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!

Monday 25 November 2013

Theatre Review: Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen, Almeida Theatre, London

Poster images for Ghosts

One preoccupation which has united all four performances of Ibsen plays I’ve been lucky enough to see over the last year or so has been an obsession with space. There was the revolving set for The Doll’s House at the Young Vic, which meant that Nora was always on view and her home life seemed set up and unreal; there was the gradual compression of the stage in the production of The Enemy of the People I saw in Dublin, which helped create an atmosphere of domestic and political oppression. And in Hedda Gabler internal glass partitions and doors allowed us to penetrate deeper into the home and continue to watch behind closed doors. 

This production of Ibsen’s 1881 Ghosts at the Almeida took this last idea and developed it even further. Tim Hatley’s design allowed us to see into the room beyond that of the main action, and so watch the ghostly echoes of the past play out, and also at times the world outside the Alvings’ house. Peter Mumford’s clever lighting  meant at times these divisions were transparent, at others reflective, creating atmospheric shadows and adding to the increasing doom. By the time Mrs Alving, Regina and Oswald sit over their champagne, the stage is in darkness, lit only by a single lamp. And Oswald’s final plea ‘Give me the sun’ is fulfilled in a blaze of red light which replicates perfectly a beautiful, if terrible, dawn.

Richard Eyre’s production doesn’t just look wonderful. The cast is strong and well-chosen. Lesley Manville’s Mrs Alving is entirely believable – strong but suffering, damaged by her past but still capable of moments of passionate hope and longing. The scenes between her and her son (Jack Lowden) were among the most affective, playing well with physical distance and blocking, and showcasing Manville’s acting at its most reactive. Charlene McKenna brings something fresh to the Regina role, which I think can come off in some productions as a little superficial when compared with the other characters. As she is here, Regina is simply youthful, but while given to these childish flights of fancy, is ultimately practical and highly capable – ‘worthy’ of the trust Oswald wished to place in her and similar in her pragmatism to her ‘father’ (played here by Brian McCardie).

Photograph from Ghosts - Hugo Glendenning
Only Will Keen’s Pastor Manders comes off as a little cardboard-cut-out but this is the fault of the adaption, not the actor. Eyre’s script seeks clarity and followability but one problem it risks is that the Pastor appears to be wrong headedly conservative, and is subject to the full force of twenty-first-century liberal censure from the audience accordingly. As Manders seems to be the butt of a joke relying on hindsight, the moral complexity of his position (as much as Mrs Alving’s) becomes ignored. 

There were other instances where the script seemed overstated or choices questionable – e.g. the certainty of the consensual nature of the Captain’s relationship with the maid, and the use of explicit statement where inference seemed apt. But these questions were just observations about the production I would have loved to have discussed with the director/adaptor, rather than hindrances to the enjoyability of the play.

All considered, this is a great production, which is cleverly conceived, cohesive in its design and brilliantly executed - well worth watching.

Have you seen Ghosts at the Almeida? What did you make of it? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday 20 November 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: G is for Graves in Great Expectations

Charles Dickens’s 1861 Great Expectations is best represented in popular culture and imagination by two visual tableaux – the abandoned bride, among the ghostly trappings of her fruitless wedding day, and the small child and the convict among gravestones in a bleak landscape. Juxtaposition between life (or youth) and death is central to the effectiveness of both images – a juxtaposition brought most sharply into focus by physical mementoes of death and the dead.

Young Estella’s beauty shines all the more against the foil of Miss Havisham, described as ‘that figure of the grave’ and as wearing ‘grave clothes’, while Pip’s visit to his parents’ headstone, in the very first paragraphs, makes the relationship between the living and the dead, literalised in the act of reading an epitaph, central to our understanding of the novel.

The Pirrips’ graves don’t just provide us with context for Pip’s character by informing us of his orphaned state. They are most formative for the young Pip linguistically, meaning that reading the grave acts as the first step to becoming the mature narrator – perhaps we are even meant to imagine that these tombstones have taught the young boy how to read.

Asked by Magwitch where his mother is, Pip can only quote the headstone (marked ‘also Georgiana Wife of the Above') which has been his sole access to her:

'‘There, sir!’ I timidly explained , ‘Also Georgiana. That’s my mother.’'

The child’s response is amusing in its naivety but also potentially important. The ridiculousness of Pip’s ‘Also Georgiana’ highlights the non-fundamental nature of names and naming, unsettling the ‘authority of [the] tombstone’ Pip has already cited as coming before living witnesses as to his parentage and underlining the randomness of record and language suggested by the origins of Pip’s own name:

‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.’

'Pip's graves' in Cooling
Pip’s act of naming is undermined even as it is aggrandised. He is given an Adam-like authority to name, but lacks any spiritual knowledge to add the required solemnity. Dickens undercuts the graves and their testimony likewise, even as he uses the graveyard setting to create atmosphere. The graves are open to ludicrous misinterpretation or misreading from Pip:

‘The shape of the letters on my father’s [grave], gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.’ 

His siblings’ graves are even compared to ‘lozenges’, while one tombstone serves as a seat for Pip. And with this parody of the objects which symbolise death comes the understatement of death itself:

Pip believes that those ‘five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle’ ‘had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trouser pockets’.

There is a dark humour here, and with that a destabilisation of narrative tone. Great Expectations is known for its most macabre moments, and its gestures to the Gothic. But its use of the graveyard setting and the eery abandoned bride is self-aware. When Magwitch ends his adventure at the town Gravesend, the location's name is a wry reminder of where we began as readers.

The 'grave' in  Great Expectations does not always mark a clear boundary between the living and the dead, and its testimony is not always certain - and in both of these ways it can be seen to mirror Pip's atmospheric but unstable text itself.

Any ideas for 'H' in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Friday 15 November 2013

Mary Elizabeth Braddon - feminist? The Secret Victorianist blogs for FWSA

Illustration for Joshua Haggard's Daughter (1876)
I check out the feminist credentials of the sensational Mary Elizabeth Braddon over on the Feminist & Women's Studies Association blog!

Tuesday 12 November 2013

A Victorianist's Guide to Oxford

‘Towery city and branchy between towers’ – the opening line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘Duns Scotus’s Oxford’ has always summed up for me the appearance of England’s first university city on a sunny morning. One of Oxford’s greatest attractions is this sense of continuity with the past – the idea that the city looked much the same over a century ago and even further back than that. So for any Victorianists looking to take a trip to Oxford in the near future, I’ve compiled a list of attractions which could help you feel even closer to the Oxford of Hopkins and his contemporaries:

Print of Merton College, Oxford
Have a pint in Hardy-named pub: Jude may not have made it into a Christminster college but you can visit his namesake pub in Oxford – Jude the Obscure in Jericho. There’s also a Far from the Madding Crowd more centrally.

The library at the Oxford Union
Admire the pre-Raphaelite murals in the Union: The Oxford Union, Oxford’s student debating society (founded 1823), boasts beautiful buildings, as well as an illustrious history. Commissioned by John Ruskin, the library murals depict scenes from Arthurian myth (think Tennyson) and were painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.

Visit Keble College: Contrasting strongly with many of the older colleges, Keble (founded 1870) is every bit as grand, but strikingly different with its neo-Gothic red brick buildings, designed by William Butterfield.

Watch a play in Ancient Greek: The Oxford Greek Play has a tradition going back over130 years (you can read my post on the history of the Cambridge Greek Play here). The next production will be in Autumn 2014 at the Oxford Playhouse (and don’t worry, there are surtitles!).

Take a peek in Max Beerbohm’s room: Essayist, theatre critic and parodist Max Beerbohm (also known for his Oxford-based novel Zuleika Dobson (1911)) was at Merton College in the 1890s. A small set of rooms appended to the college’s Old Library now hold many of his satirical drawings and other items of interest.

Do you know of any other top spots for Victorianists among the dreaming spires? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!