Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: Mary B, Katherine J. Chen (2018)

There are some novels where the world is so fully imagined and the characters so perfectly realised that they take on lives of their own, even decades or centuries after their author’s death. One of these novels is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

There are so many novels with Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy as their protagonists and Longbourn or Pemberley as their settings that bookstores might do well to create a separate section for Austen mania, separate from the historical fiction shelves. And the latest of these is Katherine J. Chen’s lively debut, which retells the familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective.


The eponymous heroine of Mary B is Mary Bennet—the oft-forgotten middle sister, who possesses neither wit nor beauty, and is distinguished by her bookish nature and bad piano playing rather than by marrying into a great estate or eloping with an army officer.

It’s a great concept—one sure to appeal to the legion of Austen fans who have wondered if, or feared, they might be more of a Mary than a Lizzie. And it’s a concept that also feels peculiarly of the moment in 2018. Will Mary get her happy ending in a world that values women more for their looks than their brains? And what will this ending look like—a wedding? 10,000 a year?

Chen gives us an ideal combination of the old and new. The first half of the novel revisits well-trodden territory—Mr Collins’s visit to his cousins and rejected proposal—but with Mary relating incidents we weren’t privy to before, along with her internal reactions. In Part 2 we pick up once the credits on multiple costume drama adaptations have rolled. How are Lizzie and Jane’s marriages faring? What will become of Lydia Wickham now?

Katherine J. Chen
The novel kept me reading and wondering what the conclusion for Mary would be, especially in the latter half—at the opening it was a little difficult to embrace the first person voice when Mary’s misreadings of social situations are so obvious to readers who know their canon well. The dialogue is clunky and sometimes anachronistic, but Austen is a high bar and a natural point of comparison. At moments I felt like I was reading the kind of wish fulfilment provided by fan fiction, but that didn’t stop me racing through. Some reviewers have bemoaned Chen’s new, and not always flattering, take on the characters they love, but, since I don’t think Austen’s legacy is in doubt here, I was more than happy to come along for the ride. Likewise the sexual content, while not Austenian, didn’t make me swoon, for good or ill.

I wish Mary had changed more in the course of the novel. She teetered on the edge of self-discovery and had moments of near-connection with her sister, Lizzie, but ultimately the story vindicates her, while ending most other characters (including our former heroine) unhappily. Maybe this is part of the reason why the writing reads like YA—immediate and addictive, but without the profundity and deeper message Mary B could have delivered.

Have you read Mary B? What did you think? Let me know–here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman (2016)


I can only imagine Alice Hoffman’s excitement when she stumbled across the historical story that sits at the centre of her 2016 novel, The Marriage of Opposites. She went in search of French impressionist Camille Pissarro and found (instead?) the fascinating story of his mother, born Rachel Pomié.

The Marriage of Opposites (2016)
Raised on St Thomas in the 1800s, Rachel is part of a close-knit and judgmental community of Jews, who have fled Europe for the relative freedom of island life. Here, black former slaves, white Europeans and the Jewish population live side by side in relative harmony, provided people stay with their own ‘kind’.

Always headstrong, Rachel is soon at odds with her people when, as a young widow, she is thrown into proximity with her late husband’s nephew, Frédéric. Their love—destructive as it is fecund—sits at the heart of the novel, along with the question, what has bewitched him—Rachel or the island itself?

The novel at its best is a landscape of St Thomas—rich, multisensory, at once timeless and of its time—with a multigenerational drama played out against it. But the vast time period it covers is also a weakness. Neither male point-of-view character—Frédéric, or Camille Pissaro himself—is as convincing or passionate as Rachel, and the broad strokes of the work hamper the pacing. This is a novel you live, rather than race, through, luxuriating in prose that can at times weigh a reader down.

Alice Hoffman (1952- )
I couldn’t help but think Hoffman might have been better to narrow her vision to the earlier sections. Perhaps she felts bound to the more ‘sellable’ story of the famed French artist, when the heart of the novel she wrote lives elsewhere?

All in, you’ll love The Marriage of Opposites if you enjoy multi-generational sagas and being transported to more exotic locales than your average nineteenth-century drawing room. For me, the name ‘Camille Pissarro’ used to conjure images of Paris on a rainy day. Now it will also evoke the lizard basking in the sun, the herb man lurking in his hut and the turtles trundling up the sand.

Which novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Google+, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

5 Nineteenth-Century Women I Learned about at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.

A few weeks ago the Secret Victorianist was back in Washington D.C. (read about my first trip, in 2015, here). And so I took the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016.

Inside the museum
The museum’s historical galleries, where I spent the afternoon, take visitors through an extraordinary trip through time. You start on the subterranean levels of the building, which are dedicated to the origins of the slave trade and the unprecedented forced mass migration of Africans to the Americas, and make your way up towards the brighter and more spacious upper galleries, through displays which chart the United States’ history of racial oppression, from independence to civil war, to the civil rights movements of the mid-twentieth century to reflections on social justice today.

I was most impressed by how the curators had personalised and humanised narratives that stretch over centuries through the inclusion of quotes, personal stories, anecdotes and reflections. Visitors even have the chance to add their own voices to the collection—sharing their viewpoint on race and racism in America. And so today, on the blog, I wanted to highlight a few of the black nineteenth-century women I learned about and their contributions to American political, legal and social history:

Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897)
Harriet Ann Jacobs was the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—an 1861 novel published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The novel, based on Jacobs’s own experiences being born into slavery in North Carolina, shone a light on the sexual abuses suffered by many enslaved women.

A quote from Harriet: “When they told me my newborn babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.”

Harriet Ann Jacobs

Harriet Tubman (~1822-1913)
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland and escaped in her 20s via the Underground Railroad. She returned at least nine times to guide others to freedom, which earned her the nickname ‘Moses’ among abolitionists (since she was leading her people to the promised land). She worked for the Union Army during the Civil War and was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the conflict.

A quote from Harriet: “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Harriet Tubman
Susie Taylor (1848-1912)
Susie Taylor was the first African American army nurse working for the Union during the Civil War (a role she took on without pay). After the conflict she dedicated her life to teaching former slaves in Georgia and wrote a memoir—Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers—about her experiences.

A quote from Susie: “I had about forty children to teach, beside a number of adults who came to me nights, all of them so eager…to read above everything else.”

Susie Taylor
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
Born into slavery in Mississippi, Ida B. Wells went on to become a famous black activist. She was one of the founders of the he National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and is best known for her documentation of lynchings. She used journalism to highlight the systematic violence suffered by many African Americans and went on speaking tours in Europe to campaign for justice and equality.

A quote from Ida: “Our country's national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob.”

Ida B. Wells
Sarah Breedlove (known as Madam C. J. Walker) (1867-1919)
America’s first self-made woman millionaire was a black woman born in Louisiana to parents who had been slaves. She was the first of their children born after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. In the early twentieth century she established the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company—a company dedicated to African American haircare. Fuelled by the business’ success, she became a prominent speaker, activist and philanthropist.

A quote from Sarah: “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations...I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

Madam C.J. Walker
Do you know of any other museums you think the Secret Victorianist should visit next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Art Review: French Pastels—Treasures from the Vault at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Dandelions against tangled grass, the soft folds of a ballerina’s tutu, a farmyard quilted with snow—these are just some of the scenes nineteenth-century French painters bring to life in a Boston exhibition dedicated to a medium known for its difficulty to preserve, as well as its evocative sensory effects.

Dandelions, Jean-Francois Millet (1867-8)
Many of the Museum of Fine Art’s pastels are delicate and rarely seen on display but, even more than Impressionist paintings, they capture a moment in time and in French art history.

Monet used them to record a fleeting sunset and Degas to immortalise dancers at work (you can even see the former outline of limbs he’s corrected, ghostly appendages suggesting dynamic movement and the challenges of conveying this through a static image).

Dancers Resting, Edgar Degas (1881-5)
Works by Pissaro, Cassat, Manet and Renoir are also on display, as well as pastels by Millet, whose darker scenes demonstrate the versatility of the technique. In common parlance ‘pastel’ suggests a light and inoffensive colour-way, yet depth and texture are what’s all important in the works of these artists.

Farmyard by Moonlight, Jean-Francois Millet (1868)
The exhibition only encompasses two small rooms but the quality of the works more than makes up for the small size. It may be another decade before you have the chance to see these pastels in person again, so, if you’re in Boston, visit while you can.

Cottages in the Snow, Johan Frederik Thaulow (1891)
Which exhibitions focused on the nineteenth-century would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Wonder, Emma Donoghue (2016)

Many will know Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue from her much-lauded Room (2010)—the contemporary tale of a woman trapped by a predator and bringing up her son in captivity. But Donoghue’s works when viewed as an oeuvre otherwise have a decidedly historical bent. There’s Slammerkin (2000), inspired by an eighteenth-century murder, The Sealed Letter (2008), the story of an 1864 divorce case and Frog Music (2014), the tale of a nineteenth-century cross-dressing frog catcher. And then there’s her 2016 The Wonder, which I’m writing about today—a novel set in the 1850s that pits the English rationality of a nurse trained under Florence Nightingale against a village of superstitious Irish peasants, convinced they have a miracle in their midst.

The Wonder (2016)
Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell hasn’t eaten in months, or so her parents claim. Is God sustaining the child with manna? Or is this a hoax, a medical oddity, something more sinister? Lib Wright, our protagonist, is determined to be vigilant and to get to the bottom of the mystery, but she doesn’t expect to grow fond of her devout and unworldly patient, or that she will have to confront her past—the secrets she is hiding of her own.

Donoghue’s cast of characters is small and her setting a tiny village, with one store-cum-drinking place, surrounded by bog. I was unsure how the simple premise would play out over the length of a novel but she’s masterful at building tension and at suggesting the monotony and repetitions of a nurse’s ‘watch’ or ‘vigil’, while keeping readers turning the pages.

Emma Donoghue (1969-)
The Ireland of the mid-nineteenth century leaps off the page, but, most unsettling, it’s not unthinkable to imagine a similar story unfolding in the country’s rural communities today. There’s much that’s recognisable—the pervasiveness of religion, which mingles with folklore and myth, the hostility towards outsiders, the culture of secrecy, suffering and martyrdom.

Much as I enjoyed the novel, there were two slight disappointments. First, the love interest character—a journalist—is under-developed, convenient for plotting purposes but lacking the nuance of the Lib, Anna and others. Second, nothing really forces Lib to reassess her prejudices about the zealots she’s surrounded by. It wasn’t that I was hoping for a supernatural explanation but I would have liked a moment of self-revelation, where Lib rethought some of her assumptions.

Overall The Wonder is a quiet sort of historical novel, with drama and action saved for the final pages. It’s a novel about caregivers and patients, cynics and believers, and, more than anything, our complex relationship with food, our bodies, appetite. Donoghue has a gift for uncovering tales from the past, which have resonance today.

Which twenty-first century novel, set in the nineteenth, would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Quiz: Which Bronte sibling are you?

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Sanders (2017)


One of the most lauded historical novels of the last 5 years, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Man Booker winning Lincoln in the Bardo. I’d heard the word ‘experimental’ and so anticipated something clever and well-researched, replete with facts, footnotes and intertextual references.


Instead Lincoln in the Bardo was one of the most powerful fictionalisations of grief I’ve encountered—private grief for a dead child and public grief for a country at war with itself. This is a novel that defies the conventions of the form. We are used to entering the mind and world of one protagonist or at least one character at a time, but here we are treated to a cacophony of voices—some real, others imagined, some ‘living’, others dead.

The central story concerns Abraham Lincoln and his struggle to come to terms with his son Willie’s death in 1862, but the novel soon becomes a tapestry of other stories—of a man who died before consummating his marriage to a younger wife, of a couple who were killed while intoxicated, trampled by a horse and carriage, of the black inhabitants of the cemetery’s mass grave.

George Saunders (1958-)
In the opening pages the novel reads like a play. I flicked to find out which character each block of text was attributed to, trusting that my investment would pay off. And it did. Soon I could identify many of the speakers from dialogue cues alone and could follow the logic as the ghosts interrupted each other. Saunders’s imaginative approach to the afterlife, his mixture of the uncanny and the familiar, is unique in itself, as he paints a world we come to understand more than the souls who haunt and describe it.

Perhaps because of this, the scenes in the cemetery were more effective for me than the other narratives—letters, snatches of memoir, history books. And the macro story—of war and of America’s political climate—less compelling that the human drama of filial death and parental despair. But overall Lincoln in the Bardo is a triumph.

In her Reith Lectures, Hilary Mantel said that when embarking historical fiction, writers must ask themselves one question: “Can these bones live?” Saunders brings historical characters to life from beyond the grave in a way we’ve never seen before.

Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Art Review: Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence, Metropolitan Museum, New York City


The Parc Monceau, Claude Monet (1878)

Two years ago I reviewed an exhibition at the New York Botanical Gardens dedicated to impressionist painters’ responses to American gardens in the nineteenth century. This summer it was the turn of French artists and the parks and gardens they depicted from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries in this stunning exhibition at the Met.

The Public Garden at Pontoise, Camille Pissaro (1874)
Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence tells the story of French painting in the period through a succession of lush natural images, allowing visitors to chart the rise of Naturalism, Impressionism and the Art Nouveau movements as they move through the gallery.

Young Woman Seated on a Sofa, Berthe Morisot (1879)
It also reveals a fascinating story about French culture in the period—the emergence of the now quintessentially Parisian public park, a place where women and men of different classes could mingle, and the quiet seclusion of the private gardens frequented by the artists, their families and their patrons.

Still Life with Pansies, Henri Fantin-Latour (1874)
My favourite images included Claude Monet’s The Parc Monceau (1878) and Camille Pissaro’s The Public Garden at Pontoise (1874), paintings where the park-goers appear to be part of nature themselves; Henri Fantin-Latour’s hyper realistic still lives; and the works of noted female impressionists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt who turn a feminine gaze upon their women subjects surrounded by flowers.

Garden at Sainte-Adresse, Claude Monet (1867)
The exhibition is centred on a courtyard resplendent with ferns and complete with park benches so you can take in the ambience as well as the art. If you wander in from Central Park you hardly seem to have left the natural world behind at all.

Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly, Mary Cassatt (1880)
Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence is entering its final week so, if you’re in New York, go if you can. It’s a wonderful combination of the familiar (the natural joys of summer), with the forgotten (a lost way of life) and the taken-for-granted (the public parks that transformed Paris and other cities in the nineteenth century).

Which NYC exhibitions should the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.