Saturday 30 July 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Gilded Hour, Sara Donati (2015)

Part mystery, part family saga, part romance, Sara Donati’s The Gilded Hour transports you to the streets of 1880s New York, as it traces the story of two female physicians, white surgeon Anna Savard and her mixed race cousin, Sophie Savard, a physician specialising in women’s medicine.

Donati’s late nineteenth-century New York is a melting pot of different immigrant communities, a city teeming with orphaned children, a place marked by extreme inequality. The novel is certainly not for the squeamish. At the centre of the story is a criminal case involving an ‘illegal operation’ (read: abortion) and the message about the importance of women’s reproductive rights (now or then) is clear, often voiced by our primary heroine Anna.

There are multiple plot lines beyond the case (two missing children, a crackdown on the distribution of contraceptive information, a nun who gives up her vocation to pursue medicine, the man Sophie loves dying of tuberculosis, Anna falling for a Jewish/Italian police detective), and at least four different point of views (although we return to Anna’s most frequently).

The conclusion certainly hints towards a sequel to wrap up the loose ends (don’t expect neat resolutions to many of the questions raised) and the feeling that this novel is setting up something larger than these 700+ pages is hard to escape. Initially I wondered what kind of novel I was reading and The Gilded Hour to some extent defies categorisation even upon completion.

Rosina Lippi ('Sara Donati') (1956-)
I loved the richness of the setting, the depth of the characters and the quality of the historical research, but found the romance elements clichéd and Anna a little too liberal to be believable as an (even progressive) woman from the nineteenth century. With her progressive views about race, gender, sexuality, rational dress, even keeping her surname post-marriage, Anna reads more as a product of twenty-first-century than nineteenth-century New York.

Donati is strongest in building a world—a world of human connections as well as sensual detail. The complex cast is always distinguishable, she hops from head to head without losing the reader and she makes us feel at home with a cast of characters who leap from the page. It’s a tour de force in the transportive power of historical fiction and I’d be up for taking a ride on Donati’s time machine again.

Do you know of any novels you think the Secret Victorianist should review next as part of her Neo-VictorianVoices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday 21 July 2016

Maggie and Family: A Litany of Violence

Stephen Crane’s 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets shocked with its realistic portrayal of nineteenth-century New York tenements and the life of a girl, Maggie, who suffers a difficult childhood, loses her virtue and is ultimately murdered.

But Maggie is also a fascinating example of naturalism in American literature. With his journalistic eye, Crane records in detail the appalling conditions for New York’s poor and then uses his powers as a storyteller to argue for the causal connection between Maggie’s sorry upbringing and her moral and physical downfall.

Most famously propounded by the French novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902), naturalism is concerned with determinism—the idea that humans are governed by natural laws—and so intergenerational inheritance is a key theme that Crane, Zola and other writers, like Thomas Hardy, often dwell on.

In the case of Maggie, her inheritance is violence. When she first speaks in the novella it is to upbraid her brother for fighting (“Ah, Jimmie, youse bin fightin’ agin”) and her complaint is founded on the idea that the run of violence will continue:

“Youse allus fightin’, Jimmie, an’ yeh knows it puts mudder out when yehs come home half dead, an’ it’s like we’ll all get a poundin’.”

Maggie is a victim but also has the potential to be dangerous herself. She is described as a ‘tigress’ as a child. Fighting—for survival, but also as a way of life—is the favoured collective pastime in these slums, where gender is initially no indicator of who will beat and who will be beaten:

“Eh, Gawd, child, what is it dis time? Is yer fader beatin’ yer mudder, or yer mudder beatin’ yer fader?”

Yet as the story continues, and Maggie matures, being a woman marks her out as a particular target. Her love for Pete ruins her and, just before her death, the man who presumably kills her is shown noticing her feminine features and height, indicative of her physical vulnerability:

His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl’s upturned face.

What’s more Maggie’s family and neighbours can’t conceive of an afterlife where this run of violence will not continue:

“She’s gone where her sins will be judged,” cried the other women, like a choir at a funeral.

All that lies in store for Maggie is punishment, for crimes she was born, and raised, to commit.

Are there any other works set in nineteenth-century New York you’d like the Secret Victorianist to discuss? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 2 July 2016

Art Review: Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, MoMA, New York City

The last exhibition I saw that was dedicated entirely to the works of nineteenth-century French artist Edgar Degas was Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2011.

The Jet Earring (1876-7)
That exhibition was dedicated to the well-known and well-loved Degas paintings that I’d been familiar with since my childhood ballet lessons—canvas after canvas of dancers bending, twirling or tying their shoes in studios and on stage—along with his forays into sculpture, movement captured in impossible frozen poses.

The Ballet Master (c.1874)
The MoMA’s 2016 Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty though is dedicated to a whole new side of the artist—his love for printmaking and the monotype process. The dancers are still here but the pastels are replaced with a new darkness, visible from the artist’s very first experiment in the form in The Ballet Master (c.1874). As his proficiency with the technique develops, monotype allows Degas to explore texture and shadow, creating a much more intimate relationship with his subjects. In Actresses in their Dressing Rooms (1879-1880) each panel allows for experimentation with the possibilities of the form, while the voyeuristic subject matter is suited to the shade.

Actresses in their Dressing Rooms (1879-1880)
But printmaking also allows Degas to dabble in other subjects (some familiar, some less so)—brothels, which he only ever represented using these techniques (some of these prints I had seen previously at the d’Orsay exhibition I reviewed this January), bathers and other nude females, pictured in domestic environments, and the busy streets of late nineteenth-century Paris, where the versatility of printing techniques allows him to blur out facial features, a study in the anonymity of crowds.

Heads of a Man and a Woman (c.1880)
Also on display are Degas’s etchings to accompany writer Ludovic Halévy’s La Famille Cardinal (1883) and prints of women ironing (a favourite subject) accompanied by a discussion on the connections between the artist and his contemporary Emile Zola.

Woman Reading (c.1885)
If you find yourself at a loose end this holiday weekend in New York or can make it to MoMA on the (free!) Friday afternoons/evenings then the exhibition, running until July 24, is well worth checking out.

Do you know of any other NYC exhibitions you’d like the Secret Victorianist to review? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.