Saturday 26 August 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Dressmaker’s Dowry, Meredith Jaeger (2017)

Meredith Jaeger’s debut novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, has a lot going for it — an unusual setting (1870s San Francisco), a well-paced plot and the perfect mix of intrigue, violence and romance.

Yet, getting to the end, I couldn’t help but feel the novel, which alternates between the stories of Sarah, a modern-day MFA student whose past holds a dark secret, and Hanna, a nineteenth-century dressmaker investigating the disappearance of her friend, could have done with better editing.

Reading the novel is a revealing experience for an aspiring novelist, as its cracks expose some of the challenges of writing successful historical fiction:


Jaeger has clearly studied her setting, immersed herself in stories of San Francisco’s poverty and crime and pored over contemporary maps. She weaves facts about the setting into her historical storyline well, bringing the world Hanna lives in to life through sensorial details.

But it’s in her nineteenth-century characters’ dialogue that the illusion slips. Their speech reads as very stiff and lacking in humanity, with old-fashioned phrases (‘lucky wench’, ‘I fret for them’, ‘feminine ailments’) peppered in the midst of twenty-first century sentences.

Building a Connection Between Past and Present

Adopting a dual POV is a common technique among writers of historical fiction today. It allows for more exposition and explanation of the past than a novel entirely set in another time period and gives readers a character to identify with, who ‘could be them’.

Jaeger though makes two fatal errors in how she uses this technique to build a connection between past and present.

First, she not only makes her present day character, Sara, a mouthpiece for expressing opinions about the 1870s (forgivable since this is a character whose actively researching the period), but also uses her to over-emphasize the parallels she wants to draw between the divided society of nineteenth-century SF and the city we see today. Sara drifts into Mary Sue territory, making her own story less emotionally impactful and leading the novel to feel, in parts, like a lecture, where little trust is placed in the reader.

Second, the tie between Sara and Hanna is fraught with coincidence, setting the very premise for the novel on shaky ground, and there hardly seems to be enough contrast between the women — here we are, over one hundred years later, and women are still being ‘saved’ by rich men from one particular, privileged family.

Good and Evil

Finally, Jaeger struggles to keep her novel from slipping into cliché, especially when it comes to depicting her characters. They are all very clearly good or bad, with no reversals in our expectations. Take this description of Robert Havensworth:

'Though he had a handsome face, his green eyes sent a chill down to her bones. His long fingers, adorned with gold rings, wrapped around the head of his cane, radiated power — and the darkness beneath it.'

I mean, would you trust this man?!

Sarah and Hanna are infallible judges of character, and thus so are Jaeger’s readers, making what should be a thrilling race to uncover the ending all too predictable.

Meredith Jaeger
What twenty-first century novel about the nineteenth century would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday 17 August 2017

Art Review: Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, SFMOMA, San Francisco

The Secret Victorianist found herself in San Francisco last week and took the opportunity to see a second exhibition dedicated to the work of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at the SFMOMA.

'Between the Clock and the Bed' (1940-1943)
The New York City Neue Galerie’s Munch and Expressionism, which I reviewed back in February 2016, had looked at the relationship between the Norwegian painter and his expressionist peers and featured his most enduringly famous painting — ‘The Scream’ (1893). But this SF exhibit was focused on the artist himself, highlighting the synergies between works produced by Munch at very different points in his career and life in its thematic arrangement.

Munch’s numerous self-portraits make up the centrepiece of the show, which takes its title from the 1940-1943 painting ‘Between the Clock and the Bed’, in which the artist stands, his face blurred, apparently waiting for death.

'Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek' (1911)
Munch stares out at visitors from every side of the room, thoughtful in pastels (‘Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek’, 1911), despairing with a bottle of wine (‘Self-Portrait with Wine’, 1906) and even burning in Hell (‘Self-Portrait in Hell’, 1903), underlying his interest in rendering the psychological in paint.

'Self-Portrait with Wine’ (1906)
With similar artworks side by side, Munch’s obsession with specific scenes and images, sometimes across decades, becomes clear.

‘Self-Portrait in Hell’ (1903)
There’s the death of his fourteen-year-old sister, Johanne Sophie, which he dubs ‘The Sick Child’ and plays with, using various paint techniques.

'The Sick Child' (1907)
‘The Scream’ is recognisable in the dissolving faces of ‘The Kiss’ (1897) and the backdrop to ‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892).

‘The Kiss’ (1897)
Loneliness pervades the exhibition as the only way to form a relationship with others seems to be to lose something of yourself.

‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892)
The last work I viewed before exiting the gallery was ‘Eye in Eye’ (1894), a painting where skeletal male and female figures reminiscent of Adam and Eve stare at each other in a contentious, more than romantic, scene. That is the tension, the question Munch brings to life — what is the price of joining your personal psychological drama and pain with another’s?

‘Eye in Eye’ (1894)
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you’d like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.