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.



King Arthur and Tintagel

One of my abiding interests from childhood is the myths of King Arthur. I dragged my parents round places such as Glastonbury Abbey (the alleged burial site of Arthur – one of several) and Tintagel  Castle (revenge, perhaps, for all the churches and stately homes!) I read and reread the myths, from children’s retellings to Chretien de Troyes, Malory, Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth (I was once asked to leave a history class at school for reading this under the desk, ironically) and, latterly, Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of medievalism (shared by the Victorians more widely), also painted some Arthurian myths, and I’m interested in those, too. I’m less concerned about the ‘real’ King Arthur, if there was such a person (and if there was, he certainly couldn’t have been the medieval king he is depicted as) and more interested in what the myths mean to us, and what we do with them. It seems fair to say that the myths of Arthur and his Round Table have been associated with either those interested in mysticism, or those with an overabundance of misguided patriotism, but there are plenty of serious scholars, too. The constant reinterpretation of the myths, in poetry, fiction, art, films and more, is an indication of the enduring nature of the legends, but the ways in which these stories are used tells us more about the society in which these interpretations were created than it does about Arthur himself.

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The stories are age-old, including chivalry, fighting, power, magic, love, adultery, faith, death and human fallibility. They come from all over the place – the stories we are now familiar with have been pieced together largely from Welsh, Cornish and French tales, and there is no ‘pure’ or ‘true’ version. But the stories of Arthur and his knights, their adventures, their search for the Holy Grail, the doomed love-triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot which brings down a kingdom, have resonances throughout history. Arthur, after his mortal wound, is taken to the mysterious Vale of Avalon; he was said to be ready to return when Britain needed him (and, interestingly, during WW1 some people apparently believed he would return). There are echoes of Christianity in this: as a good, pure man and leader, Arthur is figured in the myths as Christ’s representative on earth, whom death cannot kill and will one day return to save those in need. The chivalric code of Arthur’s court is set up as an idealised society in which all are welcome, all are brave, good, mutually supportive, and so on. (Actually the details of the stories indicate something more nuanced than this, though).

Places which are associated with Arthur are extremely popular. We visited Tintagel recently, which is known as the legendary place of Arthur’s birth to Ygraine and Uther; Merlin is said to have smuggled him away to live with another family (Sir Bors, I think). Tintagel Castle and village make much of this connection, and as we climbed up to the castle I told my small son some of the stories of Arthur (bowdlerised for children!) Surrounded by sea, high up on the cliffs, it’s an evocative place, despite the extremely tenuous Arthurian connections. I notice that another castle is being excavated near Tintagel, which is expected to arouse the interest of Arthurians (see here).

I was also curious to visit King Arthur’s Great Halls. In the 1930s, Frederick Thomas Glasscock acquired a Victorian house on the main street in Tintagel, and set about turning into how20160716_153528 he saw King Arthur’s court. This slightly barking idea has led to a fascinating place: the first room contains thrones on which one can sit and listen to a recording of Robert Powell reading the story of King Arthur, which is illustrated by some striking paintings by William Hatherall, which are very much period pieces. Each painting is lit up at the relevant moment in the story – my son loved it. Then one moves down a corridor which contains beautiful stained glass by Veronica Whall, loosely Pre-Raphaelite in style, featuring the coats of arms of the knights of the round table. The real destination, though, is the Great Hall itself: with 52 types of Cornish granite. There is a Round Table, along with thrones and suits of armour. It’s fascinating in a rather surreal way: remarkably kitsch, and indicative of the passion some people have for Arthur himself. You can find out more about the Halls here. There are various other places in the area, all which take equally seriously their position so close to the birthplace of King Arthur; perhaps we will visit those another time. Tintagel was fascinating, but I was happy to return home and read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

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.


Book review: Reader, I married him

e5c275e734198bc85259b1e4ad625129Reader, I Married Him: Stories inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier, is one of many celebrations of Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary this year, and is a result of Chevalier’s collaboration with the Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth. I read it because, to be honest, I’m a bit of a Bronte geek, and the idea of a range of stories which bring Bronte’s wild and wonderful work into the 21st century holds a strong appeal. Chevalier asks in her introduction: “Why is ‘Reader, I married him’ one of the most famous lines in literature? Why do we remember it and quote it so much?” Moreover, she adds,

It is not, ‘Reader, he married me’ – as you would expect in a Victorian society where women were supposed to be passive; or even ‘Reader, we married.’ Instead Jane asserts herself; she is the driving force of her narrative, and it is she who chooses to be with Rochester.

True. It is, I think, at least in part the thrill of this quiet, plain heroine who is able to change her own life and take control of her own destiny, that appeals; she is still a modern heroine, all this time after her publication in 1847. That is, no doubt, the driving force behind many of these stories, by familiar names including Helen Dunmore, Kirsty Gunn, Tessa Hadley, Susan Hill, Esther Freud, Lionel Shriver and Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few. To me, though, it was an odd collection; I was, perhaps, trying too hard to trace the stories’ origins in Jane Eyre; many seem to feature a relationship or a wedding which might, very loosely, be derived from the line “Reader, I married 9780008150570him”, but in some cases I was lost as to the Bronte connection and thus perhaps didn’t enjoy the story as much as I should.

Some stories, however, were wonderful – illuminating the original text, whilst bringing a modern creativity and understanding to a new piece of fiction. Helen Dunmore’s ‘Grace Poole Her Testimony’ gives a revisionist reading of the Jane Eyre story (one might almost say myth), in which Jane and Mr Rochester are cast as much less positive characters, while poor Bertha is given a rounded, much softer and sympathetic character. Grace shows that not all women have a voice; not all women can put their story forward and create their own destinies like Jane Eyre, and reminds the reader that after all, Jane is a fiction – more women, perhaps, suffered the repressive lives that Grace and Bertha had. The flipside of the fairytale has always been represented by Bertha, and this story re-reads Bronte’s text to show how facts might be manipulated. Of course the idea of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ is familiar from Gilbert and Gubar’s critical work of the same name, but this concept with its multiple possibilities of dual consciousness, the repression of women, the psychology of characters, seems ripe for fictional exploration but doesn’t really feature in this book.

The appealing mismatch of the strong but slightly prissy, educated woman and the careless man is reflected nicely in Chevalier’s own story, ‘Dorset Gap’, in which a geo-caching expedition leads to a sly twist at the end. Francine Prose reimagines the story in which Rochester becomes an even more sinister figure, disposing of unwanted wives in a manner close to Bluebeard. Susan Hill, who admits she hasn’t read Jane Eyre, writes a story from the point of Bronteview of Wallis Simpson, exploring the problems of being needed and adored. Perhaps my favourite is Emma Donoghue’s ‘Since First I Saw Your Face’, exploring marriage (so a very loose connection to the novel) as complicated by repressed sexuality, and through the prism of another true story, the life of Minnie Benson, mother of E F Benson of Mapp and Lucia. Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘The Orphan Exchange’, with overtones of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, eventually reunites Jane with her childhood friend Helen Burns.

These stories play on the tensions inherent in the novel, particularly with regard to marriage. As John Sutherland puts it in Can Jane Eyre Ever be Happy?:

The echoes of Bluebeard in Jane Eyre are obvious. Rochester is a swarthy, middle-aged rich country gentleman, with a wife locked up in a secret chamber in his house. He wants another wife – like Bluebeard, he is a man of voracious sexual appetite. … what is most striking is Bronte’s inversion of the conclusion of the fable. In Jane Eyre we are encouraged, in the last chapters, to feel sympathy for Bluebeard – a husband more sinned against than sinning. The locked-up wife is transformed into the villain of the piece. … Not only is sympathy demanded. We are to assume that – after some moral re-education – Jane will be blissfully happy with a Bluebeard who has mended his ways. It is more daring since … Edward Rochester is responsible for Bertha Rochester’s death.

Like Francine Prose, Sutherland concludes that one might not, therefore, ‘be entirely confident that his wife-killing ways would not return’. The stories here speak not only to the novel, then, but also to the multiple classics of criticism which have accrued over the last fifty years. Though I might not have appreciated every story here, I’ll not read Jane Eyre in quite the same way again; the stories open up little pinholes of possibilities – other readings, other texts, other characters – in the novel.



Legends of Sabrina

Sabrina is the mythical figure who gave her name to the River Severn which flows from Wales through Worcestershire to Gloucestershire, and I seem to keep finding her at the moment. She appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, in which the King Locrinus deserts his wife, Gwendolen, and has a child by another woman; that child, whose name is Sabrina in Latin, Severn in English, Hafren in Welsh, is drowned by Gwendolen in the river, along with her mother, and gives it her name. Subsequently, legend has it that she has become the nymph of the river; she is also known as a goddess. Milton writes of Sabrina in Comus, in which the water-nymph is conjured and rescues the Lady from her plight because she is pure of heart. As agent of freedom, then, Sabrina is seen as powerful, mystical, and sympathetic to women who fall victim to a patriarchal system which undervalues and confines them. Milton’s description of Sabrina is worth quoting here:

There is a gentle Nymph not farr from hence,
That with moist curb sways the smooth Severn stream, 
Sabrina is her name, a Virgin pure,
Whilom she was the daughter of Locrine,
That had the Scepter from his father Brute.
The guiltless damsell flying the mad pursuitSabrina at Croome
Of her enraged stepdam Guendolen, 
Commended her innocence to the flood
That stay’d her flight with his cross-flowing course,
The water Nymphs that in the bottom plaid,
Held up their pearled wrists and took her in,

And underwent a quick immortal change
Made Goddess of the River; still she retains
Her maid’n gentlenes, and oft at Eeve
Visits the herds along the twilight meadows,

The clasping charm, and thaw the numming spell,
If she be right invok’t in warbled Song,
For maid’nhood she loves, and will be swift 
To aid a Virgin, such as was her self
In hard besetting need, this will I try
And adde the power of som adjuring verse.

Sabrina is on the side of women, then (despite her father’s wife causing her death); perhaps she sees that her father was the cause of the problem. There is also a description of ‘Sabrina fair’ (also the title of a play, turned into a 1954 film by Billy Wilder with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), with ‘amber-dropping hair’ (presumably orange like mine), and she is a figure who has caught the imagination of a number of people before and after Milton. Keats was app2016-03-12 13.02.56arently  fascinated by the story and planned, shortly before his death, to write a poem of Sabrina.

I only discovered Sabrina’s existence outside of Comus because I found her, first in the grotto in the wonderful grounds at Croome Park, and then in Worcester City Art Gallery. At Croome, she reclines beside the grotto in the Capability Brown landscape, and she is perfectly in keeping with the neo-classical grounds, featuring a number of statues, follies and other diversions to entertain the cultured 18th century visitor. Of course, in this and other representations, she is no longer a child; she is fully a nymph, topless despite the excessive amount of fabric around her. At Worcester, she is a bronze statue, Sabrina Thrown into the Severn (1880) by William Calder Marshall, again fully grown and naked (which tells us a great deal about the portrayal of women in art). Here, she is delightfully situated as though about to be thrown over the balcony into the gift shop. There is also a Sabrina statue at Shrewsbury (1846), with a quotation from Milton, by Birmingham sculptor Peter Hollins (below). Since I seem to be Sabrina-spotting, I’d be interested to hear of any other representations of her in the Worcestershire area that I haven’t yet found!



Book review: Mothering Sunday

9781471155239Graham Swift’s latest novel (novella?) Mothering Sunday is subtitled A Romance, but, with its title and subtitle, is misleading; it’s certainly no celebration of motherhood, nor is it, in the conventional modern sense, a romance, despite the naked reclining woman on the cover (a Modigliani, if you’re wondering). I like the initial sense of misdirection, though – it makes one think more carefully about the book. The action of the novel, such as it is, takes place during one day, Mothering Sunday in 1924. A young orphaned maid, Jane, has a rendezvous with her lover, Paul, who is engaged to another woman and is, in the terms of the time, above her station. The first part of the novel describes what takes place, which might be erotic but isn’t, due, I think, to Jane’s holding-back of emotion, her uncertainty about what this relationship is and where it might lead. It’s what follows which is much more significant: the novel is not about Jane’s illicit relationship, but about her life, and though the action is confined to a day, that day is used to construct her entire life, flicking back and forth through time as though glancing through the pages of a book. The small space of time, coupled with the third-person narration which focuses on Jane’s point of view, makes this a tightly-controlled novel, which is significant because this is fiction about constructing narratives, and how we construct our own stories.

Jane, we learn early on, is not typical of a maid: she is clever, she can read, and she borrows books from the library of the house she works in, cheerfully ignoring convention. Language is fascinating to her, and she frequently comments on how we use words to make things real – or seem real – and her thoughts indicate her awareness of how language is used to construct thought. The early section in which she is in bed with Paul is significant mostly for its demonstration of how Jane sees and thinks, then; Paul’s thoughts are absent, and as the story moves on into the afternoon of the day he becomes more a turning point for her than a significant character in his own right; he becomes mythologised in her mind. This is no 7250146-3x4-340x453‘fallen woman’ narrative, then; Jane is a modern woman who pursues her own path and becomes a writer – a very famous one. We learn about Jane’s past, but also about what she doesn’t reveal in interviews when she is old – Mothering Sunday indicates the parts of her history that she leaves out of her novels and her public persona, and it becomes increasingly clear that she has constructed her own life, and constructs other fictional narratives too.

Jane is an appealing figure, then – liberated, for her time and background, with the audacity and emotional coolness to follow her ambitions. Perhaps it is telling that her favourite reading is boys’ adventure stories, such as those by RL Stevenson; she doesn’t relate to traditionally female novels (such as romantic novels) but instead is inspired to create her own adventure and sense of freedom, against the odds of her circumstances. It is the carnivalesque space of Mothering Sunday, when maids are allowed a day off, which seems to begin her path to success. And after all, if Jane had been visiting her mother like the other maids, she would have been confined to a different domestic space rather than lying in a man’s bed thinking about words and books. The novel itself also works as a space in which language constructs and deconstructs, telling truth and lies, with omissions and half-truths covered up by words. This might seem a slight novel, in length and perhaps events, but it is more complex the more one considers it; it seems to move aside the layers of fiction, the delicate nuances and gentle indications, to uncover the truth that there is no truth: that all fiction is constructed only of words, and words, ultimately, can mean whatever we want them to mean.