June 20, 2007

Rethinking Victorian Sentimentality

Writing about web page http://www.19.bbk.ac.uk/

This new edition of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Ninteenth Century, which focuses on Victorian Sentimentality, is well worth reading. Certainly it provides an insight into the important place of sentimentality in Victorian literature and culture. I won’t say much much more as all the articles can be read in full online (see the link above).


Fashion Palaces 1880–1960

Gerzon, Fashion Palace

The exhibition, Fashion Palaces 1880-1960, in Amsterdam’s Historical Museum gives a fascinating insight to the emergence of the fashion industry from the end of the nineteenth century. The focus of the exhibition is on Amsterdam’s first fashion houses and department stores. The costumes displayed throughout give an idea of changing designs and tastes among Amsterdam’s elite.

Interviews with fashion designers, architects of the fashion palaces and customers (all fortunately subtitled in English) provide insights into the fashion industry of the time- which ranged from luxurious couture fashion and ready-to-wear clothing to shopping for items in department stores. Perhaps the most interesting discussions were about the massive surveys undertaken in which designers hoped to find a series of sizes that matched the sizes of most of the population. Surprisingly, this hadn’t previously been done and most of the clothes brought ready-to-wear or off the shelf had to be altered.


June 18, 2007

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Title:
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.


Reading: Images, Texts, Artefacts

Reading: Images, Texts, Artefacts, Graduate School of Humanities, Cardiff University, 28-29 June, 2007

The principal aim of this conference is to encourage doctoral researchers from across the humanities to consider how the concept of reading may come to bear on their own subjects of research. ‘Reading’ here is intended to be interpreted in a wide sense, to include the reading of, e.g. images, buildings, inscriptions, theatre or dance performances or other creative productions as well as books and manuscripts. This approach both allows participation by students from many humanities disciplines and topics, and also provides a framework for interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation. Beyond this tangible ‘cross-fertilisation’ a secondary aim will be to foster skills and confidence in presentation and communication among postgraduates.

The paper I will give at this conference is entitled ‘Writing and Reading the Rhetoric of Femininity in Christina Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep.’

Written in 1892, The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on The Apocalypse is Christina Rossetti’s last published work. Few scholars have taken it seriously enough to conduct a through survey of the ideas presented. Although hugely popular in the late nineteenth century, such dismissal is understandable when the relentless self-mortifying comments that Rossetti makes about her own hermeneutics are taken into account. Certainly, her claim that all she can do is ‘but quote both texts’ is not a great incentive to engage in a comprehensive study of its hermeneutics. Whist Joel Westerholm suggests that the constant reminders of the humility of the author may have influenced the book going through seven editions ; it is difficult for a modern readership to appreciate such self-deprecation.

With a specific focus on The Face of the Deep, my paper will examine the extent to which Rossetti sought to muffle her more controversial and challenging messages within an overtly traditional ‘feminine’ discourse in which she positioned herself as a ‘reader’ rather than an interpreter. Insistently fearing that she was being ‘overbold’ (551) and crossing the elusive line between performing a ‘surface study’ and probing of the depths of the un-revealed mysteries surrounding the nature of God, she resorted to denying any authorial responsibility.

As I expand on Rossetti’s hermeneutical interrogation of the term ‘reader,’ I consider her self-deprecating remarks in the context of her medieval fore-mothers such as St Teresa of Avila. Alison Weber suggests that the use of “feminine” features in St Teresa’s work are to be seen as the means by which she broke the Pauline silence and asserted her authority whist at the same time defended herself against any charges the Inquisition could bring against her. Despite the gap of three centuries between the writings of St Teresa and those of Christina Rossetti, the insights that Weber’s book bring are of an immense help when considering the language of obfuscation that is shared by both writers. Although Rossetti did not have a death threat hanging over her for interpreting the scriptures, her authority was, as this paper will demonstrate, similarly severely hampered by the fact of her gender.


Hidden Burne–Jones

lucretia

The Hidden Burne-Jones exhibition, on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until July 1st, is definitely worth visiting. I’ve always admired Burne Jones and to see his finished paintings alongside his preliminary sketches heightened my interest in his work. I was especially interesting to see his designs for stained glass windows and tapestries. The size these images in which numerous symbolic meanings could be identified were fascinating.

Nonetheless, I found the most remarkable aspect of Burne-Jones’ work, as displayed in this exhibition, in his depictions of garments. Revealing as well as concealing features of the body, his numerous studies of various forms of drapery highlight the ways in which the garments which appear in his final masterpieces were carefully thought out.

Since I have recently been writing about Christina Rossetti’s 1858 poem entitled, ‘“Rivals”: A Shadow of Dorothea,’ it was interesting to see Burne-Jones’ depictions of the legend which relates how St Dorothea, in AD 303, was mocked on the way to her execution by a young man, Theophilus who had heard her say she would soon be in a garden. He asked her to send him fruits from her ‘garden.’ When Dorothea subsequently knelt to pray, a child-like angel came with a basket of roses and apples, which Dorothea asked to be sent to Theophilus. He was converted to Christianity and later became a Christian martyr (Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems [London: Penguin, 2001], 1139). In Burne-Jones’ sketches of the scene with the dead Dorothea wrapped in her shroud, Theophilus looking down upon the numerous mourners gathered beneath his house, and the child-like angel standing beside him, the focus on the folds of drapery is highly wrought.

Alongside many of the works on permanent display in the Museum, such as two of the four ‘Pygmalion and the Image’ paintings, Burne-Jones’ sketches were on display. Like those of the legend of St Dorothea these sketches help trace Burne-Jones’ composition processes and enable a deeper understanding of his final works.

Since visiting the exhibition last month, I’ve found the Burne-Jones resource site accompanies it a very useful resource.


May 28, 2007

The Victorian House

Title:
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.


Adrienne Rich quote

My heart is touched by all I cannot save;
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot in with those who
with no extraordinary power
re-constitute the world.

From: Adrienne Rich, ‘Natural Resources’, in The Dream of a Common Language (New York, W&W Norton, 177), p.67


May 05, 2007

Poetry and the Darwinian Condition

Research Seminar

Dr John Holmes (The University of Reading)

‘Poetry and the Darwinian Condition’

2pm May 23rd 2007 in H0.60

Everyone welcome


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.


April 09, 2007

Linda Ekstrom’s ‘Opera Apum’ (1996)

Ekstrom

I was struck by this sculpture which is used as an illustration for the cover of Biblical Religion and the Novel 1700-2000 Mark Knight and Thomas Woodman (Ashgate Publishing, 2006). In the acknowledgements (ix) we are told that the Ekstrom created the image by placing a Bible inside a beehive and allowing the workings of the bees to adorn it with honeycomb and honey. Considering that the book as a whole highlights the multiplicity of hermeneutical approaches to the Bible in the novelistic genre, the symbolism of the cover is very much appropriate.

Ekstrom’s website features a range of other fascinating images which interrogate the links between art, religion and language. I was especially interested by her artistic altering of the text of St Teresa’s Interior Castle. Here, erasures and alterations highlight the materiality of language and interiority of the book itself.


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