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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Heavenly Lights: A life in stained glass

20161008_115303At Shrewsbury Museum at the moment (until January 2017) there is an exhibition of the stained glass of Margaret Rope. Rope, known as ‘Marga’ (1882-1953) is frequently overlooked (I expect most people reading this won’t have heard of her) but she produced a large and wonderful body of work across her long and interesting life. Her biography, on the Museum’s website, tells me that

‘Marga’, as she was called, was an instinctive rebel – known for smoking cheroot cigars, riding a motorbike and wearing her hair short – in an era when women were largely suppressed. Without backing from a patron, rich family or husband, she made her own way in her career, one of a new generation of artists as much at home in a workshop as in a drawing-studio.

However, she went on to become a Catholic nun, in an enclosed order, though continuing to design stained glass in a studio in the convent. She was educated at the Birmingham School of Art, where she imbibed the Arts and Crafts principles which are also apparent in the work of other stained glass makers such as Florence Camm. (In fact some of the images used in the exhibition come from the Birmingham City University Art & Design archive, which I have recently been exploring).

The exhibition contains a wonderful range of her works, both in design and in glass: seeing the two side-by-side is an illuminating experience, emphasising the vision needed to design a window on paper and be able to imagine its effects in coloured glass with light shining through – and the effects are stunning. The images below are of her 1923 work ‘Lumen Christi’ (The Light of Christ’) and depict members of her family in a religious procession.

The draughtsmanship of her work is remarkable, the colours in the designs pale and fragile next to the illuminated jewel colours of the stained glass, but the designs have a delicate beauty of their own (though I heard several people there say that the works on paper leave them cold). Stained glass is so often celestial, though, its beautiful colours uplifting the spirit, and these are wonderful examples.

I was very taken with her window ‘The Goblin Market’, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem. This was a student work, c.1908, and demonstrates a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence on her work. The animal-like goblins appear very much as Rossetti described them, their faces leering at the viewer disturbingly while the girl (presumably Laura, the one who took the fruit) seems calm, dressed in a period style. The patches of green are beautiful, where leaves and trees appear in the background, but this is not a conventional representation, and differs in style and content from other illustrations of the poem.

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Most of her works have religious subjects, however, from Judith and Holofernes to the Catholic Martyrs. Her close engagement with her faith, as well as her artistic work inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, gives life to her designs. There are several Rope works to be seen in situ in Shrewsbury – in Shrewsbury Cathedral, there are seven windows, and in St Mary’s there are painted carvings. These, along with the exhibition, are well worth a visit, for they give a great sense of the breadth and style of her work.

 

The Reading Art virtual exhibition

The culmination of the Reading Art project I worked on earlier this year is a virtual exhibition, which you can look at here. The project explored how Pre-Raphaelite art interacted with literature, particularly poetry, and the exhibition focuses on a number of particular works from the Birmingham collection, with a discussion of its literary origins. The project remit stated that:

The works in the Birmingham collection indicate this breadth of literary engagement, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix(1877), inspired by Dante’s Vita Nuova, to Edward Hughes’ Night with her Train of Stars (1912), based on W.E. Henley’s ‘Margaritae Night (BMAG).jpgSorori’. These literary paintings take poetry as their inspiration, depicting a figure from the text, and a particular moment in the poem. We see an idiosyncratic, personal image of what the painter saw as he read. Such literary depictions are common in Pre-Raphaelite works, and indicate the depth of artistic engagement with literature that the Brotherhood and their followers maintained.

This project aims for an enhanced understanding of the process and motivations of the artists who painted literary subjects, and will also explore ekphrastic writing, considering how poetry responds to art.

The virtual exhibition is categorised so that viewers can select a topic (The Bible, Dante, Myths, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Victorian Poetry, Romantic Poets) and click on that topic to see a selection of images with detailed discussion about them. Please feel free to let me know your comments!

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.

Victoria, the Victorians and us

116365I often have conflicted views about books and TV programmes which deal with real historical figures. There are so many questions surrounding how we react and respond to history, how we filter it through the lens of modern thought, which problematises the narrative. These questions came up quite a lot at the recent British Association for Victorian Studies conference . The topic was ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, and many of the papers addressed how we, as consumers – academics, writers, critics, and also readers and viewers – ‘consume’ the nineteenth century. The plenary panel began with this concept, as Professor Valerie Sanders asked why we seem to want to make the Victorians seem more like us. With reference to ‘Victoria’ the new ITV series on the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Sanders asked us to question whether our approach to popular historical dramas is a help or a hindrance. It’s a good question: no historical retelling is unmediated – there is no such thing as ‘pure’ history, and approaches to the narratives tell us more about us than about them. (For example, Cora Kaplan and G.B. Tennyson both pointed out that the search for hidden sexual innuendo in Christina Rossetti’s poems reflects more on the critic than the poet). This is true of ‘Victoria’, I think. Articles on the series have pointed out that this is an attempt to rehabilitate or recover Victoria from the ‘We are not amused’ image we have of her. Far from being obsessed with covering piano legs with tablecloths (an image passed on to us by Moderns such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, rebelling against their stifling Victorian childhoods), Victoria was a child of the Regency, familiar with vice. This much is true, though her very quiet and isolated childhood implies she was hardly on first-name terms with debauched rakes, but certainly she was more cheerful than popular views have led us to believe (see here for hilarious tales of Victoria).

Television such as ‘Victoria’ is trying to make the dour, older woman of our collective imagination more approachable. The young Victoria is played by Jenna Coleman, young, pretty and well-known; she creates a character who is impulsive, stubborn, fighting with her mother, perhaps slightly drunk on the power she has suddenly been given, falling in love with attractive, unsuitable men (like many teenage girls), and demonstrating a gratifying desire to undermine harsh treatment of the Chartists. Coleman’s hair is also artfully arranged just as the image above left. She looks the part – if prettier – but she is shaped by modern culture. Sanders asked if we like the Victorians more when they seem more like us, and I think that’s the point: for example, Victoria wasn’t that interested in the poor, and not particularly sympathetic to the fate of the Chartists (it was Lord Melbourne whose intervention caused them to be deported rather than executed for treason), but liberal values are important in our society, so the introduction of this element provides an opportunity to show Victoria as relatable. I’m glad the Chartists do feature; they are a significant part of British history, all too often overlooked, though the way in which her dresser brought their fate to her attention, allowing the benevolent monarch to intervene, does have distinct echoes of ‘Downton Abbey’. The introduction of the ‘downstairs’ element has this effect throughout, in fact; I don’t dislike it (in fact I applaud the way in which modern TV and fiction, like academic work, has taken more interest in narratives of working class lives recently) but it does sometimes feel a bit irrelevant or even patronising.

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Lord Melbourne

A similar approach is taken in Victoria’s relationships. Personally I doubt she had quite such romantic feelings for Lord Melbourne (who was distinctly less attractive than Rufus Sewell with his magnetic cheekbones), but she certainly didn’t offer him an almost-proposal, and while it makes good TV, it doesn’t reflect history. Does that matter? I rather think it does, but probably only to purists like me. Of course it’s a fictionalised story – it’s TV, it’s entertainment; the ‘truth’, if we could uncover it, would be far less entertaining (and I am entertained by ‘Victoria’). Instead, we are presented with a burden of emotion in every scene, and never allowed to forget that she is both an impulsive young woman, and a queen. I think this is because, as we are so frequently reminded, human nature never changes, so of course the Victorians are like us. This is something of a fallacy: emotions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.

Academics are encouraged to find ‘relevance’ (a term I dislike) in everything we do. How do we make the past seem ‘relevant’ to students; how do we find ‘relevance’ in Queen Victoria for TV audiences? One way is to suggest that issues we see on our screens are played out in other contemporary arenas. Valerie Sanders mentioned an article in the Telegraph by Kate Maltby which suggests that, despite rhetoric suggesting Theresa May can be likened to Elizabeth I, in fact she is more akin to a young Victoria:

the surprising brutality of Theresa May’s approach to Team Cameron – sacking men like Dominic Raab, Nick Boles and Ed Vaizey, for the crime of friendship with Gove or Osborne – recalls a different young queen. Victoria has a softer image than Elizabeth Tudor, but viewers of ITV’s current hit series … will know her reign started with a ruthless purge.  Sir John Conroy, the disciplinarian who had run her household, was dismissed, and she moved him, together with her own hated mother, to distant rooms in Buckingham Palace. Her refusal to compromise over the Bedchamber Crisis finds echo in the ruthlessness with which May has not accepted even a few token enemies in her Cabinet. Victoria quite enjoyed Swiss holidays, too.

As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.

We make the Victorians more like us, then, in order to imply lessons from history; to make the past sexy, if not educational, and also to entertain us. The vast differences between us and them are easily overlooked in the name of entertainment, and perhaps that isn’t too bad, as long as people aren’t simply learning their history lessons from TV. There are, after all, many ways in which the Victorians were like us: they were concerned, albeit in different ways, about the environment, about education, about poverty, health and living conditions; and also about their clothes, their relationships, and more personal aspects. We just can’t assume that this was the same as the way we think about such things, though, and while we might feel closer to the nineteenth century for watching ‘Victoria’, this is an illusion. We need, and enjoy, stories, but narratives constructed for entertainment are just that, not history.