Sunday 27 April 2014

The Secret Victorianist at the UK Blog Awards 2014

On Friday night I was lucky enough (thanks to your votes!) to attend the awards ceremony for the UK Blog Awards 2014 at Grange St. Paul’s here in London. The awards recognise the best of British blogging talent and celebrate the diversity of subjects people like to read and write about online – from weddings to automobiles, health and fitness to PR, and, the category my blog was nominated for, Arts and Culture.

Blogging can feel like a private and confessional activity, even if you don’t write about your own life. I post from bed, dream up blog topics in the bath, and have been known to steal WiFi from unsuspecting neighbours while staying with my grandmother just to respond to your comments. So attending an event as the Secret Victorianist for the first time was novel and a little nerve-wracking. Meeting each finalist at the awards gave an instant insight into someone else’s private world. I met people who dedicate hours of their time to writing about food or beauty products outside their nine to five, students using blogging to help them secure jobs after graduating, those who run organisational blogs for whom this was a work event and, occasionally, men and women for whom their blogs are a full time occupation, with more clicks equalling more food on the table, or an extra pint at the pub.

While this was a competition then, there was definitely an atmosphere of camaraderie, as no two blogs are ever on the same topic. Arts and Culture alone included everything from crocheting to folk music to mediaeval manuscripts. Our category judges were Richard Moss, Editor of the Culture 24 website, and Claire Barlow, Regional Manager for Arts & Business North West, and the task of picking out winners mustn’t have been easy. Carli Palmer, a judge for the Retail and Fashion category, who works as a Social Media and Content Marketing Manager for House of Fraser, told me the judging process took her a solid weekend of reading - not just the blogs themselves, but bloggers’ various social channels. For each category, there were 10 shortlisted finalists, and, on the night, the judges awarded one or two Highly Commended awards, before announcing the category winner.

I was surprised and delighted to be Highly Commended for best individual Arts and Culture blog, along with Urban Kultur. After only 10 months of blogging, it’s wonderful to know that people enjoy what you’re writing and have supported your efforts by voting. The category was won by Skyliner – a wonderful blog on the cultural heritage of Manchester which I keep up to date with by following @custardlove on Twitter. The full list of shortlisted blogs in our category can be seen here and are well worth checking out! The awards night was a great experience and made me even keener to keep sharing what I love about literature with you on my site and follow up with the people I meet through the blog in the real world too.

In my next posts I’ll be back to my normal blogging topics, reviewing Esther Waters which I wrote about in my recent post on ‘invisible’ nineteenth-century pregnancies, and picking up with ‘Q’ in my Victorian Alphabet. If you have any suggestions for what you’d like to read about on the blog, or know of any exhibitions, events and performances coming up which are likely to interest me and other budding Victorianists, then, as ever, let me know – by commenting below, tweeting @SVictorianist or getting in touch via Facebook.

Friday 18 April 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: P is for Pregnancy

The 2008 BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles (1891) has gone down in my family folklore. Gemma Arterton as Tess appeared in shot cradling her child (Sorrow) and my then boyfriend looked around the room in confusion, uttering the immortal words ‘where did the baby come from?’.

Naturally we all (especially my younger sister) found the question hysterical, but he had a point - the adaptation, like the novel, had skimmed over nine months of pregnancy and the moment of the child’s conception, with its corresponding questions of consent, had been suggestive, rather than overt, in its dramatisation. While in the case of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, censorship had altered this portion of the novel, this anecdote is simply a reliving the experience of many inexperienced readers of Victorian novels for whom babies appear apparently unexpected, as if no one, even the mother, expected them beforehand.

So, for those new to picking up implied pregnancies, here are some top ‘clues’ that a child may be on its way:

1. The disappearing act: A major female character (usually recently married) seems to ‘disappear’ from the text for a while. During pregnancy, women who could afford to often led a relatively inactive lifestyle and stayed indoors. And not doing so was regarded as inappropriate, and potentially dangerous for the child (see the May family’s concern for Flora in Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain (1871) which I reviewed recently). This means characters who played a large role in a novel during their girlhood can drop dramatically out of view when pregnant, for instance Thomasin Yeobright in Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878).

2. Delicacy: A husband shows excessive concern for his wife’s wellbeing. If a husband expresses worry over his wife completing a seemingly innocuous task (like walking somewhere or riding in a carriage), odds on, she’s pregnant (although she could also be consumptive…).

3. Condition: Anyone reference’s a female character’s ‘condition’. They don’t mean she has a headache. She’s definitely pregnant.

4. Relationships: If a female character appears to have had sex before marriage, she’ll probably become pregnant – it’s the way her actions can have consequences in plot terms (think Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3)). Likewise, using true novelistic logic, if a marriage is happy, there are likely to be children, whereas unhappy marriages will be fruitless or result in potentially morally vindictive infant death (think Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861)).

I recently finished reading George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), which was a marked contrast to this. The novel was seen as shocking at the time because of its liberality and explicitness and Esther’s pregnancy (while unmarried) comprises a large part of this. We are aware of the pregnancy from the very moment that Esther is:

‘She did not think – her mind was lost in the vague sensation of William, and it was in this death of active memory that something awoke inside her, something that seemed to her like a flutter of wings; her heart seemed to drop from its socket, and she nearly fainted away, but recovering herself she stood by the kitchen table, her arms drawn back and pressed to her sides, a death-like pallor over her face, and drops of sweat on her forehead. The truth was borne in upon her.’

We are told:

‘There was still the hope that she might be mistaken; and this hope lasted for one week, for two, but at the end of the third week it perished, and she abandoned herself in prayer.’

It’s about as close as a nineteenth-century novel comes to actively discussing a woman’s menstrual cycle.

When Esther goes into labour we are similarly allowed access to her feelings and impressions, her fear at seeing ‘the basins on the floor, the lamp on the round table, and the glint of steel instruments’ while surrounded by the noise of other women’s screams in the hospital, and her sense of shame at realising how many people will see her unclothed. This is how Esther reacts to a young doctor – ‘Oh no, not him, not him Not him, not him, he is too young! Do not let him come near me!’. She is met by laughter but her response is an internalisation of the silence surrounding pregnancy which the other novels are part of – a dramatisation of the trauma pregnancy and labour entails for those to taught to cover up and hide.

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

Friday 11 April 2014

Review: A Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert (1869)

Gustave Flaubert

A Sentimental Education is the story of Frederic Moreau –a young man from the provinces who arrives in Paris, with great ambitions and romantic ideals, and goes on to witness the revolution of 1848, with its corresponding political change and social upheaval. 

For general readers: A Sentimental Education is obsessed with conveying feeling – of a time, a society and an individual – more than delivering plot. Characters disappear and reappear and focus shifts with the developing emotional and mental life of the protagonist the only constant.

Moreau is a deeply flawed character – cowardly, selfish and entirely preoccupied with his all-eclipsing emotional life. Yet somehow he manages to engage reader sympathy. We feel for him as he pines hopelessly over another man’s wife – the beautiful, long-suffering Madame Arnoux – and sympathise as he deals with the coquettish courtesan Rosanette (‘The Marshal’). Moreau’s fickleness and his self-obsessed nature are not unique character traits. Almost everyone who features in the novel is the same (with a partial exception perhaps of Frederic’s mother and Madame Arnoux) and it is the capricious course of human action in all things, whether politics or love, which directs action.

At times the novel feels like an assault on the senses – violence on the streets, decadent parties, a surplus of flesh and feeling. But, for a novel obsessed with desire, sex itself is often lacking, and, where it features, dissatisfying. The novel ends with Frederic and his friend Deslauriers discussing a teenage visit to a brothel when the very sight of the women available to them made them turn and flee. They agree that this was their ‘best time’, confirming the belief throughout the novel that feelings themselves are more meaningful than experiences and desire sated is desire lost. 

For students: Published nearly a decade after his most famous novel – Madame Bovary (1857) – A Sentimental Education is a good text for comparison, dealing as it does again with the emotional life of a central character (this time a man) and similar sexual ‘immorality’.

For students of English literature, the novel is an interesting read for understanding the hostility towards the moral liberality of French realism. Henry James’s admiration for Flaubert is also understandable and telling. Flaubert’s characters’ realities are Jamesian in their subjective nature and there is the same obsession with the randomness of human interactions, though perhaps, in this instance at least, put under a less tragic and more satirical lens.

Have you read A Sentimental Education? What did you think? And which nineteenth-century novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday 5 April 2014

English Literature Study Skills: Using Criticism

In my previous post I looked at strategies for reading when it comes to approaching a new novel for study, discussing note taking, note reading, pace of progression, reference to additional resources and using introductions as afterwords. In this post I look at the next steps for studying a text – looking at what happens when you start dipping your toe into the scary world of criticism and identifying the best places to start:

Introductions: Here’s where I left off last time. Reading the intro before finishing the text leads to boredom, bias and spoilers, but reading it straight after finishing can be incredibly helpful. A well-written introduction references the key critical ideas when it comes to a text and can point you to some good pieces of criticism from which to start. But beware. That bargain fifth-hand copy you bought on Ebay may not be up to date when it comes to critical reception. And your teachers, tutors or lecturers are going to want to see analysis from you which goes beyond that provided in the most commonly read copy.

Companions: The Cambridge Companions can be a great place to start when it comes to approaching a new author, genre or period. Each Companion is comprised of essays by prominent scholars in the field, covering a range of important issues affecting the topic. e.g. the Companion to George Eliot has essays dealing with her life, politics in her novels, and the representation of gender in her work (among others). What’s great about the Companions is that they serve as a general introduction when read cover to cover without being dumbed down because of the calibre in contributors. Alternatively, they are useful as reference books. The chapter on gender will cite multiple other critics who have dealt with this topic, meaning it can act as a handy guide to their arguments, if this is an area you are also looking at.

Contemporary reviews: You can find collections of these for major authors and you can also usually find them online. They are important for understanding context and can act as good starting points for your own essays – especially if you use one which is less well known.

Journals: Students are often under time pressures and all too often you are quite far into a critical work before you realise it’s not going to be helpful to you - journal articles help solve this problem as they are quicker to read and often state in the first paragraph what their argument will be. Some authors even have whole journals dedicated to them (e.g. The Wellsian on H.G. Wells) which means you can use their catalogues as an index for identifying critics and arguments you want to pursue.

Do you have any other tips when it comes to starting your critical reading? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!