Woolf Works

 

wwThe Royal Ballet’s production of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works seems to have been discussed and reviewed everywhere recently, and I was very happy to be able to go and see it at the weekend. Woolf’s novels have been adapted and reframed in different ways before, but none quite like this; it works brilliantly, though. The ballet is divided into three acts, each relating to one of Virginia Woolf’s novels: ‘I now, I then’ is based on Mrs Dalloway, ‘Becomings’ on Orlando and ‘Tuesday’ on  The Waves. The whole experience is dramatic, moving, even playful sometimes, and intertwines Woolf’s life and work. Max Richter’s music both directs and echoes the movement on stage, and in the programme notes he describes the unique ‘musical grammar’ required for each of the three texts.

The programme notes (which can be downloaded online) are helpful in exploring the process of depicting Woolf’s works on the stage; the deliberate obscuring of narrative, for example, and Woolf’s creative exploration of language as a medium to depict experience might seem an unpromising place to start, but in fact her engagement with other art forms, including music, dance, art and photography, and the ways in which these appear in her writing, means that these Modernist texts offer possibilities not otherwise fully explored.

“How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”

For example, in the first section, Mrs Dalloway can be torn apart and displayed on stage as simultaneous Clarissas perform, the contrast of youth and age which the novel explores depicted movingly beside one another (and just the expression of Alessandra Ferri’s legs is emotional!) Equally, Septimus and Clarissa, who do not meet in the book, share the stage here, haunting each other. Contrary to my expectations, I found from the beginning that there are clear links, if often interpretative ones, to the novels, which made it all the more appealing (I’m not sure how the ballet would appear to someone with no knowledge of Woolf’s works). The filmic sequences which play behind the dancers in this section (designed by Ravi Deepres, who is Professor of Moving Image and Photography at Birmingham City University) seemed to me to root the action in Woolf’s concepts of time and place, especially London of the period. The moving frames which appear mid-stage seem repeatedly to offer vistas and remove them, glimpses through into other worlds which seems wholly appropriate.

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The second section is based on Orlando, Woolf’s mock-biography of a man who becomes a woman, living over 400 years, and while the complex narrative of the novel would be almost impossible to contain in an act of a ballet, the sense of it is captured beautifully: paired androgynous figures leap and whirl with glee, offering a binary sense of gender that splits further until the concept of gender – along with time and place – becomes meaningless, an effect which the novel itself has. As lasers shoot across the stage and at the audience through billows of smoke, the spotlit dancers appear suspended in the mists of time, identifiable not through the usual means of dress distinguishable by period or gender, but by their movements. This act is the loosest interpretation of Woolf’s text, and it contrasts strikingly with the final, more sombre ‘Tuesday’, based on The Waves. Water imagery saturates both the movement and the stage here, following on from a reading of Woolf’s suicide note (and, of course, she also took her life in water). The watery visuals work well: waves of movement are complemented by waves of music and also the backdrop, and the sadness implicit in life bookended by death is conjured here, the suicide of Woolf echoing Septimus’s suicide in the first act.

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I loved this. For me, the intertwining of text and dance provided a wonderful experience (and it seems critics, and audiences, agree; it’s sold out and has been well reviewed, on the whole). Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the characters are, but for me, seeing versions of Woolf’s characters, and even more importantly, interpretations of her ideas, performed so beautifully was a very absorbing and uplifting experience. The production offers as many approaches, and effective use of different art forms, as Woolf’s own works, and I’m sure she would have been very satisfied with Woolf Works.

The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, ‘Take it. This is my life.’ (The Waves)

Book Review: Fireside Gothic

imagesA recent acquisition for Christmas was Andrew Taylor’s Fireside Gothic, a title bound to appeal to me. Christmas is a time for reading ghost stories by the fire, with a well-documented tradition, with Charles Dickens and M R James being the most well-known participators. It’s a tradition I like: Christmas may be warm and cosy, but it also brings nostalgia to the fore, allowing us to reflect on times past. The nights draw in, and as we sit by the fire – even in modern centrally-heated houses – the darkness pools outside and contains hidden threats. Human nature loves the thrill of fear, and so the ghost stories come out at Christmas. Also, as Marina Warner suggests in No Go the Bogeyman, sometimes naming our fears acts as a way of warding them off; the stories present not just a thrill, then, but a way of exorcising our demons. Recently I read one of E Nesbit’s ghost stories, and a selection of Christina Rossetti’s ghost poems, as part of a festive evening at the Birmingham Midland Institute, and the creepiness of the stories is brought out well by nineteenth-century buildings, dimly-lit.

On Christmas Eve I sat by the fire at home, port in hand, reading Andrew Taylor’s book. Taylor is well-known as a historical crime novelist, and these novellas play to a similar concept, but with an added supernatural frisson. The first story, ‘Broken Voices’ is very much in the style of jamesM R James: two schoolboys are left in the care of an elderly teacher over the Christmas holidays, and listen to his stories of the nearby cathedral, and eventually take action. The description of the cathedral at night is excellent, with some truly heart-stopping moments, and while the ending isn’t entirely unsuspected, the creepiness of the story stays with you. The second story, ‘The Leper House’, is modern, with a man on the way home from a funeral breaking down and visiting a cottage, which later has vanished. The story turns out to be a rather unexpected tale of revenge. The final tale, ‘The Scratch’, seems more modern still: a soldier returned from Afghanistan wreaks havoc with a couple’s lives, unintentionally, and with a twist at the end which I didn’t see coming.

The atmosphere of all three stories is well-drawn, making them perfect fireside reading as they encourage you to draw nearer to a source of warmth and light. There is a chill to all of them, both in the supernatural creepiness and in the weather and cold buildings marleys_ghost_-_a_christmas_carol_1843_opposite_25_-_bldescribed. Being a Gothic purist, I’m not sure how much I see them as Gothic; perhaps, in the modern tradition, which defines it more loosely, they are, but the contemporary inclination to label anything ghostly as Gothic offends me. A ghost story need not be Gothic, though it can be: it is the combination of many things which makes a work Gothic (see here for further ranting). I think these stories are more traditional ghost stories than they are Gothic, then; they show little of Gothic’s usual preoccupation with societal issues, for example. They are, however, particularly Gothic in one aspect: their preoccupation with place, and with buildings. The first story is clearly the most traditionally Gothic, with a questioning of faith whilst taking place in a cathedral; the second, the building which may or may not exist is central to the unravelling of the plot, and in the third, the shed and a cave which the soldier experienced in Afghanistan are paralleled. Place is important for Gothic, especially when it is rooted in historical events or experiences, and this Taylor draws on effectively.

I’m nit-picking in saying I don’t think these stories are completely Gothic, however: they are worthy inheritors of a tradition of English Christmas ghost stories, and an evening by the fire reading them is not an evening wasted.

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Book review: Weatherland

9780500292655I like English weather, on the whole. I’m not one for too much sun, and providing it isn’t catastrophic (and I don’t have to drive in it), I enjoy the drama of mist, heavy rain, snow, and the occasional sunny day. I like seeing the effects the changeable weather has on the garden and on my moods. But for me as for most people, the weather is a backdrop to our daily lives, and one which, travelling by car, living in centrally-heated homes and working in air-conditioned, often windowless offices, we can increasingly ignore. This, as Alexandra Harris’s book suggests, is a shame.
Weather is important. The landscape is shaped by it, and many writers and artists believe that national character and temperament are shaped by the climate. Harris’s book, subtitled ‘Writers and Artists under English Skies’, explores how the English weather has been depicted from Beowulf onwards. Along the way, she considers how the weather affects people, and how and crucially why it is included in literature and art. Is it just a backdrop, or used for pathetic fallacy? It’s often much more significant than we think, it seems: human insistence on relating the weather to ourselves (writers who write better in Spring weather, for example), or anthropomorphising it, trying to make sense, find patterns, using faith, science, myth or art to explain it: we can’t ignore the weather. This determination to make something which is impervious to us make sense on our terms is fascinating, because it tells us more about the human condition than it does about the weather, even if it is simply in the recording of daily weather.
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‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’, Norman Garstin (1889, Penlee House)

Harris explores an enormous and impressive range of works, drawing on social thought, history, science and the arts to explore how our relationship with the weather has changed over the centuries. Swift’s hatred of hot weather, Shelley’s desire to be a cloud, Ruskin’s concern that the skies were being spoiled for us by science: these are things I’d not really considered before. Harris’s gift is for writing in a manner both erudite and entertaining, which I thoroughly enjoyed in her last book, Romantic Moderns, and this is no less fascinating, making obvious things which are all too easily overlooked.

Harris’s deepest interest seems to be in Virginia Woolf, whose work is constantly preoccupied with weather conditions, and the book returns frequently to Orlando, in which the action takes place over four centuries, and the weather is observed (satirically): the Victorians are dark and damp, for example, while the twentieth century is bright and dry. Apparently Wyndham Lewis disliked English weather, suggesting in his Vorticist manifesto that it should be ‘Blasted’, because it was inappropriately dull and changeable for a modern machine age.
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Reading Weatherland has made me want to return to books I know well, including several of Woolf’s, both to consider the ways in which the weather is important in them, and because ‘the weather in which we read affects our understanding of a book’ (p.349). The recent spell of hot weather prompted me to think that the English do become a little mad in our brief spells of sunshine, and this is borne out by Harris’s reading of The Go-Between, for example, but, of course, ‘significant weather is suspect when it gets into fiction’, as she notes when discussing Julian Barnes’s work: weather in books can be made to produce certain effects, to resonate with the characters’ feelings, to cause certain events to happen, and though these things might happen in real life, they seem improbable in fiction. But weather does do surprising things in real life, of course, because our lives are still, in so many ways, bound up in the climate, as the powerful and disturbing conclusion of Weatherland emphasises.

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture GalleryFOR REVIEW USE ONLY

‘Wet Afternoon’ by Eric Ravilious (1928)

As our changing planet forces us to consider a future of increasingly extreme weather conditions, in an anthropocene age where humankind has, finally and disastrously, affected the weather, this is a book which explores the literary and artistic memorialising of the weather of the past, and invites us to consider our own experiences of weather. As Richard Mabey says, we all experience weather differently, and it affects us in diverse ways, which is, of course, the essence of why it has proved such a significant aspect of literary and artistic inspiration, but after finishing this book, I feel that our experience of the weather is part of being human, of living on this planet. It is a cliche to say that the cycle of the seasons reflects the cycle of our lives – one more way in which we try to tame nature, perhaps – but the elemental experience of Lear’s battle with the storm on the heath, for example, reduces humankind to its most vulnerable, and asks us to consider life in a very different way:
Lear.  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!         runciman_lear_heath_ngs
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
[…]
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high-engender’d battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul.

 

There’s a great review here by A S Byatt (someone whose work I admire and whose judgement I trust!)

Book Review: The Arts Dividend

imagesI think a lot about the value of the arts. I’m interested in most art forms, from literature (well, obviously; I’m a lecturer in Eng Lit) to ballet, music to theatre. I’m aware, then, of the benefits of cultural life: of the pleasure it gives me to go to an exhibition, say, or to learn to play a piece of music – and not just a transitory pleasure, but – because it makes me think – one which stays with me for a long time. I try to find ways to get more people interested in the arts for this reason – it will make them happy – and, especially for children, because early exposure to culture encourages creativity and helps learning, among other things. I am, therefore, not really the target audience for this book, because it confirms what I already know, but the anecdotes and examples made it worthwhile for me. Darren Henley is Chief Executive of Arts Council England, and as such is well-placed to write about both how the arts are funded, and why they are important, and he does this efficiently.

Henley is clear from the start that the arts are not ‘subsidised’, they are ‘invested in’, because money used (appropriately) to support culture is repaid many times over in the multitude of benefits the arts provide. The book (rather like the Arts Council website) is something of a manifesto, with the aim of convincing people that culture deserves investment; it’s very clearly laid out – actually too clearly for me, with the seven bmag‘dividends’ each given a chapter, each chapter beginning with a summary, and with large orange quotations appearing throughout. This is – as no doubt it’s meant to be – a gift for journalists looking for a good quote (or those who want to talk like they’ve read it without actually having done so) but it’s quite annoying if you’re reading the whole book when you read a passage and then read the same thing in orange. Still, that aside, it’s structured in a way that Henley’s argument is unmistakable, and effective. The ‘arts dividends’ covered are ‘creativity’, ‘learning’ ‘feel-good’, ‘innovation’, ‘place-shaping’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘reputation’, and each of these in discussed in some detail, with examples of best practice given. Henley has clearly travelled a great deal across England and cites theatres, libraries, concert halls and more from Penzance to York,  and the mini case studies he provides are worth reading both because of the inspiring nature of the diverse, community-focused art projects going on, and – more prosaically – because if you are someone who has to write funding bids, or works in the arts and culture sector in any way, this book provides some invaluable models of projects.

The chapters provide evidence (everything is well-referenced to research and reports) that instrumentsthe arts inspire creativity, promote diversity, help children learn and develop, make us happy and keep us healthy, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, regenerating places whether urban or rural and fostering a sense of community, and even make money. Graduates from arts degrees might not be making as much money as those with dentistry skills, but they are able to set the world on fire. (A recent league table indicated that dentistry graduates earned the highest salary, while creative writing earned the least. However, the writer has a better chance of being remembered in a hundred years time, in my view). Culture isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the preserve of an elite, the wealthy or highly educated, or those with arts degrees or interests. Poetry, painting, music, theatre: they all can be enjoyed by and a benefit to everyone. Henley describes a ‘cultural education’, and this isn’t just applicable to school children; there are

four elements of cultural education. The first is knowledge-based, and teaches children about the best of what has been created (for example, great literature, art, architecture, film, music and drama). … The second part of cultural education centres on the development of critical and analytical skills, which can also be applied across other subjects. The third element is skills-based, and enables children to participate in and create new culture for themselves … And the fourth centres on the development of an individual’s personal creativity…

If you haven’t thought about why your children should learn a musical instrument, or whether government funding ought to go to galleries, or whether you should bother going to the theatre, read this. Equally, if you know all that and are putting together funding bids, it’s useful for you, too. Also, it’s timely and encouraging. In a period of austerity, the arts often thrive despite a lack of funding, and it’s at these times that we need them most. Recently I heard Julian Lloyd-Webber give a lecture in which he voiced his concerns over the future of music education (I immediately booked tickets for a children’s concert!), and lots of people (including me) are distressed about the end of Art History A-level. Education plays a huge part in cultural participation and enjoyment, and it is important that investment in the arts continues on a large scale in order to prevent cultural pursuits becoming the preserve of the wealthy alone.

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Clouds

Clouds fascinate me. Their infinite variety and beauty appeals, and every evening I watch the sunset from my house and marvel at the cloud formations which surround it. Sky spaces, where the scudding clouds are framed as works of art, are a delight. Recently, I lay in bed looking out of the window and wondering what clouds mean – prompted by reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, which discusses the importance of clouds for Shelley and the Romantic poets, in particular. Of course clouds are impervious to us, and our desire to find shapes in them is simply a way of trying to make them conform to human understanding, but somehow I wanted to know more; now, I do. At the Port Eliot festival, I was delighted to hear Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, talk about the science of clouds, and why they are important.

The CAS has a manifesto:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ (Tate Gallery)

I learned about what the shapes of clouds mean, and why they form in certain ways, which was explained using some entertaining experiments. They are not simply something which gets in the way of the sun, but the face of the atmosphere, which allow us to read its moods. Clouds, we were told, are ‘beautiful, dynamic, evocative aspects of nature’, an egalitarian display available to all, and also practical: we can read the weather through them. (Well, I can’t, not yet, but I hope to learn!) Cloud-watching is the sport of dreamers throughout history, from scientists to poets to artists (just look at Turner’s clouds, for example), and they are – I think – inspiring.

Shelley’s poem ‘The Cloud’ is a masterpiece of cloud art – read it here, and here is the last stanza:
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Rene Magritte, ‘The Empire of Light’, 1950-4, MOMA

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
 There is a lovely article about this poem by poet Sarah Doyle here, on the Wordsworth’s Trust blog.

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Book Review: Charlotte Bronte: A Life

bronte-a-life-xlargeThe Bronte sisters are well-biographised (if that is a word); the outlines of their stories are a part of the cultural consciousness, and there are a number of biographical works available on them, of which I have read a few (most memorably Juliet Barker’s The Brontes and Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte). Yet Claire Harman’s in-depth biography somehow fills a gap; it takes account of the most recent scholarship on Charlotte Bronte’s life and work, and traces where some of the more misleading myths came from. Harman acknowledges her debt to previous biographers, especially Gaskell, but also identifies Gaskell as the source of some of the myths. Significantly, for me at least, Harman is not one of those biographers given to undue speculation of the “she must have thought…” school, instead providing context and source for any speculations, and unpicking the Bronte myth which sprung up so quickly after Charlotte’s death.

Few writers seem to have enjoyed quite such remarkable posthumous fame. Haworth became a site of pilgrimage not long after Charlotte’s death, with its popularity as a tourist destination being one of the reasons cited for the introduction of the railway into the area (I’ve never been, but am excitedly planning a visit). brontesThe Bronte Society formed in 1893, not quite 40 years after Charlotte’s death. The sisters – or brothers, as they were presumed to be, using the pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – were quite the talk of London and literary society during their lifetime, but the details of their lives, discussed by Mrs Gaskell and others, have caused their stars to rise even further since their deaths. And there is something fascinating about the insistent tragedy of their lives. The world of the Haworth parsonage, in its bleak and wuthering position on the edge of the moors, is described so vividly that on finishing the book I feel as if I have been in another world. The lives of the children – six in total, suffering the death of their mother at a young age – is one of imagination, famously explored in their juvenilia (which in fact continued well into adulthood) of the Gondal and Angrian sagas. But the bereavements they repeatedly suffered, with the two eldest girls dying whilst at school, and the deaths of Emily, Anne and Branwell at a young age, not to mention the deaths of friends and relatives, makes one wonder how Charlotte and her father Patrick could bear the constant sadness. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments described here is how Anne, Emily and Charlotte used to walk round and round the dining table after finishing writing for the evening; after their deaths, Charlotte did so alone.

Charlotte appears here as a very real woman: religious, but constantly aware of her lack of beauty, desirous of love but reluctant to marry the wrong man, protective of her writing bronte-largeand her literary reputation, especially after the runaway success of Jane Eyre, a novel which surprised and shocked the literary establishment as much as it delighted it. She was a highly complex woman – that much is obvious from her novels – and Harman is aware that to speculate too much about her psychological depths is unnecessary. In fact, her novels say it all. I’m usually rather reluctant to link fiction to biography, but particularly in the case of Villette it is hard not to do so. I teach this novel on a module on Victorian literature and psychology, and as Harman points out, it is a novel of remarkable psychological depths, reflecting both Bronte’s and the Victorians’ growing interest in the new discipline of psychology. Like Bronte, the protagonist Lucy Snowe has a phrenological reading done; like Bronte (and indeed Jane Eyre), she is an intelligent woman who stands up to the prevailing norms of society which wish women to be beautiful, coquettish, childish. More than that, Villette depicts the experiences of an English woman teaching at a school in Brussels, a woman who falls in love with one of the other teachers. To align this with Bronte’s experience is not mere speculation; her letters indicate it happened, and Harman demonstrates the ways in which Bronte often uses her fiction to tell the truth about her own feelings. It was pleasing, too, to see the prominence Harman gives to the sisters’ poetry and its significance in their growing confidence in their ability to express themselves on the page.

Eventually, at the age of 38, Charlotte Bronte married. Initially reluctant when her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls,proposed to her, she is surprised by how happy marriage makes her. It is the final tragedy of her life that her death comes only 8 months after their haworth parsonagemarriage, due to complications of pregnancy (the same suffered by the Duchess of Cambridge, as Harman points out). She was planning another, more realist work prior to this, having visited prisons, lunatic asylums and other grim places of hardship in Victorian London, and who can say what else she might have written? However, despite all this, I’m left with a feeling of admiration for this woman who chose her own way in life against the odds, standing up to publishers, resisting attempts to make her conform, writing unexpected novels, and finding a way to be a woman writer at a time when Robert Southey could write to Bronte that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be’. Less wilful than wild Emily, less meek than pious Anne, Charlotte was very much her own woman, demonstrating an interest in how women writers could work: she saw Harriet Martineau’s solitary life, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s busy family home, and adapted her own writing life to her changing circumstances. Though I teach several Bronte novels and am very familiar with them, I want to return to them now with fresh eyes, keeping in mind the remarkable woman who wrote them.