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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Gothic at Christmas

I have written about visiting Strawberry Hill House before, but when I visited this week with students taking my Gothic module, the house was beautifully decorated for Christmas – perhaps this isn’t very Gothic, but it was done with some atmospheric touches (Christmas hats on statues, little knitted robins, etc) that I’m sure would have appealed to Horace Walpole’s sense of humour. The house is always a wonderful place to visit, and it was great to take students there: the module begins with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and how this (rather daft) novel starts the behemoth that Gothic literature has become. (You can read my students’ module blog here). The guides did a great job of exploring how Walpole’s fascination with early Gothic architecture was translated to his house and then to his writing. Here are some photos of the day.image1

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Poems to celebrate Christmas

carollersIt’s Christmas, and what better way to get the festive feelings going than by reading some Christmassy poems? I’m looking forward to hearing Simon Callow reading ‘The Night Before Christmas’ on CBeebies (yes, I know) this evening, and I have a list of other poems I’ll read today. But poems about Christmas are often somewhat conflicted: what does Christmas mean to us – poet and reader? What are we celebrating? John Betjeman’s poems capture this conflict, especially ‘Advent 1955‘ and my particular favourite, ‘Christmas‘. This seems to both celebrate and slightly mock the things we enjoy about Christmas:

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Typically, for Betjeman, the poem satirises class, society, popular culture – and yet points out that the meaning of Christmas is (for the poet, and indeed for me) a religious one: the things we love about Christmas, such as being with family, the carols, the cosiness and comfort of it all, are significant but are part of a greater truth:1m

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The Burning Babe‘ by Robert Southwell is a much earlier, and much stranger, visionary poem which also points to the Christian origins of Christmas, in a hallucinatory style in which the babe is aligned to the angels which appeared announcing the birth of the Christ child: ‘A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear’. This is a mystic, fierce poem which emphasises the reason for Christmas: the redemption of souls. The poem was itself forged in the furnace of religious conflict; Southwell was a Catholic priest who was executed for his faith during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the fervour of his belief which sustained him is evident in this unusual poem.

Nativity-Scene-300x187W H Auden’s poem ‘At the Manger Mary Sings‘ offers a rather different perspective: this is the view of the new mother, Mary, manifesting an anxiety perhaps familiar to all new parents, and torn between reflecting on the perfect beauty and innocence of the infant Jesus and the future which lies ahead of him:

Why was I chosen to teach his Son to weep?
Little One, sleep.

In fact this poem is part of a much larger poetic work, ‘For the Time Being’, which explores in remarkable poetic language the significance of the Incarnation – the concept of God made Man.

John Milton’s ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity‘ also dramatises the Christmas story, in a very Miltonic way, with the grandeur of language and occasional opacity of form which makes Milton’s poetry so splendid. Combining classical and biblical references, juxtaposing power and weakness in the form of a baby (‘Our Babe, to show His Godhead true, Can in His swaddling bands control the damnèd crew’), Milton’s poem is both a form of worship and a devotional reminder of the joy of Christmas, free of the consumerist conflicts which trouble Betjeman. medeival0_2435981b

Noel: Christmas Eve 1913‘ by Robert Bridges is a poem weighted with subsequent historical events for the modern reader. The speaker sees Christmas from his own simple, rural perspective, yet relates it to the birth of Christ in his own way, suggesting that we all have our ways of marking the birth of Christ. This is the poem that first introduced me to Bridges, perhaps one of Britain’s less memorable Poet Laureates, but for his precise, perfect turns of phrase (‘mad romping din’, for example), well worth reading. Enjoy!

A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.
Now blessed be the towers that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries tonight
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.
But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence

If you’re feeling inspired, here are some other Christmas poems:victorianchristmastree

T S Eliot, ‘The Journey of the Magi

Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter

Robert Herrick, ‘Ceremonies for Christmas

S T Coleridge, ‘A Christmas Carol

Walter Scott, ‘Christmas in the Olden Time

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

Millais’s ‘Christmas Eve’

To celebrate42255-Millais,%20Sir%20John%20Everett-Christmas_Eve Christmas Eve, I thought I’d have a look at a festive painting: Millais’s ‘Christmas Eve’ (1887), which sold this month at Christie’s for £241,250, exceeding its estimate of £150,000 – £200,000. One of his later, and less well-known paintings, it is a view in Perthshire, where he frequently stayed in the winter. It’s an unusual painting for those familiar with Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite oeuvre, since most of his earlier paintings depict figures, though often against a detailed outdoor backdrop (such as the famous ‘Ophelia’). The first of his paintings to show a full snow landscape, ‘Christmas Eve’ is interesting because, while the snow may seem an idealised image of Christmas, it is not, in many ways, a festive scene. It is a rather bleak landscape, depicting a moment of stillness, in which the viewer is invited to step into a winter landscape populated only by birds and trees. Then, as now, Christmas Eve is so often not a time for quiet reflection and communing with nature; rather, we tend to be involved with preparations, visitors and home. Murthly Castle is apparent on the left of the painting, but it seems a chilly and uninviting place, without the lights and welcoming aspect we associate with Christmas. I rather like how Millais subverts our expectations here, providing an alternative which is no less valid: Christmas is also a time for peace and quiet, for reflection, for country walks and enjoying the winter landscapes, and this scene is appealing because the viewer is drawn in towards the horizon, as if we might walk straight past the castle towards the trees and bridge.

The title of the painting is, I think, the day on which the painting was completed, but nonetheless ‘Christmas Eve’ gives me the feeling of a personal Christmas moment for Millais, and for those who see it, of a moment of stillness and a different kind of festive joy. While it is dramatic, it is not sentimental or chocolate-box-y; it feels genuine and inviting, without obvious symbolism or ‘meaning’.

The festive season at Birmingham Rep

Birmingham Rep’s Christmas production this year is A Christmas Carol, and you couldn’t ask for anything more festive. I went to see it on the 1st of December and found it a great way to get in the festive spirit. Starring Peter Polycarpou as a delightfully grumpy, miserly and bah-humbug Scrooge, it tells Dickens’s tale in a way that is entertaining and can’t fail to raise a smile, appealing to both children and adults. It’s a musical version, with a number of songs and even a little dancing, and of course it’s slightly cheesy, but then, what Christmas show isn’t?

What makes it less cheesy, and more unusual, is the interesting idea of introducing a wide range of ghosts who are watching Scrooge, and decide to teach him a lesson. While this isn’t in the book, it does give a dramatic edge to the production that makes it quite spine-chilling at times, and reinforces that most Victorian moral message, that we should behave towards others as we would wish them to behave towards us – especially at Christmas.

The set is amazing – bleak at one moment and richly festive the next, with changes appearing to happen by magic, often wreathed in atmospheric smoke. The whole production is cleverly done, and one would really have to be a Scrooge to fail to enjoy it.