Sunday 30 October 2016

Have a Very Victorian Halloween!

In honour of this Halloween season, the Secret Victorianist brings you five top tips for having a spooktacularly Victorian October 31st!

Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham in the 1846 Great Expectations
1. Read a Victorian ghost story
You might associate Victorian ghosts with Christmas and Charles Dickens’s ever popular A Christmas Carol (1842), but they are plenty more spine tingling reads to dip into before December. Check out some Sheridan Le Fanu (review here) or quake at Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher (1884).

2. Dive into a scary story with no ghosts at all
Some of the scariest nineteenth-century reads aren’t supernatural at all. I’d recommend Wilkie Collins’s A Terribly Strange Bed (1852), which I read for the first time recently. Unsavoury characters, an ingenious murder device and an intriguing frame narrative set this one apart.

3. Even better – read one of these stories aloud
Dim the lights, huddle round the campfire, and rekindle the Victorian tradition of reading aloud to family and friends. Bonus points for your best Tennyson-inspired voice!

4. Slip into a Victorian inspired costume
There are so many Halloween costume ideas out there for the budding Victorianist. Some of my favourites: find a tattered white dress and act the eternal bride Miss Havisham, grab a friend to go as Jekyll and Hyde, or perch a toy raven on your shoulder and you’re an instant Edgar Allen Poe.

5. Binge watch Steampunk’d
Don’t fancy painting the town red on a Monday night? Have a low key Halloween by binge watching the show that pitches makers of Victoriana against each other – Steampunk’d. I just discovered it on Netflix and am gutted GSN ruled out a second season.

The judges on Steampunk'd
Did you have any Victorian-inspired fun this Halloween weekend? Let me know what you got up to – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Review: Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will, Morgan Library and Museum, New York

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

The year 2016 marks 200 hundred years since the birth of Charlotte Bronte, the most celebrated of the three Bronte sister novelists, whose 1847 Jane Eyre continues to hold an important place in the English literary canon.

The Morgan Library and Museum’s incredible exhibition to mark the bicentenary is a treasure trove for Bronte fans, bringing together manuscripts, juvenilia and the only portraits of Charlotte produced in her lifetime.

Branwell's portrait of his sister, with painted over self-portrait (1834)
A volume of the Jane Eyre manuscript is exhibited in the US for the first time, but the real joy of the exhibition is in discovering the Brontes’ youthful writings (definitely use one of the museum’s magnifying glasses!), the tiny books in which Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne recorded the annals of their imaginary kingdoms, Angria and Gondol. In her childhood work, you can trace the influences Bronte drew upon. There’s the text of a play – The Poetaster – inspired by Ben Jonson, a sketch of John Milton’s Lycidas, and Gothic narrative poetry, such as her ‘Miss Hume’s Dream’ (1830).

Charlotte's sketch of Milton's Lycidas (1835)
Charlotte and Branwell also produced detailed miniature editions of their own periodical, the Young Men’s Magazine, inspired by their reading of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which you can study here. The tagline? ‘Published by no one, possessed by all.’

Charlotte’s talents as an artist are clear and I particularly enjoyed the sketches she made from Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, vol. 2 (1804), also on display, which many may recognise from the opening chapters of Jane Eyre.

An example of Charlotte Bronte's juvenilia
The layout of the exhibition allows you to grow up with Charlotte. The record of her birth is followed by her early work, letters from her schooldays, correspondence related to her literary successes, memorial cards for the deaths of her siblings, devastatingly close together, her marriage certificate and then, scarcely nine months later, materials related to her own death.

Charlotte's marriage certificate (1854)
It all feels very personal and it’s hard not to find it emotionally affecting. One of Charlotte’s dresses is on display, forcing you to confront her diminutive size, while the painted over figure of Branwell looms in the background of the only portrait of the three sisters, a missing piece in the story of the siblings at Haworth.

A memorial card for Charlotte's death (1855)
The exhibition is on display until January 2 2017. Go now while you can. New York may need to wait another 200 years before playing host to the Brontes again.

Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would like to visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

An Old-Fashioned Girl, or What We Taught Girls in the 1860s

The Secret Victorianist recently read 1869 novel An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott (of Little Women fame).

In her Preface, Alcott wrote of the story’s didacticism:

The Old-Fashioned Girl is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be - a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another.

What then ‘should’ a girl be and do to maintain domestic happiness, according to this nineteenth-century writer? Below are five lessons that Alcott and her heroine, Polly, taught me.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

1. She shouldn’t go to theatre

Fourteen-year-old Polly is scandalised when she is taken to a play with suggestive humour and beguiling actresses:

"I know it wasn't proper for little girls to see, or I shouldn't have been so ashamed!" cried sturdy Polly, perplexed, but not convinced, even by Mrs. Smythe Perkins.

"I think you are right, my dear; but you have lived in the country, and haven't yet learned that modesty has gone out of fashion." And with a good-night kiss, grandma left Polly to dream dreadfully of dancing in jockey costume, on a great stage; while Tom played a big drum in the orchestra; and the audience all wore the faces of her father and mother, looking sorrowfully at her, with eyes like saucers, and faces as red as Fanny's sash.

2. She shouldn’t lose her temper

Polly is (predictably) skilled in the kitchen but doesn’t lose her cool when her friend’s brother/her own future husband eats the fruits of her labour.

Polly was not a model girl by any means, and had her little pets and tempers like the rest of us; but she didn't fight, scream, and squabble with her brothers and sisters in this disgraceful way, and was much surprised to see her elegant friend in such a passion. "Oh, don't! Please, don't! You'll hurt her, Tom! Let him go, Fanny! It's no matter about the candy; we can make some more!" cried Polly, trying to part them, and looking so distressed, that they stopped ashamed, and in a minute sorry that she should see such a display of temper.

3. She should notice others’ failings but only correct them by example

Polly manages to transform the Shaw household but rarely by expressing her opinion.

Polly wished the children would be kinder to grandma; but it was not for her to tell them so, although it troubled her a good deal, and she could only try to make up for it by being as dutiful and affectionate as if their grandma was her own.

4. She should exercise, but not to display herself

Polly’s pursuits are entirely wholesome (the antithesis of novels).

Another thing that disturbed Polly was the want of exercise…At home, Polly ran and rode, coasted and skated, jumped rope and raked hay, worked in her garden and rowed her boat; so no wonder she longed for something more lively than a daily promenade with a flock of giddy girls, who tilted along in high-heeled boots, and costumes which made Polly ashamed to be seen with some of them. So she used to slip out alone sometimes, when Fanny was absorbed in novels, company, or millinery, and get fine brisk walks round the park, on the unfashionable side, where the babies took their airings; or she went inside, to watch the boys coasting, and to wish she could coast too, as she did at home. She never went far, and always came back rosy and gay.

5. She should love in silence

As an adult, Polly suffers silently with her love for Tom throughout his engagement to another and his lengthy absence after going west. Her modesty is so extreme that she never actively confesses it, even to her friend, and it's not even made overt in the narration.

"Polly, is it Tom?"

Poor Polly was so taken by surprise, that she had not a word to say. None were needed; her telltale face answered for her, as well as the impulse which made her hide her head in the sofa cushion, like a foolish ostrich when the hunters are after it.

No novels, no plays and no opinions, a foolish ostrich who cannot escape her own desire to wed – that’s what we taught girls then. What do we teach them today?

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