Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Secret Victorianist on Governors Island: Castle Williams, NYC

Last weekend, the Secret Victorianist visited Governors Island and explored the fort designed to protect New York City – Castle Williams.

The courtyard at Castle Williams today
Designed by Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams, the man from which the building takes its name, the fortification was constructed between 1807 and 1811. Its circular shape was highly innovative at the time, giving soldiers stationed at the fort’s casements a wider field of range from which to defend New York Harbour.

Entering the fort
Built initially to stave off attack from the British, the castle served as a barracks for Union soldiers during the Civil War, before being repurposed as a military prison, a usage that continued well into the twentieth century.

My favourite part of the building’s history was learning about the years when the Coast Guard was in residence (1966-1997). In their early years on the island, Coast Guard families brought new life to this nineteenth-century fort, as it provided a space for a nursery, meeting rooms and various clubs and studios for the small population.

A model of the original design
It’s hard to imagine the New York of the 1800s, so, today, Castle Williams is an oddity — a nineteenth-century precaution against a threat that never came to fruition, a building that has undergone transformation after transformation, tied to the varied history of Governors Island.

The fort that once sought to protect the city is now dwarfed by it. It is only a backdrop to family outings, cycle parties and picnickers. This weekend Governors Island was overrun by women in pastel pinks knocking back rosé at the annual Pinknic festival, next weekend new boatloads of day-trippers will pause, read a sign about Castle Williams’ past and move on.

Pinknic revellers
Which NYC spots would you like to see the Secret Victorianist to explore next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

A Window to the Past: Victorian Ouseburn, George Whitehead

We may think we have a good idea of what life was like in the nineteenth century, but what of the world outside novels, divorced from royalty, far distant from the gas lamps of London and the dramas attendant on the personalities who came to define an era?

Anne Bronte's sketch of Holy Trinity Church, Little Ouseburn
The journal of George Whitehead (1823-1913), sometime carpenter and consummate busybody, is a portal to such a world. For over 60 years, in journals dedicated to births, marriages, deaths and ‘sundries’, he recorded the comings and goings of life in Yorkshire villages Little Ouseburn and Great Ouseburn, with meticulous detail and limited, if blunt, commentary.

He records everything, from the mundane…

Two gates hung across back lane against Clarkes stack yard corner July 6th 1847

To the dramatic…

John Johnson Mr Woodd’s cowman at Thorpe Green hung himself in the cart horse stable March 14 aged 53 years 1856

Boswell Atkinson of Whixley died Nov 5th he cut his throat Oct 26th Mrs Ibbotson confined Nov 15th & died Nov 18th through Atkinson cutting her throat & shock to the system 1893

To the personal:

Our little pony died suddenly Janry 30th 1858

I cut my great toe nearly off Oct 22nd I went on crutches for one month then a fortnight with the boot front cut off then one week with Father’ boots then began with my own all right 1866

And, as you read on, a picture emerges of a village that’s representative of the great changes the century is witnessing:

I sat at Mr Monkhouse’s Lendal York for my first Cartes devisits 6/- pr dozen August 13th 1864

The eleventh telegraph wire on our high road put up July or Augst, 1891

It’s a fascinating read. You never know what the next sentence will bring and start to feel part of a community you can never enter into.

Equally interesting is the book’s very existence in print. It was published in 1990 with all proceeds going to Holy Trinity Church in Little Ouseburn and mentions three intended audiences in its Editor’s Note – inhabitants of the Ouseburns, historians and those tracing their family history. Many readers, like me, stumble over the journals due to their connection to the Brontes. Anne and Branwell Bronte both worked in the area in the 1840s at Thorp Green, a local manor.

The journals’ existence and survival are exceptional, even if the central life it records is not, and they seem destined for a vibrant afterlife, whether fuelling scholars or looked at as a transportive curiosity.

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

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin, 2016

It’s 1886 and Paris is divided over the ‘monstrosity’ of a tower being built in its midst. Scottish widow Caitriona Wallace is playing chaperone to the wealthy and unworldly Alice Arroll and her hapless engineering apprentice brother Jamie. And Emile Nouguier, a partner of Gustave Eiffel, is looking to soar higher, in his designs or in hot air balloons, over a city filled with gossip, intrigue and seduction.


To Capture What We Cannot Keep manages to evoke the atmosphere of Paris in the 1880s, while keeping us at something of arm’s length, never letting us forget that Cait and the Arrolls are outsiders, uneasily navigating a society where morality is optional but reputation is paramount.

Colin gives us rich historical detail and the characters do feel like products of their time, helping the novel read like a story that could have unfolded. But lovers of plot and unexpected twists may be disappointed. The romance unfolds with few surprises and its pacing suffers at times. Cait is complex and Emile a worthy love interest for her, but the supporting cast plays stereotypical roles — devilish count, foolish virgin, plotting former mistress.

Beatrice Colin, 1963-
The novel also suffers from an overloading of sensual detail common to the genre, where historical heroines often read as more enamoured of scents, fabrics and their corresponding metaphors than their male counterparts. The exception to this is in her descriptions of the tower, where Colin does a good job of capturing its delicate precision balanced against its growing domination of the city’s skyline, its masculine assertion against the fear that it may sway, teeter and fall.

The novel takes patience and will appeal to Francophiles and romance readers perhaps more than to lovers of literature from the period. One of the best things about it is the title, which encapsulated my feelings upon finishing the novel. It’s a story of transition, of longing for something that we cannot hang onto, as the story, and the building of the tower, moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Do you know of any more 21st-century novels set in the 19th century that you think the Secret Victorianist should read? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.