Sunday 27 December 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: Property, Valerie Martin (2003)

One of the biggest objections you could make to the otherwise accomplished novels I’ve looked at as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series is that they are often peopled with ‘Mary Sues’—idealised characters who have surprisingly 21st-century morals and ambitions despite the 19th-century setting.

In Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White there was the implausibly educated proto-feminist prostitute Sugar, in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus the magical Cirque des Reves allows its inhabitants to live outside the strictures of Victorian society, and in Natasha Pulley's The Watchmaker of Filigree Street love blossoms between a civil servant and his Japanese watchmaker friend, without any internal struggles about the practicalities of pursuing an interracial homosexual relationship in 19th-century London.

Valerie Martin (1948-)
Valerie Martin’s Property, winner of the 2003 Orange Prize, runs into no such issues. With unflinching realism it tells the story of a white plantation owner’s wife in the American South, in her own words—and her views are every bit as foreign to our modern way of thinking as you’d expect.

Manon Gaudet is a victim of a patriarchal society, epitomised by her nameless and tyrannical husband. She’s denied the right to own property or determine the course of her life and is unable to ward off her husband’s unwanted sexual advances. But she fails to note the obvious parallels between her position and that of the black slave Sarah (by whom her husband has fathered two children) or that her position is one of extreme privilege when compared to all the slaves owned and used by her husband.

Instead she is a perpetrator of abuse. She judges her husband for his cruelty in the opening moments of the novel, as he ‘tests’ the young men on the plantation and whips one for getting an erection in the course of his twisted game. But it becomes increasingly clear that she dehumanizes the slaves too, and, in one of the most shocking moments in the novel, she takes possession of Sarah’s body, just like her husband, drinking milk from her breast to comfort herself on the death of her mother.

Reading Property as a white woman makes you feel dirty, horrified to think that you might be Manon had you been born into the world she inhabits. At the start of the novel, I was worried that the villainous husband was a little too morally straightforward, that this would be a book that put the ‘blame’ for the problematic history of the American South squarely on white men, but the ending shows that this is a story about how escaping a racist patriarchy doesn’t just mean escaping one man or men. Manon is part of the problem, even if she suffers for it. And Martin isn’t going to swoop in with a moment of unlikely revelation for her, even if her protagonist is aware that others, in the North, think about black men and women differently.

Short, tautly written and quietly brilliant, Property is well worth reading—just don’t expect a happy ending.

What should the Secret Victorianist read next in the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Merry Christmas from the Secret Victorianist – Holiday Entertainments in New York City

There’s something undeniably Victorian about Christmas entertainments—both musical and theatrical—especially when they have multigenerational appeal.

In the last week, the Secret Victorianist was lucky enough to attend two productions often performed during the festive season and designed to appeal to the whole family—one with nineteenth-century, and the other with eighteenth-century, origins.

First up was Christmas ballet The Nutcracker, performed by the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet company in DUMBO, Brooklyn. The premiere of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece was in 1892 at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, but the ballet didn’t enjoy consistent repetition in the early years.

With Russia’s ballet dancers fleeing the revolution in the early twentieth century, The Nutcracker wasn’t performed in Europe until 1927, when it was danced in Budapest, coming to London in 1934. With the release of Disney’s Fantasia in 1940, the now ubiquitous score became recognisable to American audience, but the first New York Nutcracker wasn’t until 1954.

In the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s production, the girl at the centre of this festive fairy tale is Marie, as in E.T.A Hoffman’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, rather than the now more common Clara (I blogged two years ago about the name ‘Clara’ and its Victorian history).

Dawn Milatin stars and does a beautiful job capturing the character’s childlike excitement in Act One, before progressing to be a fully-fledged and more adult prima ballerina in Act Two. In this production, there is no Sugar Plum Fairy, no Land of Sweets. The focus is firmly on Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, danced by Erez Milatin – Dawn’s husband.

The central pair excels and there are also captivating performances from the dancers playing the various ambassador dolls, but the standard of the lesser performers varies slightly (as you’d expect with the number of young dancers who are still in the Academy).

Overall, despite some creaks in the set and the huge size of the collective company, the ballet was a joy – brimming with character and emotion and clearly delighting the hoards of young ballet-goers gathered for the occasion, arraigned in their tutus and excited to experience a Christmas classic for the first time.

Next up was the Manhattan Opera Studio’s rendition of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.

The opera premiered in Vienna in 1791 and enjoyed immediate popularity, racking up 100 performances in the first year alone. With its magical subject matter and array of colourful characters, the work continues to be loved by opera fans and those new to the art form, acting as a gateway opera, just as The Nutcracker is a gateway ballet.

Weill Recital Hall
The Manhattan Opera Studio’s performance was a celebration of the organisation’s 125th anniversary and brought the magic of the story to life, even in the intimate recital hall, without the elaborate sets I’d seen in the Met’s production earlier in the year. The costuming however nodded to the work's rich performance history, with Sarastro (Hans Tashijan) in particular decked out so extravagantly he had to move sideways through the exit.

The standard of singing was high, with Kyle van Schoonhoven as Tamino and the three ladies (Bridget Casey, Angela Dinkelman and Brittany Catalano) giving particularly good performances. And Nina Kassis, as the Queen of the Night, succeeded in hitting the high notes of the opera's famous arias. The acting however was definitely clunky, most noticeably in the more comic moments with Pagageno (Siddharth Dubey). I felt a little relieved every time the cast resumed singing.

The recital-style performance in the gorgeous setting of the Hall (in use since the Carnegie’s opening in 1891) was a wonderful experience. Seeing the singers so close is something you don’t get exposure to in the cavernous Lincoln Centre and I also enjoyed being able to watch pianist and conductor Michael Wittenburg, who was onstage alongside the actors.

I’d love to hear what entertainments you and your family are enjoying this Holiday season, in New York and elsewhere. Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Merry Christmas, and thanks for following!

Sunday 13 December 2015

Opera Review: Tosca, The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca is based on an 1887 French play by Victorien Sardou and was first performed in Rome in the January of 1900.

Yet this opera favourite is intimately connected to its setting – the Rome of 1800. The city’s inhabitants wait to hear the outcome of the Battle of Marengo, while, against the background of various Roman monuments, political strife leads to a series of personal tragedies.

Unlike the Met’s Rigoletto, which I reviewed a few weeks ago for this blog, this Tosca is traditional in its appearance and costuming, as we journey from the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle to the Palazzo Farnese and, ultimately, to the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Act II of the Met's production
This season sees a rotating cast of 9 taking on the opera’s lead characters. I saw Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role, with Italian tenor Roberto Aronica as Cavaradossi and Italian baritone Marco Vratogna as Scarpia.

Monastyrska is charming in Act One, as Tosca flirts with Cavaradossi and struggles to contain her unfounded jealousy, but really comes into her own in her scenes with Vratogna, as she tries to free her lover from torture and protect herself from Scarpia’s advances.

Rather than the steady descent into tragedy that many operas follow, what I love about Tosca is how close we come to a happy ending. Even though we know that their escape will fail, in this production there was something so touching about the lovers’ reunion that you almost start believing with them.

What’s more, with Scarpia dead - the ‘bad guy’ defeated – Cavaradossi’s death, and then Tosca’s, feels unfair rather than unavoidable, provoking an emotional response much more similar to losses we might have experienced in our own lives.

The performance felt like a little slice of Rome over Thanksgiving weekend in New York City – filled with passion and dramatic in its staging, but still somehow relatable enough to be genuinely affecting.

What do you think the Secret Victorianist should see next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (2011)

Post-November it feels appropriate to write about one of the greatest successes to come out of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in recent years – Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which enjoyed widespread critical attention and seven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List.

The Night Circus straddles fantasy and romance, in a late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century setting, as Celia and Marco – orphans reared to develop their magical powers – compete in the environs of the mysterious travelling spectacle in a battle designed to leave only one victor.

There is much to admire in the novel. It’s opening (‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.’) will probably – and rightly – be used as an example of a great ‘hook’ in creative writing classes across the English-speaking world.

Morgenstern has a highly sensory imagination. The world of the circus is a rich one, with an apparently endless number of tents designed to blur the line between reality and illusion, the possible and the magical. This for instance is the Cloud Maze:

‘The tower itself is a series of platforms swooping in odd, diaphanous shapes, quite similar to clouds. They are layered, like a cake. From what Bailey can see, the space between the layers varies from room enough to walk straight through to barely enough to crawl. Here and there parts of it almost float away from the central tower, drifting off into space.’

A hallmark of Morgenstern’s descriptions, which helps create the dreamlike atmosphere of the Le Cirque des Reves, is her imprecision. This is the Cloud Maze but the platforms it contains are only ‘quite similar to clouds’. We are reminded that this is only ‘what Bailey can see’ – there may be even more to this tent than we imagine. And what does the final sentence actually mean? Do parts of this construction float and drift or not?

This imprecision, which can work so well, occasionally becomes irritating on close reading. What colour are the kittens in the following?

‘A kaleidoscope of colour, blazing with carmine and coral and canary, so much so that the entire room often appears to be on fire, dotted with fluffy kittens dark as soot and bright as sparks.’

Erin Morgenstern (1978-)
But where Morgenstern’s vagueness is most detrimental to the novel isn’t in her descriptive passages but in her plotting and characterisation – to which this non-committal approach unfortunately also applies.

Billed as an epic love story and a fierce battle, The Night Circus reads like neither. It’s hard to feel for characters who you only understand on a superficial level, as more ink is spilled on describing their gowns, their apartments and their bowler hats than on exploring their interiority.

The tension that should come from the deadly tournament never materialises, as you are sure there must be some escape in this world where the rules are constantly changing. Halfway through the novel, Marco and Celia admit to each other that neither wants to win. I was hopeful for a twist or a betrayal, but this is a Romeo and Juliet where everything goes to plan for the star-crossed lovers.

Intrigued by the opening and pulled in by the world building, I kept waiting for clever storytelling to hit me hard, but the novel is the epitome of style over substance.

The same is true of the historical setting. The characters don’t read as nineteenth-century at all, except in the visual cues Morgenstern borrows from the period, which is a shame as it would have worked well to have some sense of the real world the characters were escaping from.

I was excited by the introduction of the ‘reveurs’ – visitors to the circus so enamoured by the experience that they create a subculture around following it around the world – thinking to find some clever interplay with late Victorian aestheticism, but this comparison went no further.

The novel is what The Great Gatsby would be were it only a catalogue of Gatsby’s parties, it’s The Picture of Dorian Gray if Wilde’s story didn’t move beyond the environs of Basil Haywood’s studio on a summer’s day.

That said, it’s worth reading. This too is one neo-Victorian novel that seems like a prime target for beautiful adaptation on film. But, while you may fall in the love with the night circus itself, it will be with the world - not the story.

Which novel should the Secret Victorianist read next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 28 November 2015

The Secret Victorianist at Open House New York: Morris-Jumel Mansion

Midway through October, entry to many of the city’s most important historic buildings was free to the general public as part of Open House New York.

I took the opportunity to visit the Morris-Jumel Mansion – Manhattan’s only remaining Colonial residence, situated off 160th Street. The mansion’s museum is open throughout the year, Tuesday-Sunday, with admission at $10 for adults, but, in honour of Open House weekend, fees were waived and there were additional tours.

Built in 1765, the villa served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776 and was also the location for a dinner party attended by Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Henry Knox in 1790.

It was this link to the Revolutionary period that guaranteed the building’s survival, with the Daughters of the American Revolution playing a vital role in the mansion’s conservation in the early twentieth century - including some questionable choices in restoration.

In the museum’s current iteration, however, its custodians are looking to move away from the house’s political significance and deck it out as it would have looked in the nineteenth century, when it served as a family home to French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his formidable American wife, Eliza.

'Washington's headquarters'
Learning about Eliza Jumel is one of the biggest draws for going to the mansion and taking a tour. Born Eliza Bowen into a working class Irish Catholic family in 1775, she worked as a domestic servant and an actress before going on to become one of the richest American socialites of the nineteenth century.

She married Jumel in 1804 and the pair bought the Morris Mansion in 1810. They were Bonapartists who claimed (probably falsely) that several of the trappings still visible in the house were gifts from Napoleon acquired during their trip to France in 1815.

After the death of her first husband in 1832, Eliza quickly married former Vice President (and killer of Alexander Hamilton) Aaron Burr. The pair soon separated, but, in a plot straight from a Victorian novel, their divorce came through on the date of Burr’s death in 1836 leading to legal wrangling over whether Eliza should be treated as his ex-wife or widow.

Eliza’s own death – at age 90 in 1865 – was also followed by litigation, as there was a 17-year battle over her sizeable estate. A portrait of Eliza along with the two claimants hangs on the upper landing of the house, although one half of the painting was covered by a curtain to hide the disowned party, during the later years of Eliza’s life.

The garden
It’s a little strange to visit a historical house where the interest is more often in possibilities than certainties. The Morris-Jumel Mansion – fittingly given its great age for New York - has become the centre point for a range of apocryphal stories, many focused on Eliza.

The rooms are beautiful and will look even better when they are further rearranged to reflect the Jumel era and the anachronistic wallpaper in the mansion’s famous octagonal drawing room is stripped away. If you find yourself that far uptown and looking for a slice of truly old New York then take a tour of the Georgian country house – you won’t be disappointed.

Where else in New York should the Secret Victorianist visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Opera Review: Rigoletto, The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

George Gagnidze as Rigoletto
Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic opera about a debauched duke, his deformed jester, and the hunchback’s beautiful daughter, based on a Victor Hugo play, was first performed in Venice in 1851.

Michael Mayer’s energetic production at the Met (now in performance for the third time) transports the action from sixteenth-century Mantua to 1960s Las Vegas. Expect neon lights, a casino, and a seedy strip club, with the duke (Stephen Costello) a flamboyant playboy, who, in the first act, is set upon by an Arab tycoon (Stefan Szkafarowsky) for seducing his daughter.

Olga Peretyatko and Stephen Costello
The sixties is a clever choice of time period. It is an opportunity for colourful set (Christine Jones) and costume (Susan Hilferty) design, but also, strangely, makes sense. The tension between a highly sexed, drunken lifestyle and the more conservative morality Gilda (Olga Peretyatko) represents rings true, as does the physical threat of violence from Stefan Kocan’s mobster-style assassin.

George Gagnidze is Rigoletto himself, bringing gravitas to a production that leans to the humorous, especially due to the loose and amusing translation of the English subtitles. He is particularly touching in his scenes with his daughter, before and after her deflowering, but also does a good job in scenes with the Duke’s entourage, holding our attention throughout the flashing lights and dramatic dance sequences.

Olga Peretyatko
It’s the Duke’s ‘La donna è mobile’ that the audience leaves humming (of course!) but, in the final act, there’s a real pathos in the juxtaposition between Costello’s lighthearted singing and the moment of tragedy – as Gilda’s body is revealed (inside the trunk of a car here, not a sack).

I was entertained throughout, with the three hour running time flying by. There are performances until 17th December, so if you’re in the city (and even if you’re a newbie to opera), go!

Do you know of any other shows with nineteenth-century origins currently playing in New York? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley (2015)

The latest novel I read as part of my neo-Victorian series was Natasha Pulley’s remarkable debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – a fantastical tale of time manipulation, terrorist bombings, and – er – a Gilbert and Sullivan libretto – published this year.

Pulley’s novel has garnered a fair amount of attention – and has significant appeal at shelf, due to David Mann’s beautiful cover design. But my feelings as a reader, when I reached the end, were a little mixed.

What I loved

The setting: London is at the heart of Victorian literature and, up until now, this has been the case for much neo-Victorian literature too. But The Watchmaker of Filigree Street isn’t just about London. Several chapters take place in nineteenth-century Japan – a fascinating setting I haven’t seen dealt with much before. I thought it was really smart how Pulley chose to write a story linking both locales, allowing her to play on tropes of Victorian London, while introducing something new.

The octopus: A Maths textbook I had as a child featured a robotic cat sidekick I longed to adopt. In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, the eponymous watchmaker, Keita Mori, has a mechanical octopus, which had a similar effect on me. The octopus isn’t sentient. It runs on randomised gears, making its actions unpredictable (a crucial element in the intricate plot). But it is undoubtedly one of the novel’s best characters, surprising and amusing us from its first appearance to its last. The choice of an octopus is also a fun nod to the neo-Victorian/steampunk aesthetic.

Character diversity: Pulley’s characters aren’t all male, straight and white. Yes, this should be a given, but sadly it’s not - and it was refreshing to see a writer choosing a diverse cast, but making them act and face obstacles in ways that feels believable for the time period (it’s 1883).

The complexity: As with much sci-fi and fantasy dealing with the question of time, Pulley’s plot takes some puzzling over, but she definitely pulls it off. She has a gift for complex descriptions and explanations, and is able to maintain a lay reader’s interest even when writing of mathematics, telegraphy, or musical theory.

Natasha Pulley

What disappointed me

The pacing: Sadly, the early stages of the novel drag. The protagonist, Thaniel Steepleton, leads a monotonous life, moving between his grim lodgings and dull civil service job. While it’s definitely important to establish Thaniel’s world before we are introduced to the oddities of Mori’s shop – flocks of mechanical birds, test tubes of magical rain – there definitely could have been some cuts here, and you may find it slow going for the first 80 pages.

Characters/Relationships: Another reason the octopus was the most appealing character was because the others were a little infuriating. Mori I liked, but Thaniel was hard to warm to and Grace Carrow – another POV character – had few redeeming features. Grace was the most disappointing feature of the book. A female physicist smart enough to dupe Mori, who has powers allowing him to affect the future, should have been a wonderful addition, but I was frequently baffled by her motivations. The novel’s main romantic relationship also comes out of nowhere, which is a shame, as so much of a romantic subplot comes from the will they/won’t they drama – which could have been really effective here.

The Irish context: The inciting incident in the plot is an attack on Scotland Yard by Irish Republican group Clan na Gael and I was really interested in how Pulley was going to weave the Irish political situation in the 1880s into her story. However, unlike the Japanese portions, those sections dealing with the Irish threat rang less true and didn’t feel so well researched.

Have you read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street? I would love to know what you thought! Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday 7 November 2015

Review: Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell (1864-5)

It’s very rare to grieve for someone who died 150 years ago, but that’s how I felt when I reached the ‘end’ of Elizabeth Gaskell’s mammoth Wives and Daughters – her final novel which was left just unfinished with her sudden death in November 1865).

In this case there’s no Edwin Drood-style mystery – we’re in the final pages and know how the story will end – but the sudden stop feel like a bereavement, as we’re robbed of the happy ending the novel has been building to for 650 pages.

'Elizabeth Gaskell, George Richmond (1851)
The novel is about Molly Gibson – the doctor’s daughter in the provincial town of Hollingford. Molly’s mother has been dead since her infancy, but otherwise she passes a happy childhood, loved by her father, and petted by the unmarried ladies of the town. In her late teens her father is married again – this time to the pretty widow Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who was formerly a governess at the local great house owned by Lord and Lady Cumnor.

In one fell swoop Molly is divided from her father, and gains both a stepmother and stepsister – the beautiful and universally admired Cynthia. It is Cynthia whose actions dictate many of the novel’s biggest dramas, as she entangles herself with various men and gets into scrapes, while Molly suffers from indifference from the man she loves and libellous gossip at the hands of the town. 

But here’s the twist – Molly doesn’t dislike Cynthia, and Mrs Gibson isn’t a cruel stepmother. Gaskell’s worlds are inhabited by characters who can be careless and are very often misguided, but they are never caricatures. Wives and Daughters is her most perfect realisation of this vision – comparable to George Eliot’s achievement in Middlemarch (1871-2).  

She has a lightness of touch that makes the most minor of characters believable and sympathetic, and so succeeds in drawing us into this society. We understand the insidiousness of gossip among the middle classes, the pervasive influence of Cumnor Hall, and the rivalries between new money and old, Whigs and Tories. Our abrupt expulsion from this world is an unpleasant one – but it’s a testament to Gaskell’s plotting that she keeps us hooked, even when we’re no longer guessing.

Molly mightn’t be the brightest star among Victorian heroines – she’s perhaps closest to Caroline Helstone in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849) in disposition. And lovers of sensation may feel Gaskell throws away hidden engagements and marriages and lets her villains get away a little easily.

But what she gives us is life – in England in the 1830s. If you feel like stepping outside of your own for a while and losing yourself in Molly’s cares, this is heartily recommended. One word of warning: you’ll be left missing the writer as well as the ending.

What would you like the see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 31 October 2015

The Birth of the Frankenstein Myth: Happy Halloween from the Secret Victorianist

Few works have been so continuously adapted as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818), and few have led to so much confusion about the tale and the actors in it, down to the very names of student Victor Frankenstein and his un-christened monster.

To celebrate this Halloween, I thought I’d write a blog post, looking back at the ‘birth’ of the Frankenstein myth and the moment the scientist gives life to his monster.

Boris Karloff who played the monster in three films between 1931 and 1939
Shelley writes:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The night-time setting of this moment of animation has been preserved in many versions of the story, but, if you’ve not read the novel before, you may be surprised to find certain details ‘missing’. Frankenstein’s power to grant life to a body crafted from cadavers is left deliberately vague. The scientist will not share this secret with Captain Walton to whom he tells his strange tale, and, in Shelley’s version, there are no lightening bolts or sparks of electricity.

Charles Ogle as the monster in 1910
With the tunnel vision that a first person voice can provide in fiction, Shelley directs us to telling details. We know the monster is alive because he ‘breathed’ but Shelley also hints that his life is not purely physical. The first thing Frankenstein notices is the opening of the creature’s eye, suggesting to us that this monster has an inner life, and its own perspective, from the moment of its birth.

Frankenstein’s monster is also better looking than we might have thought him. ‘Lustrous black’ hair and ‘pearly white’ teeth are not exactly the attributes we have come to associate with this Halloween favourite. While some of the reasons for Frankenstein’s disgust are rooted in the appearance of the monster (not many people, it’s true, can pull off black lips or look good with watery eyes!), much of the horror he feels could indeed be a manifestation of his own guilt at taking on the role of a creator.

His observation, in particular, that the monster’s ‘yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath’ could just be the skewed perspective of the maker who has worked to connect these arteries and muscles. One reason this paragraph is frightening for the reader is because it reminds us that our own bones and sinews don’t lie that far below our skin.

Iconic literary moments can often come to surpass the words they were first written in, but there’s always something to be gained from going back to the beginning and analysing the language that made them so powerful.

Are you doing anything inspired by the nineteenth century this Halloween? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday 25 October 2015

Theatre Review: Thérèse Raquin, Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, New York City

Émile Zola’s 1867 novel of exclusion, passion, adultery and murder has come to life this season in a dark and gripping production on New York’s Broadway.

Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan, and Keira Knightley [Photo: Joan Marcus]
Hollywood star Keira Knightley is entirely believable as Thérèse throughout.

She starts the play as the awkward outcast, bullied by her aunt (Judith Light) and eventually married off to her self-centred and hypochondriac cousin, Camille (Gabriel Ebert). She has few lines and is rarely centre stage, sat or stood in corners with her head downcast. But she draws our eye from the beginning, partly due to Keith Parham’s lighting, but also because of how interesting it is to watch her reactions. Her slight movements carry to the very back of the balcony, exciting audience sympathy and making it tricky to concentrate on what the other actors are saying at all.

Keira Knightley and Judith Light [Photo: Joan Marcus]
In the middle portion of the play, Knightley plays a role that is more recognisable from her – the impassioned lover. Fatally attracted to her husband’s friend Laurent (Matt Ryan), Thérèse embarks upon a doomed affair and is transformed in the process.

Knightley lets her words spill out over each other, moves at a faster pace about the small claustrophobic apartment that is the set for much of the play, and centres all her reactions on Laurent, making it clear where her attention is focussed from his very first entrance. She and Ryan work well together, although the affair seems more a product of Thérèse’s long-standing loneliness, than any particular attractions on Laurent’s part, beyond his sexual experience. Their on-stage sexual encounters are always brief, and clothed, although expect some bodice-ripping staples – tumbling hair and loosened necklines.

Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan [Photo: Sara Krulwich]
In the final portion of the play, the lovers face the most difficult challenge – depicting the disintegration of their relationship, and their minds, after the murder of Camille. Knightley undulates beautifully between restraint and collapse, and sanity and madness here, while the unusual set of circumstances the couple finds themselves in is also played here like many abusive and unhappy domestic relationships. Ryan puts in a stronger performance I think in his hate than in love, and Light comes close to stealing the show in these final scenes with her harrowing performance as Camille’s broken mother, destroyed by grief, a stroke, and, finally, the understanding of what Laurent and Thérèse have done.

Director Evan Cabnet’s production of Helen Edmundson’s adaption is also notable for its set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) – including an onstage river. We are first introduced to Thérèse against a bleak and open stage, dominated by the water – one of the play’s most striking images – and the murder, later, is able to appear more realistic, and less ridiculous than it might have done on-stage, as the three (Camille, Laurent, Thérèse) are in fact in a small and rocking row boat.

Keira Knightley as Thérèse Raquin [Photo: Mikael Jansson, Vogue]
Some may object to Knightley’s casting as a character who is meant to be half-Algerian, but there’s no denying she does a stellar job at capturing Thérèse in all her complexity. It’s an incredible Broadway debut, and one well worth buying a ticket for.

Thérèse Raquin is currently in preview. The play opens October 29 and runs until January 2016. Tickets are available here.

Do you know of any other NYC productions of nineteenth-century plays the Secret Victorianist should watch? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 17 October 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the Grolier Club: Alice in a World of Wonderlands, The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece

Last weekend I went to an exhibition that is a testament to the far-reaching power of the human imagination and to the importance of collaborative scholarship.

The exhibition
Alice in a World of Wonderlands marks 150 years since the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by investigating the translations into 176 different languages that have emerged since the work’s publication and are the subject of a new book that shares the exhibition’s name.

Finnish translation (1952)
Finding and cataloguing these translations, and their editions, was a labour of love and involved a lot of detective work, with over 250 unpaid volunteers tracking down texts all over the world.

Christina Rossetti's signed copy of the first (German) translation of Alice (1869)
German was the first language other than English in which Alice first came to life (in 1869).  French, Swedish, Italian, Danish and Dutch soon followed in the nineteenth century, some with Carroll’s knowledge and consent, others without.

Catalan translation (1927)
But it is in the twentieth century that we see a proliferation of Alices (not that the central character always has this name). From Breton to Urdu, Esperanto to Pitjantjatjara, Hebrew to Malay, many readers have been taken down the rabbit hole. The question is – what do they find there?

Vladamir Nabokov's (Russian) translation (1923)
Alice in a World of Wonderlands, edited by Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, for instance, contains 251 back translations into English to see how different translators approached the task of rendering one of Carroll’s poems:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!

Romanian translation (1991)
Native English speakers recognise this as a parody of the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, but translated literally into another tongue this context will be lost. This speaks directly to the translation debate of domestication vs. foreignisation. In other words, is it the role of the translator to educate the reader about the culture in which it was produced (here Victorian Britain) or to make the writer’s intention more immediately apparent by using shorthands with which he or she is familiar from their own culture.

Marathi translation (1982)
The translator of a version in Marathi for example (one of 12 Indian languages included in the catalogue) was one of those who decided to play with a rhyme familiar to his readers. He writes:

‘When I transformed Alice into Jaai I taught her not only customs and traditions of this land, but also the popular songs of this soil known to all.’

Poster for a Japanese stage play (1998)
Seeing the exhibition in person, one of the most obvious things to be struck by is the incredible range of visual responses to the text and John Tenniel’s illustrations. Cover illustrations range from the saccharine to the surreal, with the influence of Disney’s 1951 animated feature film clear. Alice seems to hold particular visual appeal in Japan, as posters for Alice-inspired stage plays are also on display here – maybe not surprising given the natural co-option of Alice into Lolita fashion.

Alphagram translation (2012)
This interactive map allows you to explore the myriad wonderlands inspired by one story told in Oxford on a sunny day, but if you’re in New York City, I’d definitely recommend checking out the exhibition in person. I already reviewed the Morgan Library & Museum’s retrospective into the novel’s origins, but it is at the Grolier Club that the legend of Alice seems to be very much alive.

Hebrew translation (1923)
The exhibition Alice in a World of Wonderlands, The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece is running until November 21 at the Grolier Club. Entrance is free.

Bosnian translation (2008)
Do you know of any other nineteenth-century exhibitions in NYC you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Opera Review: La Traviata, Musica a Palazzo, Venice

Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which tells the tragic story of a fallen woman based on La dame aux Camélias (1848) by Alexandre Dumas, fils, had its very first performance in Venice in March 1853. So it seemed fitting that on my visit to one of the world’s most beautiful cities, the Secret Victorianist should take in a sumptuous and unusual production of this opera classic.

Inside the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto
Away from the bright lights of Venice’s opera house – La Fenice – which seats a thousand and was home, in an earlier incarnation, to the La Traviata premiere, the Musico a Palazzo has made a name for itself by staging famous operas in the intimate setting of the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, a fifteenth-century palace on the Grand Canal.

Each act of Verdi’s opera was performed in a different room of the piano nobile of palace, with the building’s beautiful furniture and decorations, including frescoes by Gianbattista Tiepolo, providing an incredible backdrop for the tragedy.

The audience takes its seats for Act Two
The opera’s cast was cut down so that there were only three singing roles, adding to the sense of closeness between the audience and the performers. It was fascinating to see the singers up close rather than from a distant balcony, or when sat far back in an auditorium, and it was equally revealing to have a clear view of the musicians (a string trio and pianist), who are usually hidden in an orchestra pit.

What was particularly interesting for me, as a Victorianist, was how closely the experience seemed to replicate that of a nineteenth-century musical salon. I felt more of a guest in the palazzo than in any other historic house I have visited, in Venice or elsewhere. There is no ‘please don’t sit’ or ‘do not touch’. You’re part of the performance along with a small group of people – local and from all over the world – gathered here on this one night.

The cast for the performance the Secret Victorianist attended
Drinks, served at the first intermission and included in the entrance price, add to this feeling. There’s no mad rush to the bar and people seemed quite happy to mingle and talk about the performance.

What’s lost, of course, is much of the story of the opera being performed, and some of the music. This isn’t the kind of production that is going to provide you with English surtitles, and the cuts to the cast make the plot loose to say the least. It’s better to think of it as a dramatic concert in a stunning building – a chance for opera fanatics to immerse themselves in Violetta and Alfredo’s world, and for those new to the art form to appreciate an Italian passion in these glorious Venetian surroundings.

'Violetta's bedroom' in Act Three
If you’re looking for a romantic evening in Venice, or just to enjoy some beautiful music in a unique way, I’d really recommend it.

Membership to the Musica a Palazzo (necessary to attend a performance) is €75 and you can see the calendar of performances here.

Do you know of any New York City productions with a nineteenth-century twist you think the Secret Victorianist should see? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.