Sunday 21 October 2018

Top 10 Victorian/Nineteenth-Century Halloween Costume Ideas

Halloween is nearly upon us and every self-respecting Victorianist is contemplating stepping back in time and into the breeches of our favourite historical characters—real and imagined.

Below is a list of the Secret Victorianist’s top picks of nineteenth-century-inspired costumes for you to consider.

1. Miss Havisham
The perennial bride in Charles Dickens’s 1860-1861 Great Expectations is a killer Halloween choice. White dress? Check. Veil? Check? Grey hair and cobwebs? For extra Gothic flare consider singeing your gown and adding dramatic flames. Who says a wedding dress need only be worn once?

2. Queen Victoria
That’s right—go as the monarch of the era herself, with Prince Albert in tow if you’re after a couples’ costume. Otherwise, embrace widowhood and dress head to toe in black.

3. A character from Pride and Prejudice (zombies optional)
Who doesn’t want to an excuse to unleash their inner Lizzie Bennet? Grab some friends and argue about who is each sister if you’re not lucky enough to have found your Darcy. The Pride and Prejudice with Zombies movie is recommended Halloween viewing and could also provide a fun twist on the costume idea.

4. Long John Silver
Before Captain Jack Sparrow lit up our screens it was Long John Silver, the villain from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 Treasure Island, who was the world’s most famous fictional pirate. This costume is all in the accessories: strap on a wooden leg, perch a parrot on your shoulder and grab a map marking the way to those elusive pieces of eight.

5. Abraham Lincoln
The United States’ most-distinctive nineteenth-century president is a great costume choice. The top hat and facial hair will make you instantly recognisable, even if you don’t want to shell out on realistic historical garb.

6. Florence Nightingale
While others are donning their ‘sexy nurse’ outfits, dress up as the lady with the lamp, who tended to British soldiers during the Crimean War.

7. Napoleon
The French emperor shares the laurel with Queen Victoria for the most famous nineteenth-century look. Don’t forget the hat, the epaulettes, or, our course, the pose.

8. The Statue of Liberty
This famous gift from the French to the American republic was dedicated in 1886. Dress in copper tones, rather than green, for a true nineteenth-century feel.

9. Dracula
What could be more classic for Halloween than to dress as the count from Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic. Many won’t know the story’s Victorian provenance though, so try to read the novel before you go to your party!

10. The Nutcracker and Sugar Plum Fairy
If you’re itching for Halloween to be over, Christmas can come early with your costume choice. The ballet was first performed in 1892 and is great Halloween inspiration. Don your tutu to be the Sugar Plum Fairy, look distinguished in your red coat as the nutcracker himself, or maybe even go for a giant rat costume.

Do you have any other Victorian/nineteenth-century costume ideas (or pics!) to share? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday 10 October 2018

Neo-Victorian Voices: Mary B, Katherine J. Chen (2018)

There are some novels where the world is so fully imagined and the characters so perfectly realised that they take on lives of their own, even decades or centuries after their author’s death. One of these novels is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

There are so many novels with Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy as their protagonists and Longbourn or Pemberley as their settings that bookstores might do well to create a separate section for Austen mania, separate from the historical fiction shelves. And the latest of these is Katherine J. Chen’s lively debut, which retells the familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective.

The eponymous heroine of Mary B is Mary Bennet—the oft-forgotten middle sister, who possesses neither wit nor beauty, and is distinguished by her bookish nature and bad piano playing rather than by marrying into a great estate or eloping with an army officer.

It’s a great concept—one sure to appeal to the legion of Austen fans who have wondered if, or feared, they might be more of a Mary than a Lizzie. And it’s a concept that also feels peculiarly of the moment in 2018. Will Mary get her happy ending in a world that values women more for their looks than their brains? And what will this ending look like—a wedding? 10,000 a year?

Chen gives us an ideal combination of the old and new. The first half of the novel revisits well-trodden territory—Mr Collins’s visit to his cousins and rejected proposal—but with Mary relating incidents we weren’t privy to before, along with her internal reactions. In Part 2 we pick up once the credits on multiple costume drama adaptations have rolled. How are Lizzie and Jane’s marriages faring? What will become of Lydia Wickham now?

Katherine J. Chen
The novel kept me reading and wondering what the conclusion for Mary would be, especially in the latter half—at the opening it was a little difficult to embrace the first person voice when Mary’s misreadings of social situations are so obvious to readers who know their canon well. The dialogue is clunky and sometimes anachronistic, but Austen is a high bar and a natural point of comparison. At moments I felt like I was reading the kind of wish fulfilment provided by fan fiction, but that didn’t stop me racing through. Some reviewers have bemoaned Chen’s new, and not always flattering, take on the characters they love, but, since I don’t think Austen’s legacy is in doubt here, I was more than happy to come along for the ride. Likewise the sexual content, while not Austenian, didn’t make me swoon, for good or ill.

I wish Mary had changed more in the course of the novel. She teetered on the edge of self-discovery and had moments of near-connection with her sister, Lizzie, but ultimately the story vindicates her, while ending most other characters (including our former heroine) unhappily. Maybe this is part of the reason why the writing reads like YA—immediate and addictive, but without the profundity and deeper message Mary B could have delivered.

Have you read Mary B? What did you think? Let me know–here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.