Sunday 21 December 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: X is for Xmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Theatre Review: Creditors, August Strindberg, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 7 December 2014

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

Illustration from Poor Miss Finch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday 30 November 2014

English Literature Study Skills: What is Realism?

Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate
At some point, probably quite early, in your degree in English Literature, you’ll be asked to write an essay on realism. You might already have a pretty good idea what that’s likely to mean (chunky novels, lots of characters, attention to the ‘ordinary’), but, being a good student, your first port of call is likely to be a dictionary (read Google or Wikipedia) where you are likely to learn that realism is ‘the attempt to depict subjects truthfully’ and literary realism a ‘literary movement stressing the depiction of life and society as it exists or existed’.

So far – so straightforward. What could be simpler than art holding a mirror up to life? So influenced are we by the success of the nineteenth-century realist novel that its conceit not only seems obvious, but uncontroversial. And so, to get to the heart of realism in the period, as a literary critic, rather than a lexicographer, it is best to look to discussions of the movement in the novels themselves and to the figurehead of English literary realism – George Eliot.

 Your lecturers will often point you to the following paragraph:

 Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent.

At this point in Middlemarch (1871-2), Eliot’s ‘parable’ plays a dual role – the candle at once stands for the egotism of the individual (particularly here Rosamond Vincy) and the act of writing a realist work of fiction. The novelist illuminates how the world actually is (holding up the candle), but at the same time brings an apparent order and organisation to events (the scratches) which in fact must extend beyond the confines of a single story, if they are indeed realistic. The novel – champion of the realist form – is a flattering illusion, which cannot help but elevate the writer (all-knowing, all-present and most importantly an organisational force), even as it claims to prioritise the everyday and the unexceptional.

Starting here, though, as many discussions of realism do, can be difficult. For any students tackling Eliot and co for the first time, my advice would be to hold off on Middlemarch and turn first to Chapter XVII of the earlier Adam Bede (1859), unpromisingly titled ‘In Which the Story Pauses a Little’. Here, rather than delving straight into a central ‘problem’ or ‘conflict’ within realism, Eliot gives an eloquent defence of its importance.

 "This Rector of Broxton is little better than a pagan!" I hear one of my readers exclaim.

 "How much more edifying it would have been if you had made him give Arthur some truly spiritual advice! You might have put into his mouth the most beautiful things—quite as good as reading a sermon."

Certainly I could, if I held it the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be. Then, of course, I might refashion life and character entirely after my own liking; I might select the most unexceptionable type of clergyman and put my own admirable opinions into his mouth on all occasions. But it happens, on the contrary, that my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective, the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box, narrating my experience on oath.

Here, Eliot imagines readers’ responses to Adolphus Irwine, a flawed but kind clergyman, and uses this as an opportunity to praise the real, over the ideal. The same egotism suggested by the parable of the candle is present here – Eliot cannot keep herself, her mind and her act of creation, out of the discussion, as it is central. And she admits that this will warp what appears (‘the mirror is doubtless defective’). Yet, interestingly, the language of faith and witness which she goes on to replace the reflective imagery with, turns this very interference into an additional virtue. And one, she goes on to tell us, which is difficult to achieve:

 So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dreading nothing, indeed, but falsity, which, in spite of one's best efforts, there is reason to dread. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin—the longer the claws, and the larger the wings, the better; but that marvellous facility which we mistook for genius is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion. Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings—much harder than to say something fine about them which is NOT the exact truth.

What Eliot is getting at here, isn’t just the impressiveness of her own achievement. She’s showing how realism must tap into a deeper layer of truth. Simple reportage of events and people isn’t enough, when people struggle constantly to voice the ‘exact truth’. Is realism achievable? Could the levels of empathy required to understand life and society be dangerous? Latimer, the protagonist in her short horror story The Lifted Veil, published the same year as Adam Bede, is tortured by his ability to understand the minds of his fellow men and, in Middlemarch, Eliot would go on to write:

 If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

For students sitting down to their first essay on realism, maybe here is a more inspiring place to start – not with realism as some ‘obvious’ movement, but as a philosophy for approaching how you live, how you think and how you write, which throws into relief the difficulties of relating to other people.

 Students, what topics would you like the Secret Victorianist to write on? Let me know here, on Facebook or, as ever, by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Tuesday 18 November 2014

100th Post: 100 Reasons to Read Victorian Literature

It’s my hundredth post as the Secret Victorianist and, to celebrate the occasion, I’m giving you 100 REASONS to read nineteenth-century literature.

 Grab a dusty ‘classic’ from your bookshelf, hotfoot it to your local charity shop or get downloading (for free!) from the Amazon Kindle store! And, most importantly, get reading to...

Learn the art of storytelling from some of the best writers in English
Pity governesses, wet nurses, nursery maids and dairymaids
Develop a fear of rail travel
Think ‘5000 a year’ is a lot of money
Discover all the gory details of decapitation 
Interpret your friends’ dreams (that’s definitely foreshadowing)
Cry – a lot (those Victorians sure knew how to mourn)
Impress people by your literary canonical know-how
Give your hair extensions some cultural/historical context
Be a pro at theological differences between Christian denominations
See the world through other people’s eyes
Get extra geeky about Dr Who 
Giggle at the use of the word ‘ejaculated’
Acquire a worrying taste for gin
Bemoan the loss of calling cards
Swat up on your horticultural knowledge 
Nail the perfect marriage proposal (there’s a lot of those)
Remember your own life probably isn’t tragic
Read far too late into the night
Bond with lovers of steampunk
Surprise others with your understanding of complex inheritance laws
Give thanks for modern divorce courts
Fear pregnancy and childbirth
Watch out for what not to do by analysing some of the worst writers in English
Expect all children to be sickly, prophetic or homicidal
Find butter making erotic (thanks, George Eliot)
Rate a 10-mile walk as a ‘gentle stroll’
Show off by knowing famous novels’ subtitles
Practise the art of seduction…in Latin
Gain a library of books which can double as doorstops
Appreciate the cost of keeping stables and a carriage
Want to walk to church on your wedding day (preferably across a heath)
Seek out secret passageways (and face bitter disappointment)
Envy the incredible dresses (N.B. you wouldn’t fit them anyway)
Fancy fictional characters
Know why a word is asterisked before flicking to the endnote
Recognise the importance of family
Yearn for after dinner port
Score top marks in this devilishly difficult Christmas Quiz 
Enjoy the incredible character names
Name your pets after said Victorian characters
Deem pineapples impressive
Lengthen your sentences
Expand your vocabulary
Fathom pre-decimal coinage
Set your heart on overly ambitious fancy dress costumes
Shudder at American vulgarities
Restore your faith in contemporary politicians (elections might be a little fairer now…)
Persist in practising a Tennysonian reading voice
Take hosting far too seriously
Produce some amazing neo-Victorian art or literature
Brush up your French (it isn’t always translated!)
Display these disturbing tendencies common among Victorian literature addicts
Overestimate your ability to empathise with your fellow mortals
Feel lucky if you ever end up in jail (trust me, the conditions could be much worse!)
Scare your friends with Gothic ghost stories
Sentimentalise Christmas
Distrust NELLY! (And other troublesome narrators)
Quote the best bits on Twitter (but run out of characters)
Be outraged at the derogatory use of the word ‘Victorian’
Worry far too much (and too early) about your own mortality
Improve your memory (those novels have A LOT of characters)
Top your English Lit classes with these killer tricks
Compete with your sisters to marry first
Regard cheating at cards as a heinous crime
Notch up your reading speed
Love and hate the French in equal measure
Avoid schemers who are set on taking your virginity 
Be delighted by spotting familiar London street names
View your cousins in a whole new light
Secretly identify as an extra Bronte sister
Follow the footsteps of these literary emigrants 
Reference obscure texts when joking with fellow victorianists
Steal witticisms from Wilde
Decipher the plot in weird adaptations 
Celebrate not being a servant
Value epigraphs
Long for the occasional anonymity of a veil 
Shout at characters in frustration (occasionally)
Defend the period from these unfair imputations 
Use obsolete slang
Do picnics properly
Teach yourself the art of patience (there can be a lot of digressions)
Recite poetry at appropriate moments (like James Bond’s M)
Consider Downton Abbey too modern
Hone your sense of etiquette
Decipher impenetrable dialects
Have quirky theories about Hollywood blockbusters
Pick up references in later literature
Make that University Challenge team by acing Victorian trivia
Aspire to send or receive a crossed letter
Perfect the art of using repetition in your writing 
Appreciate BBC costume dramas
Dream up new BBC costume dramas 
Possibly get a degree or three and…

Why do YOU read Victorian literature? Is my list exhaustive?

Let me know, here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Monday 10 November 2014

Review: Pollock's Toy Museum, London

To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must love something, and, in dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded, graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow. It puzzles me now to remember with what absurd sincerity I doted on this little toy, half fancying it alive and capable of sensation. I could not sleep unless it was folded in my nightgown; and when it lay there safe and warm, I was comparatively happy, believing it to be happy likewise. 

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847)

Pollock's Toy Museum
Childhood and the nineteenth century often seem to go hand in hand in the popular imagination. The Victorian period saw the growing popularity of fairytales, the plight of children as a central theme in the period’s novels and the golden age of children’s literature, with the publication of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1862) and many more. Here too is the emergence of the very idea of childhood as we know it, so it’s little surprise that visual reminders of the Victorian nursery still maintain popularity today – from the bonneted little girls on kitsch greetings cards, to the Victorian-style wooden rocking horses which serve as toys or ornaments in many houses around the country.

Before I left London, I spent an afternoon visiting Pollock’s Toy Museum – a small but maze-like museum filled with original toys from the period, and the twentieth century. Soldiers, dolls, teddy bears, and puppets stare out from glass cases – a little worn (like Jane’s doll), and maybe occasionally glass-eyed and creepy, but still very obviously objects of fun, elevated by the charm and novelty of age.

The elaborate dollhouses allow you to glimpse into middle class Victorian homes in miniature, while the toy theatres, for which Pollock’s is particularly famous, are grand and detailed, giving you an idea of the lavish sets for popular plays (including Cinderella, Aladdin and Black Beard the Pirate) and the experience of being in the theatre (the dress of the figures in the boxes, the attire of the conductor and orchestra). The more modern toys will make many feel nostalgic – or surprised at just how far back some games and toys date. There’s an action man from the 1920s, Meccano from 1907. Of socio-historical interest are then military toys linked to both World Wars and even the Falklands conflict. While the collection is mainly British, there are cases of American toys too and some of the nineteenth-century theatres are modelled after German and French playhouses.

The Secret Victorianist at Pollock's Toy Museum
For Victorianists, the magic lanterns, kaleidoscopes and stereoscopic viewers show how a preoccupation with early forays into photography and film trickled down to children’s toys – a pattern of reflecting adult concerns in child’s play which we see also in the ‘space’ toys which start to come to prominence from the 1940s.

If you’re in London and passing by Goodge Street, the museum is worth a visit. For £6 an adult you can indulge your inner child, and transport yourself back to a Victorian schoolroom.