Monday 30 December 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: J is for Jealousy in Jewsbury

‘I am more jealous of the mind than of the body; and, to me, there is something revolting in the notion  of a woman who professes to love and belong to you alone, going and printing the secrets of her inmost heart, the sacred workings of her soul, for the benefit of all who can pay for them.’

In an earlier post, I looked at how domestic and dramatic women are often paired in Victorian literature – whether the writer’s aim is to contrast them or show them to be similar. I discussed how working actresses and middle-class women were connected by a sense of sisterhood – something which raises the possibility of domestic feeling in the theatre, and drama in the home – and used the example of Geraldine Jewsbury’s 1848 novel The Half-Sisters to show how this sisterhood is literalised in the characters of Alice (the leisured wife) and Bianca (the leading lady). 

The Half-Sisters is also instructive about one the suspicions attached to the nature performance itself – on the stage or the page or in the home. Conrad’s rationale for his abandonment of Bianca, a section of which is quoted above, is a strong articulation of the nineteenth-century suspicions surrounding the woman who acts. And while Bianca’s status as virtuous heroine in the novel makes Conrad a far from likeable character, the space given to his views and the lack of resolution to some of his concerns provided by the novel, makes the passage worthy of serious attention.

Key to Conrad’s aversion to performing women is jealousy – a species of jealousy which includes but also goes beyond the sexual. Performance in front of an audience is akin to prostitution – something hinted at in much writing of the time but made explicit here:

‘A woman who makes her mind public, or exhibits herself in any way, no matter how it may be dignified by the title of art, seems to me little better than a woman of the nameless class.’

Actresses are especially open to this charge (although ‘authoresses’ are not immune to it) ‘for that [acting] is publishing both mind and body too’. Conrad is jealous of the ‘gross comments’ made by other men in the audience, even though he is a fully participating one of their number. And he fears that becoming ‘accustomed to admiration’ will give a woman an appetite for flattery which will not be satisfied by the romantic (and implicitly sexual) interest of a (single) husband.

Conrad’s views however, are confused and undermined by two key contradictions – one within his own argument, the other demonstrated by the course of the novel itself. First, Conrad’s stress on the overt sexuality of the actress is offset by his simultaneous claim of the unsexing of any professional woman:

‘Take Bianca, if you will, as a specimen, she is one of the best, and what has been its effect? it has unsexed her, made her neither man or woman. A public life must deteriorate women.’

Performing women are duplicitous because they use their feminine charms (‘use their sex as a weapon’) and ‘play with the passions of men to some degree like courtesans’ but this flaunting of the female attractiveness must make them like men in Conrad’s reductive view of ideal feminine virtue – domestic, weak and unequivocally asexual. What men have to fear in women is something which precludes them from being classed as a woman at all.

Yet the novel demonstrates that this ideal domestic woman is a fiction. Alice, Bianca’s legitimate half-sister comes incredibly close to matching Conrad’s ideal woman:

‘A rational, though inferior intelligence, to understand me and help me in my pursuits, clinging to me for help, looking to me for guidance; a gentle, graceful timidity keeping down all display of her talents, a sense of propriety keeping her from all eccentric originality, either of thought or deed’

But Alice is shown to be subject to the same passions as Bianca, and it is ultimately she who transgresses sexually and socially.

Jewsbury however shies away from absolutely contradicting Conrad’s views in her ending – Bianca quits the stage in order to enjoy her domestic bliss. And the sexual jealousy involved in watching one you love perform for another is shown to be an unavoidable side effect of artistic display. In Jewsbury’s own letters to another woman – Jane Carlyle – she wrote:

‘I can use no expressions of affection. I don’t like using them. I am jealous of giving you what I have ever offered to another, and besides, talk as much as you will, it’s the same thing over and over; you will let me be yours, and think of me as such, will you not?’

Repeated expression of love, whether performed on stage, or articulated in hackneyed expressions, cheapens it and so jealousy is a natural end, even if this jealousy is directed towards the very language used to articulate these feelings. Jewsbury may discredit Conrad, and may highlight his hypocrisy when it comes to his treatment of Bianca, but, like him, she yearns for the unique and the entirely private when it comes to the ‘performance’ of love.

What should be K in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And don't forget to VOTE for the Secret Victorianist in the UK Blog Awards!
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Thursday 26 December 2013

Review: Behind a Mask, Louisa May Alcott (A.M. Barnard), 1866

Louisa May Alcott
For many, Louisa May Alcott’s name is entirely synonymous with her semi-autobiographical Little Women (1868) – a novel which can in some ways be seen to epitomise clean cut nineteenth-century morality. Yet the stories Alcott published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard are markedly different from her most famous literary creations. The novella Behind a Mask, written at the height of public desire for sensation, is dramatic, amoral, action-packed and ironically pointed – an example of an American writer not just imitating an import hot off the British press, but responding and adding to its generic complexity. 

For general readers: This is a riot (or as close to one as a story about a Victorian governess can be!). The scheming Jean Muir would eat Jane Eyre for breakfast (and most probably Rochester, Bertha and Mrs Fairfax too). At only a hundred pages this is a quick read and one which will see you very much rooting for the ‘bad’ woman, who sets out to win her man, and his fortune, with  determination and grit, destroying anyone who gets in her way with relish. The only downsides to the book are what it might do to your perceptions of a) men; and b) ageing. Top tips for entrancing a man include: fainting (of course), having aristocratic lineage (poverty is just about acceptable, commonness not), singing like a nightingale (don’t we all…), making his brother fancy you (even if it nearly ends in fratricide), mopping his brow when he’s indisposed (as always) and throwing yourself into his arms while staging amateur theatricals (I’ve still to test this one). And once you’re thirty, you’ll need to wear not only make-up and false hair but even false teeth to trick anyone into walking you down the aisle. 

For students: This is a little gem. The novella’s subtitle is ‘A Woman’s Power’, and the character of Jean Muir is perfect for comparison with Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s governess figures, or with Wilkie Collins’s Lydia Gwilt (in Armadale, also 1866). There’s also material here for those looking at nineteenth-century literary treatment of actresses or the ubiquity of railway accidents in novels of the 1860s, among other topics. The ending comes as a surprise even (or maybe especially) to sensation stalwarts, making it an interesting text for those unpacking the moral implications of sensation novels, their endings and the sensation novel (anti-)heroine. For students of American literature, seeing a different side to Alcott will be of interest, as will the publication history of the text and her adoption of a pseudonym. 

Have you read Behind a Mask or any other Louisa May Alcott short stories? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And don't forget to VOTE for the Secret Victorianist in the UK Blog Awards.
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Saturday 21 December 2013

The Secret Victorianist's Christmas Quiz

 To celebrate the festive season, I’ve put together a tricky nineteenth-century literature question for each of the twelve days of Christmas…

1. On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree, but what kind of tree (‘which graspest at the stones/That name the under-lying dead’) does Tennyson apostrophise in the second canto of In Memoriam A.H.H.?

2. On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves, but which creature introduces Alice to a mock turtle in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?    

3. On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens, but how much did the Bronte Society pay this year for a single-sided French devoir on the subject of ‘L’Amour Filial’ penned by Charlotte in the 1840s?

4. On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me four colly birds, but who plans to release her birds on ‘the day of judgement’ in Charles Dickens’s 1853 Bleak House?

5. On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me five gold rings, but who wrote the narrative poem The Ring and the Book in 1868-9?

6. On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me six geese a-laying, but who, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch does Lydgate believe to display the ‘innate submissiveness of the goose’?

7. On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming, but who wrote fairytale The Wild Swans in 1838?

8. On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me eight maids-a-milking, but can you name any of Tess’ fellow milkmaids in Thomas Hardy’s 1891 Tess of the d’Urbevilles?

9. On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing, but which debutante is heartbroken when Vronsky chooses to dance with Anna at a ball in the first part of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 Anna Karenina?

10. On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me ten lords a-leaping, but which lord believed ladies should never be seen eating or drinking ‘unless it were lobster salad and champagne’?

11. On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping, but which Jane Austen heroine was played by Billie Piper in a 2007 adaptation?

12. On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming, but which war inspired Thomas Hardy’s 1899 poem ‘Drummer Hodge’?

1: Yew; 2: Gryphon; 3: £50,000; 4: Miss Flite; 5: Robert Browning; 6:Rosamund Vincy; 7: Hans Christian Anderson; 8: Izz, Retty, Marian; 9: Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty); 10: Lord Byron; 11: Fanny Price; 12: Anglo-Boer War

Let me know how you did in the comment section below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

And if you enjoyed the quiz and reading the blog, don’t forget to VOTE for the Secret Victorianist in the UK Blog Awards 2014!

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Tuesday 17 December 2013

Vote for the Secret Victorianist in the UK Blog Awards 2014

Vote for The Secret Victorianist in the UK Blog Awards

If you like reading about all things Victorian on the Secret Victorianist blog, please vote  in the UK Blog Awards 2014, where the blog is competing in the Arts and Culture category.

This year, I've blogged about topics as varied as blockbuster movies, corsets, incest, Dr Who and hair extensions. I've watched ballets and plays, taken trips to art galleries and helped you all plan nineteenth century-inspired tours of Oxford.

If you enjoyed discovering more from nineteenth-century literature with me then please take the time to vote (and check out the other entrants!). The awards can be found tweeting @UKBlogAwards.

Sunday 15 December 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: I is for Infants, Industrialisation and Imagination

‘Is it possible, I wonder, that there was any analogy between the case of the Coketown population and the case of the little Gradgrinds?’

Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times certainly leads us to the conclusion that there is some point of connection between the Gradgrind children – treated to a soulless and unimaginative education and upbringing - and the labourers in Bounderby’s mill - workers toiling at the forefront of Britain’s industrial revolution.

For both groups – the Gradgrind (and other) children, and the factory workers - Dickens’s promotion of imagination, as opposed to the harsh reality of ‘fact’, is all-important to the book’s success. And in this focus he effectively sidesteps the economic arguments surrounding the treatment of factory workers, in favour of an argument which is much more philosophical in bent. At an early stage in the novel we find the following description of the factories:

‘The lights in the great factories…looked, when they were illuminated, like Fairy palaces – or the travellers by express-train said so’

While this at first may seem critical of the unknowing train passengers, unaware of the realities of hard labour, Dickens’s ‘solution’ is not to confront his readers with graphic scenes of suffering, like Gaskell, or the producers of The Mill. By way of the most obvious example, Dickens chooses not even to mention child labourers in the factories themselves, despite his ostensible interest in both childrearing and working conditions in the novel. Children are used instead to illustrate Dickens’s imaginative preferences - for him, the world would be a better place if everyone, including the workers, could have, nurture and maintain the kind of childlike wonder which mistakes mills for the castles of a fairytale.

The workers are compared with children not only in this idealised glorification of the imaginative life but also in actuality – something largely prompted by their relationship to their employers and inability to speak. The hands are described specifically as ‘portentous infants’, conjuring up the etymology of the word ‘infant’ from Latin ‘infans’ (‘unable to speak’). Stephen Blackpool, the novel’s working class hero, is characterised by his laborious expression - simplistic in its syntax, and (often) confused in its content – ‘Let ‘em be. Let everything be. Let all sorts alone. ’Tis a muddle, and that’s aw’. Stephen needs Dickens – the articulate novelist – to speak for him, just as Elizabeth Gaskell had described herself, in the preface to Mary Barton (1848), as ‘anxious…to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses the dumb people’ [emphasis mine].

While the speechless and suffering , like Stephen, can become ‘portentous’ symbols for change in the novelists’ works, when the working classes speak for themselves the effect on middle class readers is less successful – even threatening. The treatment of unions in Hard Times and the emphasis on sound in the riot sequence of Gaskell’s North and South (1855) present the voice of the working classes as an unequivocally dangerous one, and the wise labourer, such as Gaskell’s Bessy, realises silence is the more sensible option:
‘folk would go with them if they saw them striving and starving wi’ dumb patience; but if there was once any noise o’ fighting and struggling…all was up’.

As workers are children, good masters do not treat them as equals – instead good employers are depicted as firm but fair parents, shepherding the moral development of their chargers. In North and South, Margaret is at first horrified by the scheme which reduces hands to juveniles (‘my informant….spoke as if the masters would like their hands to be merely tall, large children…with a blind unreasoning kind of obedience’) and Thornton defensive about the role he plays in this (‘he considers our people in the condition of children, while I deny that we, the masters, have anything to do with keeping them so’).

Gaskell shows both Margaret and Thornton to be wrong. There is nothing unsavoury, we are encouraged to believe, in the father/child relationship between employer and employee if Thornton plays his part with proper attention and care. The aim is not that the working classes find their voice but that it will be unnecessary for them to do so, via dangerous unions or, worse, rioting, thanks to the efforts of the middle classes – be they novelists or factory owners. Dickens’s promotion of the imaginative life is part of this same impulse.

What should be ‘J’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Have a Very Victorian Christmas: 19th-Century Party Games

'For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.’

The scene Ebenezer Scrooge witnesses at his nephew Fred’s in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), under the direction of the Ghost of Christmas Present, is the very picture of festive cheer – laughter, drinking and music. And a vital part of this vision of ‘merriment’, as much as the requisite Christmas Party flirting, is the communal game-playing which is a central part of the Victorian family Christmas.

The muppets' take on the Christmas party scene
These games need little equipment and are universally appealing, even to Scrooge who joins in the fun in spite of himself:

‘There might have been twenty people there, young and old, but they all played, and so did Scrooge; for wholly forgetting in the interest he had in what was going on, that his voice made no sound in their ears, he sometimes came out with his guess quite loud, and very often guessed quite right, too.’

So, this holiday season, why not sample some Dickensian inspiration, turn off the TV and step away from the Monopoly board? Here’s my guide to the games Scrooge yearns to be part of and you can easily replicate at home. 

1. Blind-Man’s Buff: Grab a makeshift blindfold and let the games begin as the player deprived of his/her sight tries to catch his/her assailants. Beware obstacles and injury, but prepare too for the sexual tension to rise a notch. Even in the nineteenth century, games involving blindfolding had a suggestive edge. In A Christmas Carol, cornering a victim while blindfolded is a licence for misbehaviour:

‘When at last, he caught her; when, in spite of all her silken rustlings, and her rapid flutterings past him, he got her into a corner whence there was no escape; then his conduct was the most execrable. For his pretending not to know her; his pretending that it was necessary to touch her head-dress, and further to assure himself of her identity by pressing a certain ring upon her finger, and a certain chain about her neck; was vile, monstrous! No doubt she told him her opinion of it, when, another blind-man being in office, they were so very confidential together, behind the curtains.’

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Vixen (1879), which I’ve written on before, also features a sequence in which her hero and heroine find themselves in a stolen embrace thanks to a game of blind-man’s buff. 

2. Forfeits: Scrooge’s niece participates in this game – one less boisterous than blind-man’s buff but potentially equally revealing. The game has several versions but involves sending a ‘judge’ from the room while players place a small personal item in a box. The judge returns, assesses the objects and guesses the owners. If his guess is incorrect the item is returned, if correct, the owner must perform a forfeit of the judge’s choice to win it back. 

3. Yes and No: A player assumes a persona, the rest of the party ask him questions which can be answered either with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to uncover his or her identity. In A Christmas Carol Fred chooses ‘an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and lived in London, and walked about in the streets’. Finding that the creature described is in fact himself changes Ebenezer Scrooge profoundly, helping him to find true festive cheer, but playing the game with your own family can be more immediately enjoyable and merry.

Do you have any plans for a Victorian-inspired Christmas? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Friday 6 December 2013

Review: In a Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu (1897)

This collection of short stories from Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu varies in length, narration and style. They deal with vampires in Styria, legal malpractice in London, a strange man stalking his victim through the streets of Dublin. What unites them all is play with the supernatural and uncanny. Initial scepticism and a trust in the ‘scientific’ is increasingly unsettled and undermined as Le Fanu leaves us with no clear answers. These are ‘ghost’ stories which linger both in their telling and in their effect. Don’t expect horror movie shocks and twists. But draw up to the fireside this December to be more disturbed than entertained.

Sheridan Le Fanu
For general readers: In a Glass Darkly is an uneven experience and its strange narrative structure, as a series of loosely connected stories collected by a shadowy doctor (Dr Hesselius), may be off-putting to readers used to more traditional Victorian novels, but there is much here to interest a non-academic audience. The scepticism about the supernatural which pervades the novel, almost in spite of its content, is readily recognisable to modern reader, while the connection between the conscience or subconscious and the onset of hallucination and mania which the stories often suggest is one which is easily recognisable, even if this means the stories lose something of their ground-breaking edge. ‘Carmilla’ will probably have the widest popular appeal, dealing as it does with a form of vampirism with overtly erotic lesbian overtones. It’s the kind of story which confounds common misconceptions about the ‘Victorian’. The other longer story, ‘The Room at the Dragon Volant’, has similar character interest, especially given its hero’s actions are far from morally uncomplicated.

For students: As well as being an interesting read, ‘Carmilla’ will also be of interest to students of the Gothic and Bram Stoker in particular, predating as it does Dracula (1897), for which it provided some inspiration. Those interested in the impact of Swedenborgism on literature should turn to ‘Green Tea’, the first story in the volume, where the apparition of a phantom monkey also suggests interesting Darwinian contexts. And comparison with Charles Dickens’s short stories could also work, both in terms of structure (see my earlier discussion of MrsLirriper) and in some cases content – the judgement undergone by Justice Harbottle here makes the ghostly apparition which appear to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol seem almost cuddly.

What should the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday 30 November 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: H is for Hardy's Hair Extensions

Hair extensions may be more frequently associated with The Only Way is Essex than Far From the Madding Crowd, but rendering complex and voluminous nineteenth-century hairstyles couldn’t always rely on women’s natural hair – and often didn’t. In 1873 over 100 tons of hair were sold in France alone. And then, as now, the human hair trade was one which raised difficult ethical issues, with connotations of exploitation and the commercialisation of the female body.

In Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887) this question of buying and selling hair is considered on a localised level, with the poor Marty South opening the novel by selling her hair, under duress, to the wealthy landowner Mrs Charmond. Marty’s hair is intrinsically tied to her femininity. Her initial plea, ‘Why can’t the lady send to some other girl who don’t value her hair – not to me!’, is a fruitless and ridiculous one – as the wig-maker will push her anyway, and hair is shown to be central to all women’s sexual worth.

An elaborate Victorian hairstyle
 Giving up her hair is akin to being seduced. When the deed is done the passage reads:

‘She would not turn again to the little looking-glass, out of humanity to herself, knowing what a deflowered visage would look back at her and almost break her heart; she dreaded it as much as did her own ancestral goddess the reflection in the pool after the rape of her locks by Loke the Malicious.’ [emphasis mine]

The wig-maker places temptation in Marty’s way, leaving her with the sovereigns, so that she compares him to ‘the Devil to Dr Faustus in the penny book’. He also casts her desire to keep her hair as indicative of her sexual desires, effectively shaming her into submission: “Marty South,’ he said with deliberate emphasis, “you’ve got a lover yourself; and that’s why you won’t let it go!”

When Marty chooses to cut off her own hair she does so upon realising Winterborne’s indifference to her, turning on herself in a manner close to self harm:

‘With a preoccupied countenance, and with tears in her eyes, she got a pair of scissors and began mercilessly cutting off the long locks of hair, arranging and tying them with their points all one way.’

Marty’s organisation as she cuts, remembering to bind the locks as she has been instructed, sits in stark contrast to the self-hating emotions which prompt her final decision. What makes the affair even crueller is that Marty only receives attention from Winterborne after she has lost her hair – the source of her sexual attractiveness. He tells her: ‘Why, Marty – whatever has happened to your head. Lord, it has shrunk to nothing – it looks like an apple upon a gate-post.’

Fontaine loses her hair (and sells her body) in Les Miserables
Winterborne is oblivious to the role he has unwittingly played in Marty’s sale of her hair, and their next exchange is revealing. She tells him: ‘I’ve made myself ugly - and hateful’. His response is kind but untrue: ‘You’ve only cut your hair – I see that now’. But Giles Winterborne never sees clearly, and can never look at Marty in a sexual light or recognise her affection for him. He judges the women in his life – Marty and Grace – by appearance, and hair is a vital part of this assessment.

But what of the woman on the other end of this exploitative exchange? Felice Charmond, who buys Marty’s hair? Hardy casts her as selfish and culpable, especially because her vanity is at play even in church where she firsts spots Marty’s hair:

‘You sat in front of her in church the other day; and she noticed how exactly your hair matches her own. Ever since then she’s been hankering for it.’

But Felice is a victim too – of the untenable standards for female beauty. Mrs Charmond’s sense of self worth is bond up with her attractiveness even more than Marty’s. She is only thirty but fears ageing and feels threatened by the teenaged Grace. Her desire for Marty’s hair may seem frivolous but this act of hair cutting and purchase comes to stand for the tragedy of both women’s lives.

Do you know any other Victorian novels which deal with the sale of women’s hair? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!