23/05/2019

THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF ARTHUR RACKHAM...

Feeling very Undancy by Arthur Rackham


During the VV's teenage years, instead of pinning posters of pop stars on her bedroom walls, she had some lovely printed cards, each one with softly rounded corners, and all depicting illustrations designed by  Arthur Rackham.


Arthur Rackham 1867 - 1939.  A self portrait


How serious and respectable he looks in this self portrait; more like a stern accountant than the man whose art created scenes of fairytales and myths. But then, he had once been employed as a clerk at the Westminster Fire Office, before enrolling in a part-time course at the Lambeth School of Art.

Fairy on a Spider's Web


At the age of twenty-five, Arthur left his job to work full-time at illustrating books. He devised his own techniuqe, at first sketching a pencil outline and then blocking in some colour, finally using india ink to add the finer details. Sometimes this 'sepia' stylistic theme was enhanced with watercolours, building up the layers in a series of transparent tints. He also worked with silhouettes, inspired by Japanese woodblocks.


A decidely Japanese influence in this illustration from Das Rhiengold


The film director, Guillermo Del Toro, says that Rackham was an inspiration for some of his finest work, most notably the faun in his film,  Pan's Labyrinth. And then, there is the tree seen growing through an altar in the film entitled Hellboy. This Del Toro has referred to as his 'Rackham Tree'.


The faun in Pan's Labryinth



Arthur Rackham was prolific and although his work oozes romance it is never in the least bit twee. 


The Rhinemaidens from The Ring



Today, there is a wealth of Arthur Rackham's work to view online, with his classic illustrations reproduced in many books – such as in the fairy tales collected by the Brother's Grimm,  Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland, the Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, the book of English Fairy Tales, and Peter Pan, and then The Ring - to touch on but a few of them. 

Do you have a favourite?


  





14/02/2019

RIDDLE OF A CURIOUS LOVE LETTER ...

   

This letter is held by the American Library of Congress. It dates from the 1850's, and whether the original version was genuine or contrived, it is a most delightful find. Do read the explanation at the bottom of this transcription to fully understand the true intention of the message.


MADAM,

The great love and tenderness I have hitherto expressed for you 
is false, and I now feel that my indifference towards you 
increases proportionably every day, and the more I see you 
the more I appear ridiculous, and an object of contempt, and
the more I feel disposed, inclined, and finally determined, to 
hate you. Believe me I never had the least inclination to 
offer you my hand and heart. Our last conversation has 
I assure you, left a wretched insipidity, which has be no means
possessed me with the most exalted opinion of your character. 
Yes, madam, and you will much oblige me by avoiding me. 
And if ever we are united, I shall experience nothing but the 
fearful hatred of my parents, added to an everlasting dis
pleasure of living with you. Yes, madam, I think sincerely. 
You need not put yourself to the smallest trouble or send or 
write me an answer ------ Adieu. And believe that I am 
so averse to you that it is really impossible I should ever be,
                        Madam,
                                 Your affectionate lover till death.
                                                                               W. GOFF





EXPLANATION.

There are two ways of reading it; the father compelled his daughter to show him all letters sent to her - the unsuspecting father reads straight forward, but the daughter having the clue, reads the first, third and fifth lines, and so on. Then the contrast will be discovered. 


31/12/2018

ON WRITING VICTORIAN FICTION ...




 




The past is foreign country: they do things differently there.”

L.P Hartley’s The Go Between.


Any writer of historical fiction almost needs to become a time-traveller, to ‘go native’ and familiarise themselves with the cultural workings of the 'foreign place' in which their story will be set – to draw their reader into that world without qualms as to authenticity regarding the characters, settings, or themes that, if placed in a modern novel, might seem entirely alien. A good starting point is to read the work of established authors, those from the nineteenth century, and the best of the Neo-Victorians now. That way an author’s ear can attune to the nuances, rhythm and tone of the language that was used 'back then'.


Charles Dickens


My personal Victorian favourites are Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, and Thomas Hardy; each one of these writers offering a unique and distinctive style to define the age they represent. But, of all the Victorian writers, Dickens is considered by most to be the master of the era, with his storylines rising above mere plot and offering social commentary on almost every aspect of the world which he inhabited. However, a word of warning here. Attempts to emulate his work today can result in clichéd parody in any but the most skilful hands. A writer should be brave enough to develop their own personal voice and tone, albeit while following the ‘rules’ or restrictions of the genre.

Not all nineteenth century literature adhered to Dickens’ formal tone. Moby Dick, written in 1851, begins with these strikingly ‘modern’ lines – “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation…especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…”

There is still the formal Victorian phrasing to anchor us in the era, as exhibited in the phrase: ‘requires a high moral principle’. But at the same time Melville creates a very strong vernacular; entirely original. A real, living character whose voice could belong to any age, and who draws us directly into his world.




It has to be admitted that Melville was American. Many writers prefer to emulate the more English tradition of ‘Victoriana’ – that which has been so well-observed by the modern-day author Charles Palliser. According to many reviews, his novel The Quincunx ‘out Dickensed’ Dickens himself. Indeed, almost all ‘Sensation’ themes are covered in this lengthy book, with lost or stolen inheritances, laudanum-addicted governesses, dens of thieves, and asylums, along with doomed affairs of the heart. What’s more the story’s narrator is called John Huffam – the middle names of Charles Dickens himself. An audacious decision, but justified, because Palliser’s writing is superb.
Sarah Waters, who also excels in the genre, uses a sparer lyrical prose. She is rarely florid or overblown, as illustrated in these lines taken from the start of Fingersmith – where the reader is immediately told that the narrator has been orphaned; a common Victorian theme, around which secrets and mysteries can be woven into complex plots – “My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me.”
Similarly, such clues are laid in The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, another stunning ‘Victorian’ novel which begins – “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper. It had been surprisingly – almost laughably – easy. I had followed him for some distance, after first observing him in Threadneedle-street. I cannot say why I decided it should be him, and not one of the others on whom my searching eye had alighted that evening.”
The novel is ‘placed’ immediately by the archaic use of ‘Threadneedle-street’ – and the fact of the oyster supper; a common meal in Victorian times and not the luxury food of today. The language also has a formality with words such as ‘had alighted’, which leaves the reader in no doubt that the genre is Victorian.

Another important factor for the writer of historical fiction is to ensure accurate scene descriptions. Inspiration is not that hard to find, with many of us still surrounded by Victorian architecture now. All the houses, shops, the theatres and bars from which our settings can be derived. The transport must be imagined, of course – the sounds of creaking carriages – the jangling of the reins – the clopping of the horse’s hooves – the rhythmic chugging of the trains, exuding clouds of cinder-flecked steam. And, as depicted in one of my novels, the common fears that “the motion and velocity might cause such a pressure inside our brains as to risk a fatal injury – a nose bleed at the very least.”


The expansion of the railways led to another common theme in Victorian novels. Train travel enabled the movement of a mass population – mainly coming from the countryside while searching for work in the city. These two settings often lead to a blunt comparison between innocence and depravity. Still, many continued to travel to London to seek their fates and fortunes – whether for better or for worse.


The city has, to this very day, a wealth of Victorian settings. A wonderful resource for any writer is to be found in Kensington, where No 18 Stafford Terrace (which belonged to Edward Linley Sambourne, a famed cartoonist for the satirical magazine Punch) remains just as it would have been in its Victorian heyday. There are Chinese ceramics and Turkey rugs, Morris wallpapers and stained-glass windows – not to mention the letters, the diaries and bills that provide an accurate insight into the running of such a house. For those unable to visit, there are the objects in museums, the documents found in libraries, or via a search on the Internet where many paintings and photographs are stored.

The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the science of photography and what a treasure that has left us. Victorian scholars have a distinct advantage over those of earlier centuries, for what better way to get a true sense of interior or exterior scenes, to study the fashions that were worn, or to catch the glint of life in an eye. I can only agree with Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of the art, who described the photographic art as ‘the genius of Alladin’s Lamp…a little bit of magic realised.’


As to the day to day running of any Victorian residence, the relentless slog of housework would have lacked any magic at all. But do not take my word for it. Why not read Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House, or go to an original source in Mrs Beeton’s Household Management.

In fact, Mrs Beeton offers advice on almost any subject, from cooking, to fashion, or medicine. Her words also occur in my novel, The Somnambulist, when my narrator quotes the book as a means of objecting to the clothes that her mother wants her to wear – “I was looking through Mrs Beeton’s book, and she wrote several chapter on fashion, and with regard to a young woman’s dress her advice is very specific indeed. She says that” – and I had this memorized for such a moment of revolt – “its colour harmonise with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure, that its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.”

Many other contemporary factual works are still available today. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is surprisingly readable while giving a detailed insight into grim social realities. These studies were very useful to me when researching the Victorian demi-monde, as was My Secret Life by Walter.

Walter was a shocking libertine whose pursuit of physical gratification led to many a melodramatic encounter – and the exploration of a world that could not be more different to that which is generally perceived as the moral, upstanding society over which Queen Victoria ruled with her iron rod of respectability.


Walter, the far less ruly child, would surely have visited Wilton’s (a music hall setting used in my novels) with all of its night-time clatter and bang, where the prostitutes called from the balcony to those who sat at tables below - where the glisten of the lime lights would glance off the gleaming metal of the barley twists posts around the hall.

No doubt Walter would also have loved Cremorne – the Chelsea pleasure gardens described in my novel, Elijah’s Mermaid. The grounds were eventually closed down due to lewd behaviour, and sadly nothing now remains but a pair of ornate iron gates.

Cremorne Gardens by Phoebus Levin 1864

Unable to visit the actual place I still immersed myself in its atmosphere by reading contemporary articles printed in Victorian newspapers (the archives are still available online). I looked at paintings and adverts to gradually built a vivid scene inside my mind of the lush lawns with their statues and fountains, and the banqueting hall, and a hot air balloon, and lavish theatrical displays – such as that performed by the Beckwith Frog who swam in a great glass aquarium along with several living fish.


Freak shows were also popular as an entertainment form, though the mermaid display in my novel is purely the product of imagination. Even so, that image was inspired when reading about the Feejee Mermaids; the hideous monstrosities created by grafting a monkey’s remains onto the body of a fish. Imagine the smell smell of that!


Which brings me to another writing prop to further enhance a Victorian world, albeit one invisible – that being the sense of smell. It may well be a cliché when describing nineteenth century scenes to allude to the stench of filthy streets, but it would be wrong to ignore the fact of the constant odour of rotting food, the rising up of fetid drains, or the effluence from horses – all of which elicits a strong response from a character in Elijah’s Mermaid, who has come on a visit to London and is almost overcome by – “…sweat from the horses, and piss from the horses, though I should be used to such farmyard smells with plenty of muck in the countryside. But, in London, that perfume was too intense, as if every passenger in our cab had managed to step in a turd on the pavement, and that mess still stuck to the soles of our feet, firmly refusing to fade away.”

A writer might also think ‘outside the box’, revealing less obvious fragrances, which – in the case of The Somnambulist – was the smell of a popular perfume that came to have great significance within the novel’s plot. For this, I employed the Internet, seeking out aromas that a Victorian gentleman might use. I discovered Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, first produced in 1872 and described by the manufacturers as: ‘animalic and golden…warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk and powdery orris.’ Quite a vivid description I’m sure you’ll agree. And, quite a serendipity – because, after the book’s publication, I realised that Hammam’s Bouquet is still being produced to this very day. I couldn’t wait to buy some, to lift out the bottle’s stopper and breathe in the vivid scent that I had only imagined before: to close my eyes and step right back into a lost Victorian world.






20/12/2018

MISS MARLEY AND THE ENDURING INSPIRATION OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Charles Dickens, the year before he wrote A Christmas Carol


Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - its full title was A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas - was first published in 1843, one hundred and seventy five years ago. 




Published by Chapman and Hall in London, it was illustrated by John Leech (above right) and met immediate success. The first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. Thirteen more editions had been released before the end of the following year.



It came out at a time when there was an enormous revival of interest in Christmas traditions, with many tales of ghosts emerging, combined with a social awareness of the dreadful conditions of poverty that so many Victorians were forced to live in. As such, many academics think of this novella as a Christian allegory. 

The book has never been out of print. It has inspired countless adaptations on stage, and screen, and in opera form, with visual interpretations by artists. And now, a new novella has been released by the publisher Harper Collins. This new book is very much inspired by the original story, but looks more closely at the character of Jacob Marley and his relationship with his sister, Clara - leading to the title of Miss Marley.

Miss Marley was conceived and written (and very almost completed) by Vanessa Lafaye, the writer for whom this Victorian story had become almost an obsession. The resulting novel was acquired by publishing director of Harper Collins, Kate Mills. It is beautifully produced and has been seamlessly completed by the writer Rebecca Mascull. Illustrations have been created by Emily Carew Woodard.

The perfect Christmas gift, available at all good book shops.




16/12/2018

PRINCE ALBERT'S DEATH AT CHRISTMAS

The royal Christmas tree at Windsor Castle


Queen Charlotte (the consort of King George III) first introduced a pine tree in the royal rooms at Christmas time. But, it was Prince Albert who really encouraged and popularised the decorated festive tree as a more general tradition - and one that we still follow now. 

However, on December 14th, 1861 when the Windsor Castle tree would normally have glittered with its hundreds of tiny candles, every single light was doused ~ because of Albert's sudden death at the age of only 42.


Victoria and Albert enjoying Christmas with their children



In the years that followed on, Queen Victoria still celebrated Christmas, but she hated to be in Windsor which reminded her too painfully of her husband's death there. Instead, she travelled to the Isle of Wight and the Italianate palace of Osborne House where, during Albert's lifetime, the family had spent so many happy times together.


The royal family in happier times


Another change to the family tradition was the fact that, after his father's death, Bertie, the Prince of Wales preferred to spend his Christmas days at Sandringham, claiming to find Osborne House 'utterly unattractive'.


Bertie, (Edward) the Prince of Wale, and his father, Prince Albert, on the right.


But, perhaps an element of guilt influenced this decision. Shortly before his father's death there had been a notorious scandal involving the then future king who was studying at Cambridge, and the actress Nellie Clifton. Intrusive press publicity had caused Prince Albert great distress. He wrote Bertie many letters and, eventually, in appalling weather, travelled to meet his son in Cambridge. 


 Prince Albert's deathbed at  Windsor


The stress of such a journey, combined with a pre-existing illness (some say caused by the Windsor drains) led to Albert coming home again in a state of some exhaustion. He died very soon afterwards in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria definitely blamed the Prince of Wales for this sad end, as illustrated by this line which is taken from a letter written to one of her daughters: "That boy...I never can, or ever shall look at him without a shudder."





In the VV's novel, The Goddess and the Thief, Victoria's grief is dramatised - as is her ensuing interest in the hiring of spirit mediums. Much of the book is fictional, but it is true that the widowed Queen very often tried to contact the spirit of her husband. As time passed she relied more and more upon her closest friend, John Brown - the game keeper who also claimed to be a spirit medium. There were rumours of private seances, some of them described by the Queen herself - a notoriously regular diarist. But these records were destroyed at the time of Victoria's own death; being viewed by her advisers and other family members as potentially embarrassing.

What a shame that is! What interesting reading they would make today.




An Audible version is also available.

12/12/2018

THE CHRISTMAS PANTOMIME BEGINS...

From the V & A Archives


The VV really loves this engraving. It reminds her of the time when she wrote The Somnambulist, her first Victorian novel which opens with an imaginary scene of a pantomime at Wilton's Hall, even though Wilton's did not host such shows at the time of the novel's setting. 

Many other places did. During the Victorian era a Christmas trip to a pantomime was a thrilling traditional thing to do, with shows made up of story and songs, with rhyming couplets, double entendres, and a lashings of topical wit as well.


From the V & A Archives


The name of 'pantomime' stems back from as long ago as Ancient Greece, when an actor or 'pantomimus' told stories by the means of mime or dance, with that act often accompanied by music and a chorus line.






In the middle ages, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte (for which we also owe our thanks for the creation of Punchinello, or Mr Punch) was a type of entertainment where troupes of performers travelled round to give shows in markets or fairgrounds. They improvised their story lines around the character Harlequin, who wore a diamond-patterned costume and carried a magic wand. Later, this part was famously played by Grimaldi the clown, who died in 1837 - the year Queen Victoria came to the throne.


Joseph Grimaldi as Harlequin


As Victoria’s reign progressed the stories told by Harlequin became entwined with the antics of rural English Mummers. Eventually those shows evolved into quite grand productions – although many pantomimes back then were still then based around Harlequin's character. 



From the V & A Archives



The proof is found in the titles for shows such as Harlequin and the Forty Thieves ~ or  Jack and the Beanstalk; or, Harlequin Leap-Year, and the Merry Pranks of the Good Little People (surely some dwarves had been employed). In 1863 W S Gilbert wrote Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren; or, Fortunatus and the Waters of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man who Wooed a Little Maid ~ though that particular event may have been somewhat ambitious in scope and dramatic complexity. Years later Gilbert was heard to confess that perhaps it was not the best title to use.


Augustus Harris


But, for whatever reason, as time went by the Harlequin character was included much less often. Productions such as those put on by Augustus Harris, manager at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, were based on traditional fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, or Cinderella. These were still extravagant stagings featuring ballets, acrobatics and enormous processions of specially recruited children. There would be magicians, and slapstick, cross-dressing and innuendo. There was audience participation too, in the vein of the still familiar refrains of  'Oh no, he isn’t…Oh yes, he is'. 


From the V & A Archives


There were also the popular ‘skins’, when actors would dress in animal garb, even as frightening insects such as in the show, Cinderella (above).  However, more comically, they would play the back or the front end of a pantomime horse or cow ~ a role once undertaken at the Stockport Hippodrome by an aspiring young actor by the name of Charlie Chaplin.





Shows could go on for hours. Back in 1881, Augustus' Harris’ The Forty Thieves began at 7.30pm and ended at 1am the next morning. One scene alone lasted for over forty minutes while the thieves (each with his own followers) processed across the stage. The staging cost was £65,000, the equivalent of several millions today. But then, with popular music hall acts such as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno employed to take the starring roles, Harris’ shows were a great success – artistically and financially. 




03/09/2018

DOCTOR WILLIAM PRICE ~ WELSH DRUID



Doctor William Price was a scholar and surgeon who gained fame at the age of 84 when cremating his dead baby son on the side of a Welsh mountain. 




A charismatic and charming young man, Price socialised as easily with the Welsh working class people among whom he grew up, as he did with the wealthier London elite met while he studied medicine. Being a talented student, at the age of only 21 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. 

When returning home to work in Wales be became very much involved in the Chartist movement, and also did a great deal to improve the health of the local workers - being very much against smoking, and keen on natural medicines, with a healthy diet (vegetarian here), and plenty of open air exercise. Such pioneering practice in a social healthcare system went on to have great influence on the views of Aneurin Bevan.

One of the earliest feminists, Price believed in Free Love in relationships and the abolition of marriage. He was also very much immersed in alternative religious faiths - studying Hinduism, Greek Mythology, as well as Egyptology, not forgetting the cult of Druidism that was very popular indeed in the Welsh Victorian era.

At this time there was a rising fear that the country may lose its identity and, inspired by the work and faith of the Druid, Iolo Morganwg, Price hoped to encourage interest in the Welsh culture, language and history. (This was also the era when Lady Charlotte Guest was translating The Mabinogion to English, with competitive eisteddfods run to encourage the arts and the spoken word.)

Price believed the land’s many standing stones were places of spiritual worship and hoped to create his own ‘temple’ at the summit of a mountain overlooking the town of Pontypridd. When attempts to raise £10,000 to build a great museum failed, he refused to doubt his mission, especially after making a visit to the Louvre in Paris - after having been forced to flee to France when involvement with the Chartists’ rioting placed him at risk of imprisonment.

At the Louvre he was said to have viewed a 2,000 year old Greek Stone, and believed that he could understand every one of its engravings, claiming that the stone had ‘spoken’ to him of his future as a ‘bard of the moon’, whose first-born son would then become the Messiah of the Druid faith.

Back in Wales again, from around the age of 40, Pryce became yet more unconventional in his dress as well as his beliefs. Growing his hair down to his shoulders and also wearing a long black beard, he dressed in flamboyant outfits, often coloured emerald green. He also wore a crown upon his head that was made from the body of a fox.




At the age of 71, having fathered three daughters, but still no son, he went on to practice medicine in the medieval hilltop market town of Llantrisant. It was there, at the age of 83 that he met a young woman, Gwenllian Llewellyn, almost 60 years his junior, and who - despite all previous statements of not agreeing with marriage - he then went on to marry in a pagan open air ceremony, at which three women friends appeared in costume as The Three Graces.

The longed for son was born to them on August 8, 1883 and was named as Lesu Grist Price (the Welsh version of Jesus Christ). When that child then sadly died from a convulsion at only 5 months old, his father attempted to perform a cremation on East Carlen hill.

No doubt he had been influenced by the Hindu cremation ceremonies, and stories of ancient druids who were also said to have burned their dead. But, ever the social activist, Price was very much aware of the growing movement in Great Britain for people to chose such ceremonies over traditional burials, even though such an option was illegal at the time.

There was a great deal of outrage and also some suspicion that the child could have been murdered, with Price then attempting to destroy any evidence linked to such a crime. Crowds gathered and the corpse was taken away before the flames could devour it. A sensational court case followed on where Price defended his choice and claimed ~



“It is not right that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose in this way. It results in a wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to living things.


After being found not guilty, Price demanded his child’s body back, and while his young wife kept a mob at bay with pistols and Irish wolfhounds (that, the VV would have liked to see!) the cremation was finally performed, after which Price erected a 60 foot pole with a moon symbol set on the top of it as a token of remembrance.




The event was a cause celebre, going on to influcence the law passed in 1902 to legalise cremation. Meanwhile, Price fathered two more children, another son and then a daughter, until, at the age of 92, he stood at his doorway one day and announced, “I will lay on on my couch and I shall not rise again.” When his wife tried to give him some cider to drink he demanded to have champagne instead, and while he sipped away at that Dr William Price gently passed away.

Following her husband’s death, on January 31 1893, Gwenllian ordered 9 tonnes of coal to be delivered to the summit of East Caerlan. There a great iron grid was erected in which to hold the coffin. 20,000 tickets were sold to those who wished to attend the cremation, with many spectators coming along dressed in full Welsh costume. There was a carnival atmosphere.



Price’s daughter, Penelopen Elizabeth grew up to devote herself to promoting the Cremation Society of Great Britain. In 1947 she unveiled a plaque in memory of her father in the Welsh town of Llantrisant. A statue was installed and unveiled in the early 1980's.


*


Dylan Thomas’ short story, The Baby Burning, is said to be based on the true events reported in this article.

The film in this link  (and also shown embedded in the post below) was created by Matt Brodie as part of his senior thesis at Emerson College.




Also with thanks to www.llantrisant.net