The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall

Di9zm8fX0Ac28-5Over 20 years ago, when I was doing an MA, I came across some poems by Elizabeth Siddall (1829-1862). I spent a lot of time reading them and thinking about them, and decided I’d like to produce an academic edition. Today, that book has been published with Victorian Secrets and I am SO excited! It’s available on Amazon here.

Siddall’s poetry was something she kept to herself. She is, of course, much better known as the Pre-Raphaelite muse, model for Millais’s Ophelia and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and increasingly the significance of her paintings has also been recognised. Her poems were less acknowledged, however. Her brother-in-law, William Michael Rossetti, became the keeper of the Pre-Raphaelite flame and published her poems in magazines such as the Burlington in the early 20th century, but he edited them, tidying them up, altering punctuation, changing words and omitting stanzas. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years in the archives at the Ashmolean working with Siddall’s awful handwriting, trying to reconstruct the poems as she wrote them. The book also includes fragments not previously published. The effect is much less polished than published poetry usually is, but I think it offers her authentic voice, a voice which is usually overshadowed by her face in the many paintings of her. The poems are few, but they are significant. The book also includes notes on each poem, and an introduction that indicates some of the wider context in which we might read Siddall’s poetry, considering her as a poet in  her own right rather than just as a beautiful adjunct to Pre-Raphaelitism.

I’m having a launch party on September 28th at the Birmingham & Midland Institute in central Birmingham, which is free to attend and all are welcome. Details available here – do come and celebrate with me!


‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’

Penlee House Gallery in Penzance never fails to offer fascinating exhibitions, and their current one is no exception. ‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’: Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis takes its title from Tennyson’s poem ‘Dedication to the Queen’, and indicates the breadth and depth of sea-painting over the period, with a focus – though not exclusively – on paintings of the Cornish coast. The quotation indicates the position of Britain as an island, suggestive of the strength and impassivity of the sea, though in fact it comes from one of Tennyson’s Laureate poems written in praise of Queen Victoria, and the line, which closes the poem, refers to the impregnability of her throne because of the peace and stability of her reign (you can read the poem here).


Turner’s ‘St Michael’s Mount’ (1834) is one of several paintings of that particular view, and one of the best, though looking much steeper and more impregnable than it does now. Turner’s composition shows wrecked ships overshadowed by the Mount and surrounded by the sea; like many of the pictures in the first room, this is not a chocolate-box view, but rather one which demonstrates the sea as a force ‘inviolate’ indeed, uncaring of the lives it takes. The works on display are more than local scenes, then: some are realist while others more representative, and indicate the huge number of ways in which artists engage with the sea, in working harbours, landscapes, even narrative paintings. Thomas Creswick’s ‘The Land’s End’ is strikingly realist, with carefully detailed geological strata of rock appearing in a style reminiscent of Dyce’s Pre-Raphaelite-inspired works, while Henry Moore’s ‘Seascape’ almost gestures towards abstraction in its focussed colour and vigour.


There are three striking images hung together: James Millar’s ‘Cornish Solitude’, Samuel ‘Lamorna’ Birch’s ‘Tol-Pedn’, and Richard Carter’s ‘The Rising Moon and the Day’s Departure’, all depict rocks, sea, and seagulls: no human figure is present, and none could get there (one wonders where the artist was sitting) – the sea is untouchable, inviolate indeed. The threat of the sea is palpable in all: these may be beautiful, picturesque scenes but this is the untamed sea, not simply a decorative image. Those images which do include figures often refer to disasters, past or potential, and again imply the dangers of the sea-faring life more than the tamer appeal of the seaside, though there are a few of these, too.










The later rooms of the exhibition are a little more tranquil, with more concession to the human figure, and it is interesting to note the shift; as the exhibition guide points out, the approach to sea-painting changed in the twentieth century, away from narrative Victorian approaches of Wallis and Birch, for example, towards an abstraction where form is sometimes dominated by colour. One of Birch’s later paintings, ‘Morning at Lamorna Cove’ (1930s) provides an interesting example of how his work becomes more ‘modern’ in its approach.

Morning at Lamorna Cove

Meanwhile Robert Borlase Smart’s wonderful ‘Moonlit Sea’ of the same period shows how much further other artists had gone: the sea becomes a very different beast in Smart’s hands – an abstract surface of the sea, with colours, angles and patterns appearing on the waves.

Smart moonlit sea

John Mogford’s painting ‘Crossing the Bar – A Break in the Clouds, St Ives’ (1873) reminded me how important the sea was as a metaphor in the nineteenth century. There are several paintings here which reference Victorian writing, but no sea-poem was as powerful in the nineteenth century as Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ (not even Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, sadly). The ‘bar’ in fact refers (in the painting) to the old wooden pier at St Ives, but the link is clearly made with the sea as a stormy place (life) which must be crossed before we reach Heaven. Numerous hymns and songs of the nineteenth century draw on similar imagery, and the paintings owe something to this poetic history.

A spectacular finale to the exhibition is Albert Julius Olsson’s ‘Stormy Evening on the Cornish Coast’, in which the waves seem visibly and audibly to crash on the shore; again, this work is moving towards abstraction, providing the very essence of the sea. The Penwith Peninsula is one of the most treacherous coastlines in Britain, and the dangers it holds have been felt in the communities here for centuries. This exhibition does justice to this coastline in all its wild beauty.

Port Sunlight: Art and open spaces

20160506_131726_resizedLast weekend I went for the first time to Port Sunlight, a garden village on the Wirral which is perhaps best known now for the Lady Lever Art Gallery. I hadn’t realised how much the whole village was shaped around a specific ethos, though, and was amazed by the whole place. The village was built (or begun, anyway) in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever, for the factory workers at his ‘soapery’; Lever was one of several enlightened Victorian entrepreneurs who understood that business and industry are best served by happy, healthy workers, with a high standard of living and education, access to culture and entertainment, and good food and hygiene. The village represents these ideals in practice, and indicate the best in Victorian idealism; this is not what one thinks of when considering the working conditions of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century factory workers.

The museum, which we visited first, outlines the story of the village, from its origins as swampy land which was considered useless, through the vision of the remarkably foresighted Lever as he built the factories, houses and public buildings, using 30 architects 20160506_125310_resizedso that there is a wide variety of building styles. Everything was designed to ensure that his workers would be happy as well as productive: the houses had their own bathrooms, running water and light and air; there was a school, a shop, a church, hospital and a village hall as well as gardens and communal green spaces (still beautifully cared for). As the community grew, events were organised – concerts, clubs and activities, and though life in the factory was probably quite dull, remuneration was good and the life that the workers could have there made up for it. I was interested, though, that the museum did indicate some dissenting voices – a few who found the approach of Lever and his village too paternalistic, with rules about what they could and couldn’t do, for examples. Yet, with 13.5 houses per acre, compared with up to 100 per acre in the slums of nearby Liverpool, the benefits must have been great, and apparently the children were so much healthier that they were considered much more a handful by the teachers than those growing up in less healthy conditions.

20160506_111529_resizedAfter the death of Lady Lever, the art gallery was built as a memorial to her, housing the Lever collection of over 20,000 objects. Many of these were Pre-Raphaelite paintings (some of which were on loan to Liverpool when we visited), and the distinctive though wide-ranging taste of the collector is apparent in this large gallery. This interest in Pre-Raphaelite painting seems appropriate, given its emphasis on the careful depiction of nature, its idealism and emphasis on narrative, as well as the parallels between Lever’s approach to providing access to culture for his workers and Ruskin and Morris’s ‘Art for All’ ideals. Like the Cadbury village at Bournville – though on a larger scale – Port Sunlight may be founded on industry, but it rejected the worse impulses of the industrial world and married a romantic, sometimes even medieval, arts and crafts approach with the practicalities of industry and business.

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.



A visit to Mrs Gaskell

Gaskell houseLast week I visited Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Manchester with a group of students who are studying North and South. I’ve always enjoyed Mrs Gaskell’s novels (yes, I find it hard to drop the ‘Mrs’, even though it has connotations of domesticity and cosiness which don’t really fit my view of her novels) and I think she was a fascinating woman, too. Like George Eliot, Charlotte Yonge, M E Braddon and others, Gaskell seems to come behind the Brontes in popular perceptions of Victorian women writers, and, much though I love the Brontes, this isn’t fair. Gaskell managed to be both a reasonably traditional Victorian woman (wife, mother, home-maker) and prolific writer with a high profile, writing for Dickens’s periodicals (although she was stubborn, and he was reputed to have said: “Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr G. Oh heavens how I would beat her!”) I hope he was joking.

Gaskell has had a troubled relationship with critics: Patsy Stoneman’s book on Gaskell has a great chapter on this, pointing out how through the 20th century criticism has moved Gaskell from Lord David Cecil’s description of a vapid and ineffectual woman (which makes me wonder if he had read anything by her) to that of radical Marxist feminist. Cecil wrote:

The outstanding fact about Mrs Gaskell is her femininity…she was all a woman was expected to be: gentle, domestic, tactful, unintellectual, prone to tears, easily shocked. So far form chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with serene satisfaction…Mrs Gaskell was the typical Victorian woman.

Gaskell was deeply involved in life in Manchester, along with her husband who supported her writing career, understanding and trying to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty in an unequal, patriarchal, industrial society. ElizabethGaskellThese aspects are reflected in all her novels, though perhaps most distinctly in North and South, a ‘Condition of England’ novel which exposed the lives of those working in industrial cities, along with a nuanced and fascinating study of the economic problems of the factory owners. From strikes to costs, from domestic matters to the public arena of politics, the novel explores the problems of the world around her, and at Gaskell’s house, which is arranged as though the Gaskells were still in residence, the guides and information there clearly link Gaskell to wider Victorian Manchester, and point to how this underpins her writing.

I’m always thrilled to see where writers wrote, where they conducted their lives, and to stand on the same doorstep as visitors to the Gaskells such as Florence Nightingale and Charlotte Bronte is indeed exciting. There is a wonderful sense of real, living history here. The house is really a house, though, not a museum: the furniture and decor has been carefully researched to look as genuine as possible, but in fact one can sit on the sofas and touch the books, which aligns nicely with the Gaskells’ own hospitality; one can feel at home here (and even dress up in costume, as my colleague did). They run a series of great events, including reading groups, writers’ groups, sewing bees, musical events and book sales; I wish I lived closer. I find it very encouraging, though, to see the spirit of so many ’eminent Victorians’ carried on into the 21st century in a house which offers such a range of intellectually stimulating events.



An Evening with M R James

Old HauntsI do like M. R. James’s stories. They are terrifying, though often perpetually obscure, and delight in the macabre and the terrifying. James (1862-1936) was an academic, a medievalist and bibliophile who spent much of his life at Cambridge, and most of that in libraries. There is an aura of the obscure, arcane dustiness around him and his work, though he was also a man with a wicked sense of humour and an interest in the mysterious, the supernatural and the downright terrifying. Many of his stories feature a protagonist not unlike himself: a professor, librarian or antiquarian of some sort, who investigated a little too much, was perhaps a bit too curious, and suffered the terrible consequences of this. There is something terribly English about James’s writing.

He liked to gather his friends to tell them his ghost stories, especially in the winter MRJames1900months when the nights were long. Yesterday evening I went to the Birmingham Midland Institute (my second home at the moment) to a performance of Old Haunts, by Don’t Go Into the Cellar Victorian Theatre Company. In the Members’ Room, dimly lit, ‘Monty James’ sat in a large leather armchair and told us some stories, with just a few props, and some special effects. His manner was perfect – it’s the sort of thing that could easily become horribly twee, but he had just the right mix of menace and jocularity as he told us ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad’, along with other tales and chatty digressions. The script also included some of James’s own thoughts on the writing of Gothic stories, which I’ve used in teaching James:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.

Whistle_and_I'll_come_to_you_illustrationThere is certainly nothing ‘mild and drab’ about James’s stories or the performance. There were plenty of shocks – being suddenly plunged into darkness, hearing terrible screams, flashes of light and so on – it reminded me of the spectacle of Victorian shows, from spiritualism to conjurers, who enjoyed the effects on their audience much as ‘James’ did in Old Haunts. There were plenty of people visibly jumping with shock last night, but it’s not just about thrills: James’s stories make us draw closer to the light for fear of the dark, a primal sense that we need both the horror and the warmth to feel fully alive. There is something joyous in that, which the character of James clearly revels in, and which Gothic literature always indulges to the utmost. Victorian performance, like Victorian literature, particularly sensation literature, asks us to be fully involved emotionally and intellectually, because this full participation makes us vulnerable and therefore more susceptible to its effects. Don’t Go Into the Cellar seem to know this and play on it, and it works brilliantly, especially in such an intimate atmosphere as a small, crowded, dimly-lit Victorian room.