Saturday 28 November 2015

The Secret Victorianist at Open House New York: Morris-Jumel Mansion

Midway through October, entry to many of the city’s most important historic buildings was free to the general public as part of Open House New York.

I took the opportunity to visit the Morris-Jumel Mansion – Manhattan’s only remaining Colonial residence, situated off 160th Street. The mansion’s museum is open throughout the year, Tuesday-Sunday, with admission at $10 for adults, but, in honour of Open House weekend, fees were waived and there were additional tours.

Built in 1765, the villa served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776 and was also the location for a dinner party attended by Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Henry Knox in 1790.

It was this link to the Revolutionary period that guaranteed the building’s survival, with the Daughters of the American Revolution playing a vital role in the mansion’s conservation in the early twentieth century - including some questionable choices in restoration.

In the museum’s current iteration, however, its custodians are looking to move away from the house’s political significance and deck it out as it would have looked in the nineteenth century, when it served as a family home to French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his formidable American wife, Eliza.

'Washington's headquarters'
Learning about Eliza Jumel is one of the biggest draws for going to the mansion and taking a tour. Born Eliza Bowen into a working class Irish Catholic family in 1775, she worked as a domestic servant and an actress before going on to become one of the richest American socialites of the nineteenth century.

She married Jumel in 1804 and the pair bought the Morris Mansion in 1810. They were Bonapartists who claimed (probably falsely) that several of the trappings still visible in the house were gifts from Napoleon acquired during their trip to France in 1815.

After the death of her first husband in 1832, Eliza quickly married former Vice President (and killer of Alexander Hamilton) Aaron Burr. The pair soon separated, but, in a plot straight from a Victorian novel, their divorce came through on the date of Burr’s death in 1836 leading to legal wrangling over whether Eliza should be treated as his ex-wife or widow.

Eliza’s own death – at age 90 in 1865 – was also followed by litigation, as there was a 17-year battle over her sizeable estate. A portrait of Eliza along with the two claimants hangs on the upper landing of the house, although one half of the painting was covered by a curtain to hide the disowned party, during the later years of Eliza’s life.

The garden
It’s a little strange to visit a historical house where the interest is more often in possibilities than certainties. The Morris-Jumel Mansion – fittingly given its great age for New York - has become the centre point for a range of apocryphal stories, many focused on Eliza.

The rooms are beautiful and will look even better when they are further rearranged to reflect the Jumel era and the anachronistic wallpaper in the mansion’s famous octagonal drawing room is stripped away. If you find yourself that far uptown and looking for a slice of truly old New York then take a tour of the Georgian country house – you won’t be disappointed.

Where else in New York should the Secret Victorianist visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Opera Review: Rigoletto, The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

George Gagnidze as Rigoletto
Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic opera about a debauched duke, his deformed jester, and the hunchback’s beautiful daughter, based on a Victor Hugo play, was first performed in Venice in 1851.

Michael Mayer’s energetic production at the Met (now in performance for the third time) transports the action from sixteenth-century Mantua to 1960s Las Vegas. Expect neon lights, a casino, and a seedy strip club, with the duke (Stephen Costello) a flamboyant playboy, who, in the first act, is set upon by an Arab tycoon (Stefan Szkafarowsky) for seducing his daughter.

Olga Peretyatko and Stephen Costello
The sixties is a clever choice of time period. It is an opportunity for colourful set (Christine Jones) and costume (Susan Hilferty) design, but also, strangely, makes sense. The tension between a highly sexed, drunken lifestyle and the more conservative morality Gilda (Olga Peretyatko) represents rings true, as does the physical threat of violence from Stefan Kocan’s mobster-style assassin.

George Gagnidze is Rigoletto himself, bringing gravitas to a production that leans to the humorous, especially due to the loose and amusing translation of the English subtitles. He is particularly touching in his scenes with his daughter, before and after her deflowering, but also does a good job in scenes with the Duke’s entourage, holding our attention throughout the flashing lights and dramatic dance sequences.

Olga Peretyatko
It’s the Duke’s ‘La donna è mobile’ that the audience leaves humming (of course!) but, in the final act, there’s a real pathos in the juxtaposition between Costello’s lighthearted singing and the moment of tragedy – as Gilda’s body is revealed (inside the trunk of a car here, not a sack).

I was entertained throughout, with the three hour running time flying by. There are performances until 17th December, so if you’re in the city (and even if you’re a newbie to opera), go!

Do you know of any other shows with nineteenth-century origins currently playing in New York? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley (2015)

The latest novel I read as part of my neo-Victorian series was Natasha Pulley’s remarkable debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – a fantastical tale of time manipulation, terrorist bombings, and – er – a Gilbert and Sullivan libretto – published this year.

Pulley’s novel has garnered a fair amount of attention – and has significant appeal at shelf, due to David Mann’s beautiful cover design. But my feelings as a reader, when I reached the end, were a little mixed.

What I loved

The setting: London is at the heart of Victorian literature and, up until now, this has been the case for much neo-Victorian literature too. But The Watchmaker of Filigree Street isn’t just about London. Several chapters take place in nineteenth-century Japan – a fascinating setting I haven’t seen dealt with much before. I thought it was really smart how Pulley chose to write a story linking both locales, allowing her to play on tropes of Victorian London, while introducing something new.

The octopus: A Maths textbook I had as a child featured a robotic cat sidekick I longed to adopt. In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, the eponymous watchmaker, Keita Mori, has a mechanical octopus, which had a similar effect on me. The octopus isn’t sentient. It runs on randomised gears, making its actions unpredictable (a crucial element in the intricate plot). But it is undoubtedly one of the novel’s best characters, surprising and amusing us from its first appearance to its last. The choice of an octopus is also a fun nod to the neo-Victorian/steampunk aesthetic.

Character diversity: Pulley’s characters aren’t all male, straight and white. Yes, this should be a given, but sadly it’s not - and it was refreshing to see a writer choosing a diverse cast, but making them act and face obstacles in ways that feels believable for the time period (it’s 1883).

The complexity: As with much sci-fi and fantasy dealing with the question of time, Pulley’s plot takes some puzzling over, but she definitely pulls it off. She has a gift for complex descriptions and explanations, and is able to maintain a lay reader’s interest even when writing of mathematics, telegraphy, or musical theory.

Natasha Pulley

What disappointed me

The pacing: Sadly, the early stages of the novel drag. The protagonist, Thaniel Steepleton, leads a monotonous life, moving between his grim lodgings and dull civil service job. While it’s definitely important to establish Thaniel’s world before we are introduced to the oddities of Mori’s shop – flocks of mechanical birds, test tubes of magical rain – there definitely could have been some cuts here, and you may find it slow going for the first 80 pages.

Characters/Relationships: Another reason the octopus was the most appealing character was because the others were a little infuriating. Mori I liked, but Thaniel was hard to warm to and Grace Carrow – another POV character – had few redeeming features. Grace was the most disappointing feature of the book. A female physicist smart enough to dupe Mori, who has powers allowing him to affect the future, should have been a wonderful addition, but I was frequently baffled by her motivations. The novel’s main romantic relationship also comes out of nowhere, which is a shame, as so much of a romantic subplot comes from the will they/won’t they drama – which could have been really effective here.

The Irish context: The inciting incident in the plot is an attack on Scotland Yard by Irish Republican group Clan na Gael and I was really interested in how Pulley was going to weave the Irish political situation in the 1880s into her story. However, unlike the Japanese portions, those sections dealing with the Irish threat rang less true and didn’t feel so well researched.

Have you read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street? I would love to know what you thought! Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday 7 November 2015

Review: Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell (1864-5)

It’s very rare to grieve for someone who died 150 years ago, but that’s how I felt when I reached the ‘end’ of Elizabeth Gaskell’s mammoth Wives and Daughters – her final novel which was left just unfinished with her sudden death in November 1865).

In this case there’s no Edwin Drood-style mystery – we’re in the final pages and know how the story will end – but the sudden stop feel like a bereavement, as we’re robbed of the happy ending the novel has been building to for 650 pages.

'Elizabeth Gaskell, George Richmond (1851)
The novel is about Molly Gibson – the doctor’s daughter in the provincial town of Hollingford. Molly’s mother has been dead since her infancy, but otherwise she passes a happy childhood, loved by her father, and petted by the unmarried ladies of the town. In her late teens her father is married again – this time to the pretty widow Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who was formerly a governess at the local great house owned by Lord and Lady Cumnor.

In one fell swoop Molly is divided from her father, and gains both a stepmother and stepsister – the beautiful and universally admired Cynthia. It is Cynthia whose actions dictate many of the novel’s biggest dramas, as she entangles herself with various men and gets into scrapes, while Molly suffers from indifference from the man she loves and libellous gossip at the hands of the town. 

But here’s the twist – Molly doesn’t dislike Cynthia, and Mrs Gibson isn’t a cruel stepmother. Gaskell’s worlds are inhabited by characters who can be careless and are very often misguided, but they are never caricatures. Wives and Daughters is her most perfect realisation of this vision – comparable to George Eliot’s achievement in Middlemarch (1871-2).  

She has a lightness of touch that makes the most minor of characters believable and sympathetic, and so succeeds in drawing us into this society. We understand the insidiousness of gossip among the middle classes, the pervasive influence of Cumnor Hall, and the rivalries between new money and old, Whigs and Tories. Our abrupt expulsion from this world is an unpleasant one – but it’s a testament to Gaskell’s plotting that she keeps us hooked, even when we’re no longer guessing.

Molly mightn’t be the brightest star among Victorian heroines – she’s perhaps closest to Caroline Helstone in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849) in disposition. And lovers of sensation may feel Gaskell throws away hidden engagements and marriages and lets her villains get away a little easily.

But what she gives us is life – in England in the 1830s. If you feel like stepping outside of your own for a while and losing yourself in Molly’s cares, this is heartily recommended. One word of warning: you’ll be left missing the writer as well as the ending.

What would you like the see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.