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, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

7 Facts About the Opera Carmen


The Secret Victorianist was back at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York last week to see Georges Bizet’s Carmen (premiered Paris 1875), which vies for the title of ‘most popular opera in the world’ along with Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s The Magic Flute depending on your methodology.

Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ and ‘Toreador Song’ arias are now familiar even among non-lovers of opera, but did you know these facts about the work’s inception?

Clémentine Margaine in the Met's 2018 production
1. The opera was based on an 1845 novella of the same name by French writer Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870). While the stories have similarities there are key differences. For instance, in Mérimée’s text Carmen has a husband.

2. The first ‘Carmen’ was mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié who was rumoured to be conducting an affair with Bizet throughout the rehearsal period. Galli-Marié kept pet marmosets, which, at times, accompanied her to rehearsals.

3. The immediate critical response to Carmen was, well, critical. Applause petered out by the final act with the audience disconcerted by the amorality of the major characters. One critic described the heroine herself as ‘the very incarnation of vice’.

4. Over the next decades though the opera grew in popularity—albeit outside its homeland. Audiences in Austria and Germany in particular responded well to the work. Carmen was not revived in France again until 1883.

5. Composer Bizet did not live to see his masterpiece’s triumph. He died, aged 36, in June 1875—3 months after Carmen’s premiere.

6. The first audio recording of the opera was made in 1908 with Czech soprano Emmy Destin in the titular role. In this case the performance was in German, rather than the original French.

7. Carmen has spawned adaptations across multiple media—from Carmen on Ice to Carmen: A Hip Hopera, a 2001 movie starring Beyoncé.

What NYC-based performances of nineteenth-century works (operatic or not) would you like to see the Secret Victorianist go to next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Top 10 Victorian/Nineteenth-Century Halloween Costume Ideas

Halloween is nearly upon us and every self-respecting Victorianist is contemplating stepping back in time and into the breeches of our favourite historical characters—real and imagined.

Below is a list of the Secret Victorianist’s top picks of nineteenth-century-inspired costumes for you to consider.

1. Miss Havisham
The perennial bride in Charles Dickens’s 1860-1861 Great Expectations is a killer Halloween choice. White dress? Check. Veil? Check? Grey hair and cobwebs? For extra Gothic flare consider singeing your gown and adding dramatic flames. Who says a wedding dress need only be worn once?


2. Queen Victoria
That’s right—go as the monarch of the era herself, with Prince Albert in tow if you’re after a couples’ costume. Otherwise, embrace widowhood and dress head to toe in black.


3. A character from Pride and Prejudice (zombies optional)
Who doesn’t want to an excuse to unleash their inner Lizzie Bennet? Grab some friends and argue about who is each sister if you’re not lucky enough to have found your Darcy. The Pride and Prejudice with Zombies movie is recommended Halloween viewing and could also provide a fun twist on the costume idea.


4. Long John Silver
Before Captain Jack Sparrow lit up our screens it was Long John Silver, the villain from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 Treasure Island, who was the world’s most famous fictional pirate. This costume is all in the accessories: strap on a wooden leg, perch a parrot on your shoulder and grab a map marking the way to those elusive pieces of eight.


5. Abraham Lincoln
The United States’ most-distinctive nineteenth-century president is a great costume choice. The top hat and facial hair will make you instantly recognisable, even if you don’t want to shell out on realistic historical garb.


6. Florence Nightingale
While others are donning their ‘sexy nurse’ outfits, dress up as the lady with the lamp, who tended to British soldiers during the Crimean War.


7. Napoleon
The French emperor shares the laurel with Queen Victoria for the most famous nineteenth-century look. Don’t forget the hat, the epaulettes, or, our course, the pose.


8. The Statue of Liberty
This famous gift from the French to the American republic was dedicated in 1886. Dress in copper tones, rather than green, for a true nineteenth-century feel.


9. Dracula
What could be more classic for Halloween than to dress as the count from Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic. Many won’t know the story’s Victorian provenance though, so try to read the novel before you go to your party!


10. The Nutcracker and Sugar Plum Fairy
If you’re itching for Halloween to be over, Christmas can come early with your costume choice. The ballet was first performed in 1892 and is great Halloween inspiration. Don your tutu to be the Sugar Plum Fairy, look distinguished in your red coat as the nutcracker himself, or maybe even go for a giant rat costume.


Do you have any other Victorian/nineteenth-century costume ideas (or pics!) to share? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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.