“My hideous progeny”

Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare (1828) in Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (March 2018)

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

“His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.

“He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”


— Mary Shelley’s walking dream, from her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

If Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) can truly be said to concern life and death, the afterlife of the Creature is one that continues to affect us two centuries later. For us moderns the Creature impacts as much as that of that waking dream she was later to describe. She’d been trying to think up a ghost story to rival those of Byron, Shelley and Polidori:

One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

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Promethean fire

Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

One can never say enough about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published just two hundred years ago — certainly a short review can never do it justice. Those with an academic background will be in a position to expound at length about the many aspects of this superb Gothic novel. I’m not an academic, however, so I can only talk about what strikes me most after a reading of the first edition of 1818. And what better place to start than the frontispiece to the 1831 edition, an engraving heavily influenced by Gothick sensibilities and based on an illustration by the remarkable Theodor Von Holst.

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Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before. The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen.  It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.

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A useful prosopography

Silhouette of “l’aimable Jane” pasted in an early copy of Mansfield Park (http://wp.me/pCurp-1zS)

Glenda Leeming, Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës
Foreword by Phyllis Bentley
Elm Tree Books 1974

What’s not to like about prosopography? Conventionally this is defined as a description of an individual’s appearance or life, but in general a Who’s Who offers a collection of such descriptions. These days prosopographies cover not just real-life biographies (mostly of historical personages, in Ancient Rome, say, or Victorian England) but also cast lists of fictional characters from literary works.

In Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës Dr Glenda Leeming lists all the characters found in the literary canons of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Austen’s characters come first, plucked from the pages of Jane’s six novels (but not the juvenilia or unfinished writings like Lady Susan and Sanditon). They’re followed by seven of the best-known Brontë books — four by Charlotte, two by Anne and one by Emily (again, juvenilia is not included, nor Charlotte’s Angrian pieces written in her twenties). A short section on animals mentioned (particularly in the Brontë siblings’ writings) follows, and then a helpful list of characters book by book, noting the appropriate chapter when each first appears.

Phyllis Bentley’s foreword mostly renders any comments I might have perfectly superfluous. “This is a really intelligent and useful little book,” she declares, and praises Leeming’s notes for “vividly” presenting characters and personalities: “a nice tinge of irony, a very neat use of the novelists’ own words, a brevity decidedly marked by wit, make these notes pleasurable reading.” (Sadly, Bentley herself died just three years after this appreciation was published.) That brevity marked by wit is evident in the descriptions of the main protagonists, never longer than the equivalent of a page but containing everything you need to know.

Leeming also includes individuals mentioned only in passing, one line descriptions often providing no more than each writer herself offered. Opening at random I read of Goton in Villette (“Flemish cook in Mme. Beck’s school, with whom Lucy is a favourite”) or Miss Prince in Emma (“a teacher at Miss Goddard’s school”).

These days online sites freely and profusely provide such lists of characters; forty years ago though this would have indeed been “a useful little book” for readers losing track of which individual was being referred to, or what relationship they had to another individual. Here it is also done with sly humour, capturing the piquant observations of the novelists.

(By all accounts John Sutherland’s recent The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë also treats the novels with wit,** but as this work omits Austen altogether I’ll happily make do with Leeming for a while longer.)


** I assume Sutherland penned his own description of himself in the Guardian, where he is distinguished as “Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL (“emeritus” being Latin for “scrapheap” and “Northcliffe” journalistic shorthand for “you cannot be serious”).” If so, then readers of The Brontësaurus (and indeed his other writings) must be in for a treat.

Wales and Tolkien

Map of Middle Earth by Chris Taylor and Chris Guerette
http://www.ititches.com/middleearth/me.pdf

In ‘Where was The Shire?’ I mentioned a tradition, local to the Vale of Usk, claiming that Tolkien had not only written part of The Lord of the Rings in Talybont-on-Usk, Powys, Wales but also based his notion of The Shire — the hobbit homeland — on aspects of the Black Mountains landscape. Huge questions and objections had loomed large in my mind however, and it soon became clear that I wasn’t not alone in doubting the likelihood of this recent ‘tradition’. I then promised a follow-up post, and here it is.

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The most beautiful play

Giovanni Strazza's Veiled Virgin is located in the Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John's, NL.
The Veiled Virgin by Giovanni Strazza, Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

A D Nuttall Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale
Studies in English Literature No 26
Edward Arnold 1979 (1966)

I studied The Winter’s Tale at school, and while I didn’t then really appreciate it fully it continued to linger for several decades in my subconscious. I’m not entirely sure why: it may be the hint of Sleeping Beauty in the ‘revival’ of a dead Hermione; it may be memories of the famous stage direction Exit pursued by a Bear that stuck in the brainbox, or the notorious ascription of a coastline to landlocked Bohemia that struck me. Whatever it was, this was a play that I felt I ‘ought’ to read again, though I never seemed to get round to it. I even acquired a secondhand copy of Nuttall’s study of The Winter’s Tale though it only ever served as a talisman — I never even got round to reading that either.

Shakespeare’s impending quatercentenary finally provided the spur I needed for both. Nuttall’s commentary is split into four sections, an introduction followed first by the scenes set in Sicilia (with jealousy and guilt as the main themes), then those set mostly in Bohemia (‘varieties of innocence’ is the note struck here) and finally a conclusion. He begins with a ringing endorsement of the play:

The Winter’s Tale is the most beautiful play Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a less intelligent play than Hamlet (but not much less intelligent). It is less profound than King Lear (but not much less). It is not (as some readers will have begun to conclude) a pretty play, of ‘merely aesthetic’ appeal. For it is far less elegant than Love’s Labour’s Lost and much more disturbing than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The beauty of The Winter’s Tale does not so much charm the eye as pierce the viscera. It does not divert the spectator; it turns him inside out.”

And so on and so forth, in glorious hyperbole as suited the style of esteemed academics of yesteryear. But is what he asserts true? Continue reading “The most beautiful play”

The Art of Reviewing

bookmarks

I enjoy reading reviews, especially book reviews of course, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be something I’ve already read or even intend to read. And most of you will know I also enjoy writing reviews, and therefore have always tried to keep a few pointers in mind as advice for myself.

A recent query in Quora, the question-and-answer website, got me trying to fill out the details of those pointers, for my own sake as well as for other interested folk. The question was, What are the things to keep in mind when reviewing? Here’s my edited answer, for what it’s worth.

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