Tuesday 29 November 2016

Quiz: 19th-century...Shakespeare?

Do you have what it takes to marry your love of Victorian literature with your knowledge of English literature's most-famed writer?

Wednesday 23 November 2016

A Nineteenth-Century Thanksgiving

"Only one more day and then it will be the time to eat."

‘An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving’ (1881) is a short story by Louisa May Alcott telling the tale of a family Thanksgiving in New Hampshire in the 1820s. With ‘Gran’ma’ falling ill 20 miles away, preparing the holiday meal falls to Tilly and the rest of the seven-strong brood of farmer’s sons and daughters.

The girls’ efforts in the kitchen vary in success (the stuffing and plum pudding are a little beyond them) and a possible bear attack briefly interrupts proceedings, but all is done, as you’d imagine, with the appropriate familial spirit and gratitude.

Here are some details we learn about nineteenth-century Thanksgiving traditions:

The turkey isn’t the only one for whom Thanksgiving’s no fun
A pig has also been slaughtered for the occasion, but the girls can’t bring themselves to cook it: "I couldn't do it. I loved that little pig, and cried when he was killed. I should feel as if I was roasting the baby," answered Tilly, glancing toward the buttery where piggy hung, looking so pink and pretty it certainly did seem cruel to eat him.’

Oranges are a fine Thanksgiving treat
The Bassett family has grown or reared most of their Thanksgiving food, but oranges ‘if they warn't too high’ are an especially acquired delicacy for the occasion.

The table is decorated with even more food
We are told: ‘nuts and apples at the corners gave an air, and the place of honor was left in the middle for the oranges yet to come.’

After the feasting come traditional games
The family play at ‘blind-man's bluff’, ‘hunt the slipper’ and ‘come, Philander’ once they’ve had their fill.

Festivities should end with kissing all around
‘Apples and cider, chat and singing, finished the evening, and after a grand kissing all round, the guests drove away in the clear moonlight which came out to cheer their long drive.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Secret Victorianist! Do you know of any other nineteenth-century texts that touch on the holiday? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 6 November 2016

(Super)natural horror in Wilkie Collins

Halloween is only just behind us and, since last week when I recommended his A Terribly Strange Bed (1852), I’ve been diving deeper into some unsettling and atmospheric short stories penned by Wilkie Collins.

The Ghost Story, R. Graves (1874)
This week I’ll be talking about two 1855 stories — Mad Monkton and The Ostler, the latter of which was the first piece of Collins I ever read as part of the English Literature GCSE syllabus.

These two stories share several similarities. Both revolve around the idea of warnings, alerting men to the circumstances of their own deaths but ultimately unable to save them. Each story is narrated by a male character who stands apart from the central action and is, especially in Mad Monkton, sceptical about the possibility of ghostly apparitions. And in both cases, while the most obvious explanation for the plot is supernatural, there are other possible interpretations.

In Mad Monkton there may be no ghost at all. Alfred could simply be suffering from a madness that runs in his family:

It was equally clear that [Alfred Monkton’s] delusions had been produced, in the first instance, by the lonely life he had led, acting on a naturally excitable temperament, which was rendered further liable to moral disease by an hereditary taint of insanity.

And Isaac, the eponymous ostler in the second tale is discredited as a witness to the possibly demonic forces that seem to pursue him through Collins’s focus on his lack of natural intelligence:

Naturally slow in capacity, he had the bluntness of sensibility and phlegmatic patience of disposition which frequently distinguish men with sluggishly-working mental powers.

Our desire to attribute these stories to ghostly interference then could be because this is the less terrifying option. For Collins, the fact that there could be something innate inside us, something passed on by our bloodlines, something we are unable to change, is more horrific than the idea that we could be a victim of circumstance or supernatural forces.

Monkton’s end is all the more tragic if his quest to find his uncle’s body was ill-informed and unnecessary all along. It is possible that Isaac could have had a happy marriage had he and his mother not drawn parallels between his bride and a single nightmare. And maybe Rebecca Murdoch the real life drunken wife is more terrifying than a murderous ‘dream woman’.

Collins’s most terrifying proposition to us is that the scariest stories are part of our nature — not dictated by something external to it.

Illustration by F.S. Coburn (19th-century)
What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.