Saturday 29 December 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: A Tale of Two Murders, Heather Redmond (2018)

A young Charles Dickens and his future wife are our amateur sleuths in A Tale of Two Murders—the first in a series of mysteries by Heather Redmond. Two Epiphanies in succession two young girls have died—possibly by poison—and aspiring journalist Dickens is on a quest to uncover the truth.

There are the usual trappings of a good mystery—a cast of colourful characters, families replete with secrets, and a shoal of red herrings—with a fun overlay of Dickensian homage. Redmond draws some characters from the famous writer’s own life and names others after his most famous literary creations. Occasional lines of dialogue allude to his prose. Nineteenth-century London imbues every page and there’s even a cameo for a gang of street urchins.

Heather Redmond
Dickens’s writing talents and social attitudes make him a believable detective, while his partner in fighting crime Kate Hogarth is a little nauseatingly perfect. We also get a great picture of the grandfather of Victorian literature in his youth—hardworking, sleep-deprived and desperate for his next meal (a great touch!). I would though have liked a few more nods to the man Dickens would become. Maybe Redmond will, for example, reveal cracks in the Charles/Kate romance later in her series.

I didn’t guess who’d done it until the last few chapters and the plot has enough turns to keep the novel interesting. But, in keeping with a lot of mysteries, the dialogue is clunky and unbelievable. People divulge information too quickly, conversations end almost as soon as they’ve begun and the class dynamics amongst a varied cast don’t ring true in how they speak to each other. I wanted Dickens to be surprised and forced to confront his own assumptions about guilt, danger and gender but this didn’t happen. 

If you love mysteries, this one’s definitely for you, but A Tale of Two Murders doesn’t have enough depth to convert even the most Dickens-obsessed of sceptics to the genre.

What should the Secret Victorianist review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Friday 21 December 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Witch of Willow Hall, Hester Fox (2018)

Whichever book I reviewed next as part of Neo-Victorian Voices series had a tough act to follow, since I’d rated The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer so highly. This time I went to the more commercial end of the spectrum with Hester Fox’s recent debut, The Witch of Willow Hall, set in nineteenth-century Massachusetts.

The Witch of Willow Hall, Hester Fox (2018)
Our main character, Lydia Montrose, is a Boston-born witch who doesn’t know it, a descendent of one executed in Salem two centuries before. The novel also features a fair number of ghosts/spirits—hostile and friendly—and supernatural happenings, as well as family secrets that would still shock today.

But overall it feels like a book for lovers of Austenian romance, rather than horror fans. There is sister rivalry and a central marriage plot, and gowns and a ball are key topics of conversation.

Hester Fox
It’s all solid, silly, historical fiction fun. The novel is in first person, present tense, giving it a YA feel, and, while the setting is an unusual one and anachronisms are generally avoided (except in some of the modern sounding dialogue), Fox didn’t teach me much about 1820s New England.

The pacing and plotting are good and Lydia is a well-developed heroine, with love interests who have personalities of their own. I wanted her sister Catherine to show a little more depth by the ending. The siblings’ relationships are a high point of the novel but I was looking for a little complexity about the rights and wrongs of Lydia and Catherine’s points of view.

If you like your costume dramas with a shadow of darkness, this may well be a good winter read for you.

Which twenty-first century written, nineteenth-century set, novels would you like the Secret Victorianist to read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Enid Shomer (2012)

Moving, surprising and well researched, Enid Shomer’s 2012 The Twelve Rooms of the Nile was my favourite of the books I’ve reviewed this year as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series.

The novel takes an interesting fact—that, before each was famous, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert travelled through Egypt at the same time—and imagines an alternate history, in which they meet, bond and inspire each other’s respective genius.

The result is an intimate double character study set against the sweeping backdrop of nineteenth-century Egypt, borrowing from Flaubert and Nightingale’s own writings, yet elevated further by Shomer’s distinctive and evocative prose (her previous works have been poetry).

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Enid Shomer (2012)
You’ll love The Twelve Rooms of the Nile if any of the following apply. You…

Have an interest in Nightingale, Flaubert or both.

Are fascinated by Egyptian mythology and French/British tourism in the nineteenth century.

Enjoy reading love stories that defy conventions of what relationships and intimacy are or should be.

Are interested in fictional depictions of depression, obsession and the artistic temperament.

Have ever felt acutely your difference from those around you or societal and familial expectations of who you should be.

You might find the novel less appealing if you…

Avoid sexual explicitness in (historical) fiction. And I don’t just mean sex scenes—Flaubert is in the midst of writing a treatise on female genitalia.

Want an ‘easy read’—Shomer doesn’t spoon feed and at times she makes you work for it. But rereading and parsing her longer sentences was a joy, not a chore.

Enid Shomer (1944-)
This is the kind of novel that left me feeling bereft when I turned the final page—a testament to the power and immediacy of fiction, even if it’s set in a distant time and place.

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

Thursday 29 November 2018

Art Review: It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200, Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

In the summer of 1818, twenty-year-old Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin, although living as ‘Mrs Shelley’ with Percy Bysshe Shelley in Geneva) wrote one of the most culturally influential stories in the English language. Her Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus has spawned countless adaptations across multiple media and has come to be a definitive part of the Gothic and Romantic movements.

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli (1781)
To mark the bicentenary of the novel’s creation, the Morgan Library & Museum has unveiled a major exhibition dedicated to the work and its influence.

Three Witches, Henry Fuseli (1783)
I began my visit by exploring the Gothic art that inspired Shelley and her contemporaries. Many of these paintings draw upon or suggest narratives, such as Henry Fuseli’s 1781 The Nightmare, in which a demon crouches atop a prostrate woman’s chest, and his 1783 Three Witches, which has influenced subsequent depictions of Shakespeare’s weird sisters. There are also skeletal depictions of Death, such as John Hamilton Mortimer’s drawing of Death on a Pale Horse (c.1775) and multiple instances of men and women attempting resurrections by an open grave.

Death on a Pale Horse, John Hamilton Mortimer (c.1775)
In the next section of the exhibition it’s easy to see synergies between the Gothic imagination and contemporary scientific advancements. Doctors and anatomists are depicted as grave robbers, while artists show their instruments destroying and restoring life, as well as extending it.

The Anatomist Overtaken by the Watch, William Austin (1773)
Parts of the Frankenstein manuscript are on display, as well as letters between the Godwins, Shelleys and others. The romance of the Frankenstein’s creation, and the characters of Shelley, Shelley, Byron and Keats, seem to add to its mystique and appeal, as much as the story itself.

The manuscript
In a second room we move out of the nineteenth century and into Frankenstein’s afterlife in film and graphic novels. We trace the monster’s evolution from reanimated corpse to superhuman villain to participant in superhero-style showdowns. The movies become weather vanes for the sensibilities of their time. For instance, the creature’s accidental child killing appalled audiences in 1931 and so the moment was cut from the film. The bride of Frankenstein (a creature Viktor chooses not to animate in Shelley’s original tale) becomes part of our cultural inheritance—here you can observe her wig, listen to her blood curdling screams.

A poster for the 1931 adaptation
At the centre of the exhibition is Richard Rothwell’s 1840 portrait of Mary Shelley. She watches over proceedings serenely as movie buffs, bibliophiles, and lovers of the macabre file through. I couldn’t help but wonder what she’d think of how Frankenstein and his monster have outlived her and evolved and how amazed she’d be that a tale born out of her time has come to represent so much about generations since.

Mary Shelley, Richard Rothwell (1840)
Which NYC exhibitions should the Secret Victorianist visit next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.