Friday 24 January 2014

Review: The Daisy Chain; or Aspirations, Charlotte Yonge (1856)

In some ways antithetical to the sensation fiction I often write about on this blog, Yonge’s quiet, restrained and domestic novel - the story of a doctor’s eleven children – was unexpectedly compelling. Despite the distinctness if many of Yonge’s views on life and morality to my own, hers is a novel which, more than anything, rings true – in its presentation of family life, in the interiority of its characters, including the developing consciousnesses of the young, and in the dramas affecting the May family, which are the dramas of real life, where not all ‘good’ characters get rewarding ‘storybook’ endings.

For general readers: Reading The Daisy Chain was like getting to know a real family. I wasn’t blown away in the first few chapters but a hundred pages or so in and I was hooked, because the characters felt genuine, especially the children (who are often so saccharine in nineteenth-century they defy the parody of George Eliot’s ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ (1856)). At times the novel frustrates by not delivering the neat conclusions fiction leads us to expect – at others it fulfils these utterly. Its subjects sound mundane if listed – parish meetings, school boy transgressions, platonic romances – but the humanity of their treatment makes for a great read.

For students: There’s a lot here. If the length of the novel is off-putting it is some comfort to know that there are particular characters, storylines and sections which will the focus of your study depending on the topic which interests you.
The third sister Ethel, who has most claim to be the novel’s protagonist, is an interesting counter study when set against Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver. She doesn’t take naturally to domestic tasks, preferring instead to keep up with her brothers in the study of Latin and Greek – but Yonge’s treatment of this issue is very different from that found in The Mill on the Floss (1860). Ethel’s role as a single female, caring for children not her own as well as her own father, is also interesting from historical perspective – since so many nineteenth-century women were in this very same position. But Yonge does not make this a tragedy. If anything it is the beautiful Flora, who follows the path of a traditional heroine, not ugly Ethel, disabled Margaret, dependable Mary or the young Blanche and Gertrude, who is the novel’s tragic figure.
Other areas for study include Yonge’s theology, close as she was to the Oxford Movement, as religion informs the novel throughout; the issue of children killed while under the care of servants (compare the take here with Braddon’s); colonial contexts and the work of missionaries, especially in the South Pacific; the role of the parish doctor (another instance of the novel as a useful intertext with Eliot) and education (with a focus on boys’ schools, girls’ lessons at home and Oxford, including an interesting plot section dealing with the Newdigate Prize).
The Daisy Chain is also an obvious second choice novel for those studying Charlotte Yonge herself, after her most famous novel – The Heir of Redclyffe (1853).
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Monday 20 January 2014

Art Review: Daumier: 1808-1879, Visions of Paris, Royal Academy of Arts, London

From satirical lithographs of contemporary politicians, to sketched and painted scenes of the labouring classes at work, this exhibition of HonorĂ© Daumier’s work gives a glimpse into the variety and colour of Parisian life in the nineteenth century. The Royal Academy’s exhibition is large-scale and comprehensive, with many works to merit individual attention and multiple points of interest.

Daumier shows us amateur print collectors, contrasted with more aristocratic art ‘connoisseurs’, uses scenes from classical mythology to mock politicians, illustrates Don Quixote, and reveals the spectacle which is off stage, rather than inherent to theatrical performance. His pictures are sometimes shocking (King Louis Philippe excreting papers, while gobbling the money of the poor), sometimes tender (the look shared by a laundress and child while crossing the Seine).

Ecce Homo
One of the most striking paintings, which is a marked contrast to Daumier’s lithographs, is his Ecce Homo (1849-52), which takes the judgement of Jesus before the crowds as its subject, despite the artist’s usual antipathy to religion. Despite its distinctness, the image shares an obsession which crops up again and again in Daumier’s art – the behaviour of crowds, especially when enraged and impassioned. There are depictions of riots, and scenes of public trial. The judgement of art is shown to be a similar undergoing, and there are glimpses into the artist’s salon, as well as the people’s streets.

More than anything the collected pieces are brilliantly observed, memorable and witty, even when they are hardly ‘fine’ art. Daumier worked from memory, rather than models and, perhaps because of this, it is the city which emerges in full force of character.

On Saturday afternoon, the exhibition was overcrowded, but if you have the time this week, before it closes on the 26th, it’s well worth a visit.

If you know of any other events or exhibitions dealing with the nineteenth century in London over the next few months let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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Sunday 12 January 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: K is for 'The Kraken' (Tennyson, 1830)

Following on from the popularity of a post on Tennyson’s ‘To Virgil’ (1882) I wrote in October, I thought I’d use ‘K’ in my Victorian Alphabet to look at another of his poems – the shorter, and earlier ‘The Kraken’ – looking at each line of a poem in a little more depth, now that we’ve gone through some of the first steps for approaching an unfamiliar text.

A kraken
Below the thunders of the upper deep;                1
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,                       
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep                              
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee      
About his shadowy sides: above him swell           5
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height; 
And far away into the sickly light,                             
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell        
Unnumbered and enormous polypi                       
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.     10
There hath he lain for ages and will lie                   
 Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,      
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;                
Then once by man and angels to be seen,          
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.      15

The first step identified last time was to ask ‘what is this poem about?’ or ‘do I understand what’s going on here?’. And these questions lead naturally to the question ‘what additional information do I require to understand what’s going on here?’.

Whereas for ‘To Virgil’ a large amount of knowledge was required (e.g. an awareness of Virgil’s work, a basic understanding of the history of European empires), here there is relatively little to look up. A ‘kraken’ is a sea monster, with mythic Scandinavian origins; a polyp or polypus is a sea organism with a central mouth surrounded by tentacles.

We might summarise: ‘In ‘The Kraken’ (1830), Tennyson describes a sleeping sea monster. At the end of the world, the sea monster will come to the surface and be seen for the first time – then it will die.’ But even this apparently straightforward summary raises issues. How does Tennyson describe something that’s never been seen (‘once by man and angels to be seen’)?  Does he actually describe the kraken at all?

To address these concerns, let’s look at what we actually learn about the kraken. The first ten lines introduce the monster, with its name emphatically positioned at the start of line 4.

The first two lines set the scene literally and atmospherically – the kraken is in such a deep part of the sea that it is not just ‘far beneath’, but ‘far, far beneath’ regions of the ocean already described as ‘deep’ – the repetition serving to strengthen Tennyson’s description. The very first word of the poem is ‘below’, directing the reader’s attention to this lower world, while the verb ‘thunders’ plays (at least!) a treble role: it creates an ominous atmosphere, suggesting an approaching storm; it introduces the idea of aural, as well as geographic, ‘depth’, suggesting creatures of immense size; and it helps paint a separate submarine reality, where the upper reaches of the world, complete with the weather systems we associate with the sky, are all below the surface of the sea. The word ‘abysmal’ demonstrates the dual function of Tennyson’s description (to convey atmosphere as well as fact) perfectly. The sea is ‘abysmal’, in that it is a deep ‘abyss’, but it is also miserable, threatening and bleak.

Tennyson has brought us there – we are ready to see the kraken which lives in such an alien and terrifying landscape. We might expect something like this:

‘Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,                       
His massive, dang’rous, uninviting arms                
The Kraken flaileth’

Well okay, Tennyson would have found a rhyme.

But Tennyson in fact doesn’t describe the creature in this place at all. With a sharp change of perspective from the guiding third person we might have expected, the next lines actually give us the experience of being the kraken, not seeing it.

‘His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep                            
The Kraken sleepeth’

There is the same sense of scale here – the kraken has age, as his home has depth – but further ideas are also introduced. The word ‘uninvaded’ casts anyone who would disturb the creature in the role of aggressor, rather than the monster itself, while the detail that this sleep is ‘dreamless’ makes the kraken unknowable, and its consciousness unfathomable, even at the very point where we most identify with it.

It is our inability to see, describe or understand the kraken which dominates lines 4-10. 

                                ‘faintest sunlights flee  
About his shadowy sides: above him swell          
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height; 
And far away into the sickly light,                             
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell        
Unnumbered and enormous polypi                       
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.’

The dingy ‘sickly’ lighting conditions in the depths of the ocean limit our ability to see the creature in his entirety, as does, it is suggested, the fact of his immense size. The phrase ‘shadowy sides’ leaves it ambiguous as to whether they are ‘shadowy’ only because of the lack of light or because of the kraken’s own towering form. Rather than tell us the kraken is large, Tennyson describes the great size of the other creatures which surround him (‘huge sponges of millennial growth and height’, ‘enormous polypi/…with giant arms’), so we will imagine this monster is even larger, while he also reemphasises the impossibility of comprehending this being or the world he lives in by reference to quantities beyond those computable to the human mind (‘unnumbered’, ‘millennial’).

Part of making this world so uncanny involves describing it in ways which are almost repulsive, while maintaining a sense of the miraculous. Describing a world as ‘wondrous’ and ‘secret’ seems attractive but, in keeping with the ‘sickly’ nature of this deep an hidden world, the choice of the word ‘grot’ for ‘grotto’ and the coupling of ‘secret’ with ‘cell’, suggesting ‘secretion’ is off-putting, even revolting. The final line of this sentence – ‘winnow with giant arms the slumbering green’ – is perhaps the poem’s most beautiful, but the new idea which comes next, in the sonnet-like turn (although the poem is 15 lines, not 14), that the kraken will not sleep forever, means the full force of all that has been horrifying or unnerving in the description of the kraken’s world is again made apparent.

The immediate shift which comes though is not one of the kraken’s imminent arising, as we are first told about the continuance of this state (‘There hath he lain for ages and will lie’). The greater shift is in the knowledge level of the poet – the prominence Tennyson himself comes to, as some sort of all-knowing oracle, rather than a man whose knowledge of the kraken is as necessarily limited as our own through our inability to understand his external being or internal motivations. ‘Then once by man and angels to be seen’ could be a prediction or a decree that something must be so, just as we saw Tennyson set himself up as a prophet-like figure in ‘To Virgil’.

Still, what we are left with is still a sense of the kraken as indescribable and unknowable. The creature’s purpose is unclear as he appears to be waiting for something in his slumber but ‘In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die’ rather than effect any damage. What has this creature from Norse myth to do with a Christian apocalypse? Would the act of explicitly describing the creature in actual fact destroy him, like his own ‘roaring’? Is the kraken’s power in its invisibility?

If we return to summarising Tennyson’s poem we can say: ‘In ‘The Kraken’ (1830), Tennyson doesn’t describe a sleeping sea monster.’ And the poem is all the more powerful for that.

What should be ‘L’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Do you have any thoughts on, questions about or insights into Tennyson’s ‘The Kraken’? And what would you like the Secret Victorianist to write about next? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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Tuesday 7 January 2014

Teaching (Victorian) Literature; or the True and Lamentable Story of Literary Murder

Along with Shakespeare, the Victorian novel is perhaps the greatest victim of the British schooling system. For many, the only nineteenth-century novel they will ever read is a Bronte, Dickens or Hardy ‘ploughed’ through over months of tedious class group reading and beaten to death through ridiculous exercises and slavish commitment to assessment objectives. During my time in school English classrooms I liked literature despite (not because) of how it was taught and, several years on, here are some personal reflections on what works and what doesn’t when introducing students to weighty, complex but rewarding texts.

A schoolroom
 Don’t pretend English is Maths:
I can imagine this stroke of ‘genius’ as it came to my disgruntled, disillusioned GCSE teacher. Her students hated English, hated her, and seemed certain to hate the selection of Victorian stories on the supernatural we were to tackle for coursework - H.G. Wells’s The Red Room (1894), Wilkie Collins’s The Ostler (1855), Charles Dickens’s A Confession Found in a Prison (1840-1) and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). What if she could only harness our superior attainments in Mathematics! We were soon set to work on graphs, designed to chart how suspense was created and varied throughout a short story, mapping how key moments in plot affected our (hopefully equally susceptible) nerves.

The results were disastrous. Some science-loving students had their suspicions that English was far from academically rigorous confirmed as people bickered over whether a door slamming was a 6, 7 or 8 out of 10. Our teacher muddled her terms, as war erupted over labelling the x and y axes. And most of the room couldn’t even remember the events we were meant to be ranking from the Poe, they had found the prose so impenetrable.

An alternative: Talking about the ways suspense can be created could be really fruitful, but only talking about plot ignores the very language students are meant to be learning to analyse. Why not show students a suspenseful scene from a modern movie dealing with the supernatural and then get them to write it in the first person, using some techniques employed by the authors of these (first person) stories? Concentrating on what language can add – what it is, rather than what it isn’t – is the way to explain its value.

Don’t tell students the ‘answer’:
‘Why does Eustacia marry Clym?’ (in Hardy’s The Return of the Native, 1878), ‘How does Tennyson feel about war?’ and ‘Are we meant to like Nelly?’ (E. Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, 1845-6) were all questions with set answers, which could be neatly bullet-pointed and forcibly ingested ahead of exam time, when I was first asked to consider them. This isn’t fun for anyone, especially not the teachers who have taught the same set texts for years, and it’s not reflective of the moral questioning and skilful ambiguity which pervades much of the writing of the period.

An alternative: Encourage debate, get students to argue a point both (or even more than two) ways and suggest how this potential for discussion can be a strength, not a fault of great writing. This will help those approaching literature academically for the first time get better at differentiating between tones, recognising subversion and appreciating nuances of expression.

Don’t ‘do context’: 
Students who are perfectly capable of A Level standard history work, are routinely fed the kind of facts about Victorians which decorate the walls of primary schools as soon as it comes to adding ‘context’ to their English essays. Apparently, Victorians treated women badly, liked trains, were upset by Darwin, were very uptight about sex and that’s about it (okay, well maybe the last one wouldn’t be included in a younger children’s collage).

The alternative: Context isn’t an extra in English. Historical and social contexts should inform how students read and interpret literature at every point. The best way to approach this is by simply reading more – about the period or just from within the period. Rather than focussing on one novel the whole time, the more successful students will read around the subject. You will perform better if you’ve read more than one novel by the author you’re studying or by one of his or her contemporaries - not because you can name drop, but because you’ll have imbibed more about the time.

What were your experiences (good and bad) of nineteenth-century literature at school? Scarring? Inspiring? And, if you’re a teacher, how do you approach long and difficult novels with your classes? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you enjoy the blog, please VOTE for the Secret Victorianist in the UK Blog Awards!

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