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, on Google+ 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, on Google+ 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.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Art Review: The Art of Mourning, The Morbid Anatomy Museum, Brooklyn, New York

To round off the Halloween weekend, I paid a visit to one of New York’s spookiest spots and lesser-known museums – a building stocked with taxidermied animals, human skulls and dead things in jars – the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.

While the museum houses objects from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, its current exhibition (running until January 2015) is centred on the ‘art’ of mourning and is, subsequently, quite nineteenth century in focus. As any lover of Victorian literature will know from the many, many deathbed scenes to be encountered in the period’s novels, high infant mortality, famous mourners (e.g. Queen Victoria herself) and an obsession with sickness, led to something of a cult surrounding death and remembrance. The objects this exhibition celebrates were the physical manifestations of this and originated in both America and Europe in the period.

L'Inconnue de la Seine
The exhibition is small but varied. There are portraits, painted post-mortem (see my discussion of a fictional example of one of these in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh here). Many of these are of children and infants, made more cherubic by being painted surrounded by clouds, although their faces all bear the hallmarks of death. There are many photographs of corpses – sometimes in coffins, sometimes in bed and often posed alongside living family members. And there are the mourning clothes – veils and bonnets – which point to the formalised strictures and social conventions surrounding mourning at the time.

But there are many items stranger than this… Here too are death masks, including an example of one of the most famous, L’Inconnue de la Seine – a mask taken from an unknown woman with a mysterious smile who drowned herself in the Seine in the 1880s. There is a lot of hair work – with the deceased’s hair being braided into rosaries and intricate decorations or incorporated into mourning scenes displayed in shadow boxes.

What seems so strange to modern viewers looking at all of this is that these items are very much made for display. Now, death is hidden away, sanitised and dealt with away from the home. The exhibition curators make an interesting point when they reference how the growth in popularity of professional funeral parlours meant the removal of death from the family parlour, and even the renaming of the room as a living room.

The Secret Victorianist visits the Morbid Anatomy Museum
Importantly though, despite how strange some of these mourning rituals might seem today, this isn’t a freak show. It’s a bit like looking like an old graveyard – beautiful, curious, with an occasional tinge of sadness. If you’re in the area, I’d definitely recommend visiting the exhibition, but not as a replacement for a haunted house. The museum is a quiet place to walk around and is also home to a library where visitors were reflectively leafing through books on medical history and anatomical art. One of them was wearing a top hat and, somehow, he seemed the most at home.

Do you know of any other nineteenth-century attractions in New York the Secret Victorianist should visit? If you do, then let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!