Sunday, 21 April 2019

Announcement: My novel is being published!

I’ve been blogging as the Secret Victorianist since 2013, sharing my love of all things nineteenth-century literature and culture. This month I’m delighted to share that a historical novel of my own (set in the Victorian period—of course!) has been acquired by Atria Books, part of Simon & Schuster, for publication in 2020.

Lydia Robinson
What’s the novel about?
Titled Brontë’s Mistress, my novel is based on the true, heretofore untold story of Lydia Robinson and her affair with Branwell Brontë. The novel gives voice to the courageous, flawed, complex woman slandered in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) as the ‘wicked’ elder seductress who corrupted the Brontë brother, driving him to an early grave and bringing downfall on the entire Brontë family.

When can I read it?
Stay tuned for the exact date the novel will be available for order and pre-order. But it’ll be in 2020.

How can I get MY novel published?
Every writing career is different, but I’ll be sharing blog posts over the next year about my own writing and publication journey. Topics will include conducting research for historical fiction, writing tools, finding a literary agent and more. If you have any burning questions or topics you’d love me to cover please tweet me @SVictorianist.

What about your normal content?
Don’t worry! It’s business as usual. I’ll still be reviewing other twenty-first-century-written/nineteenth-century-set historical novels as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, covering art exhibitions and theatrical productions related to the period and blogging on the wide array of topics I’ve been writing on for the last six years. If you have feedback about the ratio of writing-related to non-writing-related content, please let me know.

Are you excited?
I am so happy to be able to share this part of my life with you, and my novel itself next year. Reading the experiences of other writers has been invaluable to me as I’ve written my novel and gone through the submissions process. I hope I can be helpful to you too.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Art Review: Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life, The National Gallery, London

Recently the Secret Victorianist found herself back in London and on the hunt for nineteenth-century culture in the British capital.

‘A Carnival Scene’ (1832)
The National Gallery’s ‘Scenes of Parisian Life’ exhibition is the first dedicated to lesser-known French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845) in the UK. It features around twenty paintings but what the exhibition lacks in scale it more than makes up for in variety, demonstrating the range of Boilly’s subjects and media.

Looked down on as ‘just’ a genre painter in his day without the support of the establishment given lauded neoclassical history painters like Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Boilly’s output was dictated by public taste and market forces.

'Comparing Little Feet' (1791)

After arriving in Paris in 1785, he did a brisk trade in scenes featuring young woman in elegant interiors, often with a risqué edge. One of these, ‘Comparing Little Feet’ (1791) was on display at the National Gallery. In it, two women strip off their stockings, ostensibly to compare their shoe sizes.

However, in the tumultuous time of the Revolution, Boilly found himself in hot water for his brand of titillating art. He survived with his head but pivoted—to more patriotic subjects, visual illusions and the Parisian crowdscapes for which he is most remembered.

'The Meeting of Artists in Isabey’s Studio’ (1799)
His ‘The Meeting of Artists in Isabey’s Studio’ (1799) (also on view) is a ‘who’s who’ of the Parisian art world at the advent of the nineteenth century, including 31 painters, sculptors and architects and, of course, Boilly himself. Notably, not a single woman is invited to this idealised meeting of the minds, despite the Revolution being an unprecedented period of freedom for women artists.

Crowd scenes featured in the exhibition include ‘The Barrel Game’ (1828), ‘The Poor Cat’ (1832) and ‘A Carnival Scene’ (1832). All depict the colourful menagerie of nineteenth-century urban life, with city-dwellers of every class side by side. Hidden in the paintings are dramatic incidents that provoke a smile—a child grasps at an apple, a man urinates against a wall, a boy picks a pocket, a dog runs off with a carnival mask.

'The Poor Cat’ (1832) 

Boilly’s humour is distinctive, even if his expression in his self-portraits is usually stern. He coined the term ‘trompe-l’oeil’ (a trick of the eye) for works in which uses one medium to imitate another. His painting of crucifix appears 3D, while his signature seems to be pinned beside it, a slightly blasphemous advertisement.

'A Trompe-l'oeil: Crucifix of Ivory and Wood' (1812)
Observing Boilly’s Paris is like reading Dickens’s London. Never has the nineteenth century looked so alive. 

Boilly:Scenes of Parisian Life’ is free and open to the public at The National Gallery until 19th May 2019. Visit if you can.

Do you know of any New York-based nineteenth-century-focused exhibitions you’d like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Charlotte Mew, according to Penelope Fitzgerald

The best lines of poetry are like catchy tunes. They hang in the air and haunt you. I’ve been haunted by the poetry of Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) for more than a decade.

Although born in 1869, Mew isn’t really thought of as one of the ‘Victorians’. Her work found an audience in the 1900s-1920s, but her irregular metre led the editor Eddie Marsh to exclude her from Georgian Poetry IV (the first time he considered including a woman poet in these period-defining anthologies). And her poetry is too narrative for her to be counted amongst the Imagist poets. In fact, Mew herself resisted classification and collection. For instance, she refused to be featured in Macmillan’s Golden Treasury of Modern Lyrics.

Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)
Yet, ironically, she did find her way into one curated volume, an omnibus of English poems through the ages, which I studied as part of my Literature A-Level.  It was here I first read the ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, her most famous poem, which also lends its title to her only book (first published 1916, with an expanded edition featuring new material appearing in 1921).

Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?

This is how the farmer describes his bride, a virgin whose fear of her marriage bed drives her to flee from her home.

Lines from a second poem, ‘The Quiet House’, recurred to me too:

He frightened me before he smiled—
He did not ask me if he might—
He said that he would come one Sunday night


Red is the strangest pain to bear

Recently, I started to expand my knowledge of Mew beyond these two poems, thanks to Penelope Fitzgerald’s (1916-2000) wonderful 1988 biography, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends. The book confirmed my belief that Charlotte Mew is a ‘writer’s writer’. Fitzgerald’s prose is so good that the only times I paused when reading were to consider more deeply one of her sentences or a quoted line of Mew’s poetry.

I learned that Mew’s life was every bit as sad as her poems had led me to believe. Two of her siblings succumbed to madness young, rendering incarceration necessary. And, after her architect father’s death, she and her artist younger sister, bore the weight of the household finances, while still ‘keeping up appearances’ for their ageing mother. Eventually, Mew committed suicide not long after the death of her younger sister, Anne. It was a tragic end for a talented woman, who, despite her brusque manner, had many friends who cared for her.

Mew struggled with a series of romantic infatuations for women, none of whom requited, or even understood, her affections. Fitzgerald’s biography deals with this well, not transposing late twentieth-century ideas about lesbianism onto an early twentieth-century context.

What stuck me most was Mew’s loneliness, and not just because of her sexuality. Everyone, from admirers to detractors, agreed that nobody wrote like Charlotte Mew. Yet, ironically, her originality of thought, and the beauty of her expression, now forges connections with new readers across the centuries.

Which lesser-known nineteenth-century writer would you like the Secret Victorianist to write about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Review: My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead (2014)

Reading Rebecca Mead’s part-memoir, part biography of Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), better known by her nom de plume George Eliot, was an exercise in confronting the familiar.

Even on the surface there is much in Mead’s life that resembles my own. We’re both British transplants, brought up in small towns, but now living in Brooklyn. We both studied English at Oxford. And we share a love for Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-2), which Virginia Woolf called, famously, ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’.

My Life in Middlemarch weaves together Eliot and Mead’s life stories with the latter’s reflections on the novel and details of her journalistic research. This too was recognisable to me. As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve also gone on pilgrimages to find traces of history below the surface of modern English life. Mead’s emotions as she traverses streets Eliot would have walked and takes tea in rooms she frequented were relatable, tinged as her descriptions are with the complex feelings of the emigrant for the land she’s left behind.

But the familiarity I found most difficult to confront is the topic at the memoir’s core. When we find a book we love it can be easy to feel that it is written for us, and only us. We construct an imaginary conversation with its creator that can overcome decades, oceans and even death. Mead’s reaction to Middlemarch, and the very publication of her memoir, is a testament to the fact that our responses to great works of literature are not unique.

Rebecca Mead (1966- )
This is a fitting revelation for a book centred on Middlemarch, a novel which also makes us face the truth that we are not special and that other lives as passionately lived as ours end with graves that go ‘unvisited’.

I’d recommend My Life in Middlemarch to anyone who’s read and loved George Eliot, but also to those who’ve read her books and wondered what they were missing and what others see to admire so deeply. For those uninitiated into Middlemarch it may be a more perplexing read, but who knows—sometimes a date with the unknown is even more compelling than the familiar.

What book would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read and review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.