Tuesday 25 February 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: N is for Nelly as Narrator

‘My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees – my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am a pleasure to myself – but, as my own being -’

The above – the words of the first Catherine in Emily Bronte’s 1845-6 Wuthering Heights - is one of the most powerful and famous declarations of love in Western literature. Yet at the pivotal moment – when Catherine reveals the essential connection between Heathcliff and herself, which will bind them, even beyond death – there is a strange interjection. This is the use of name which doesn’t belong to either of these lovers, or even to Edgar Linton, who completes their romantic triangle. Bronte chooses to remind us of this scene’s narrated quality concurrently with this intense emotional statement by using the name ‘Nelly’.

The servant Nelly is not only unsympathetic to the secret imparted to her, but has spent much of the preceding paragraphs trying to stop Catherine expressing her emotions at all – blocking rather than aiding the story, despite her narrator role. This is how she meets her first attempt at confidence:

‘Her [Catherine’s] lips were half asunder as if she meant to speak; and she drew a breath, but it escaped in a sigh, instead of a sentence. I resumed my song, not having forgotten her recent behaviour.’

And Nelly keeps up a caustic commentary throughout the ‘scene’:

‘she may come to the point as she will – I shan’t help her!’

Nelly disrupts and casts doubt on Catherine’s confession, providing us with a possible interpretative framework very different from the romantic tale of star-crossed soul mates which has been the novel’s afterlife. Catherine is ‘shameful’, ‘peevish’, immature (Nelly points out she is only ‘twenty-two) and either ‘ignorant of the duties’ of marriage or ‘a wicked unprincipled girl’, according to Nelly’s spoken responses and retrospective commentary.

And her interference is not only in the incident’s narration. Nelly shapes the conversation she reports, through her unhelpful responses and withholding of information. She directly lies to Catherine, saying they are alone, when in fact Heathcliff hears the opening section of their dialogue, and is evasive in her answers, casting doubt on the veracity of her narration as well as the motivation of her actions.

We can choose to ignore Nelly’s verdict on Catherine – and her quick change of subject to dwell on a minor disagreement with a servant after hearing this articulate declaration perhaps suggests that we should – but we cannot ignore the impact she has on our understanding of Catherine and Heathcliff’s story, so central is she to the retelling.

Our first narrator Lockwood is shown to be unreliable through his bumbling mistakes and ignorance of the situation in which he finds himself, but taking Nelly’s word is even more problematic. Another child exterior to the Earnshaw family but raised within the walls of Wuthering Heights, Nelly can be read as an insidious interloper, more successful than Heathcliff in installing herself within the family and manipulating the novel’s events – and it is her position as narrator which, in many cases, as above, allows her to do this.

What is your view of Nelly in Wuthering Heights? And what should be ‘O’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: M is for Melodrama, Murder and Maria Marten

One of my first introductions to Victorian stage drama was a reworking of a late nineteenth-century melodrama which we attempted in a school drama class. The version of Maria Marten; or the Murder in the Red Barn we put on seemed somewhat dull work when compared with Andrew Sachs’s wittier and more knowing The Wages of Sin, which we also attempted.

The innocent virgin Maria is butchered in a secluded spot by the evil and conniving Corder, following on from her seduction, as the audience look on at his pantomime-like villainy. In The Wages of Sin meanwhile there were gentlemen stroking table legs, a female villain, and bullets ricocheting off chandeliers. There seemed to be no competition.

Maria Marten
 It was only years on when I learned more about Maria Marten that the play took on a new interest – not only the interest of knowing that a text is based on a real story, but the interest attendant on that story’s adaption for the stage and the corresponding elisions and deletions which involve turning people into characters.

Maria Marten, 25, was murdered by her erstwhile lover William Corder, 23, in 1827 on the night on which the pair had arranged to elope. Her remains were discovered the next year after her stepmother had a series of prophetic dreams, suggesting Maria’s fate, and Corder was captured, tried and executed. The crime spawned more than a century of adaptations and artistic responses, from an article by Charles Dickens in All The Year Round to five twentieth-century film versions.

A twentieth-century film version of the story
In many of these versions, such as the first one I encountered, Maria is transformed into a type – the virginal female victim. The real Maria had had at least three lovers and three pregnancies and for the modern tabloid press these details would make the story more salacious, but in the world of melodrama this untenable.

In melodrama, the villains and victims must be clearly indicated – the characters may be blind but an audience must not be. It’s the kind of acting which argues that people cannot act and that ultimately evil and murder will out. When I first encountered Maria Marten, I found the play clich├ęd and predictable – but now I think that it is much more interesting for being so.

What should be N in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Friday 14 February 2014

Victorian Valentines

Take inspiration from nineteenth-century literature this February 14th - here are the perfect messages to ensure a steamy reception, whatever the romantic situation:

The ultimate chat-up line:

‘I hope, Cecily [INSERT NAME ACCORDINGLY], I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.’
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

 [NB: May be a little long-winded for use in a nightclub]

Prefacing a first kiss

'Take care.—If you do not speak—I shall claim you as my own in some strange presumptuous way.—Send me away at once, if I must go’
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1855)

[NB: Silence does not constitute consent]

Appreciating a long term partner:

‘I said she was lovelier than ever. She is. A fine rose, not deep but delicate, opens on her cheek. Her eye, always dark, clear, and speaking, utters now a language I cannot render; it is the utterance, seen not heard, through which angels must have communed when there was 'silence in heaven.' Her hair was always dusk as night and fine as silk, her neck was always fair, flexible, polished; but both have now a new charm. The tresses are soft as shadow, the shoulders they fall on wear a goddess grace. Once I only saw her beauty, now I feel it.’
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley (1849)

[NB: Works on birthdays too if your loved one fears ageing]

And….offering your ward who you were about to marry to another man:

‘take from me a willing gift, the best wife that ever man had. What more can I say for you than that I know you deserve her! Take with her the little home she brings you. You know what she will make it, Allan; you know what she has made its namesake. Let me share its felicity sometimes, and what do I sacrifice? Nothing, nothing.’
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-3)

[NB: No longer acceptable]

If you have any other literary lovemaking lines to share – tweet them @SVictorianist! And share the love this Valentine’s by LIKING us on Facebook.

Monday 10 February 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: L is for Laura's Landscapes

In an earlier post I looked at the earnest portrayal of the difficulties of female artistic agency in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic novel Aurora Leigh (1856), looking at how women’s position as art objects (often in portraiture) made their role as artists problematic.

 We see something similar as a more minor strand of the narrative in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860-1) where Laura Fairlie’s artistic efforts are repeatedly undermined and, importantly, the works she does produce are landscapes – excluded as she is from the world of portraiture, where men paint and women are portrayed.

Laura’s paintings are never described and Walter, her drawing master and later husband refuses to assess her work:

‘All serious criticism on the drawings, even if I had been disposed to volunteer it, was rendered impossible by Miss Halcombe's lively resolution to see nothing but the ridiculous side of the Fine Arts, as practised by herself, her sister, and ladies in general.’

The ‘masculine’ Marian (Miss Halcombe) derides Laura’s artistic skill (and that of all women) from the outset, and draws attention to the fact that what they sketch is landscape, rather than people:

‘After lunch, Miss Fairlie and I shoulder our sketch-books, and go out to misrepresent Nature, under your directions. Drawing is her favourite whim, mind, not mine. Women can't draw—their minds are too flighty, and their eyes are too inattentive. No matter—my sister likes it; so I waste paint and spoil paper, for her sake, as composedly as any woman in England.’

Laura Fairlie and Walter Hartwright in John McLenan's illustration
 Women are shown to be frivolous and childlike in their engagement with art here – the very way in which Romney views Aurora’s poetic ambitions. Later, Laura is tricked into believing that her art is supporting the family, when in fact her production of watercolour landscapes is part of her infantilisation and protection from the truth, even though she begs ‘Oh, don't, don't, don't treat me like a child!’.

Marian on the other hand is referred to repeatedly as masculine and, perhaps because of this, a large section of the novel can be written in her voice, giving her the opportunity to portray in words if not in paint. Count Fosco describes her diary as a species of portraiture, in which he (a ‘feminine’ man) becomes are object:
‘I feel how vivid an impression I must have produced to have been painted in such strong, such rich, such massive colours as these.’

For Walter however, Laura is an object not an artist, and her decline into almost madness and regression into childhood seems to intensify his desire. During their initial period together he writes:

‘At one time it seemed like something [was] wanting in HER: at another, like something [was] wanting in myself, which hindered me from understanding her as I ought.’

And, over the course of plot, Walter is made more stereotypically masculine by adventuring abroad, while Laura is made more feminine by her incarceration and loss of subjectivity.

Walter is the portrait painter not Laura – she only produces poorly imitated landscapes. And although Walter expresses dissatisfaction with his own art it is for very different reasons. He writes:

‘Does my poor portrait of her, my fond, patient labour of long and happy days, show me these things? Ah, how few of them are in the dim mechanical drawing, and how many in the mind with which I regard it!’

We might expect that the failure of portraiture suggests an interiority for the sitter which art fails to capture, but the dichotomy which is actually created is between the drawing of Laura and Walter’s own conception of her – not how she is in herself. Laura fails as an artist – she is simply a producer of mediocre landscapes – but she important as an art object because of the reaction she provokes in men:

‘Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by [her] charms.’

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

Saturday 1 February 2014

You know you've read too many Victorian novels when...

I’ve previously defended nineteenth-century literature against a range of allegations, but there’s no use in denying that frequent recourse to the worlds of Hardy, the Brontes and Braddon can have a serious effect on your psyche. Below I sketch out the potential side effects of permanently burying your head in three volume novels. You know you’ve read too many Victorian novels when… 

 1. Someone marrying their first cousin seems totally normal: And, more than, financially prudent. 

2. You feel old before you’re 30: Some time in your early to mid-twenties you’ll be hit by the sudden fear that your looks have lost their lustre and you’re definitively on the shelf. 

‘At this time of the morning Mrs Charmond looked her full age and more. She might almost have been taken for the typical femme de trente ans, though she was really not more than seven or eight and twenty’, The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy (1886-7) 

3. Clergymen appear eligible. No further comment. 

4. You faint…at ANYTHING: Marriage proposals, unexpected arrivals, even just reading a book… 

‘I read the first lines on the title-page— 
 I stopped and looked up at her. She started back from me with a scream of terror. I looked down again at the title-page, and read the next lines—
There, God's mercy remembered me. There the black blank of a swoon swallowed me up.’, The Law and the Lady, Wilkie Collins (1875) 

5. You take to your sickbed for weeks or months at a time: Maybe you attempt some fancy work, perhaps you hear about the excitements of the outside world (like this morning’s sermon), most likely do you little but suffer patiently 

6. You’d attempt murder and bigamy just to have Lady Audley’s boudoir: Who wouldn’t? 

‘the whole of her glittering toilette apparatus lay about on the marble dressing-table. The atmosphere of the room was almost oppressive for the rich odours of perfumes in bottles whose gold stoppers had not been replaced. A bunch of hot-house flowers was withering upon a tiny writing-table. Two or three handsome dresses lay in a heap upon the ground, and the open doors of a wardrobe revealed the treasures within. Jewellery, ivory-backed hair-brushes, and exquisite china were scattered here and there about the apartment.’, Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1861-2)

7. You resort to phrenology when getting to know someone.

8. You refer to items in your wardrobe using the formula ‘my [COLOUR] [FABRIC NAME]’: e.g. ‘my black silk’ or ‘my grey merino’. Your friends meanwhile are referring to ‘that drunken purchase from Asos’ or ‘that dress designed by that girl from TOWIE’. 

9. You have limited career ideas: For men: leisured aristocrat, soldier, clergyman, servant, peasant, factory worker, criminal. For women: wife, governess, actress, whore. 

10. Your nightmares consist of the following: Railway accidents, consumption, false incarceration in a madhouse, the new curate being too high/low church (delete as appropriate). 

Can you think of any other perils of reading nineteenth-century fiction? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!