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July 22, 2007

Theology

Music front cover
Title:
Theology
Artist:
Sinead O'Connor
ASIN:
B000O5BPCI
Rating:
Not rated

For oh you’re like a ghost in your own home
Nobody hears U crying all alone
Oh U are the one true really voiceless one
They have their backs turned to you for worship of
Gold and stone.
(From ‘Out of The Depths’)

The themes of all the songs in this new Sinead O’Connor album come directly from the Old Testament. The Song of Songs, Jeremiah, and the Psalms are all quoted extensively and intermingled throughout as O’Connor sings of God, his love, and the abandonment of his people as related in Scripture. Tragic in places and joyful in others, O’Connor gives a musical interpretation of Old Testament passages that is emotional whilst at the same time balanced and fair.


Ruth

Book front cover
Title:
Ruth (Oxford World's Classics)
Author:
Elizabeth Gaskell
ISBN:
0192834762
Rating:
Not rated

Published in 1853, Elizabeth Gaskell’s second novel deals with issues of identity, religion, and with the dilemmas that surrounded unmarried mothers. After being seduced by the wealthy albeit cowardly Bellingham as a naive sixteen year old, a future of adversary and trial is decided for Ruth. As an orphan working as a badly treated dressmaker’s assistant, Ruth is shown to have no power in her relationship with Bellingham nor any choice over her subsequent pregnancy. Nevertheless, typically, it is her who is classified as the ‘impudent and hardened’ (p 89) party capable of trapping an innocent male in her clever artifices. After being heartlessly abandoned by Bellingham, Ruth’s despair reaches its peak. Subsequently, rescuing her from suicide, Mr Benson, a dissenting minister takes her back to live in his house which he shares with his sister. The decision to disguise Ruth as a widow to prevent any outbreaks of scandal establishes her as a pure and inoffensive member of the community. With her change of circumstances and her change of name, Ruth is able to bring up her son Leonard and work as governess in relative security despite the demons of her past. It is only when her true identity is discovered that her troubles are escalated and the full force of what it meant to exist as an unmarried mother in Victorian Britain is made explicit. Redemption does eventually come at a cost. Ruth’s place in the heart of the community is secured by her willingness to put others first as she nurses the victims of the typhus fever that was sweeping the country. A twist of fate sees her giving up her life to nurse Mr Bellingham back to health. Although the novel becomes increasingly sentimental at this point, it is nonetheless poignant. Biblical themes and motifs abound and the plight of the unmarried mother is considered in a sympathetic light.


June 18, 2007

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Book front cover
Title:
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author:
Maggie O'Farrell
ISBN:
0755308441
Rating:
Not rated

We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent feature, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents. (134)

Like O’Farrell’s previous novels, After You’d Gone, My Lover’s Lover, and The Distance between us, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is gripping and full of emotional and psychological twists. As the fragility of various relationships is untangled and interrogated and various time periods are seamlessly woven together, the drama of the narrative becomes increasingly compelling and, at times, disturbing. Placed in a psychiatric hospital as a rebellious teenager and confined there for the next sixty years, Esme invariably lives through memories of her childhood- one that was shared with her sister Kitty who now suffers from dementia. When the hospital is due for closure, Iris, her only living relative, previously unaware of Esme’s existence, is summoned to help. The relationship between these two women serves as the central focus for the novel right up to the powerful cliff-hanger of the conclusion. This novel is worth reading, however, not just for the high drama of the narrative but also to learn about the horrifying treatment and diagnosis of real or imagined mental disorders that many suffered under in mental asylums in the early twentieth century.


May 28, 2007

The Victorian House

Book front cover
Title:
The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed
Author:
Judith Flanders
ISBN:
0007131895
Rating:
3 out of 5 stars

‘It is the Englishman who wishes to be by himself in his staircase as in his room, who could not endure the promiscuous existence of our huge Parisian cages, and who, even in London, plans his house as a small castle, independent and enclosed…he is exacting in the matter of condition and comfort, and separates his life from that of his inferiors.’ (The French philosopher Hippolyte Taine writing of his time in England, p.xxxvii).

This is the most compelling examination of life in a Victorian household that I’ve read. Throughout, Flanders offers interesting insights into the daily grind of a typical middle-class family and their servants. Especially in her chapters on ‘The Nursery’ and ‘The Kitchen,’ she brings many of the roots of our post-modern conceptions to light. For instance, in her examination of child-care she highlights the beginning of the shift from a parent-centred universe to our own child centred one (33) and in her discussion of cultural spaces she traces the growth of suburbia.


April 18, 2007

Macbeth

Macbeth

Last night I went to see Macbeth. Performed by the RSC at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and directed by Conall Morrison, the performance emphasised the intense psychological drama of Shakespeare’s play and provided some interesting interpretative strategies. The most striking of these was the take on the witches. The opening scene sees them and their children murdered by Macbeth’s own hand. Throughout the rest of the play they/ their ghosts are the directing force of the action as they embark on a quest for revenge. In watching Macbeth in performance, I am always interested in how the dinner-party scene with Banquo’s ghost will be enacted. In this production, the manipulation of the scene by the witches emphasises the idea that it is they who are given ultimate power and control. Their continued presence throughout the castle scenes contributes to this idea and enhances the confusing eeriness of the proceedings. Certainly their doubling up as other characters adds a profundity that may have otherwise been lost to Macbeth’s emotive meta-theatrical soliloquies and the sense that ‘life is a stage’. The fact that, as the witches, they perform the porter’s speech also contributes to the confusion and the blurring of gender boundaries throughout the production. Having them read lines which seem, on the page, overtly ‘masculine’ works well here and raises some interesting ontological issues. The question ‘what is a man?’ recurs throughout and is answered by each character in his or her own manner, none it seems being able to reach the ultimate ideal they envisage as the answer. Macduff’s internal struggle as he recovers from the shock of hearing that his wife and babes are murdered is a hugely intense performance and perhaps articulates best the struggle of the whole cast to achieve the masculine principle they so fervently propound. This struggle is seen as a major contributory factor to the onslaught of insanity and mania that forms an overwhelming force in the second half of the production. The frailty of the central characters as they are manipulated by each other and the witches is perhaps one of the main factors behind such an emotionally gripping production. Certainly, the frailty that Derbhie Crotty’s Lady Macbeth demonstrates as a lost soul tossed and turned by fate evokes more sympathy than could perhaps be thought possible for a character speaking such evil words and propelling her husband onto murderous action.


March 27, 2007

'From House to Home': Conference Review

Our aim in organising the 2007 BAVS interdisciplinary postgraduate conference was to address and tackle issues concerning representations of houses and homes in Victorian literature and art. Through panels and discussions, we hoped to bring to light many of the roots of our twenty-first century cultural assumptions. We envisaged that the conference would be of relevance to MA and PhD students working in the field of Victorian studies. Our hopes were fully realised. The day went better than we dared anticipate. A huge variety of papers coupled with lively discussion and questions made for an interesting and fully packed event.

The day started with Alice Stainer’s paper, ‘‘I had a little chamber in the house’: The Subversion of Domesticity in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.’ The central focus of was on Aurora’s ‘little chamber’:

I had a little chamber in the house,
As green as any privet-hedge a bird
Might choose to build in, through the nest itself
Could show but dead-brown sticks and straws; the walls
Were green, the carpet was pure green, the straight
Small bed was curtained greenly, and the folds
Hung green about the window, which let in
The out-door world with all its greenery.
You could not push your head out and escape
A dash of fawn-dew from the honeysuckle,
But so you were baptized in the grace
And privilege of seeing…

Aurora Leigh (I.567-78)

Alice spoke of the room as an organising principle for a discussion of the conventions and subversions of female domesticity. She argued that Aurora’s personal ‘chamber’ allowed her to annex the spaces traditionally aligned with the male artist. The greenery inherent in her chamber, serves, Alice argued, as a means of access to the natural world from which Aurora’s gender excludes her. Confined by male categorisation as ‘the Angel in the House,’ she suggested that instead of abolishing the established feminine affiliation with domesticity, Aurora Leigh charts a new kind of domestic space that is conductive to artistic creation.

Entitled ‘‘A garden in a garden’: The Enclosed Gardens of Christina Rossetti’s Poetics,’ my paper also focused on the overlap and inversions between the garden and the house as it developed notions of the spiritual significance of several of the many enclosed gardens that figure in Christina Rossetti’s poems. In my analysis of Rossetti’s utilisation of the enclosed garden, I reflected on its complexities as a place of overlap between the spiritual and the earthly as I considered her interpretations of the Garden of Eden and of the enclosed garden of the Song of Solomon as well as the hermeneutical understandings of these gardens by several of her most influential literary sources. My title, ‘A garden in a garden’ was derived from the opening of Rossetti’s sonnet ‘On Keats’ which she wrote in 1849:

A garden in a garden: a green spot
Where all is green: most fitting slumber-place
For the strong man grown weary of a race
Soon over. Unto him a goodly lot
Hath fallen in fertile ground; there thorns are not,
But his own daisies: silence, full of grace,
Surely hath shed a quiet on his face:
His earth is but sweet leaves that fall and rot.
What was his record of himself, ere he
Went from us? Here lies one whose name was writ
In water: while the chilly shadows flit
Of sweet Saint Agnes’ Eve; while basil springs,
His name, in every humble heart that sings,
Shall be a fountain of love, verily.

After introducing Keats’ grave in terms of ‘a garden in a garden’ I explored how Rossetti worked with the complicated connotations garden imagery gives rise to as it features both as a place of regeneration and life as well as a place of decay and death. I then linked Rossetti’s poetics of the garden to the writings of her medieval predecessors and her contemporaries in the Tractarian movement.

Throughout the rest of the day, many of the other panellists built on the ideas of the overlap between inside and outside as they considered the ideologies implicit in notions of the Victorian house and home. In her paper, ‘Inside Out; Outside In: Inversions of Fashionable Space and the Mid-Victorian Feminine Ideal’, Kara Tennant used fashion plates and illustrations to discuss how fashionable ‘inversions’ of domestic space challenge and complicate understandings of the feminine ideal. She spoke of the fashionable woman as located with a domestic setting, whether that is in the drawing room or in a subliminal place such as a hothouse or an outdoor picnic consisting of all the paraphernalia of the interior. Rather than escaping from the confines of the roles assigned to them by patriarchal society, Kara suggested that these fashionable women posing outdoors or indoors by an over-sized window do not necessarily represent female freedom. Rather, they serve to highlight the precocious boundaries between interior and exterior domains. Kara ended her paper by highlighting the importance of context in fashion illustrations. What may be an appropriate indoor costume would not be tolerated easily outdoors and vice-versa.

The complications inherent in constructing and adhering to social and cultural norms were also explored in Anne-Marie Millim’s paper, ‘The Idea of Home in George Gissing’s Diary (1888-1902).’ Anne-Marie argued that through his diaries, Gissing demonstrated a need to fit into socially accepted norms by marriage. His idealisation of the place of home and his early conception of marriage were sorely disappointed following the quarrels and violence he experienced in the realities he suffered when he was married. Following the failure of his marriage in 1898, Gissing increasingly preferred to surround himself by fictional characters. As described in his diaries, the interior of his house had on display portraits of famous writers such as Shakespeare and Tennyson. These writers came more and more to infiltrate Gissing’s consciousness and his construction of his own authorial subjectivity.

This symbiosis between psychological states and the materiality of the home was explored in relation to Dickens in Maddie Wood’s paper. Entitled ‘Architectural Subsidence and Affective Displacement in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit , Maddie’s paper considered how the psychological oppression of the characters of Little Dorrit was displaced onto the House Clennam itself. Working with the framework of the street, the house, and the room as the contraction of the world in the novel, Maddie spoke about the construction of Mrs Clennam’s room in terms of a tomb and execution chamber housed within the cage the rest of the house represents. She then focused specifically on the correlation of the home and the mother and traced the ways in which the force of the returning mother lies at the house of the House of Clennam’s dissolution.

Moving on from a discussion of the supernatural occurrences within the houses of Little Dorrit, Dickens’ A House to Let and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Dr Catherine Spooner opened her keynote lecture with the description of a real house thought to be haunted. In Wardley Hall, (http://www.wardleyhall.org.uk/) a manor house on the outskirts of Manchester, a skull kept in the hall is said to cause storms and poltergeist activity when it is removed from the house.
Wardley Hall

The phenomenon of stories of such skulls is largely isolated to Manchester and Lancashire and as such, Catherine argued, contributes to a sense of uniqueness of location. Instead of conceiving of ghosts as deconstructive presences (or, indeed, absences) Catherine suggested defining ghosts in terms of their time and place in material reality. Using the maps in The Lore of the Land (Westwood and Simpson 2005), she revealed how ghost stories have geographical belonging. Especially in Victorian fiction, the location of a ghost story is often a key to its interpretation. The case of Sheriden Le Fanu is especially interesting since he used Derbyshire as a disguised Ireland for the setting of Uncle Silas in order for it to achieve greater commercial success. Whilst Italy and Spain were often the focus for eighteenth century gothic tales, the rural outposts of Britain were coming to stand in for more exotic locations by the mid-late nineteenth century. The north of Derbyshire was seen especially to be an apt location for a ghost story in view of its abundance of local legends. After briefly outlining the plot of Was It an Illusion? a Parson’s Story by Amelia B. Edwards, Catherine considered the significance of ghosts in the rural and industrial north and concluded by reiterating the negotiations of houses and homes in Victorian ghost stories and tales of the supernatural.


February 13, 2007

Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters, Warwick University Arts Centre, Wednesday February 7th 2007

Sarah Waters

Sometimes I go in [to the cinema] half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way- people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures. Or perhaps that’s just me… (The Night Watch, p. 106)

Kay’s comment about watching the second half of a film first can be taken as an apt reflection on the structure of The Night Watch itself. Beginning in 1947 and ending in 1941, Waters takes us on a journey through the past lives of the four central protagonists as the novel develops. As I read, I certainly became more interested in their pasts than their futures. It was fascinating to hear Waters discuss this device in her interview with Gill Frith last week at the Arts Centre. She cited Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Elizabeth Bowen’s Demon Lover as influences in the technique of ‘telling a story backwards’ as she discussed why she made the choice to structure The Night Watch this way. She said that she had thought of using this device in Affinity but decided against it. As it stands, however, out of the four novels that Waters has written, Affinity remains my favourite because of all its plot subtleties, characterisation, and its inclusion intricate details of life nineteenth century London. This is not to say, nonetheless, that I haven’t been hugely impressed and gripped by her other novels.

Although, on Wednesday, Waters concentrated primarily on the writing of The Night Watch, she spoke about the inspirations and influences behind the other novels and about her personal background more generally. Gill Frith began the interview by asking her about her PhD thesis in which she examined the representation of gay pasts. The ideas she explored fed into her first novel, Tipping the Velvet but can also be seen in Fingersmith and Affinity. She claimed that, particularly in these neo-Victorian novels, she wanted to give lesbian desire and emotion a past and a vocabulary- something that for so long had been overlooked. Although Waters went onto answer, in response to an audience question, that she didn’t see herself as a role model for young lesbians, but as a writer who is keen to articulate homosexual experience, she is eager that lesbianism is not overlooked when thinking about the past. Interestingly she claimed that her next book, set in rural Warwickshire, will not focus on homosexual couples at all and will be in a slightly different vein to the rest of her work.

I was especially interested to hear Waters discuss her literary and historical influences. She spoke briefly about her investigations into the nineteenth century spirit mediums who had been sent to prison for fraud (like Affinity’s Selina Dawes) and about her readings of Anne Lister’s diaries for background information about lesbianism in the Victorian period. Click here for information about Anne Lister.

Waters claimed that it has been her intention to combine the sensational elements along with the complex female protagonists of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins with articulations lesbian experience. Certainly, traces of Lady Audley, Laura Fairlie, and Marian Halcome can be seen in some of Waters’ own characters. Last year, Waters gave an interview with the Guardian where she cited her top ten Victorian novels. Surprisingly, considering its influence on her work, Lady Audley’s Secret does not make the list but the melodrama and sensation as well as the complex plot structures of the novels that do point to the Victorian influences that lie behind Waters’ writing. She makes some interesting points about Victorian sensation writers in another Guardian article.


October 22, 2006

Claire Tomalin on Thomas Hardy

Warwick University Arts Centre, Wednesday 18th October, 2006-10-22

On Wednesday, Claire Tomlain gave a very interesting talk about her new book, Time Torn Man: A Life of Thomas Hardy. Beginning with his ancestors and his entrance into the world as an unwanted child, Tomalin gave a brief, although enlightening synopsis, of various events and relationships that helped shape Hardy’s work. After discussing Hardy’s hyper-awareness of his place in time and his sense of ‘living in three tenses,’ Tomalin moved on to speak of his fractious relationships with the three women that feature most prominently in his life- his mother, his first wife Emma, and his second wife, Florence. Focusing as much, if not more, on Hardy the poet rather than Hardy the novelist, she spoke of Emma’s death as the inspiration behind his greatest poetry. Emma Hardy died after years of unhappiness and emotional estrangement in her marriage. However, after her death, Thomas wrote numerous poems in which she appears to him as a ghost and lover. Although, as Tomalin claimed, these poems were irksome to his new wife Florence, Hardy was still insistent in writing them. In her fascinating article, ‘Woman Much Missed’, published in the guardian a few weeks ago, Tomalin quotes a few of these poems and offers reading of them replete with biographical references.
As well as rooting Hardy’s poems and novels in instances of biographical significance, Tomalin also considered the philosophical and literary influences that can be seen to operate on Hardy’s work and a few of the numerous works that his masterpieces inspired. She made some interesting comparisons between Shelley’s philosophical musings and Hardy’s poetry and Jude the Obscure and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
All in all, Tomalin’s talk inspired me to order the biography and I look forward to reading it soon.


October 02, 2006

Jane Eyre

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/drama/janeeyre

Jane

I’m really liking this new adaptation of Jane Eyre although I was slightly disappointed last night (episode 2) that Rochester paid a gypsy woman to speak for him rather than dressing up himself. That said, I was impressed by the acting and the scenery and will definitely be watching the last two episodes and would recommend it without hesitation.


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