunatic’ is male. There is also more discussion of the actual medical and legal workings of nineteenth-century madhouses than in these other novels which may interest social historians and literature students alike. The servant Mary Wells recalls Hortense in Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852-3), in her close alignment with her mistress and importance as a character, as well as the social-climbing Affy in Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861). Meanwhile Lady (Bella) Bassett herself can be read alongside Wood’s Isabel and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s eponymous Aurora Floyd (1863) – all three are wives who have sinned against their husbands and yet continue to entertain readers’ sympathy. Reade’s popularity also makes him a necessary read for those interested in sensation fiction as a genre – his style is very distinct from Collins, Wood and Braddon and definitely worthy of independent consideration and discussion.

Have you read A Terrible Temptation or any other Charles Reade? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Sister Act; or, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage?

Nineteenth-century actress Helen Faucit
In his preface to Basil (1852), which I reviewed last month, Wilkie Collins writes the following about the relationship between novel writing and play writing:

the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of Fiction…one is a drama narrated, as the other is a drama acted…all the strong and deep emotions which the Play-writer is privileged to excite, the Novel-writer is privileged to excite also.

Here the metaphor of sisterhood is used to express similarity between the stage and page – difference of form (one ‘narrates’, the other ‘acts’) excites the same emotions in the reader or viewer.

In his later novel No Name (1863), Collins literalises this metaphor in presenting us with a novel which strips down the formal distinctions between play and novel, divided as it is into ‘scenes’ of action, alternated with different forms of narrative. In this novel the stage/page similarity or sisterhood is also played out in the stories of two sisters – one domestic (like the novel), one dramatic (like the stage). While Collins does not effect a complete reversal of expectation, Magdalen, whose name, actions and temperament all point to a stereotypical view of the actress is opposed to the domestic sphere, is undoubtedly the heroine of the piece and there is much in the novel which suggests her similarity to the dutiful Norah. Not only is Norah the model for Magdalen’s first forays into acting, but the elder, domestic sister’s quiet reserve is shown to be pretence – good acting – through the narrative intrusions available to the novelist, allowing us to see scenes which are effectively ‘off-stage’, when Norah releases her emotions ‘alone’ in her room. Sensation fiction suggests that the home is the scene for drama which is often criminal – keeping your daughter off the stage does not mean she won’t learn to act.

Collins was not the first novelist to make use of a pair of sisters – one dramatic, one domestic – to consider the position of women in the home, and the relationship of the novel to the stage. Geraldine Jewsbury’s wonderful The Half Sisters (1848) had gone even further, depicting the rise to prosperity and social recognition won by the talented actress Bianca, opposed with the adultery and degradation of her sister Alice, who is kept sequestered in the middle-class home. The stage – traditionally seen as a dangerous space for women – is preferable to what Collins called elsewhere ‘the secret theatre of the home’. Mary Elizabeth Braddon does something similar in the much later A Lost Eden (1904). Flora acts, but it is her sister Marian who encounters something very close to stage villainy in the novel.

This isn’t just about keeping readers guessing or sanitising the theatrical profession – although both impulses are definitely at work here. The metaphor of sisterhood is a useful one as it allows for variation as well as a fundamental kinship. In these novels, Jewsbury, Collins and Braddon expose the kinship between the Victorian home and the Victorian theatre, and the writing forms each is most associated with. The result is a clear challenge not only to contemporary attitudes towards the theatre and the home, and the women who inhabit them, but to our critical assumptions about the literary worth of genres.

Do you know any other fictional pairs of Victorian sisters, where one or both takes to the stage? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!