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.




Pantomime magic

IMG_1621The pantomime is considered a great British tradition, a concept I find both fascinating and slightly mystifying. This year we took my small son to the pantomime for the first time, and in my first visit to the pantomime for about thirty years I was struck by how little has really changed. Going to the pantomime was a much-anticipated Christmas treat for me as a child: I wholeheartedly believed in the magic of the pantomime, found the jokes hilarious, the mock-pathos moving, the action thrilling, and I desperately wanted to be the fairy godmother (usually played by one of the senior girls from the ballet school). Subsequent weeks would be spent re-enacting parts of the pantomime, with focus on the ballet.

The pantomime we went to was in the same place (The Elgiva in Chesham, if you’re interested) as the pantomimes I attended in the early 1980s, which made me think even more about how things have changed over time. The pantomime tradition demands that the basic story be that of a fairytale (Jack and the Beanstalk, in this case), but which must include a hero, a princess, a fairy godmother, Widow Twanky (a man dressed up as a woman), a villain who must be boo-ed, and a set pattern of events, beginning with trials to be overcome and ending with a marriage. Along the way, the audience can sing, express loudly their delight or disapproval, and leave their usual, restrained selves at the door (this goes for adults more than children, of course). The set is always full of glitter and sparkle, the brighter the better – any ideas of restraint or taste must necessarily be replaced with a fearless drive towards a complete cheerfulness overload.IMG_1620

A new book on The Golden Age of Pantomime by Jeffrey Richards, which I’ve read several reviews of recently, explores why pantomime was so important in the nineteenth century, and one aspect of the Victorian pantomime is the way in which it constructed childhood as something innocent and ethereal, though later in the century combined with music-halls acts which attracted the crowds over Christmas. This combination is perhaps why the modern pantomime has a patchwork effect, in which songs, romantic interludes, jokes and audience participation all combine with both pathos and slapstick to create something unlike anything else you might see in the theatre. It won’t surprise you to hear that Charles Dickens was fond of a pantomime, though perhaps it is more surprising that John Ruskin also did.

In some ways, I found myself thinking how different this pantomime was from those I remembered – the music is WarnePantomine1890louder and more contemporary, the special effects more special, and the dancing more modern. Yet of course these are minor, surface differences: though the performance was well-rehearsed and performed, there was still a sense of very British amateurishness about it which is necessary in pantomime, I think. And though I was conscious of the innuendo in some of the terrible jokes, that’s because I’m older, not because panto has changed. Pantomime is by its very nature both timeless and of its time: different every year, only put on for a fleeting festive season, it reflects the trends and concerns of its time (for example, references to Strictly, Frozen and austerity abound) – but the way in which it makes contemporary references don’t really change, and the sort of awful, punning jokes which raise a groan are both rooted in contemporary ideas and in much older concepts. Making us laugh is a complex business, but one which in many ways doesn’t seem to have changed much over time. I’m no expert (though the V&A pages on the history of pantomime are very helpful) but it seems to me that at this festive time of year, a panto, full of cringe-making jokes, loud music with the occasional off-note, and clunky plots, is just what we need to raise the Christmas spirit.


Why is nineteenth-century fiction still popular?

This is a short essay I wrote years ago which I came across recently. However, in its (brief) examination of the values and structures which have made the reading of ‘classic novels’, not to mention their televising, so popular, it seems relevant now – especially in this year of Dickens’s bicentenary – so I thought I would share it.

The nineteenth century was a period of great changes, social, political and industrial.  Britain as we know it today is closer in values and in the transient nature of its beliefs to this period than to any other period in history.  The Victorians believed that they were closest to the Elizabethans, and their aim was a second renaissance of Britain.  They understood in a way that twenty-first century citizens often forget that civilisation is a building process, each generation adding to and drawing upon the achievements of their forebears.

In “Areopagitica”, Milton argues for freedom from censorship for the written word, and states that books “are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are”.  This “potency” in a writer creates a bond between writer and reader that can bridge centuries, cultures and gender. Many events in the twentieth century have distanced us from the nineteenth, and yet the culture of the Victorians is still widely appreciated.  Why is this?  I think we read for enjoyment and for understanding.  There is no doubt that enjoyment is still to be had from the reading of nineteenth century authors, in the skilful plot structure of Dickens or George Eliot, for example.  The fact that so many nineteenth century novels have been turned into enjoyable TV indicates the strength of plot and characterisation employed by the authors; Trollope, Dickens and the Brontes have all fared well and reached wider audiences through this medium.  This also displays the adaptability and relevance of the stories.  A test of a novel is when it works as a modern adaptation; this has worked well with Great Expectations, a novel of social mores and personal desire that is still relevant set in the twenty-first century.   The reason that these works have enduring appeal is that they possess timeless elements; they represent facets of human nature that are always present.   The sense of recognition that we gain from discovering familiar characters is sufficient reason alone to read fiction, whenever it was written, and arguably the nineteenth century, with its social conflicts and a newly discovered self-awareness in the face of Darwin and Freud, produced characters more recognisable to the modern reader than any other period in history.

Another facet of understanding to be gained from fiction is the socio-historical aspect.   Charlotte Bronte’s Villette allows the modern reader an insight into the life of a governess, not the trite, watered down idea to which history often relegates them, but a sense of a woman appointed to educate the next generation whilst being considered a servant herself.  Mrs Gaskell’s North and South pays passionate tribute to the divisions in society, examining industrialism, wealth, poverty and gender in a challenging way that is completely accessible to the modern reader, and far more fascinating than any textbook on the industrial revolution.  The famous champion of social issues in Britain was, of course, Dickens, with his condemnation of the poorhouse, the education system and the division of wealth.  On the whole, Dickens is more concerned with the effect than the cause of social evils, but he persistently blames the misuse of power by those in authority for the wrongs of society, and he strongly believed that education was the way forward.  However, he also had many doubts about the contemporary education system, fearing that it was failing many of Britain’s young people and could not provide a sound base of educated society for future generations.  Concerns such as these have a familiar ring to them, as do Mrs Gaskell’s countryside/city debates.

Finally, there is the concept of literary heritage.  Many nineteenth-century novels have become a part of the Western canon, seen as “classics” which are important reading for students of literature.  The novel reached its heyday in the nineteenth century, and the length and complexity of the plots has seldom been surpassed in subsequent years.  The Victorians took their culture seriously, and writers were usually well-educated and passionate about their subject, and the artistry of their work remains unsurpassed.  No one can write without reading first, and the nineteenth century greats, writing before the days of modernism, deconstructionism and other textual theories, have a depth of tone and understanding rarely reached since.  Their literature in turn shaped the literature of subsequent generations; Pound’s cry of “Make it new!” in the early twentieth century was a direct response to the weighty issues of his elders, and the war literature of the last century owes a debt to the nineteenth century in its very opposition to it.  One has to know the rules to break them, and in many cases the “rules” as we now understand them were set by the writers of the nineteenth century.

Literature is an all-embracing subject, reflecting the issues of the day.  Taking literature in context is often considered unfashionable in our modern society of diffracted values and discontinuity, but the writers of the nineteenth century knew better than any other before our own time how to relate to the issues that concern us.  The immediacy of their engagement with these issues is apparent from the early days of the century, with the austerity and moral values frequently associated with Victorianism, to the decadence and “art for art’s sake” attitude of the aesthetes.  There can be no argument that these issues are still with us.  Wealth, power, education, technology and culture were prevailing issues and are still hotly debated in the press and fiction today.  Novels such as White Teeth which examine social displacement are the inheritors in the tradition of Villette; the quiet town in which Chocolat is set is reminiscent of Cranford – the comparisons are endless.  What it proves is that the years do not change human nature, and the changes to society are frequently only superficial; but literature is eternal.

The nineteenth-century world in photographs

The British Library currently has an exhibition (on until 7th March) entitled “Points of View: Capturing the Nineteenth Century in Photographs”. It’s an interesting exhibition, and bigger than I expected, covering a huge range. It begins with the origins of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, with Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot. Alongside technical information about the new “science” of photography are early images produced by these pioneers, especially of the natural world, including Fox Talbot’s wonderful Oak tree at Lacock (left). It’s interesting to note that although once photography began to catch on it was of course a pursuit for the wealthy who had money and leisure for it, Fox Talbot himself took remarkably unpretentious images of labourers and farm buildings as well as family and grand buildings.
Ther exhibition explains the social and historical changes which took place at the same time as the development of the photographic medium, including the growing possibilities of foreign travel. Consequently many of the photographs displayed are early holiday snaps, basically, but of the most fascinating places, which really help to bring the wider world of the nineteenth century to life. Alongside these are portraits, which became increasingly popular, especially as Queen Victoria was known to collect cartes de visite, and there are some familiar images of Dickens (right), George Bernard Shaw and Maud Allen, among others. Apparently, according to an exhibition note, going to be photographed was often considered to be on a par with going to the dentist – a tedious chore, and when you see the “posing stand” – an uncomfortable-looking object designed to keep sitters still during long exposures, you can see why.
The numerous uses of photography, and the changes it facilitated in society, are brought out well here: its scientific uses, in botany and diagnostics, for example, and from the 1890s, X-rays, are examined. Early war photography is also represented, in the Crimea (1853-6) and the American Civil War (1861-5), while the possibilities brought about by art reproduction through photography are also explained.
This exhibition is scrupulous in its consideration of the photograph as historical artefact, social document and also initiator of social change, and the range of images available here alongside the informative and discursive exhibition notes make this a fascinating exhibition.

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.


dorritt3_1011781cIt’s a few weeks since the BBC’s Little Dorrit started, and I’ve been meaning to post something about it, but I haven’t because, like many other viewers, it seems, I don’t yet know quite what I make of it. The series seems to have provided newspaper critics with the opportunity to admit, en masse, that they haven’t actually read Little Dorrit, which is, after all, one of Dickens’ lesser-known works. Well, I haven’t read it either; and at the moment I’m rather wishing I had, because I’m both drawn into it, and completely confused by what’s going on. For example, in episode 5 I was sure the inexplicable Frenchman had killed Flintwinch, who appeared, as lugubrious as ever, in episode 6. I must have missed something there.

But on the whole, I think the BBC does Dickens well. I enjoyed Bleak House in 2006 (though in that instance I know the novel well), and as a Dickens amateur, it seems to me that his characterisation, the foibles and oddities which make his characters memorable and unusual, yet strangely familidorritt1_1011779car, translates well to television. Tom Courtenay, as an inmate of a debtors’ prison who maintains a semblance of pride, has been justly acclaimed for his performance – the right mixture of arrogance and touching sentiment. Matthew Macfadyen as Arthur Clennam has a suitable gravitas whilst no doubt drawing in the female viewers, and young actress Claire Foy is convincing, maidenly and dignified as Amy Dorrit. The rest of the characters are grotesques. Such is the world of Dickens. Mr Pancks, Flora Finching, Maggy, Rigaud, even Mrs Clennam – their exaggerated characteristics – either physical, mental or both – make them ideal characters for TV, developed from Dickens’ excellent sense of the theatrical.

I n383do wonder if the BBC has made enough of the nature of imprisonment, literal and metaphorical, which seems to be central to the novel, but of course the weight of debt and its related concerns, such as responsibility, respectability and the old-fashioned notion of duty, which afflict the Dorrits is at least highly topical. This is, of course, “Dickens-lite” – but what else could it be? Having said that, for an Andrew Davies production, it’s refreshingly light on sex. It’s entertaining, it’s a good story, and most importantly I hope it will direct people towards the real thing. Reliable and informative discussion of the novel can be found on the Victorian Web, here.