Monday 16 March 2015

Victorian Fantasy and Supportive Female Communities Across Time and Genre

Although I’ve been a fan of Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s (1837-1919) work for some time, I recently renewed this appreciation due to an unexpected question.  Matthew Roy, a fellow George MacDonald fan, emailed me to ask if I knew of any fairy tales which address experiences of pregnancy; as he commented, ‘There is an infertility convention in a lot of fairy tales (‘Snow White’, ‘Thumbelina’, ‘Little Tom Thumb’, ‘The Light Princess’, etc.), but the problem is usually overcome in a matter of sentences, perhaps after having talked with some sort of magical character (a frog, a witch). In the end the woman becomes pregnant, and then "gives birth to a baby girl with hair as black as coal, skin as white as snow..."  But nothing about actually being pregnant or actually giving birth.’  This is unfortunately very often true, probably because people who wrote and collected them were generally men, in times when men didn't tend to engage as actively with pregnancy experiences as they do now.
However, the French female fairy tale salon writers of the seventeenth-early eighteenth centuries offer a slightly different perspective.  One of the most famous of these writers, Madame d'Aulnoy (1650-1705), herself had six children, and there is a consciousness to be seen of the pregnancy and birth experience in some of her tales (‘Princess Mayblossom’, ‘The Benevolent Frog’, and ‘The Good Little Mouse’ in particular), which trace the pregnancy experience of various beleaguered queens over some paragraphs as they flee danger and encounter helpful fairies, frogs and more.   In her book Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early-modern France, Holly Tucker argues that the often magical dangers that these women face dramatize the more general concerns often felt by pregnant women -- particularly in times when medical knowledge and assistance could be unpredictable, to say the least – and that some of the fairies/magical creatures who help these queens represent midwives. In this way (as well as in others, but that’s another day), D’Aulnoy’s work evokes experiences of female community which transcend time and genre.

Some of the work of Madame d’Aulnoy, unlike others of her salon colleagues, can be found quite readily online; thanks to the lovely people at SurLaLuneFairytales, but also to a Victorian team of female translators and editors – one of which is Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie (Miss Annie Macdonell and Miss Lee were the translators). In addition to her prolific literary output in a variety of disciplines, Thackeray Ritchie produced a) witty and insightful fairy tale adaptations and b) a collection of Madame d’Aulnoy’s work, (1892). In reading the introduction to this collection the other day, I was struck by the trouble Thackeray Ritchie takes to explore d’Aulnoy’s female community in personable detail.
She notes that d’Aulnoy’s circle included Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, the author of ‘La Belle et la Bête’ [‘Beauty and the Beast’], and that: ‘Any of us in the nineteenth century, who have thrilled to the stirring and beautiful song of "Che Faro," as uttered by the sweet voice of Julia Ravogli in "Orfeo," have witnessed a scene reproduced out of one of Madame d'Aulnoy's histories, in which Love, crowned with roses, is sent to assist the wandering prince in his search through Hades for her whom he adores.’  Through these references, she locates d’Aulnoy in a female artistic context, both literary and musical, which is only enhanced by her statement that ‘The prettiest of Madame d'Aulnoy's stories are also the best known, such as L'oiseau Bleu, The White Cat, Le Prince Lutin, and a good many others. Le Nain Jaune, Fortunéc, La Biche au Bois, are also very charmingly told’.
Moreover, Thackeray Ritchie also celebrates d’Aulnoy and her female community in biographical detail. She observes complexities around cultural perceptions of beauty, but emphasises her intelligence:’ "She was always ready in conversation," says one of her admirers. "No one knew better how to introduce an anecdote, and her stories were the delight of all."’  Thackeray Ritchie observes d’Aulnoy’s strained family life, both before (upon the birth of a younger brother, d’Aulnoy was promptly dispatched to a nunnery, against her will, where she took refuge in ‘read[ing] a great many novels about romantic heroes and "heroesses," as she is made to call them, and [trying] to pose as a heroess herself a great deal more than the abbeys approved’) and after marriage (‘Madame d'Aulnoy speaks with cordial dislike of her husband, with whom she seems to have lived very unhappily from the first, and from whom, whenever anything went wrong, she seems to have run away in disguise’).   M. d’Aulnoy suffered imprisonment and near execution due to false accusations of treason by a group of conspirators.  Thackeray Ritchie describes, in detail, d’Aulnoy’s personal connection to a friend, ‘"the famous and beautiful Madame Angélique Tiquet "’.  Having suffered even more than d’Aulnoy from an unhappy and abusive marriage, Madame Tiquet tried to kill her husband; for this she is tried and eventually executed.  D’Aulnoy, notes Thackeray Ritchie, proved a loyal friend, trying to help Madame Tiquet escape and speaking at her trial (which meant that d’Aulnoy was ‘somewhat compromised’).
Thackeray Ritchie goes on to explore d’Aulnoy’s life and other works, including her creative approach to citations, observations and referencing in her memoirs (‘Madame d'Aulnoy, although she had excellent opportunities of observing facts, and was in the main accurate, had the singular habit of transcribing entire paragraphs out of the books of other people without any acknowledgment whatever, and also of sometimes adding imaginary adventures when her own struck her as somewhat dull’).  I do not have the scope to explore these here, but would encourage you to take a look.
            But then, it’s not surprising that Thackeray Ritchie should have been interested in d’Aulnoy’s female community. She herself wrote two texts explicitly extolling female literary tradition: Book of Sibyls (1883) and A Discourse on Modern Sibyls (1913), in which she explores a number of eighteenth – and nineteenth-century female authors (Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot form a few examples).  Through these, Thackeray Ritchie celebrates contemporary nineteenth-century female intelligence, storytelling and wisdom with mythological connotations (the Sibyls were ancient prophetesses and sources of wisdom  -- not to mention plot foreshadowing --- in classical mythology). Her version of Cinderella (in Five Old Friends and a Young Prince, 1868) paints ‘Ella Ashford’’s godmother as an eccentric, rich Victorian society hostess, Lady Jane Peppercorne, who would fit quite nicely in a silver-fork novel or in the memoirs of Lady Dorothy Nevill (gardener, noted conversationalist, and society hostess). Ritchie’s use of female storytelling (of whatever sort) traditions creates figures which transcend barriers of genre.
Anne Thackeray Ritchie
Examining Thackeray Ritchie’s work emphasises the importance of supportive female communities: as an image (sibyls), in practice, and as a point of intersection between biography, creative writing and literary criticism (something beyond the scope of this post is the influence Ritchie had on her niece, Virginia Woolf). I am, I realize, more than verging on the borders of sentimentality here, but this issue has a strong personal resonance for me at the moment.  Over the past year, I’ve been undergoing some really quite serious and frustrating health problems, which (hopefully!) should be somewhat ameliorated soon, but at the moment, leave me feeling rather isolated at times.  One thing that has been a significant encouragement for me throughout this experience is co-organizing a research initiative, Reading the Fantastic, which started last year with two other female colleagues (Ikhlas and Sarah), and now includes two more co-organizers (Huwaida and Rose).  It’s very energizing to be working with people who share my passion for fantasy – and interest in seeing how this genre serves as a point of interconnection: for example, in our reading group sessions, we each suggest texts from our various points of expertise, which means that my Victorian fantasy perspective can meet East Asian, Malaysian, Kenyan and Syrian fantasy traditions.  I’m also extremely excited to be expanding this interest in different outputs: in addition to the reading group series, we’re now running a seminar series and a conference plus workshop. But I could never have done all this by myself, and particularly not while my health is being so unhelpfully uncertain. I’m really lucky, not just to have these colleagues, but also that they are patient and supportive and times when my health just doesn’t want to play ball.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Theorizing Sartorial Fantasy in the Long Nineteenth Century

One day, I was walking past my local Oxfam Bookshop and I saw a beautifully illustrated cover in the window. The title was even more entrancing: English Costume (1906), by Dion Clayton Calthrop. Ever since I volunteered during high school as an educational interpreter at Westfield Heritage Village Museum in Rockton, Ontario, Canada, I have been fascinated by fashion history: we interpreters chose our costumes from a wardrobe of entrancing outfits spanning the entire nineteenth century. So, naturally, I bought this book. I was delighted to discover that Calthrop’s book is not simply a history of English Costume, but a history of the English imagined through fashion. He travels from William the Conquerer to the beginning of the nineteenth century, ending on the evocative figure of Beau Brummell. His watercolour plates dramatize the cumulative effect of each era’s styles and his smaller line drawings provide the tiny sartorial details which create this effect. But Calthrop also provides more than this: his book enacts a ‘gossip across the centuries’ theory of history and the role of fashion within history. Calthrop uses fashion to explore lived experience from history:
A knowledge of history is essential to the study of mankind, and a knowledge of history is never perfect without a knowledge of the clothes with which to dress it. A man, in a sense, belongs to his clothes; they are so much a part of him that, to take him seriously, one must know how he walked about, in what habit, with what air. (vii)

‘Her very full cloak is kept in place by the cord which passes through loops. A large buckle holds the neck of the gown well together. The gown is ornamented with a simple diaper pattern; the hem and neck are deeply embroidered.’ (Calthrop, p.60)

His sartorial investigations are supported by an energetic imagination. He invites the reader to fantasize him or herself within each era, contrasting his fantasist approach (‘I pluck the lady from the old print, hold her by the Dutch waist, and twirl her round until the Catherine-wheel fardingale is a blurred circle, and the pickadell a mist of white linen’ ) with those of academic historians (‘There are many excellent people with the true historical mind who would pick up my lady and strip her in so passionless a way as to leave her but a mass of Latin names—so many bones, tissues, and nerves’). (334) (He is careful to provide various bibliographical lists to ‘appease the appetites which are always hungry for skeletons’.) Calthrop creates fashion scenes as peopled stories, and so gives us Queen Elizabeth I ‘strut[ting] down to posterity, a wonderful woman in ridiculous clothes’. But his fashion stories have a wide cast and an eye for interesting historical anecdote. Queen Elizabeth struts because her maid has presented her with a brand new lace ruff ‘shaped like a Catherine wheel’, informing her that it is a picadillie and sold by ‘Mr Higgins, the tailor near to St. James’s’. Mr. Higgins, of course, instituted Piccadilly Circus by selling these picadillie lace ruffs to the Queen, who popularized them and through them, his shop and its location. (313-317)

Calthrop’s sartorial journey ends in 1830, but this does not prevent him from commenting on life in the long nineteenth century (intriguingly, Calthrop also illustrated a 1906 edition of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ ). He positions his book as complementing nineteenth-century texts, particularly on the subject of female headdresses in the time of Henry VI (1422-1461):
One is almost disappointed to find nothing upon the curious subject of horns in ‘Sartor Resartus.’ Such a flaunting, Jovian spirit, and poetry of abuse as might have been expected from the illustrious and iconoclastic author would have suited me, at this present date, most admirably. I feel the need of [ . . .] some fantastic and wholly arresting piece of sensationalism by which to convey to you that you have now stepped into the same world as the Duchess out of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ (188-189)

‘Her very full cloak is kept in place by the cord which passes through loops. A large buckle holds the neck of the gown well together. The gown is ornamented with a simple diaper pattern; the hem and neck are deeply embroidered.’ (Calthrop, p. 192)

Calthrop proceeds to bear the reader into an sartorial enchantment with a character of fashion:
Look out of your window and see upon the flower-enamelled turf a hundred bundles of vanity taking the air [ . . .] a dream of delicious faces surmounted by minarets, towers, horns, excrescences of every shape [ . . .] Oh, my lady, my lady! how did you ever hear the soft speeches of gallantry? How did the gentle whispers of love ever penetrate those bosses of millinery? (189)

This narrative enchantment serves a practical purpose, as Calthrop envisions his text as assisting theatrical and amateur costumers alike and reassures potential fashion consultants that, ‘the garments are perfectly easy to cut out and make. In order to prove this I have had them made from the bare outlines given here, without any trouble.’ By engaging with the spirit and personality of those who originally breathed life into these styles, Calthrop’s texts suggests, costumers will create new sartorial tales. And not a bit too soon -- Calthrop is distinctly unimpressed with the state of 1906 fashion:

The question of modern clothes is one of great perplexity. It seems that what is beauty one year may be the abomination of desolation the next, because the trick of that beauty has become common property [ . . .] To-day there is no more monotonous sight that the pavements of Piccadilly crowded with people in dingy, sad clothes, with silk tubes on their heads, their black and gray suits being splached by the mud from black hansoms, or by the scatterings of motor-cars driven by aristocratic-looking mechanics, in which mechanical-looking aristocrats lounge, darkly clad. (441-462)

Well, Calthrop’s sartorial fantasy has outlasted the long nineteenth century to find a home in the internet era; whether he would find our world of online fashion and celebrity fashion personality 'one of great perplexity'  is less easy to determine. Anyway, as well as reading the complete text here, you can find selections from Calthrop’s history at popular costume history website, where he has a fervent welcome.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Tolkien and Victorian Spiders

Earlier this year, I re-read George MacDonald’s ‘The Giant’s Heart’ [first published in 1864], in preparation for my viva. Something about the description of the giant spiders struck me: their laconic objectivity, and the contrast with Tolkien’s Mirkwood spiders in The Hobbit. The Mirkwood spiders are well known: gratuitously violent (even accepting that giant spiders need to eat, they really don’t need all thirteen dwarves and one hobbit) and spinners of dark webs. Readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion will know that they are the offspring of Shelob, herself the daughter of a primordial spider-monster – Ungoliant, a demonic being who chose spider form in order to weave webs of darkness against the angelic Valar. (Apparently Ungoliant and Shelob mated with ordinary spiders – which they later consumed -- to produce [smaller] monstrous offspring; this sent me down a tangent of wondering whether such matings would be physically possible – and, considering that the male spider puts his sperm on a special web for deposit in the female’s genital opening, it is less of a stretch than one might think.) We are now accustomed to spider/giant spider = evil monster (see J.K.Rowling’s Aragog & Co, Stephen King’s It, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).
'The Other Mother' revealed in monstrous spider form from Neil Gaiman's Coraline

But MacDonald’s spiders, though monstrous in size, are not monstrous in personality. Their webs create beauty, not darkness: ‘At last they came to the foot of Mount Skycrack [ . . .] The whole face of it, from top to bottom, was covered with a network of spiders' webs, with threads of various sizes, from that of silk to that of whipcord. The webs shook and quivered, and waved in the sun, glittering like silver.’ Compare these webs to the ones in The Hobbit: ‘[Bilbo] had picked his way stealthily 'for some distance, when he noticed a place of dense black shadow ahead of him black even for that forest, like a patch of midnight that had never been cleared away. As he drew nearer, he saw that it was made by spider-webs one behind and over and tangled with another.’ MacDonald’s giant spiders have a quality of beauty which Tolkien’s spiders do not. Though MacDonald’s spiders are ‘huge’ and ‘greedy’, they catch giant flies, not humans. When the child-heroes of ‘The Giant’s Heart’ encounter them in their quest to destroy a wicked giant, the spiders first ignore them, then assist them after one of the children helps a spider who has fallen over: "My dear child," answered the spider, in a tone of injured dignity, "I eat nothing but what is mischievous or useless. You have helped me, and now I will help you." This statement does suggest a certain amount of didacticism – do unto me as you would have me do unto you – but it’s intriguingly human as well, what with the spider’s tones of ‘injured dignity’. All this made me wonder: what did the Victorians think of spiders? Did they have the same evil resonance that spiders have today? Was Tolkien inspired by MacDonald’s spiders?  After all, as his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ shows, he was familiar with MacDonald’s work.
Frontispiece to The Poor Artist, by R.H.Horne

 I posed some of these questions to the Reading the Fantastic reading group I’m co-organizing, in the form of another text: R.H.Horne’s The Poor Artist. (Our reflections on this and other text opened our eyes to the beauty inherent in spider-tradition, as well as the monstrosity.) In Horne’s science-fable, the spider is one of various creatures who lend their eyesight to an artist in search of inspiration, evoking Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s animal-fables. ‘Mrs. Spinster’s ‘[f]ive hundred and eleven different visions, without including all the powers of my diphthong eyes’, are able to present the artist with an arachnid experience of wonder: A monumental slab of dull gold was the central object of the picture. It was encircled with ancient letters and numerals [ . . .] worn by time into rough breaks and honey-combs and the surface in some places presenting a heap of straggling lines and ridges, like broken insect-legs, and which the narrator herself compared to spider-limbs after a battle between two females against thirteen males. The predatory nature of the spider is not ignored; an Ant, Captain Mandible, argues with Mrs. Spinster about how ‘[s]he has strangled many of my comrades [ . . .] I have found their empty suits of armour on the ground underneath her web.’ But Mrs. Spinster points out that ants have stolen her webs, as well, and the two descend into something resembling a children’s quarrel. Paradoxically, it is through anthropomorphism that we are able to view spiders beyond the monstrous, and as part of biological nature – albeit red in fang and spinneret. As to what the Victorians thought of spiders, and whether MacDonald’s monstrous spiders have any connection to Tolkien’s, I still don’t know, but my opinion of spiders is a least a little improved. However, my favourite spiders are in one of Don Marquis’s ‘Archy and Mehitabel’ poems – ‘Pity the Poor Spiders’. ‘Yours for less justice and more charity’ is a sentiment I can get behind.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Serial Killers and Dickens: Carrying the Force of Story

I've recently, along with a couple of other postgraduates who are interested in fantasy literature, begun a reading group which brings together fantastic texts from around the world, in which we each contribute a tale from our respective disciplines around a certain theme (more information here). For our session on 'Fantastic Journeys', I chose 'The Tale of Mr Fox', a tale which, though similar to the Bluebeard/'Maiden-Killer' type (321/312a) told by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, differs in that the heroine both investigates and resists the murderer (this tale is actually part of 'The Robber Bridegroom' type 955). The heroine works out her own escape by telling of her journey to visit her suitor in stages which are punctuated by the mysterious refrain of 'Be Bold, Be Bold' she sees on gates and doors throughout this investigative journey; this refrain cumulates in the phrase 'Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest That Your Life's Blood Run Cold'. At each point of punctuations, her suitor counters her tale by saying 'It is not so, nor was is not so, and God forbid it should be so!'. But the heroine, Lady Mary, continues her tale despite these counters to her narrative.  (Reading the name Lady Mary in this context has a certain amusing resonance for Downton Abbey fans: watch your suitors, Lady Mary Crawley, lest your life's blood run cold.) Gradually, her audience is caught up in her narrative spell and turns on her suitor at the point of climax, when she reveals the blood-stained hand she has found in his house.
The version we read was published by Joseph Jacobs in his English Fairy Tales collection,and so has a particular context of community behind it. Jacobs was fascinated by collections of indigenous folk and fairy tales (he published a collection of Indian Fairy Tales and of European Folk and Fairy Tales,  for example). He was keen to discover indigenous English fairy tales (as opposed to tales from Perrault and the Grimms - of course, it's difficult to tell how particular fairy tales have developed across geographical and chronological miles, and fairy tale scholarship reveals that such tales do not respect national boundaries). The 'indigenous'quality of these tales, to Jacobs, had cross-class resonances which he discusses in the 'Introduction' to English Fairy Tales: he wanted to give 'a common fund of nursery literature to all classes of the English people', and he deplores the 'lamentable gap between the governing and recording classes and the dumb working classes of this country —dumb to others but eloquent among themselves'. Jacobs adds annotations to the tales in his collection, perhaps seeking to legitimize these 'indigenous tales' by evoking the annotated versions of the Arabian Nights, published by Edward Lane ( various formats between 1838-1859) and Richard Burton (1885), which assisted in the gradual academization of fairy tale collecting. Lane's and Burton's annotations have since been questioned, and there are some references which Jacobs would have done well to include, but didn't. Jacobs's annotations to 'The Tale of Mr Fox' identify it as being part of 'The Robber Bridegroom' type (linking it to 'The Oxford Student'), but strangely he doesn't mention another version of the 'Robber Bridegroom' tale which is a)written by an Englishman and b) features an English working class storyteller. This version is 'Captain Murderer'(1860) by Charles Dickens, and it contains fascinating parallels to 'The Tale of Mr Fox', particularly regarding the agency of female narrators.

 'Captain Murderer' also features a serial killer and a bride who investigates and defeats the killer. References to Dickens's childhood nurse place 'Captain Murderer' in a social context, and a reference to 'Bluebeard' ('This wretch must have been an offshoot of the Blue Beard family') place it in both a literary (Perrault) and (apparently) oral tradition (Grimms). However, the agency of the investigative bride in this tale is somewhat compromised by the fact that she dies, though she dies willingly and uses her death to defeat the serial killer.

 '[M]uch suspecting Captain Murderer, she stole out and climbed his garden wall, and looked in at his window through a chink in the shutter, and saw him having his teeth filed sharp [ . . .]Next day they went to church in the coach and twelve, and were married. And that day month, she rolled the pie-crust out, and Captain Murderer cut her head off, and chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones. But before she began to roll out the paste she had taken a deadly poison of a most awful character, distilled from toads' eyes and spiders' knees; and Captain Murderer had hardly picked her last bone, when he began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots, and to scream. And he went on swelling and turning bluer and being more all over spots and screaming, until he reached from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall; and then, at one o'clock in the morning, he blew up with a loud explosion.' 

 Dickens's tale extends the audience into a cross-class community, as Caroline Sumpter has observed in discussing Dickens's 'attempts to capture the immediacy and the thrill of oral culture' which 'claim links to a storytelling tradition that will outlast the commercial moment' in her monograph The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale (2008). (25) While his tale dramatizes the power of an oral working class storytelling over a middle-class child, Sumpter points out that his tale represents a written working class origin as well:

 [A]s Dickens told John Foster, such haunting tales came from print as well as oral contexts: from his regular childhood purchase of the ‘penny blood’ the Terrific Register. In fact, the tale of cannibalism recalled in ‘Nurse’s Stories’ bears more than a passing resemblance to an urban myth that originated in a more recent penny magazine: the tale of the barber Sweeney Todd, which appeared in 1846 in Edward Lloyd’s The People’s Periodical.' (25-26)

 Dickens's tale overtly recognizes working class orality, but not working class literature. However, comparing Dickens's 'Captain Murderer' to 'The Tale of Mr Fox' highlights the issue of who is able to tell tales, and how they tell these tales. It's interesting that the working class heroine in Dickens's tale is unable to share her experience with her community, but Lady Mary has the freedom to escape death by telling her community the tale of her adventures. By introducing his working class nurse and including dramatic descriptions of her narrative power over him, Dickens complicates this class dynamic. The description of the nurse telling the tale represents skills of narrative agency which Lady Mary demonstrates, though the nurse's skills are even more vivid:

 'The young woman who brought me acquainted with Captain Murderer, had a fiendish enjoyment of my terrors, and used to begin, I remember as a sort of introductory overture by clawing the air with both hands, and uttering a long low hollow groan. So acutely did I suffer from this ceremony in combination with this infernal Captain, that I sometimes used to plead I thought I was hardly strong enough and old enough to hear the story again just yet But she never spared me one word of it.'

 The powerful voice of the female nurse contrasts with the voiceless heroine; to this dynamic, Dickens observes his own voicelessness -- as a child. By narrating the tale in his own publication context as owner and editor of All the Year Round (the tale appeared in this periodical on September 8th, 1860), the fact that this tangle of silence and narrative captivation has, of course, increased his professional voice is clear, both to Victorian and subsequent readers. Consequently, Dickens's text depicts both the working-class nurse and the middle-class author as capturing audiences through re-telling the chilling story of the brave, intelligent, yet voiceless heroine of 'Captain Murderer'. Our reading group discussion raised the question of whether Lady Mary, in 'The Tale of Mr Fox', would have gained the support of her community had she not built it through dramatic narration (the upper class heroine in this version does not end well, for example): does her storytelling ability give her a social voice which she might not otherwise have? Reading Dickens's tale in the light of such questions highlights how 'Captain Murderer' dramatizes the ambiguities, not just of cross-class agency, but around the perceptions of such agency. Dickens's text extends this ambivalence into asking what creates these ambiguous perceptions and what propels the storyteller's voice, while providing dating advice at the same time: if you meet a guy whose last name is 'Murderer', please do a background check first, AT LEAST.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Myths of Nineteenth-Century Adolescence, or Emily Byrd Starr as an Academic Inspiration

My extremely well-loved copy of the first Emily book. 

I first read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily trilogy (Emily of New Moon, 1923, Emily Climbs, 1925, Emily’s Quest, 1927) when I was twelve years old, and since then, I’ve re-read it many times. I’ve found it increasingly helpful to come back to it while writing my PhD on intersections in Victorian fantasy.  This may seem odd – why should a Canadian trilogy written in the 1920s, which has often been marketed as young adult literature, be helpful to a woman writing a PhD thesis on Victorian British adult fiction? First off, although children and young adults enjoy the books, they’re certainly not just for children. The trilogy encompasses a powerful dramatization of artistic development, psychological turbulence, and witty social satire (Montgomery balanced her literary career with an often frustrating role as a minister’s wife, and her experiences certainly show in Emily’s shrewd observations about the vagaries of her own church-going community).  I don’t wish to focus on that subject in detail in this post, so for more about why Montgomery’s works are not merely for children, search the L.M.Montgomery Research Bibliography for articles on her texts and you will find ample explanation in these scholarly studies.  Sian Harris perhaps best summarizes the specific appeal of the Emily trilogy for writers, with its dramatization of Emily’s hard and constant writing work and her struggle up ‘the Alpine Path’ for success, in her comment on Irene Gammel’s observation that Emily ‘has won a special place in the lives of today’s Canadian women writers, editors, academics and journalists, including Margaret Atwood, Lillian Nattel, Alice Munro, Jane Urquhart, Kit Pearson, Elizabeth Epperly, Ann Shortell and Vall Ross’. [1]  Harris ascribes the long-lasting appeal of the Emily books to their ability to ‘strike [ . . .] a chord of recognition with the reader who loves reading, writing and words’. [2] In addition to these general chords of writerly recognition, I’ve found that the trilogy has helped me to strike chords of nineteenth-century recognition. It’s a little difficult to pin a particular date setting for the Emily books, but the fact that Victoria’s son Bertie/King Edward VII is referred to in Emily Climbs as ‘the King’ places it within the long nineteenth century, as does the fact that the First World War is never mentioned. Due to this setting, and to the fact that many of the texts which Emily reads and discusses are published in the nineteenth century, the trilogy offers a portrayal of long nineteenth-century culture which can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, and this background has been an invaluable introduction to the era.

Firstly, the Emily trilogy represents an image of nineteenth-century readership which is both wide-ranging and of critical depth. Emily writes about an eclectic mix of texts to which she reacts strongly, and some of these texts are ones which, though known in the nineteenth century, have not always been ‘big names’ in the way that the Brontës, Tennyson, or Dickens  (to name a few examples) are. These less well-known texts may feature in academic studies, but by reading the Emily trilogy from age 12, I became familiar with them before I was of an age to embark on my own scholarly investigations into the nineteenth century. For example, Emily’s reflections on the work of English-Irish poet Felicia Hemans in Emily Climbs extend the nineteenth-century assessment of Hemans as a “‘parlour poet’ and the very type of the ‘sentimental poetess’”. [3] Though observing that Hemans can be critically ambiguous, Emily celebrates her ability to capture her imagination, despite her teacher’s opposition, using poems by Hemans:
 ‘The things Mr. Carpenter said about Mrs. Hemans were not fit to write in a young lady's diary. I suppose he is right in the main--yet I do like some of her poems. Just here and there comes a line or verse that haunts me for days, delightfully. "The march of the hosts as Alaric passed is one--though I can't give any reason for my liking it--one never can give reasons for enchantment’.[4]
This introduction to Hemans’s poem ‘Alaric in Italy’ (from Tales and Historic Scenes in Verse, 1819) intrigued me, as did Emily’s subsequent quotation from another of her poems, ‘The Lady of Provence’  (1829) which stayed in my mind: 
 "The sounds of the sea and the sounds of the night
Were around Clotilde as she knelt to pray
In a chapel where the mighty lay
On the old Provencal shore.
 Though Emily feels ‘That isn't great poetry’, she qualifies this criticism: ‘but there's a bit of magic in it for all that--concentrated in the last line, I think. I never read it without feeling that I am Clotilde, kneeling there--'on the old Provencal shore'--with the banners of forgotten wars waving over me.’ [5] Emily’s reading of Hemans’s work immediately presents her in a critical context, and one which dramatizes the act of forming one’s own critical opinions. Does the reader agree with Mr. Carpenter, with Emily, or with his/her own assessment? Extending this, how should one assess poetry? Emily’s comments propel the reader to find out the answers to these questions by examining Hemans’s poems, and then reflecting on them. (Especially since, as Hilda Tiessen and Paul Tiessen observe, Montgomery’s texts misquotes the poem slightly by merging lines together.)[6]  The trilogy extends Emily’s readerly identity still further beyond Hemans’s European poetics by linking Emily with the late nineteenth-century Canadian poet Bliss Carman as ‘one of "the eternal slaves of beauty," of whom Carman sings, who are yet "masters of the world”’[7]: Bliss Carman was a ‘confederation’ Canadian poet who gained both national and international fame. [8] [The allusion is to ‘A Captain of the Press Gang’ from Carman’s Vagabondia (1894).]The identification of Emily with Carman celebrates Canadian literary identity as an international experience of transcendent beauty which can represent both male and female writers.  
Emily doesn’t simply express enjoyment of texts, but also reflects on her reading experiences of various texts, and how these texts intersect with her surrounding community.  For example, Emily’s account in Emily of New Moon of reading a popular novel of religious proselytism, The Memoirs of Anzonetta B. Peters (1836),[9] dissects the social interpretation of moral ideals (Emily gives a pithy flavour of Anzonetta with her comment ‘I am sure I can never be as good as Anzonetta was and I don’t believe I want to be because she never had any fun’). [10]Emily discovers that although her aunts have recommended Anzonetta to her as a Christian ideal for young Presbyterian girls to emulate, her relatives aren’t so impressed when she experiments with emulating Anzonetta’s habit of answering questions with hymn verses: ‘Aunt Laura said was I crazy and Aunt Elizabeth said I was irreverent’.  This experiment provides a humorous dramatization of interpretative practices around moral texts in her community: one is supposed to uphold moral values, but not so fervently that they become a social embarrassment. 

Secondly, the Emily trilogy embodies intersections between romance and realism, a mixture which runs throughout many Victorian texts, as Rosemary Jackson, Stephen Prickett, and Francis O’Gorman have observed (again, just a few examples).[11] Her anthropomorphic portrayal of Romantic imagination, the Wind Woman, recalls the creative imagination of the Romantic poets: compare Emily’s Wind Woman with John Keats’s’ light-wingèd Dryad of the trees’ from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) or with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘breath of Autumn’s being’ from ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1819-1820):
‘The Wind Woman is going to be out in the fields to-night. She is tall and misty, with thin, grey, silkly clothes blowing all about her – and wings like a bat’s – only you can see through them – and shining eyes like stars looking through her long, loose hair. She can fly – but to-night she will walk with me all over the fields. She’s a great friend of mine – the Wind Woman. [12]
Like Keats and Shelley, Emily personifies nature as a powerful ideal of imaginative freedom, yet Emily’s version offers something different: a sense of companionable friendship and physical, even sartorial, femininity.  
As well as evoking an early nineteenth-century romantic imagination, Emily struggles with Gothic inheritances which recall similar resonances in Victorian fiction. She experiences discomforting supernatural eruptions: in her fever in Emily of New Moon, she demonstrates uncanny ‘psychic’ knowledge which solves a long-hidden mystery and reclaims a woman’s wronged reputation, in Emily Climbs, her uncanny side wakes from sleep to uncover the location of a lost child, and in a dream episode in Emily’s Quest, she travels the Atlantic to stop Teddy, the man she loves, from boarding a doomed ship:
‘Did she sleep? Dream? Emily herself never knew. Twice before in her life – once in delirium – once in sleep she had drawn aside the veil of sense and time and seen beyond [ . . .] She was no longer sitting in her chair [ . . .] She was in that strange, great room [ . . .] She was standing by the man who was waiting impatiently before a ticket window [ . . .] She saw that it was Teddy – she saw the amazed recognition in her eyes. And she knew, instinctively, that he was in some terrible danger – and that she must save him.
“Teddy. Come.” ‘[13]
These episodes of uncanny revelation evoke, variously, George Eliot’s 1859 The Lifted Veil (the compulsion to draw aside ‘the veil of sense and time’ to warn of impending death), Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Jane Eyre (the ability to summon one’s beloved across physical distance), and Wilkie Collins’s 1868 The Moonstone (dramatizing supernatural ambivalence in sleep).

Thirdly, Emily’s narratives offer a portrayal of the hardships of writerly refinement, which is helpfully abstract yet sympathetically familiar to a PhD student.  She dramatizes commitment to continuing with and developing her writing skills despite setbacks. Her reactions to her mentor’s comments on her work will sound familiar to students receiving constructive criticism on their own writing: ‘Criticism was something Mr. Carpenter could give with a right good will and he never minced matters; but he was just, and Emily had confidence in his verdicts, even when he said things that raised temporary blisters on her soul.’[14] Emily’s disappointed yet determined response to rejected story submissions will resonate with students who have had submitted articles rejected:
‘Tears of disappointment would come. But after a time she got hardened to it and didn't mind--so much. She only gave the editorial slip the Murray look and said "I will succeed." And never at any time had she any real doubt that she would. Down, deep down, something told her that her time would come. So, though she flinched momentarily at each rejection, as from the flick of a whip, she sat down and--wrote another story.’[15]
I certainly found Emily’s words helpfully empathetic when I had my own experience of article rejection.

Finally, Emily really knows how to work a title, as can be seen from her first international success, her short story ‘The Woman Who Spanked the King’. Someday, I’m going to steal it for a conference paper, if someone else doesn’t get to it first . . . .

You can find out more about the Emily trilogy and Lucy Maud Montgomery at the Lucy Maud Montgomery Research Centre, the Lucy Maud Montgomery Literary Society and the L.M.Montgomery Research Group.

[1] Irene Gammel, ‘Safe Pleasures for Girls: L.M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes’, Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture, ed. by Irene Gammel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), pp.114-131 (p. 120).

[2] Sian Harris, ‘The Canadian Künstlerroman:the creative protagonist inL.M. Montgomery, Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Newcastle, 2009), p. 29.
[3] Nanora Sweet, ‘Hemans , Felicia Dorothea (1793–1835)’,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [, accessed 21 Sept 2013] Sweet observes that ‘most Victorian editions and reissues of her work omitted her learned notes and long poems, however, and helped to cast her as a ‘parlour poet’ and the very type of the ‘sentimental poetess’’.
[4] L.M.Montgomery, Emily Climbs (Toronto: Seal, 1992), p. 253.
[5] Emily Climbs, p. 253.

[6] See Hilda Tiessen and Paul Tiessen, After Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery’s Letters to Ephraim Weber, 1916–1941 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), n. 16, p. 119.

[7] Emily Climbs, p. 151.
[8] D. M. R. Bentley, “CARMAN, WILLIAM BLISS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2013,
[9] Actually published as The Young Disciple, or, the Memoirs of Anzonetta R. Peters.
[10] Emily of New Moon (Toronto: Seal, 1992), p. 100
[11] See Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion ( London: Methuen, 1981), pp. 124 and 140 in particular, but also see pp.125-139,  Stephen Prickett, Victorian Fantasy (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005, and Francis O’Gorman, ‘Realism and Romance’ in The Cambridge History of the English Novel, ed. by Robert L. Caserio and Clement Hawes (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), pp. 485-499.
[12] Emily of New Moon, p. 5.
[13] Emily’s Quest (Toronto: Seal, 1992), pp. 88-89.
[14] Emily Climbs, p. 90.
[15] Emily Climbs, p. 262.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Dante Resources for the Discerning Victorian Researcher

Preparing papers on Dante and George Eliot for the Glocal Victorians conference in Venice last month and for the upcoming Leeds Cross-Cultural BookFair made me reflect on helpful resources to access when parachuting into Dante studies from the land of Victorian literary and cultural studies. The Commedia texts (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) are not short texts in themselves, and a wealth of wider discourses collect around them. However, they are wonderful texts to read for whatever reason. Dante’s journey is basically an extended multi-faceted gossip column of medieval Italy (with classical literature thrown in for extra seasoning), and then taken to metaphysical and philosophical levels; all sorts of tragic heroes and heroines, monsters and villains leap out at him (and you) from every turn.
It’s particularly helpful for a Victorianist to read Dante’s work because the Victorians loved the Commedia (in translation, generally). When H.F. Cary published his translation, in 1814, Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the text and it caught the public imagination. Allusions and references extend throughout the century, from the works of Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to the poetry of Tennyson, and to the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Of course, mid-century, it gained an extra resonance due to the Risorgimento (/very/ briefly -the collection of city states which we now know as Italy had been in the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; people like Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi fought to free these states and to unite them as a single Italian nation, which officially occurred in 1861). There was a large Italian refugee community in nineteenth-century London, and the English were in general sympathetic to the Italian cause (for example, a fashion item, the ‘Garibaldi Blouse’ was named after Giuseppe Garibaldi). Dante’s epic, the first in the Italian language, became a rallying symbol for the idea of Italian national identity: a common linguistic and literary heritage which might unite a common Italian ethnicity.1 Consequently, characters, phrases and scenes from the Commedia were a major part of Victorian cultural vocabulary.
There have been multiple translations of Dante’s work. I found it essential to read two alongside each other: H.F. Cary’s translation, for the Victorian context, and a modern translation with commentaries, to ensure my own understanding of the text.
Here are some resources which I’ve found helpful exploring Dante from a Victorian perspective (and the books also serve as a bibliography for this post). This list is by no means exhaustive!


Princeton Dante Project
This project helpfully brings together the text of the Commedia along with (searchable) notes, summaries, and commentary, including useful maps and diagrams. They’ve also got a great list of web links.

Dartmouth Dante Project:
A searchable text-and-commentary affair. Very comprehensive: they’ve got about seventy commentaries!

Dante Worlds
This is a wonderful visualization of Dante’s journey: they link beautiful illustrations with comprehensive diagrams and commentary.

The World of Dante:
Each canto is laid out in Italian-English translation, with helpful hyperlinks by topic, which open in separate windows. There’s also the opportunity to access music for Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Divine Comedy Online:
Here, you can see different translations and access different illustrations to go with them – if you enjoy illustration, as I do, then this facility provides a fascinating insight into shifting interpretations of Dante across 19th/20th centuries, moving from William Blake to Gustave Doré and to Salvador Dali

Leeds Dante Diaries:
I’ve had some really helpful Dante-related conversations with a couple of people here. Their blog provides some interesting musings on intersections with Dante and gives a general flavour of life in Dante Studies.

Dante Today: Contemporary Sightings and Citings of Dante:
This site provides lots of fun (a working holiday in Dante research) but also some intriguing cultural connections. ‘Contemporary’ takes in a wide span – post medieval world, pretty much. The blog covers a number of angles: food, consumer goods, literary studies, and the internet world. Nineteenth-century researchers may enjoy posts on Gladstone’s and Melville’s enjoyment of the Commedia.

Books (just a few):
The Durling and Martinez editions of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso:
No matter how many great Dante sites one finds, physical copies can sometimes be essential. These are accurate and evocative translations with lots of helpful notes and diagrams. I hated having to take them back to the library, so broke down and bought them myself.
Dante and the Victorians
Alison Millbank’s book is both comprehensive and insightful –a nuanced evocation of intersections between Dante and various aspects of Victorian culture
Dante in the Long Nineteenth Century- This recent work provides a global and interdisciplinary approach to Dante’s afterlife. You may be able to access a comprehensive preview through Oxford Scholarship Online.
Nick Havely has a number of useful books which give background on Dante’s life and afterlife: Dante in the Nineteenth Century, Dante’s Modern Afterlife from Blake to Heaney, and Dante.
A.N. Wilson: Dante in Love – A comprehensive and readable exploration of Dante through a philosophic love. Wilson provides a fantastic summary of numerous aspects around Dante specifically for people new to the subject and to his contemporary world (if you thought the Wars of the Roses was complicated, Guelph and Ghibelline Italy cubes those minor squabbles). Wilson then explores Dante’s afterlife; my only quibble is that his exploration of Dante’s Victorian afterlife doesn’t take in Christina Rossetti’s Monna Innomminata or any work by George Eliot, who loved Dante’s texts and peppered her own with references to them.

1 See Martin Clark, The Italian Risorgimento (Harlow:Longman, 2009), among others.

Friday 12 April 2013

George MacDonald and Imaginative Engagement

The Victorian novelist George MacDonald, though well-known and well-regarded in the Victorian era (particularly by figures like John Ruskin and Lewis Carroll), is often forgotten today, as the editors of the recent Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries put it: ‘His ideas fell out of fashion, and the majority of MacDonald’s works were relegated to dusty library shelves’. (Glasgow: ASLS, 2013 Certainly, the combination of the fantastical and the spiritual in many of his works does not suit all tastes; similarly, not all readers will enjoy the moments in his realist novels which focus on moral development. (Though they are often enjoyable no matter what one’s taste for morality might be: Donal Grant, for example, contains drugging, hallucinations, a mad villainous Earl, and not just one but two skeletons in the attic.)

But no matter what one may think of George MacDonald’s answers, the questions he raises are always intriguing and direct his audience in search of nuanced insight, particularly on the way the imagination functions and the way in which we engage with it.  In his own time, he was at the centre of many Victorian debates.  His belief in the shared masculine and feminine nature of the Christian God chimed in with contemporary arguments made by the mid-Victorian feminist Langham Place Group as part of their fight for increased roles for women in public life.  He encouraged his friend Octavia Hill in her efforts to transform tenement housing. 
MacDonald also believed strongly in the social value of the poetic imagination, arguing for its role in investigating ‘the very nature of things’ in his 1867 essay ‘The Imagination: Its Effects and Culture’:

‘It is the far-seeing imagination which beholds what might be a form of things, and says to the intellect: "Try whether that may not be the form of these things;” which beholds or invents a harmonious relation of parts and operations, and sends the intellect to find out whether that be not the harmonious relation of them’.  (‘Imagination’, p. 12)

 MacDonald’s link between the imagination and intellectual inquiry and the innovative potential held in both suggests our modern discourse of public engagement in the humanities. This discourse often focuses on debate and dialogue, as in UCL’s Public Engagement Unit’s manifesto of ‘encourag[ing] a culture of two-way conversations between university staff and students, and people outside the university’ or the Wellcome Trust’s desire that public engagement lead people ‘to consider, question and debate the key issues in science and society’. MacDonald argues that education should not end in an acceptance of fact but in fervent debate:

‘The end of education [ . . .] is a noble unrest, an ever renewed awaking from the dead, a ceaseless questioning of the past for the interpretation of the future, an urging on of the motions of life, which had better far be accelerated into fever, than retarded into lethargy.’ (‘Imagination’, p. 1)

MacDonald locates this interrogative imagination in humility: ‘We dare to claim for the true, childlike, humble imagination, such an inward oneness with the laws of the universe that it possesses in itself an insight into the very nature of things.’ (‘Imagination’, pp. 12-13) In another essay, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ he emphasises the importance of valuing anyone and everyone’s interpretation of a work of art, using the example of a fairy tale:

 ‘Everyone [ . . .] who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another [ . . .] [Y]our meaning may be superior to mine.’ (‘Fantastic Imagination’, pp. 316-317)

This valuing comes with the acceptance of his audience’s possible disagreement and disengagement with his work:

 ‘A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean [ . . .] It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you.’ (‘Fantastic Imagination’, p. 317)  

MacDonald sends his work out into the unknown with a shrug of his shoulders: ‘Let a fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again.’ (‘Fantastic Imagination’, p. 321)

MacDonald’s championing of interpretative freedom in a humble approach to imaginative initiatives offers, I feel, a useful approach to our current aims of engagement, which Gary Rivett summarizes in this helpful blogpost: ‘Our engagement should aim to disseminate our research to a wide range of audiences, to enrich their appreciation of the past and its relevance to their lives today.’  But engagement is not always quantifiable or even qualifiable. We cannot easily determine whether other people (of whatever community) share our ideas, will interpret them in the same way we do, or whether our ideas are actually of long-lasting value. Responses to initiatives do not always fit nicely into an impact report form – and I do not think we should try to make them fit, if they do not do so easily – though we should ensure that our efforts are well-planned and contain as much opportunity for response as possible. If we respect those with whom we engage in discussion, debate and partnership, we must expect that they won’t always respond, or respond in ways which we can summarize articulately in reports. Rivett, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield,  argues that engagement ‘might be unpredictable and intangible’ and warns against efforts to prevent such unpredictability: Focusing the bulk of our attention on creating ‘outputs’ that disseminate our research, without actually identifying—with local partners—what people might need from universities, one potential, and, to my mind, unsavoury, outcome is likely: university paternalism.

I hope to use MacDonald’s ideas to shape my own approach to engagement and to avoid the paternalistic dissemination that Rivett criticizes.  I have recently, in collaboration with other MacDonald scholars, launched an online engagement experiment in which we are re-imagining MacDonald’s fairy tale novella The Light Princess through a mixed-media blog: in two-weekly intervals, there is a post on each chapter containing a digital recording of the chapter, a new illustration created for the post, and a reflection by a different MacDonald researcher. I hope that this multi-faceted context will allow for discussion and the sharing of ideas. However, I accept it may well not do so, and not in ways that I might expect. We do not know who might appreciate it and to whom MacDonald’s tale, and our re-tellings, might appeal (if at all). Yet, I hope that, at the very least, it will become a place to share in the pleasures of the imagination (‘a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again’), and so we launch our experiment into the unknown.

 ‘The Imagination: Its Functions and Culture’ in A Dish of Orts (London: Sampson Low, Maeston, Searle and Rivington, 1882), pp. 1-42.
‘The Fantastic Imagination in A Dish of Orts (London: Sampson Low, Maeston, Searle and Rivington, 1882), pp. 313-322.