Sunday 26 April 2015

Theatre Review: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City

Last week the Secret Victorianist caught a show on Broadway – A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Although it’s set in 1907-9, I wanted to write about the play because of how much it owes dramaturgically to nineteenth-century melodrama.

The premise is simple – after his mother’s death, Monty Navarro finds there are only eight members of the D’Ysquith family between him and an earldom and so sets out on a murderous rampage, removing them one by one. Along the way he must also juggle his fiancée and mistress. The story is told retrospectively through a confession written in his prison cell prior to his execution for the one murder he did not commit.

The Secret Victorianist at A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

The staging of the production demonstrates a self-conscious interplay with the conventions of the Victorian theatre. The scenes of Monty’s confession are played out on a stage within the stage – an ornately decorated proscenium arch, similar to those I saw in miniature at Pollock’s Toy Shop. Different locales, such as the frozen lake where one relative meets his demise, are suggested by 2D scenery, a nod to the painted backdrops which conveyed place in plays such as Wilkie Collins’s and Dickens’s The Frozen Deep (1856).

Portraits in Victorian and earlier dress come alive to deliver old-fashioned views on the purity of the bloodline and the prudence of rigidly enforced class distinctions, making Monty’s bloody ascent seem to stand for a new era of improved social mobility.

The set for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
What’s most Victorian about the play, however, is the co-conspiratorial relationship between the audience and the murderer (here more hero than villain). As in so many melodramas, the suspense doesn’t come from doubting what will occur, so much as waiting for actions we’ve already anticipated to happen. Instead, surprise comes from the innovative staging and comedic delivery – it’s like watching a magician at work.

Another layer of audience awareness is added by the use of one actor (on the night I went, Greg Jackson) to play the entire D’Ysquith family. The dramatic play is doubled as the audience enjoys each murderous plot devised by Monty (Jeff Kready), along with each new character assumed by Jackson.

The lack or ‘moral’ resolution may set the play apart from its historical models, but the opportunity to identify with a wrongdoer and revel in his societally disruptive behaviours (undermining marriage, class, inheritance) is distinctly familiar.

If you have the opportunity to watch the musical, I’d take it – it’s a riotously fun production, and an imaginative reworking of some staple dramatic traditions. Find out more here.

Do you know of any other theatre in New York you think the Secret Victorianist would enjoy? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: Florence and Giles, John Harding (2010)

With so many great Victorian novels out there, many of them now largely neglected, what exactly is the point of neo-Victorian fiction? Put another way – what is drawing twenty-first century writers to the nineteenth century, when there is so much drama in contemporary life?

I’ve heard multiple explanations – from a sort of collective nostalgia, to a response to social inequality post-financial collapse. Yet a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to unpacking neo-Victorianism, and something I am keen to explore further in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, is the interest these writers so often show in giving narrative privileges – a forum for self-expression – to those characters, and those sections of society, which area so often barred from ‘speaking’ or even existing in writing which actually dates from this period.

What this creates is a fertile landscape for creative exploration. Characters in neo-Victorian writing can push the boundaries when it comes to examining the period’s social strictures – their sexualities can be more directly explored and delineated, they can give us a new appreciation of the workings of race and class relations, and they can exist outside the realm of conventional morality without, necessarily, being punished for it.

John Harding joins a rich tradition of giving voice to the other side in later reworkings of Victorian novels in his 2010 Florence and Giles. But rather than giving a voice to the madwoman in the attic, or retelling a classic tale from the perspective of a servant, the particular voice he gives narrative space to is the voice of a child – a child named Florence modelled on Flora in Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw.

This Gothic tale is self-conscious revisiting of James’s classic ghost story and for a full, critical look at its intertextuality, I recommend Sandra Dinter’s 2012 essay (available here). What I want to consider here, however, is how Harding draws attention to the radicalness of what he is doing – and what neo-Victorianism often does generally – in ‘giving voice’ to a previously excluded individual.

Florence is not only a child. She is a female child and, as such, she has been denied an education and been forbidden to read by her uncle. Flouting these restrictions, however, Florence not only educates herself, but narrates the entire novel. And Harding has her do so in her own unique idiolect, never letting his readers forget Florence’s identity as a literary outcast.

This idiolect is categorised by non-standard usage of English, particularly the use of words as alternative parts of speech from those as which they usually appear. Florence tells us she lives in Blithe, ‘a house uncomfortabled and shabbied by prudence’, her brother Giles it at one point ‘suspicioned’ by their governess (where we might expect ‘suspected’), and at one point the narrator tells us she ‘smugged’ herself, to express her satisfaction.

This takes some getting used to as a reader. It is jarring at first, before you come to accept Florence as a speaker. But Harding is clear from the outset that Florence’s peculiar voice is an asset – not a weakness. This is how the novel opens:

‘It is a curious story to tell, one not easily absorbed and understood, so it is fortunate I have the words for the task. If I say so myself, who probably shouldn’t, for a girl my age I am very well worded. Exceeding well worded, to speak plain. But because of the strict views of my uncle regarding the education of females, I have hidden my eloquence, under-a-bushelled it, and kept any but the simplest forms of expression bridewelled within my brain.’

There is a tension here, between Florence’s description of herself as excelling in expression, and our reactions to her unusual English - a tension which forces us to confront our own inherited assumptions around who has the right to write a literary text. Yet, in these first few lines, Florence also demonstrates her skill for conveying a lot of information, with extreme brevity. In four sentences what do we learn?

1. Florence is telling us her story
2. Florence is confident in regarding herself as a good communicator, despite the non-standard qualities of her writing
3. Florence has been told girls should be modest
4. Florence’s life is under the control of her uncle
5. Florence has been told girls should not be educated
6. Florence’s behaviour is duplicitous as regards her level of comprehension
7. Florence is capable of extreme repression and self-control

John Harding (1951-)
This is how, at the novel’s best, Harding uses Florence-isms – as a sort of shorthand. Thus, when she believes she is being watched by ghostly apparitions of her governess in the mansion’s mirrors, Florence describes herself as being ‘unmirrored’ whenever she is in a room without a looking glass. The brevity helps avoid repeated explanations and helps the reader feel like Florence’s co-conspirator.

Their use is less successful, however, when Harding uses them for repetition and emphasis, or piles them on top of each other, as if doubting their efficacy. For instance Florence describes herself as ‘fairytaled’ in one of the mansion’s towers, but supplements this by also describing herself as ‘Rapunzelled’. And occasionally there are sentences like this, where the unusual usage is all-pervasive and irritating, without aiding pace or adding anything: ‘It didn’t matter if it blizzarded, or galed or howled like the end of the world outside, he Blithed it every afternoon for the next couple of weeks’.

Florence does not offer us any concluding statements at the end of the story. It is enough for her that she and Giles are together, without the self-conscious nod to the novel’s literariness with which it starts. As from The Turning of the Screw, we come away unsettled and unsure about what we have heard, but here two, highly connected, things are certainly not in doubt. First Florence, despite her sex, youth, and dependence, is a powerful force, who has her own agency, and second, she can channel this power through writing. And the fact that she can do so, demonstrates the ‘point’ (or one point) of neo-Victorian writing.

Did you miss the first post in my Neo-Victorian Voices series on Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night? You can check it out here. And which contemporary writer or artist with an interest in the nineteenth century should I consider next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday 12 April 2015

Victorian Literature for Kids

Have you always loved nineteenth-century novels and want the same for your children? Or did you learn to like literature later in life and want your kids to embrace classic literature earlier? In this post I’ll be giving you my top tips for getting children interested in Victorian writing and also suggesting a few things to avoid.

'A Life Well Spent', Charles West Cope (1862)

Foster a love of reading generally:
Presenting a seven year old, who isn’t in the habit of reading regularly, with a copy of Bleak House, is a bit like giving a six month old a steak. It’s not going to end well, however bright they are. So incorporate reading into children’s lives from early on. Make bedtime stories part of your night-time routine, give your kids books as gifts, and encourage them to read for fun and tell you what they enjoy about what they’re reading. At this stage, the amount kids read and how much they enjoy it is so much more important than being prescriptive about what they read.

Give them modern books which deal with Victorianism:
Nineteenth-century novels can be challenging because of the style in which they are written, more so than their content. Starting with contemporary novels and history books can introduce kids to some of the themes of Victorian writing and help them build up knowledge about the period, without dealing with difficult prose.

There are historical novels specifically written for children, like Jacqueline Wilson’s The Lottie Project (1997) and Hetty Feather (2010) and Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), and kids’ history books like Terry Deary’s Vile Victorians (1994) in the Horrible Histories series. Chat with them about differences they might have noticed between then and now. How was life different for boys and girls? What would life as a servant have been like? How did people travel and communicate with each other before cars and telephones? Appreciating lives very different from your own is a key reading skill and you’ll be encouraging critical engagement with texts as your children grow into more sophisticated readers.

'Teasing the Cat', William Henry Gore (c. 1900)
Read Victorian children’s literature:
Rather than diving straight in with Jane Eyre, when the time comes when you think your kids are ready to read nineteenth-century texts (or to have you read to them), turn to children’s literature. Books like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales (1835-1872), E. Nesbit’s The Treasure-Seekers (1899) and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) have an enduring appeal for kids and, unlike many nineteenth-century texts, do not deal with themes (e.g. illegitimacy, murder, inheritance) which may be too adult for your children at this stage.

Nineteenth-century poetry written for kids, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), can also be a low commitment way to get your kids reading some older writing and increasing their familiarity with poetry.

Watch TV and film adaptations of famous novels:
There’s absolutely no rule that people should read famous texts before watching adaptations of them and, for kids, already having familiarity with a story can be invaluable when it comes to tackling harder texts. Watching together also gives you the opportunity to talk about what’s going on and pause whenever something isn’t clear. I recommend BBC mini-series, like North and South (2004), Pride and Prejudice (1994) and Bleak House (2005), for quality and digestibility.

'Storytime', Charles Haigh-Wood (1893)

And what not to do:
Don’t tell your kids there are books they ‘should’ read. Similarly, I’d avoid the term ‘classics’. Reading should be fun – not a chore – and pushing too hard can have the opposite effect. It’s already sadly very likely that kids will come to dislike set texts they’re made to study at school (see my post on secondary school English literature teaching here), so don’t let the same happen at home!

Don’t make a big deal about length and number of pages. Lots of Victorian novels are quite long and, for a while, the ability to boast about having read a 300-page book may be motivating. But it won’t last and focussing on length will make reading seem a drag.

I’d also avoid abridged versions of nineteenth-century novels which are often marketed for children. Truncated and butchered versions of great texts aren’t that great at all. If you don’t think your kids are ready for the full-length version, I’d simply read something else and come back to this one in a couple of years!

Are you a parent? Do you agree and do you have any other advice or book recommendations? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday 5 April 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox (2006)

In the first instalment of my series on Neo-Victorianism (contemporary art, literature and style inspired by the nineteenth century), I’ll be looking at Michael Cox’s 2006 The Meaning of Night – one of the most acclaimed novels of this genre.

Cox’s novel is the lengthy, first person confession of one Edward Glyver – a mysterious, highly intellectual murderer seeking revenge on the nemesis who will wrongly come into his inheritance (a poet with the wonderful name Phoebus Gaunt).

The usual elements of nineteenth-century sensation are here – lost identity, secret documents, shady lawyers, and a beautiful and dangerous femme fatale. And these are blended skilfully with features you could only find in a neo-Victorian novel – greater sexual explicitness, vulgar (if archaic) language and a textual set up which posits this novel as a recently discovered manuscript, edited and annotated by a twenty-first-century Cambridge don.

The novel
Cox’s novel is a gripping read, which won much (well-deserved) acclaim at its publication (you can read a representative review from the New York Times here). Yet what the novel navigates is a series of traps for the writer of this kind of pastiche fiction and it does so to varying degrees of success. Below I look at three of these ‘problems’, and review Cox’s handling of them. In doing so, I quote real readers’ reviews from various websites, taking their criticisms not as the misguided opinions of those who don’t write for the New York Times, but as revelatory of the problem areas in constructing such a novel.

The Narrator Problem:
First person nineteenth-century writing is often much more digestible for a modern reader. It is a narrative style suited to faster moving plots (that’s why it was favoured by writers like Wilkie Collins) and, what’s more, it cuts out many of the aspects of Victorian writing that twenty-first-century readers find least appealing – including long paragraphs of description and, often moral, commentary from an omniscient narrator.

First person writing from the period is also easier to reproduce or parody (trust me, I’ve tried) than these strong authorial third person voices. And a combination of these reasons must have led Cox to decide on a first person voice throughout his novel.

In some ways this works. Glyver is an engaging and fascinating creation from the opening line (‘After killing the red-headed man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper’) and we are kept guessing about him, even as plot points become apparent, retaining the novel’s sense of mystery.

However, the limited perspective occasionally runs Cox into difficulties. Faced with information and scenes which we must be privy to, even if Glyver is not, Cox uses several techniques. There are inserted shorter sections of first person prose from other writers (including Lady Tansor and Gaunt himself) but these always come with the caveat that they must some how have come into Glyver’s possession (with varying degrees of plausibility). And there are passages which use the conceit of Glyver’s imagination – his thoughts adding colour to what would otherwise be factual intelligence. This means you have scene openings like this:

‘I sometimes like to imagine Dr Daunt, for whom I have always had a sincere regard, coming into his study of a morning – say a bright August morning in the year 1830’

Followed by repeated reminders of a scene’s ‘fictionality’ like this:

‘Observe him now, on this imagined morning’


‘Whether Dr Daunt was definitely anxious when he approached his patron, I cannot say; but he would have certainly been curious to know why he had been called up to the house so urgently on a Thursday afternoon.’

There is an argument to be made that this adds to the sense of play between fact and fiction in the novel (something I return to below), but a more negative effect is that we learn little about what should be an interesting cast of supporting characters, blocked out as we are from their emotional lives.

Glyver bears the full weight of carrying the novel – and for readers who reject the narrator there is little consolation. That’s why you end up with reviews like this:

‘I read the entire book thinking what a massive, unforgivable arsehole the main character was…How are we supposed to care about him unearthing the past and root for him in his pursuit to right the wrongs done to him, when he's a MURDEROUS TOOL?!’ Rae, Goodreads

‘Can't go on, after 200 pages, I'm done. I don't like the main character enough to finish.’ Slang, Amazon

Michael Cox (1948-2009)

The Authenticity Problem:
Cox faces a problem which dogs all writers of historical fiction – his desire to convey period can come off as fact-dropping, with his peppering of street names, restaurants and other details of London life coming across at times like a catalogue of his research.

Hence reviews like this:

‘In his attempts to dazzle us with the authenticity and breadth of his knowledge (something that the aforementioned real Victorian authors never had to bother with, after all), Cox has sacrificed pace, tension and focus; everything, in fact, that would make his plot (a good one, by the way), crackle and jump off the page.’ David Cady, Amazon

Cox’s name-checking sits in direct opposition to the novel’s pretence of being an authentic rediscovered manuscript. Cox plays with the truthfulness or otherwise of Glyver’s tale but he his set up means he cannot play with the fun inherent in being a modern writer writing a Victorian novel. The intertextual play isn’t in fact with nineteenth-century texts (despite their obvious influence), but instead with earlier words which ‘Glyver’ enjoys (the Sermons of John Donne, Felltham’s Resolves). This feels like a missed opportunity, sacrificed at the altar of the novel’s ‘authenticity’.

The Woman Problem:
Much critical effort has been expended over the past half century in reviewing the position of women in nineteenth-century texts. So much so in fact that it seems impossible to revisit the Victorian novel without taking a stance on this issue.

Yet here Cox is strangely colourless. His female characters are stereotypes – street whores, courtesans with golden hearts, sexually voracious servants, duplicitous aristocrats – and, initially I thought this was a self-conscious choice. But the reversal of expectations – Glyver’s and readers’ - never came. The narrator was freed from some of the shackles of nineteenth-century texts but the women he wrote about never were.

One reviewer writes:

‘As far as his love interest, Miss Carteret, goes, I could see that she was going to ruin him from a mile away. Why was that such a plot twist? It was so painfully obvious.’ Karyl, Goodreads

Attune to the types which pervade in Victorian texts, readers of neo-Victorianism expect something more and something new – that’s what makes these novels worth writing. And in this discrete area, I’d argue that Cox failed to deliver.

Cox’s novel is a wonderful achievement and an enjoyable read and it would take many more blog posts to list all writers could learn from its construction. But there are watch outs for the aspiring neo-Victorianist or historical fiction writer.

Don’t fashion yourself binding narrative constraints, fall in love with your own research or ignore the preoccupations of your modern audience. Even with an otherwise well-considered novel, you will run yourself into difficulties.

What should I write about next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? If you know of a modern writer or artist who’s revisiting the nineteenth century in new and exciting ways, let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!