Wednesday 29 October 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: W is for Witchcraft

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought I’d use ‘W’ in my Victorian Alphabet to look at a subject not often associated with the nineteenth-century – witchcraft.

Those interested in witchcraft and the supernatural most often turn to Early Modern literature (Marlowe, Middleton, Greene, Rowley, Decker and Ford), especially as the mid-1600s saw the last execution of a witch in England, or to writings centred on the Salem Witch Trials in America, later in that century. Yet superstitions surrounding magic – and particularly women as workers of evil magic – were prevalent in the England, especially in rural communities, in the Victorian period.

Any visitor to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (yet another city attraction which any budding victorianist should check out) can see English objects from the period with magical uses (e.g. a witch in a bottle, a pig’s heart struck through with pins and nails for warding away evil spirits) and the topic makes its mark on literature too.

Elizabeth Gaskell turned to the past and to Salem for her novella Lois the Witch (1861), which I wrote about previously, but Thomas Hardy is the writer whose interest in rural traditions gives us a picture of contemporary (or near contemporary) superstitions about witchcraft.

Le Chapeau de BrigandThomas Uwins (1833)

In The Return of the Native (1878) the heath dwellers are deeply suspicious of Eustacia Vye and the combination of her position as an outsider, dark beauty and lonely habits leaves her open to the charge of being a witch. In fact, this is how we are first introduced to her:

"He means, sir, that the lonesome dark-eyed creature up there that some say is a witch—ever I should call a fine young woman such a name—is always up to some odd conceit or other; and so perhaps 'tis she."

"I'd be very glad to ask her in wedlock, if she'd hae me and take the risk of her wild dark eyes ill-wishing me," said Grandfer Cantle staunchly.

"Don't ye say it, Father!" implored Christian.

Eustacia’s youth and beauty means that Timothy (the first speaker) is loath to call her a witch, while at the same time it is her attractive ‘wild dark eyes’ which make such an identification probable. As the novel progresses what we might dismiss as superstitious prattle from the locals becomes an important plot point. Eustacia is suspected to such a degree that she is physically assaulted in church, having been blamed for the illness of Susan Nunsuch’s children:

“We hadn't been hard at it for more than a minute when a most terrible screech sounded through church, as if somebody had just gied up their heart's blood. All the folk jumped up and then we found that Susan Nunsuch had pricked Miss Vye with a long stocking-needle, as she had threatened to do as soon as ever she could get the young lady to church, where she don't come very often. She've waited for this chance for weeks, so as to draw her blood and put an end to the bewitching of Susan's children that has been carried on so long. Sue followed her into church, sat next to her, and as soon as she could find a chance in went the stocking-needle into my lady's arm."

Susan Nunsuch’s victimisation of Eustacia sets in motion the closing events in the novel. She counters the girl’s suspected magic with her own, creating, attacking and eventually burning something resembling a voodoo doll she fashions to resemble Eustacia:

From her workbasket in the window-seat the woman took a paper of pins, of the old long and yellow sort, whose heads were disposed to come off at their first usage. These she began to thrust into the image in all directions, with apparently excruciating energy. Probably as many as fifty were thus inserted, some into the head of the wax model, some into the shoulders, some into the trunk, some upwards through the soles of the feet, till the figure was completely permeated with pins.

Eustacia’s death, which could be attributed to accident or suicide, could equally have a supernatural explanation because of Susan’s actions here. Witches might not be being burned at the stake in Victorian England but being suspected of witchcraft could, it seems, be equally life destroying.

This, of course, is not Hardy’s only treatment of superstitious traditions – consider Midsummer Eve in The Woodlanders (1886-7) or the role of Stonehenge in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). All too often the Victorian period can seem all too familiar and knowable, but there is plenty, even in realist fiction, for lovers of the uncanny this Halloween season.

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

Friday 24 October 2014

Review: The Tragic Muse, Henry James (1889-1890)

The Victorian stage
For better or for worse, Henry James is hard. His novels aren’t the kind of books you can doze off while reading and still have a pretty accurate awareness of what’s going on. That’s fine – improving, character building - but coupled with the fact that all I had heard about his 1889-1890 The Tragic Muse was that a) it was one of his least acclaimed works, b) the novel was linked to his disastrous attempt to succeed in the theatre, and c) the plot revolved around two artists’ creative struggles, I have to admit that I wasn’t overly hopeful about the level of enjoyment I was going to derive from this one.

I was very wrong. Okay, I still didn’t fly through this at the pace at which I can devour Braddon, Dickens and Collins but The Tragic Muse was well-constructed, engaging and eminently enjoyable – here’s why.

For general readers: Nick Dormer (one of the aforementioned artists) is a character who faces the Victorian equivalent of a First World Problem. His family expects and assumes he will be an eminent politician (like his late father), while he wants to devote his life to art, specifically portrait painting. The novel deals with some of the fallout from this clash – and from Nick’s ‘double nature’, which sees him responding to elements of each potential lifestyle and career path. This fallout isn’t dramatic – this isn’t the stuff of divorce courts, murder attempts and bigamy trials – but it’s exquisitely realised from multiple perspectives. There is Nick himself, burdened with responsibility but with an agency not granted to his female relations. There is his long-suffering mother, reduced to living largely off others and begging her son to appease her. And there are his sisters – one totally unlike Nick and unable to understand his position, the other akin to him in spirit, but limited by her gender.

And that’s just one strand of the plot. In a novel with over 50 named characters, James allows you to appreciate, even fleetingly, almost everyone’s point of view. This comes out most impressively in his complex multi-speaker dialogues, which feel real, and in his pivotal duologues, which also pack an emotional punch. Nick’s proposal to his rich widowed cousin Julia is one of the most finely balanced chapters I’ve encountered in nineteenth-century literature and demonstrates an understanding of humans as thinking, feeling and social animals which any reader will respond to.

For students: Some critics have called The Tragic Muse un-Jamesian. I don’t agree that it is, as it shares the same social concerns and the same methods of inspection that you come to expect from James’s most popular novels, but it certainly has points of difference from James’s other novels, which are worthy of comment. For a start, James strays away here from one of his favourite themes – the differences between the English and Americans. The novel is entirely European, as it begins in Paris and is largely set in London (with one character enjoying a jaunt to the colonies). Miriam Rooth – the actress who is the tragic muse herself – has Jewish heritage, but this is not explored in detail.

The interest with the theatre is also idiosyncratic and is, no doubt, one of the biggest reasons students may choose to read the novel. As well as casting light on James’s personal experiences with the art form, the novel is interesting because Miriam joins a raft of other fictional actresses and performers in the period (e.g. I’ve writtenpreviously on Bianca in Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half Sisters and Miriam, as active artist, may be a neat point of comparison with George du Maurier’s passive and eponymous Trilby). Nick’s cousin Peter is an important character whose views on whether or not Miriam is marriageable while she remains on the stage, could well inform historical studies on the respectability of actresses (who often retired upon marriage) in the period. 

Which nineteenth-century novel should the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Friday 17 October 2014

Theatre Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Alchemic Order, London

It’s a Friday night in South East London and I’m standing at the door of an unmarked house, exchanging nervous glances with the stranger beside me. A few seconds pass and a mustachioed man answers the door, inquiring furtively if we wish to see Mr Dorian Gray (we do).

Samuel Orange as Lord Henry
This is the weird world of The Alchemic Order’s immersive adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novella – a world which director Samuel Orange (who doubles as a dominating Lord Henry Wotton) and set designers Feix & Merlin have lovingly crafted, by transforming a London townhouse. There are secret doors, mirrored ceilings and unexpected peepholes into rooms below. A columned structure in the garden is at once Sybil Vane’s theatre and the area from which the audience peer into Dorian’s (Jamie Walker) home, catching glimpses of his narcissistic and homoerotic dalliances with the man who plays his portrait (Tommy Fitzer) and his brutal murder of Basil Hallwood (Johannes Lundberg).

What suits The Picture of Dorian Gray to such a treatment is the story’s obsession with the sensual – we can actually smell strong fragrances, inhale the cigar smoke, touch the silk sheets which moments before a naked Dorian writhed under, enter the hazy atmosphere of a basement opium den. The performance shows an admirable attention to detail, and an acquaintance with the text bordering on fandom (similar to the adaptation of Sherlock Holmes I reviewed a few months ago). Its success is somewhat reliant on its novelty (the acting isn’t perfect and some scenes shine through more than others, just as in Wilde’s story) but this doesn’t make it gimmicky. It’s a Dorian Gray experience, a really decadent way to spend a Friday evening, and, on a good night like the one I went to, an engaged and responsive audience means the promenade style never feels awkward.

Fun, well-conceived and close to the text, I’d recommend the show to Wilde fans, Wilde novices and anyone who fancies a fun and different night out (you can even order drinks from the bar throughout the performance and at one point you’re offered an absinthe shot).

Jamie Walker as Dorian and Tommy Fitzer as the portrait

The Picture of Dorian Gray is running Wednesdays-Saturdays until 1st November.
Tickets cost between £37.50 and £47.50 and are available here. 

Friday 10 October 2014

A Dickensian Master Class in Storytelling

Strictly speaking I haven’t read Charles Dickens’s ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ (1854). I listened to it on Librivox – an amazing website/app which allows you to listen to audio-books for free, thanks to the efforts of volunteer readers. Because Librivox records only works which are out of copyright, it’s one of my go-to sites for nineteenth-century literature and, if you’re a writer who wants to fit more time in for ‘reading’, it’s a wonderful tool to check out!

Listening to literature is a different experience – and one which throws into sharp relief a writer’s storytelling abilities. With other distractions, and wandering eyes, what keeps your brain engaged in a story? When Dickens wrote for his magazine Household Words he knew many of his fans would have the story read aloud to them, as part of a family’s evening entertainment, so, having already looked at Dickens’s expert handling of first person narration and repetition, I thought I’d take you through some aspects of this short story which could help you improve your own storytelling technique. 

Know your place: ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ was Dickens’s story for his fifth Christmas edition of Household Words, meaning his fame would have been known to almost all his readers. But, for any writer, it can be very effective to establish your own relationship to your story – especially if you’ll be delivering your story orally. Dickens begins in the first person and roots his story firmly in the present and in reality – the reality of an actual charity institution in Rochester he says he visited. The story he goes on to tell is actually about the Napoleonic Wars but establishing believability from the outset helps draw the reader in, while inflecting a story with personality captures listeners’ attention, much like in a conversation.

Layer up: In ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’, Dickens’s trip to Rochester, and Christmas celebrations with the poor travellers there, proves to be a frame narrative, with the story proper starting only when the party begin to talk. For Victorian listeners this would mean they were, at points, listening to the family’s reader reading a story by Dickens about a conversation he had with a group of strangers, including a story about a Napoleonic soldier, who, in some sections, is telling the story of his life to his interlocutors. This layering of narrative isn’t just a question of a plausible opening – it creates depth. Drawn in, it’s like you’re falling down a rabbit hole, passing through layers from which it’s difficult to extract yourself, like a dream within a dream. Lost in the inner story, at times it can be a shock to remember that moments before we were hearing about a meagre Christmas celebration, and moments before that we were leading our everyday lives, separate from the story at all. There are plenty of other examples of this (ancient, modern, literary, musical and cinematic) – cf. Arabian Nights, folk ballads, Canterbury Tales, The Princess Bride. Try it – it works. 

Mood matters: Have you ever noticed how movie and film makers adapt their credits to genre? Whether it’s the Harry Potter music playing over the production company logo, or the Simpsons cavorting before the title appears? It helps establish mood – and quickly. Viewers need to know what they are getting – magic and mystery (darker as the films progress) or comedy and slapstick. Stories need to do that too. It’s okay if you’re writing a story which will be read aloud to use quick cues – even stereotypes – to help your listeners get their heads in the right space and start to supply further details mentally. Christmas works like this for Dickens, as does solitude. The two ideas – of Yuletide celebration and of isolation from fellow men (which the poor travellers suffer constantly, and Dickens on this occasion) need only the slightest of descriptions, as we already know the rest. It’s a kind of storytelling shorthand which helps people feel involved. When you’re delivering a story aloud you shouldn’t go in for paragraph after paragraph of description and explanation. Which are the telling details? Dickens tells us about the soldier’s fleeting memories from his fevered hospital bed, or how the widowed mother whose son has died spends just one of her many lonely evenings, because there’s no need to say more about the layout of the sick room, or a poor sad woman’s day to day routine.

Raise the stakes: Short stories usually have anything but a slight subject matter and a good storyteller can distil some of life’s most important issues into the briefest of tales. Dickens’s story is the story of a man’s life and spiritual transformation and he doesn’t need to write a novel to tell it well. You’ll need to play with time, refer to the past, and skip into the future, while choosing for the present the events which require and/or reward particular attention. Just don’t forget – people want stories with drama and emotional resonance. Think about those embarrassing stories in magazines, successful TV advertisements, that 6-word Hemingway short story. Why not set yourself a flash fiction challenge to explore a powerful important issue in under 200 words?

I hope you found this post useful if you write! Don’t forget to check out my other ‘Master Classes’, courtesy of Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton and let me know if there are any other topics where you think the Secret Victorianist could help, by commenting below or on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!