Gormenghast reimagined

John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey (1823)

William Beckford (born 1st October 1760, dying in 1844 at Bath) is a truly quixotic character, notorious in the Georgian period and worth more than the brief notice I am giving of him now. I find however that he and I have, in a manner of speaking, crossed paths in the past, and you might be interested in the context of our latest encounter.

I have been making my slow and steady way through Elizabeth Mavor’s The Grand Tour of William Beckford preparatory to reading Beckford’s own novel Vathek (1782). I’ve had the novel in a compendium of three Gothic novels for a while, though had read only Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) up to now.¹

However, with Halloween and Christmas coming up I thought I might tackle at least one of the remaining two complete novels, Vathek of course and John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). This last, as some of you may know, was Polidori’s plagiarising of Lord Byron’s tale which itself had emerged from the ghost story challenge — which had already culminated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Vathek, however, was different from the other stories, modelled as it was on the tales in the collection we know as The Arabian Nights.

But I also knew that William Beckford was as famous for another enterprise he’d indulged in, and the arrival of the September issue of the magazine Current Archaeology was a timely reminder.

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Magic spells

Wandering Among Words 7: Gramarye

If, as Alice Hoffman is everywhere quoted, “Books may well be the only true magic,” then she is only following a tradition that has been acknowledged in all literate cultures: writing is magic, and magic is the written word.

We can point to the beginning of St John’s gospel to see this concept expounded:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Without getting into a theological discussion of what exactly John meant by Logos (‘the Word’), I just want to point out that the spoken word (and later the written word) is seen as the act of creation, and the creative act is magic, in its purest form.

All our language surrounding the concept of words, spoken or written, is closely bound up with magic.

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Merely raw materials

Lamb House and garden, from the south

Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House
Jonathan Cape 1991

‘Perhaps we are nothing but the raw materials of a ghost story.’
— Hugo to Toby Lamb

A ghostly apparition, what does it signify? Misfortune? Death? Something lost or unfinished? Are inexplicable happenings evidence of a poltergeist or just the wild imaginings of the observer? Do houses, ancient sites and natural features attract supernatural entities like a genius loci, or perhaps preserve the memory of ancient associations? Will we ever fathom out true answers?

The Haunting of Lamb House is a ghost story unlike any other I’ve read. True, there may be more than one ghost (it appears) and there are three related stories: but if you’re looking for your spine to be tingled or expecting multiple bumps in the night you might be disappointed. Instead, what you’ll be offered is a sense of place and of the personages, real or imagined, that inhabited a three hundred year old house, so that the house becomes as much a character as the denizens that inhabit it.

What for me adds to the novel’s attractiveness are a couple of considerations: first, the house featured in it actually exists — and can be visited by the public — and second, the three narratives, with their different voices, give the novel a documentary feel, as though one was perusing transcriptions of actual historical artefacts. Their combination in one narrative thread somehow allowed me, Coleridge-style, to willingly suspend any sense of disbelief.

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When legend becomes fact

Crickhowell Castle, 1831

Leonardo Olschki: The Grail Castle and its Mysteries
Translated from the Italian by J A Scott
Edited, with a foreword, by Eugène Vinaver

Manchester University Press 1966

Graal: “scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda in qua preciosae dapes divitibus solent apponi gradatim, unus morsellus post alium in diversis ordinibus” (a wide and deep saucer, in which precious food is ceremoniously presented, one piece at a time in sundry rows)
Helinand de Froidmont (early 13th century)

If you were thinking the mysteries of the grail castle were to do with long-lost holy relics, Last Supper chalices, magical stones, Celtic cauldrons, secret occult societies, witches, extraterrestrial visitors or even the blood of Christ you will need to look elsewhere. (There are whole libraries in Babel to cater for each and every taste in such mysteries.)¹

First published in 1961 as ‘Il castello del Re Pescatore e i suoi misteri nel Conte del Graal di Chrétien de Troyes’ (The Castle of the Fisher King and its mysteries in Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail) this is not a publication aimed at a popular market: with a foreword by a foremost Arthurian scholar, key extracts from the medieval romance in the original French, and furnished with footnotes, endnotes and a select bibliography, this monograph (less than a hundred pages) is very much a closely argued academic paper from someone very familiar with the literature and theology of the period in question. The author also effectively — though very politely — demolishes alternative theories from his fellow scholars as to the nature of those mysteries.

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Childhood’s dreams

Vanessa Tait: The Looking Glass House
Corvus 2016 (2015)

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.

That “childish story” composed “all in the golden afternoon” that has been the springboard for so many studies, films and novels receives a new treatment in Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House: the wellspring of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Liddell sisters’ governess, Mary Prickett, about whom we know relatively little.

What gives added interest to this version is that the author is the great-granddaughter of Alice herself, with access to documents and family traditions from which to draw. Ultimately, though, the question is whether this stands on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right.

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Haunting tales

Anton Chekhov, photographed in 1889

Chekhov: the early stories 1883-88
Chosen and translated by Patrick Miles & Harvey Pitcher
Abacus 1982

This selection of thirty-five of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, covering a period of five years, is an object lesson in how one author can create variety in this small-scale genre. There are scarcely any false moves here: we’re presented with cheeky humour as well as deep emotion, and served up with well-observed portraits and dramatic episodes. Some pieces are really short — punchy, scarcely two pages long — others approach novelette length. All are quintessentially Russian, infused now by bureaucracy, now by irreverence, sometimes expansive as suits the country’s landscape or intimate as we focus in on a fireside scene. And, for the most part, these tales are about people in all their fragility and weakness — youngsters, old people, couples, bourgeoisie, soldiers, musicians, artisans.

It’s impossible to do more than suggest the range by reference to a few select examples, so I will endeavour to give a suggestion of Chekhov’s skill in the setting of mood. I can’t speak of whether the choices made by the translators are exemplary or not, but I can marvel how a young man in his twenties (born in 1860, he died at too early an age, in his mid-forties) was able to capture such a broad view of human nature.

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Skimble-skamble stuff

Wyvern rampant: a red wyvern is attributed to Owain Glyndŵr as the crest to his coat of arms

Today celebrates Owen Glendower, or rather Owain Glyndŵr in Welsh. September 16 marks the anniversary of when, in 1400, he was proclaimed Prince of Wales in Ruthin, in opposition to the English crown’s domination of the principality. After fifteen years of warfare he disappeared to history, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales.

Paula Bardell-Hedley’s blog Book Jotter was the stimulus for this post with her reminder of Owain Glyndŵr Day here. Just now I want to give a little bit of background, some of which may be, as Shakespeare put it, skimble-skamble stuff.

The device adopted by Owain Glyndŵr for his banner and shield

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