Eighteen Nineteen

Contemporary engraving of Queen Victoria

Are you one of those people who loves seeing 12.34 appear on a digital clock, gazes delightedly at the mileometer (odometer) as it clicks over to all the same digits in a row, or got excited at one minute past eight in the evening of the 20th of January, 2001?

No? No matter; you clearly won’t be excited at the arrival of the year Twenty twenty (no vision, see). But this year at least gives me a chance to look back two centuries to 1819 — I do savour saying “eighteen-nineteen” — and a few greats, particularly literary greats, of the Victorian era.

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“Kind to his fellow creatures”

Andrew Crosse and his drawing of an acarus he noted during experiments on minerals

Peter Haining: The Man Who Was Frankenstein
Frederick Muller 1979

A review I read nearly forty years ago of Peter Dickinson’s The Flight of Dragons mentioned how the author used scholasticism, biology and chemistry “to prove how dragons could have physically existed, breathed fire, and flown.” This put me in mind of a discussion of dragon legends in the Quantock Hills of Somerset where, of at least nine dragons mentioned, only one breathed fire: the dragon of Kingston St Mary. Peter Haining’s The Man Who Was Frankenstein suggested to me why this might be so.

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Darkly shaded lives

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, painted around 1834 by Branwell (who has erased his own image). National Portrait Gallery

Juliet Gardiner: The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth.
A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings 

Collins & Brown 1992

We wove a web in childhood,
A web of sunny air;
We dug a spring in infancy
Of water pure and fair […]

For life is darkly shaded
And its joys fleet fast away!

— from ‘Retrospection’ by Charlotte Brontë (1835)

2017 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the least celebrated of the Brontë siblings, Branwell. As with the group portrait he painted of his surviving sisters and himself he appears as a ghostly figure, barely mentioned and then only with sadness. He left some poetry, youthful writings, a handful of paintings (on the evidence we have mostly of mediocre merit) and a record of a life wasted, an existence which brought him and those who knew him pain and distress.

But Branwell — for all his likely hidden talents — is not the gifted individual who springs to mind when the name Brontë is mentioned; more likely it will be Charlotte, Emily or Anne who commands our immediate attention. The World Within recounts the family history, from Patrick Brunty’s birth in County Down in 1777 to Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855. There will be little I suspect to surprise Brontë fans so rather than give a synopsis of their lives and accomplishments I will merely point out what makes this title worth more than a brief look.

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The photographer and the beggar maid

Simon Winchester The Alice behind Wonderland
Oxford University Press 2011

A century and a half ago, in July 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in a limited edition by Oxford University Press — and then immediately withdrawn because Tenniel was dissatisfied with the reproduction of his illustrations. Although it wasn’t until November 1865 that the second edition appeared (approved by both author and illustrator, this time under the Macmillan imprint which had published Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies two years before) be prepared for a slew of media trumpeting and Wonderland brouhaha this summer. Nevertheless, it’s an opportune moment to review this short study of Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s two most famous fantasies.

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Erudite yet entertaining

Maelstrom Carta Marina, WikipediaCropped version of Carta Marina.jpeg (Wikipedia Commons)

 A S Byatt The Biographer’s Tale Vintage 2001

The Maelstrom: how evocative that name is, the Charybdis that tempts you, the whirlpool that draws you down into its watery depths, a volatile spiral maze from which there is no escape. The Maelstrom, or Moskstraumen as the Norwegian original should really be called, features only sporadically in The Biographer’s Tale but its symbolism permeates the whole novel. Continue reading “Erudite yet entertaining”

A secret never to be told

San Vitale mosaics
Justinian and his court, San Vitale, Ravenna (Wikipedia Commons)

Procopius The Secret History
Translated and introduced by G A Williamson
Penguin Classics 1981 (1966)

I’ve never yet been to Istanbul — formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium — but I have been to Ravenna on Italy’s east coast. Here the visitor can glimpse some of the glory that was Byzantium of old in the form of the magnificent mosaics, located in various surviving structures such as the Arian Baptistry, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the Basilica of San Vitale. Amidst splendid religious mosaics of Christ’s baptism and the Adoration of the Magi are more secular images, in particular of the 6th-century Emperor Justinian I, his Empress Theodora and possibly the general Belisarius. These are icons meant to impress, and it’s noteworthy that the heads of the two imperial figures are each surrounded by a nimbus — what we recognise as the halo associated with Christ and the saints but which was also, as here, applied to rulers or heroes. To see these figures so bedecked with jewels and crowns and aureoles one would be rightly suspect a measure of self-glorification; but in truth, if their contemporary the writer Procopius is to be believed, no two individuals were less suited to being portrayed thus in a Christian context.

Justinian, Theodora
Justinian and Theodora, San Vitale, Ravenna (Wikipedia Commons)

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An unostentatious introduction to Austen

Blaize Castle
Blaize Castle

Charles Jennings
A Brief Guide to Jane Austen

Robinson 2012

For an Austen newbie like me this Brief Guide – though at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief – is an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically. Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with her life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media. Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, an indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships. Continue reading “An unostentatious introduction to Austen”