Friday 27 September 2013

How NOT to Write Historical Fiction – A Master Class from Bulwer-Lytton

I’m not the first to criticise the writing of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). There’s even a writing contest in his name in which contestants attempt to write the worst opening sentence. And following on from two prose master classes (on first person narration and repetition) using the works of Charles Dickens, I thought it might be fun to take Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii as an example of how NOT to write historical fiction.

Pompeii (artist's impression)
1. Don’t lecture. Even if you want your novel to have educational value, there’s no excuse for making the writing dull. Take this discussion on Pompeian architecture, which is even framed as a lecture by Bulwer-Lytton. It begins:

‘Previous to our description of this house, it may be as well to convey to the reader a general notion of the houses of Pompeii, which he will find to resemble strongly the plans of Vitruvius; but with all those differences in detail, of caprice and taste, which being natural to mankind, have always puzzled antiquaries. We shall endeavour to make this description as clear and unpedantic as possible.’

Edward, I think you’ve already failed. Endeavouring not to be pedantic is not a good start. Telling us what ‘we will find’ renders the rest of the passage unnecessary. And, more than anything, showing any sign of uncertainty (‘it may be as well to…’) damages your credibility in the eyes of readers. If you’re going to be transporting readers back to another time period, being confident is even more important. The passage concludes:

‘The reader will now have a tolerable notion of the Pompeian houses, which resembled in some respects the Grecian, but mostly the Roman fashion of domestic architecture.’

Yes, we may know something ‘tolerable’ about houses but we may not be engaged in the novel.

2. If you’re going to lecture, at least get your facts right. This is a corker. Bulwer-Lytton provides his readers with an unnecessary aside about the two most famous ancient Greek writers:

‘Yet you are fond of the learned, too; and as for poetry, why, your house is literally eloquent with Aeschylus and Homer, the epic and the drama.'

Unless this is an unsuccessful attempt at reproducing a (very Latin) chiastic structure, this is sloppy and ‘epic’ and ‘drama’ should be swapped round.

3. Don’t quickly gloss unknown terms or facts. Either as narrator (‘'Bene vobis! (Your health!) my Glaucus,' said he’) or in the characters’ dialogue:

''She interests me, the poor slave! Besides, she is from the land of the Gods' hill—Olympus frowned upon her cradle—she is of Thessaly.'
 'The witches' country.'’

Any immersion in the world of your novel is destroyed in seconds by the acknowledgement of its inaccessibility.

4. Don’t turn critic of literature from the period you are writing about. This is like glossing but also comes across as writer-on-writer bitchiness:

‘it was the fashion among the dissolute young Romans to affect a little contempt for the very birth which, in reality, made them so arrogant; it was the mode to imitate the Greeks, and yet to laugh at their own clumsy imitation.’

Perfect your own prose first (or just write bitchy blog posts!).

5. Don’t get your characters to say things which seem ironic from a modern perspective. I’ve hated this ever since ‘analysing’ the Titanic references in my GCSE set text J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls. It’s lazy historical writing. It’s just too obvious. You can make these points in the body of your story. Just don’t write dialogue lines like these:

‘'What think you of this new sect, which I am told has even a few proselytes in Pompeii, these followers of the Hebrew God—Christus?'
'Oh, mere speculative visionaries,' said Clodius; 'they have not a single gentleman amongst them; their proselytes are poor, insignificant, ignorant people!'’


‘'Nay,' cried Glaucus, 'no cold and trite director for us: no dictator of the banquet; no rex convivii. Have not the Romans sworn never to obey a king? Shall we be less free than your ancestors?’’

Got any ideas for future writing master classes? Let the Secret Victorianist know below, on Facebook or on Twitter (@SVictorianist).

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Review: Against Nature (À Rebours), Joris-Karl Huysmans (1884)

Huysmans’ Against Nature is a novel about one man (the rich but jaded aristocrat Des Esseintes) and the isolated life he crafts for himself – a life governed by aesthetic considerations and the desire to subvert, and even supersede, nature. Like many English readers, my first exposure to the novel was in an editor’s note to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) - À Rebours is widely believed to be the novel which ‘poisons’ Dorian’s mind. But the text is definitely worthy of attention in its own right (and not just in considering Decadence and the Fin de Siecle).

Joris-Karl Huysmans
For general readers: The opposite of a lot of the Victorian literature I like and write on, Against Nature is low on plot and deals with only one real character. This is a novel about the workings of someone’s mind – someone who probably isn’t that likable or relatable. I don’t find this a problem as such (though I know some might), but I did find that my natural inclination was towards episodes which did include other people, however faintly sketched – the Englishmen dining in a Paris eatery, the poor boy treated to a night in a high class brothel, the brutal but effective dentist. There are some episodes which are so arrestingly parabolic that they stand out when looking back at the text. Images like a jewel-encrusted tortoise perishing under its own weight have a mythic quality and chapters can seem like individual exercises, tied together by the Des Esseintes plot (such as it is), like the master narrative of the Arabian Nights or a collection of Dickensian short stories. Huysmans is at his strongest in passages of sensual description (rendered beautifully in the Robert Baldick translation I was using). The chapter on scents in which Des Esseintes fills his house with exotic plants brings this to a climax for reader as well as character – his collapse seems understandable given the density of sensation evoked by the text. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a hard read – flicking to the notes might give you some idea of the range of esoteric references –but it’s a rewarding one and the best bits don’t need a glossary to make them intelligible.

For students: For those students who’ve ever felt cheated as Dorian’s decadent lifestyle is quickly skimmed over by Wilde, this is the answer – this is a text about Des Esseintes’ aesthetic life choices. Yet, this is much more than a novel to read for background. The text can be especially appealing depending on the level of knowledge you possess surrounding the areas discussed. I found the chapters on classical literature and theological questioning a joy to read, as I got the ‘Des Esseintes’ view on topics I already knew about, whereas chapters on particular orthodox Catholic writers or visual artists I didn’t know left me a little cold. Beyond its treatment of decadence, the text is a good example of the relative freedom of French literature at the time, when compared to English writing (especially when it comes to sexual and scatological discussion), and of different approaches to narrative and the ‘novel’ as a form in the nineteenth century.

What would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Comment below, post on Facebook or tweet @SVictorianist!

Saturday 21 September 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: B is for Brownies in the Brain

‘for the Little People, what shall I say they are but just my Brownies, God bless them! who do one half my work for me while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, do the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself. That part which is done while I am sleeping is the Brownies' part beyond contention; but that which is done when I am up and about is by no means necessarily mine, since all goes to show the Brownies have a hand in it even then.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ (1892) firmly situates the creative impulse to write in the subconscious – an area of mind outside the writer’s control. For Stevenson, visualising the birth of his creative processes is easier if he peoples his brain (humorously) with ‘brownies’ – elf creatures famed for their helpfulness. His playful conceit can even redirect critics to the ‘brownies’ when they seek to apportion blame to his work (For the business of the powders, which so many have censured, is, I am relieved to say, not mine at all but the Brownies).

But the idea – and the essay – are not solely light-hearted. In the passage quoted above Stevenson hints that locating creativity in a dreamland can have negative effects for the appreciation of the artist, be this in terms of self-satisfaction (which can only come from ‘fondly suppose[ing]’) or from the praise of others (his presumed reader). More than this, in a way reflecting emerging theories of psychology, dreaming is troubling, and born of trauma. Stevenson’s exposure to the strictures of extreme Protestantism as a child is linked to the stories his night time brownies bring – stories which often, if not always (Stevenson says his dreams are occasionally a ‘surprise’), have a frightening edge.

Stevenson is not the only nineteenth-century writer of Gothic who talks about creativity in this proto-Freudian way. Take the following passage from Bronte’s (earlier) Jane Eyre (1847) when Rochester looks through Jane’s portfolio of pictures. Jane responds to Rochester’s questions about how she felt when painting the disturbing images like so:

‘To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.’

Rochester is dismissive about the exposure she can have had to pleasures but says:

‘you did exist in a kind of artist’s dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints.’

This argument is meant to explain the intensity of feeling working creatively has inspired in a girl with no experience of passion. What is more, as Jane doesn’t have the skill to execute her work to higher standard, her ideas – her dreams – must have been all the more extraordinary. Rochester says:

‘you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably.  You had not enough of the artist’s skill and science to give it full being: yet the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar.  As to the thoughts, they are elfish.’

Like Stevenson, he draws on the language of the supernatural to explain the workings of the brain. Immediately after this he sends Jane to bed, so disturbed is he by the peculiar drawings. Jane’s paintings are passionate and suggestive of sexual passion, and they also seem distinctly masochistic. She was ‘tormented’ by her perceived failures, she worked on them for whole days without respite, her pleasure was ‘keen’, walking the line between enjoyable and painful sensation. Jane, like Stevenson, is a victim of childhood trauma – and so her imagination is a source of protection and further (self-)violence.

Edward Nash's portrait
of Robert Southey
As Jane, so Charlotte. Take this passage from a letter written from poet Robert Southey to Bronte in 1837:

‘The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and, in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else.

Southey’s advice is tempered by his views on gender – he doesn’t believe women should write or they will not be ‘fitted’ to their roles. Charlotte can produce creative work, but only to the detriment of her mental health. In her reply, Bronte does not refute this – she makes out that she prefers her inner world, one she has, with her siblings, populated like Stevenson has his own:

‘It is not easy to dismiss from my imagination the images which have filled it for so long; they were my friends and my intimate acquaintances, and I could with little labour describe to you the faces, the voices, the actions, of those who peopled my thoughts by day, and not seldom stole strangely even into my dreams at night. When I depart from these I feel almost as if I stood on the threshold of a home and were bidding farewell to its inmates.

Bronte’s explanation relies on the blurring of realities – different states of consciousness – and the time we have dedicated to each. Stevenson’s brownies seem relatively well-behaved compared with those of Charlotte Bronte and her Jane who can appear un-summoned in the day. The flavour of her analysis is Gothic – the ‘home’ of her brain becomes a self-made prison with ‘inmates’ – but the conclusions we draw are psychological.

Psychoanalysing authors is not the only response we can have to this. We can also see both Stevenson and Bronte identifying themselves in a tradition by which authors of Gothic seek to mystify their own writing processes – a tradition which finds a particularly potent example in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). This is a text with long-reaching influence over the Gothic genre, whose inception (thanks to the ‘Author’s Introduction’) is a key part of its legend.

Richard Rothwell's portrait
of Mary Shelley
Shelley recounts how she conceived her story when she, her husband (P. B. Shelley) and Byron each set out to write a ghost story in the summer of 1816. To start with she:

felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.’

She argues:

‘Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.

The ‘dark, shapeless substances’ clearly suggest a dream world and this is, finally, where material for her novel is found:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.’

Frankenstein’s monster is born and, fittingly for a work which questions creation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein becomes a model for the tortured psychology of the writer.

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Tuesday 17 September 2013

Art Review: Victoriania: The Art of a Revival, Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Flies and bees hang around a marble statue. Look closer and you see the ant-sized fairies (incredibly crafted by Tessa Farmer) perching on their backs, spears in hand. An elegantly dressed woman poses in a pencil sketch – but her head is a horse’s. A magic lantern turns in a darkened room so the moths inside it seem to dance around the flame – it turns faster, on go the strobe lights and the whirring of the machine, the beating of the moths’ wings take on a terrifying intensity. Welcome to ‘Victoriana: the art of a revival’ – the first UK exhibition devoted solely to neo-Victorianism.

'Mother', Dan Hillier
This exhibition, at Guidlhall Art Gallery, displays a wide range of contemporary artists’ responses to the Victorian period – a range which is exciting for its breadth and modern relevance. Many of the artists featured revel in applying nineteenth-century techniques to very un-Victorian ideas. Carole Windham’s ceramic piece ‘Dearly Beloved’ dresses Nick Clegg as Queen Victoria, with David Cameron as his consort, in celebration of gay marriage. Yinka Shonibare’s photographic storyboard gives us a black Dorian Gray, questioning earlier ideals of beauty.

'Trophy Chair', Miss Pokeno
But much of what I enjoyed most was the engagement with Victorian aesthetic and technical ideas and obsessions  – a preoccupation with levers and mechanism (e.g. Simon Venus’s theatre), the exploration of the appeal and repulsion of taxidermy (see Miss Pokeno’s ‘Trophy Chair’) and the birth of advertising and its correspondingly ‘loud’ typography  (Otto Von Beach’s ‘Victoriana Alphabet’ is an intelligent treatment).

My favourite pieces were Mat Coliman’s magic lantern (mentioned above) for its use of technology unavailable to nineteenth-century inventers to enlarge on a Victorian invention, Kitty Valentine’s semi-bestial society portraits for their wonderful blend of the delicate and the macabre (including the pony girl, mentioned above) and Dan Hillier’s wonderful post-Freudian ‘Mother’ portrait (woman from the waist up, octopus below). I, perhaps predictably, had some reservations about the works which engaged directly with the literature of the period – I couldn’t help but feel the richness of Gilman Perkins’s The Yellow Wallpaper wasn’t really conveyed by a laser-cut lace dress and the Jane Eyre and Dorian Gray illustrations left me a little cold. But when it came to responding to visual trends in the Victorian period (including the mania for collection and the richness of interiors), these artists were intelligent and thought-provoking.

'Hare Princess', Kitty Valentine
The Victoriana exhibition runs at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 8th December and costs £7(5).

Let me know what you made of the exhibition below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday 14 September 2013

A Dickensian Master Class in Repetition

Following the popularity of a previous post on writing first person narrative, I’m bringing you another Dickensian ‘master class’ in English prose.

Title page for The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain
Charles Dickens is still praised and imitated for the wonderfully memorable rhetorical openings of his novels. Along with a wide range of other techniques, one thing these passages often have in common is a high level of repetition – of individual words or phrases (around 20 instances of ‘fog’ and cognates in the opening sentences of Bleak House (1852-3)) and of grammatical structures (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…’ etc., A Tale of Two Cities (1859)). Dickens’s lesser-read 1848 novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain has a similarly stylised opening.

This takes the form of increasingly lengthy rhetorical questions beginning ‘Who could have…’ and ending with a reference to ‘a haunted man’. The first reads as follows:

‘Who could have seen his hollow cheek; his sunken brilliant eye; his black-attired figure, indefinably grim, although well-knit and well-proportioned; his grizzled hair hanging, like tangled sea-weed, about his face, - as if he had been, through his whole life, a lonely mark for the chafing and beating of the great deep of humanity, - but might have said he looked like a haunted man?’

The next two open and end in the same way:

‘Who could have observed his manner, taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy, shadowed by habitual reserve, retiring always and jocund never, with a distraught air of reverting to a bygone place and time, or of listening to some old echoes in his mind, but might have said it was the manner of a haunted man?

Who could have heard his voice, slow-speaking, deep, and grave, with a natural fullness and melody in it which he seemed to set himself against and stop, but might have said it was the voice of a haunted man?’

The repetition serves to reinforce Dickens’s point and to give the narrator’s voice rhetorical power and gravitas but it also makes variations, when they come, all the more pointed and effective. The progression above from ‘Who could have seen’ to ‘Who could have observed’ to ‘Who could have seen’ brings the reader deeper and deeper into the scene described, locating him/her firmly in the room as an observer, attentive with all senses. The repetition continues, but variations develop even further now. The next question is longer, giving even more detail, but what is asked shifts slightly to convey a further idea (i.e. beyond the idea that this man seems haunted):

‘Who could have….would not have said that the man seemed haunted and the chamber too?’ [emphasis mine]

This structure is abandoned and after a few transitional lines another form of repetition takes its place – eight paragraphs beginning with the word ‘When’ help us anticipate the moment of action. Dickens gives us every detail of the scene, every feeling it evokes, and keeps us in suspense until:

‘When a knock came at his door, in short, as he was sitting so, and roused him.’

Repetition then in this opening creates suspense, conveys mood and introduces a key theme in the novel – the haunting quality of recalling and repeating the past. But throughout the novella, repetition is used in other ways to create a variety of effects:

1. Repetition to emphasise an image: Dickens describes the child Milly takes off the street as a baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast.The repetition here highlights the paradoxical image of a ‘baby savage’, who is a ‘child who had never been a child’ (i.e. not a child at all). Each variation on the idea intensifies but also adds something new – the child goes from an uncivilised human (a ‘savage’) to something which isn't human at all (a ‘monster’); then Dickens moves on to what the child will become and, finally, how it may die.

2. Repetition to create character: Mr Swidger Senior’s age, forgetfulness and affection for his family is indicated powerfully by his repeated question Where’s my son William?’, which is interspersed throughout his conversation. Mr Tetterby’s repeated references to his wife as ‘my little woman’, despite her large size, similarly inform of us of his affection for her , as well as giving us an instant familiarity with the family – within a few lines we recognise their verbal ticks and habits.

3. Repetition to convey internal conflict: The phantom picks up the hero Redlaw’s words and parrots them back to him with a twisted meaning, mimicking internal conflict, in a technique that recalls the refrains and repetition of pastoral poetry. Examples:

“Here again!” he said.
“Here again,” replied the Phantom.

“I come as I am called,” replied the Ghost.
“No.  Unbidden,” exclaimed the Chemist.
“Unbidden be it,” said the Spectre.  “It is enough.  I am here."

4. Repetition to suggest monotony and suffering: Although Dickens’s final moral is that remembrance of suffering is preferable to oblivion, repetition also serves to indicate the pain which his characters suffer again and again. Redlaw’s questions about the Christmases the others have passed suggest is incredulity that others can have been happy:

“Merry and happy, was it?” asked the Chemist in a low voice.  “Merry and happy, old man?

Mrs Tetterby turns and turns her wedding ring when unhappy at her lot. The put-upon child Johnny Tetterby struggles repeatedly under the weight (physical and emotional) of caring for his younger sister, who he must allow the rest of his family to kiss, but the effect for the reader is also humorous:

‘Johnny having complied, and gone back to his stool, and again crushed himself, Master Adolphus Tetterby, who had by this time unwound his torso out of a prismatic comforter, apparently interminable, requested the same favour.  Johnny having again complied, and again gone back to his stool, and again crushed himself, Mr. Tetterby, struck by a sudden thought, preferred the same claim on his own parental part.  The satisfaction of this third desire completely exhausted the sacrifice, who had hardly breath enough left to get back to his stool, crush himself again, and pant at his relations.’

Dickens’s ability to repeat without boring – to delight, scare and amuse with his choice repetitions – marks him out as a fine writer. The techniques he employs in The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (even if the work is not one of his triumphs) are definitely good objects of imitation for writers of prose.

Any ideas for what I should discuss next? Let me know here, on Facebook or on Twitter (@SVictorianist). 

Tuesday 10 September 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: A is for Animals in Agnes Grey

In this new series of posts I’ll be looking at 26 different themes/topics included in Victorian literature, beginning with each letter of the alphabet. First up, it’s the role played by animals in Anne Bronte’s 1847 novel Agnes Grey.

Many readers of Victorian literature may remember Heathcliff’s treatment of Isabella’s spaniel Fanny in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847). His hanging of the dog is not only one of the most shocking moments of a novel filled with violence, but serves an important dual purpose – demonstrating Heathcliff’s character (for here it is the ‘bad’ who abuse animals) and also the dynamics of his relationship with Isabella, who he will grievously mistreat likewise.

But the role animals play in the first novel of her sister Anne is even more important and is played out in a similar way. Here, good people treat animals well. Agnes herself begins the novel kissing goodbye to the cat as well as the rest of the family ‘to the great scandal of Sally, the maid’, while she first meets her eventual husband Mr Weston when he rescues the poor cottager Nancy’s cat (a sure sign of his goodness). ‘Bad’ characters do the opposite – Mr Hatfield (the rector) kicks Nancy’s cat (her sole companion) ‘right across th’ floor’, in contrast to his curate Weston; Agnes’s first pupil Tom delights in torturing baby birds: ‘sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive’.

Often the treatment of animals is linked to child rearing, which is especially apt given Agnes’s position as a teacher of the young. The two Miss Murrays are careless in their attitude to animals and others. Miss Matilda tires of her terrier, leaving it to Agnes’s care and her older sister Rosalie’s inattention as a mother is demonstrated when she speaks of her new baby in the same breath as her poodle (and her paintings):

‘I forget whether you like babies; if you do, you may have the pleasure of seeing mine—the most charming child in the world, no doubt; and all the more so, that I am not troubled with nursing it—I was determined I wouldn’t be bothered with that.  Unfortunately, it is a girl, and Sir Thomas has never forgiven me: but, however, if you will only come, I promise you shall be its governess as soon as it can speak; and you shall bring it up in the way it should go, and make a better woman of it than its mamma.  And you shall see my poodle, too: a splendid little charmer imported from Paris: and two fine Italian paintings of great value—I forget the artist’.

Anne Bronte
Interest in animals is also demonstrated in more metaphorical passages, where animals serve to illustrate truths about the human world. Agnes sees the same preferences for the beautiful in people’s interactions with animals as with each other, aligning herself with a plain and unlovable toad:

'A little girl loves her bird—Why?  Because it lives and feels; because it is helpless and harmless?  A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt a toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes.  If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections.’

But Weston proves her wrong. He is affectionate and forgiving in his interactions with all, whether plain and poor or rich and beautiful – with Agnes, Rosalie, poor Nancy and her cat. And his offer of marriage rescues Agnes, just as he rescues Snap the terrier from the employ of the rat-catcher.

In his interactions with animals then, as in many other ways, Anne’s Weston is an anti-Heathcliff. Early in the novel, Agnes argues with her employer about the spiritual status of animals, in light of the behaviour of his son, Tom, each weighing religious doctrine against the other. Mr Bloomfield argues ‘that the creatures were all created for our convenience,’ and that ‘a child’s amusement is scarcely to be weighed against the welfare of a soulless brute.’ Agnes responds:

‘But, for the child’s own sake, it ought not to be encouraged to have such amusements,’ answered I, as meekly as I could, to make up for such unusual pertinacity.  ‘“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”’

Bloomfield’s reply is as follows: ‘Oh! of course; but that refers to our conduct towards each other.’

The course of the novel, however, shows there to be little difference between the two.

What topic should be 'B' in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know on Facebook, Twitter (@SVictorianist) or below!

Saturday 7 September 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Naomi

Over the past few weeks I've looked at a range of female characters who appear in fictional Victorian trials, considering novels and short stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins. While I hope to come back to this topic, following up on suggestions from readers, for now I’m bringing this discussion to a close by returning to Braddon to review one last female witness, whose theatrical performance in court has implications for the convergence of the theatrical and domestic discussed in an earlier post.

A nineteenth-century divorce court
Naomi, a central character of the novella ‘As The Heart Knoweth’ (pub. 1903) appears as witness at her father’s inquest, succeeding in maintaining a calm demeanour when she has in fact murdered him herself. Braddon’s discussion of trials at this juncture makes the connection between court and theatre even more explicit than we have seen elsewhere:

‘[In the courts there are] tragedy and comedy, crime, treason, love, jealousy, all the throes and workings of human passions, all the shifts and expedients of human craft, exhibited in their naked realism. The strongest naturalistic novel or the wildest sensational romance is a fairy tale for children compared with the revelations of the Old Bailey, or the Inns of Court, or the Palais de Justice.’

This is not a straightforward alignment in any way. The court is a place of performance and Naomi’s performance allows her to get away with murder (‘she answered even the most trying questions quietly and firmly’) but Braddon’s narrator insists that the passions displayed in the court are natural – more natural than the realist novel – just as defenders of the theatre spoke of acting as the display of natural feelings.

What’s more, Naomi’s composure makes her not only an ideal witness and actress, but the perfect middle class wife. The vicar Gray admires her appearance at the inquest, noting that ‘that calm good sense of hers enabled her to suppress all hysterical and emotional demonstrations’. From the first moment of her appearance in the story Naomi’s fitness for the domestic sphere is based on her murderous qualities – she would be ‘a magnificent model for a painter who wanted a Charlotte Corday’.

Like Mrs Beauly then, Naomi’s quiet, respectable kind of display, which gives her the appearance of a Mary Barton or an Esther Lyon, is even more dangerous than the showy, over-sexualised performer like Phoebe or Lady Audley. Her naturalism and embodiment of middle-class virtues – the two most common areas of praise for real Victorian actresses – disguise her ability to transgress and the courtroom (a place of apparent ‘truth’)  is the perfect arena in which to pull this off.

‘As the Heart Knoweth’ is available in the same volume of short stories as ‘Sweet Simplicity’. If there are any other Victorian trials you think the Secret Victorianist should return to at a later date, let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Review: Life's Little Ironies, Thomas Hardy (1894, revised 1927)

This collection of short stories is in some ways a marked contrast from the last I reviewed (by Dumas). Hardy’s tales are quiet, understated and unmistakably English – yet overall, perhaps, even more haunting. Here heads don’t roll but tragedies are just part of everyday life, shared with a sigh between strangers in a carrier’s cart. A woman falls in love with a man she will never meet, a son destroys his mother’s last chance of happiness, two brothers watch and do nothing as their drunken father drowns in front of them.

William Strang's 1893 portrait of Thomas Hardy
For general readers: This collection is Hardy in a nutshell – sensitive to place and people, and able to convey both with a wonderful brevity. I found it best to take Life’s Little Ironies in small doses and the volume is open to charges of gloominess. But there is humour here too, be this the farcical predicament of a cheat who has all three of his lovers hiding in his cart at once, or the darker humour suggested by the collection’s title. Hardy’s stories are memorable. They read like secular parables, with unclear morals – instantly familiar, but far from comfortable. There’s true realism here too. Hardy’s characters are like us, despite their deep affinity with a way of life which has all but passed away. They have sex, they fantasise over photographs, they get carried away dancing at parties and then they marry the wrong people and regret it.

For students: I’d recommend this volume to students of creative writing as much as those working on nineteenth-century literature. Hardy brims with material which makes good stories – you have the feeling he’d be great at workshop exercises – and he uses a range of narrative techniques in the volume, including a framing device similar to that of Dickens’s use of Mrs Lirriper. For those working on canonical Hardy, ‘An Imaginative Woman’ (1893) is probably the best individual story to read for comparison with heroines such as Sue Bridehead (in Jude the Obscure (1895)) and Eustacia Vye (in The Return of the Native (1878)). The heroine of this story also recalls Henrik Ibsen’s Nora (from A Doll’s House (1879)) and Hedda Gabler (1890). Meanwhile both this and other stories in the volume touch on Hardy's interest in heredity and cousinship discussed in an earlier blog post.

Which lesser known work of nineteenth-century should I review next? Let me know below or on Twitter (@SVictorianist) and don't forget to LIKE the Secret Victorianist on Facebook.

Monday 2 September 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Mrs Beauly

A nineteenth-century divorce court
Moving on from the transparent innocence of Mary Barton and Esther Lyon, and the deceitful doubleness of Braddon’s two heroines, Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady (1875) gives us yet another perspective on the fictional trial and the Victorian female witness. While she is not the one on trial here, merely a witness like Mary or Esther, Mrs Beauly encapsulates the difficulties of court ‘performance’, as the reader, as much as the assembled crowd, is left in total doubt as to how much she should be trusted.

Again, we see an emphasis on the female witness’ appearance, perhaps more than on what she says – Mrs Beauly, like Lady Audley or Phoebe, is powerful because her attractiveness can win her sympathy in a potentially dangerous way:

‘An interest of a new kind was excited by the appearance of the next witness. This was no less a person than Mrs Beauly herself. The Report describes her as a remarkably attractive person; modest and lady-like in her manner, and, to all appearance, feeling sensitively the public position in which she was placed.’

While this passage seems initially to praise Mrs Beauly, there are hints of unease. The insertion ‘to all appearance’ suggests the possibility of the kind of duplicity we have seen elsewhere, while the ‘interest of a new kind’ is undoubtedly a sexual one. This is complicated by the fact that we cannot be sure who this cynicism about Mrs Beauly’s performance originates with – with the narrator Valeria, who is naturally suspicious about a woman who previously enjoyed her husband’s affections, or with the written ‘Report’ of the trial she is summarising. In the sections quoted verbatim from the Report however, there are suggestions that this work plays up the dramatic nature of the criminal court (even if Valeria contributes to this likewise). The legal professionals (who are described by Valeria as ‘actors in the Judicial Drama’) are even laid out in the Report in a list formatted to resemble the dramatis personae section of a play text. Collins seems to be taking the destabilising theatricality of the court even further by suggesting it continues outside the courtroom, in the way cases are reported in the press and presented to the public in volumes presented very similarly to his own fiction.

The Law and the Lady destroys the ideal of the court as a place of truth telling entirely, with the ‘Not Proven’ verdict leaving legal process in an ambiguous state of uncertainty. The verdict, as well as other details of the crime Valeria’s husband has been tried for (the revelation of private documents, the use of arsenic etc.), also deliberately recalls a famous real life murder trial – that of Madeleine Smith in 1857 – which had been highly theatrical in its playing out in the press, and was seen by many as the ultimate example of a woman getting away with murder because of her youth and attractiveness.

Madeleine Smith
While the potential murderer in this novel then is male, the inconclusiveness of the novel on the question of Mrs Beauly and its debt to the Madeleine Smith case (dealt with well here), makes it a great read for those interested in the courtroom, performance and gender. Again (as in the other sensation novels I have dealt with in this series) we can have no faith in the Law, and, consequently, the truth can only come to light through investigation outside the courtroom – and, perhaps for the first time in English literature, Collins makes his ‘detective’ figure a woman.

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