Infernal visions

Ruins of gatehouse and keep of inner ward, Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Jeannette Ng: Under the Pendulum Sun
Angry Robot Books 2017

“Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone’s eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters.”
— from the abstract to J M S Tompkins, ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ Brontë Society Transactions Volume 14, 1961, Issue 1

I very much wanted to like this novel. Described as a ‘gothic fantasy with a theological twist’ Under a Pendulum Sun paraded a magnificent range of tropes and themes for our enjoyment, all centred around that staple Gothick cliché, the mysterious castle. In the 1840s Catherine Helstone travels from her native Yorkshire into the North Sea, en route to the realm that her missionary brother, Laon, has chosen to proselytise. This realm is called Arcadia, also known as the land of the Fae, what we now call fairies. But forget the little people with gauze-like wings from nursery tales, these are more altogether more mysterious, even sinister: and do they even have souls to save?

Jeanette Ng has, uniquely it seems, wedded together two unconnected themes, fairyland and theology, to produce a hybrid that’s pregnant with possibilities. She’s added into the mix the age-old British imperialist dream which in the 19th century sailed under the flags of free trade and converting heathens; she’s then buttressed her narrative with faux extracts from 19th-century texts each prefacing a chapter. So far so intriguing. But then the more we hear of Catherine, the narrator of the story, her secretive brother, a companion Ariel Davenport, castle servants Benjamin Goodfellow and the housekeeper known as the Salamander, plus a rarely glimpsed woman in black, the more mysteries the plot reveals. That’s all before we come to Mab, the Queen of the Fae, and her subjects.

I had high hopes for this unconventional fairytale set in a land with its own out-of-kilter cosmology (the sun really does swing from a Pendulum, and the moon, well, let’s just say it’s unexpected). That I wasn’t entirely won over is not because of the multiplicity of themes — which in fact was what most entertained me and kept me going — but because of other crucially important aspects of successful novel writing. Before I come to those negatives I want to apologise for the longer-than-usual digressions which now follow.

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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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“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

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Infinite space

Medieval walled garden

Sarah Singleton: The Poison Garden
Simon and Schuster 2009

The ultimate origin of Paradise is a walled enclosure, an enclosed space where one can cultivate plants and enjoy the delights of running water. Since its Iranian beginnings five or six centuries before the birth of Christ it has accumulated so much symbolism, associations and expectations but that image of the walled garden has remained a constant, whether in the guise of parkland or as the smallest suburban plot. How much do we all, gardeners or not, see it as a place of peace, of repose, as a piece of heaven on earth!

But that walled garden concept is never so tightly bounded as by the confines of our own skull, within the folds of our brains: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” as Hamlet said, and that idea of a garden at once expansive and yet contained is at the heart of Sarah Singleton’s haunting novel.

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Heart and soul

Philip Pullman: Clockwork, or All Wound Up
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Corgi Yearling Books 2004 (1996)

Delicious fun is how best to describe this tale within tales. Here we find Pullman telling a story, in which a storyteller tells a story, out of which frame a character steps into life. Like an old-fashioned clock the mechanism of Pullman’s fairytale fantasy gets wound up and “no matter how much the characters would like to change their fate, they can’t.” And by story’s end we find out exactly how the characters all, literally, “wound up”.

This story is set one winter’s evening in a German town called Glockenheim (“home of the bells”). Glockenheim has a great clock overseen by the town’s clockmaker Herr Ringelmann (“ringing man”), whose apprentice Karl is supposed to be installing a mechanical figure for the clock on the morrow. On the eve of the installation worthies and others gather in a tavern to hear the traditional ghost story told by Fritz the local author. Unfortunately neither apprentice nor writer has completed his creation. Can lowly serving girl Gretl provide the key to completing the tale?

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A fine modern classic

Eurasian Wolf By Mas3cf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian Wolf: Mas3cf (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Illustrated from drawings by Pat Marriott
Puffin Books 1968 (1962)

The action of this book takes place in a period of English history that never happened — shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James III in 1832 …

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fits into no one category. From the introductory note one might assume it belongs to the genre called Uchronia (“no time”) in which it becomes clear that at some stage in the past history diverged from its familiar course; in this case the Jacobite rebellion succeeded and the Stuarts continued to reign in Britain from the middle of the 18th century. It is also on the frontiers of Utopia (“no place”) in that the England described includes places and distances which only by a large stretch of the imagination co-exist in our own world: Willoughby Chase House and the town of Blastburn seem to be located somewhere around Humberside, and yet we’re told the walking distance from Blastburn to London is about four hundred miles (in reality from the Humber to the capital is only around 200 miles by modern roads).

On another level the novel is a Dickensian parody: orphans (real or assumed) have to cope with bitter winters, reversals of fortunes and conniving villains with quirky names only to — one hopes — overcome their plight with a mixture of natural cunning, kind helpers and a measure of good luck. But this is also a children’s book and, as such books usually confirm, events are seen almost entirely through the eyes of youngsters. It lingers somewhere on the continuum between fairytale and fantasy, albeit that there is no magic involved, but with a large pinch of Gothick thrown in for good measure, complete with secret passages and rambling suites of rooms.

And where do the wolves come in?

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A sad tale’s best

winter sleepwalker

Elizabeth Gaskell The Old Nurse’s Story [and Curious, if True]
Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1852 and 1860)

Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole Family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit round the Fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own Fancy.

— Henry Bourne in Antiquitates Vulgares (1725), quoted in
J Simpson and S Roud A Dictionary of English Folklore (OUP 2000)

Henry Bourne was a curate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the beginning of the 18th century who inveighed against traditions he regarded as popish or heathen. I suspect, then, that he would have given Mrs Gaskell’s short fiction ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ short shrift (or perhaps not, since “giving short shrift” is a relic Catholic phrase) for it perfectly epitomised that winter’s tale told at a Northumbrian fireside which he so hated. Luckily for his mental state he had died over a century before the two narratives included in this slim volume were published, the first in 1852, in Household Words, and the second in 1860, in The Cornhill Magazine.

The first-person narrator of ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ is Hester: an intelligent young girl in the second half of the 18th century she is selected to be nurse to Rosamond Esthwaite, daughter of a Westmoreland curate and Miss Furnivall, herself a granddaughter to a Northumbrian lord. When Rosamond is four going on five her parents both unexpectedly die within a short while of each other, and she and Hester are sent across country to the ancestral seat of Furnivall Manor House, located in Northumberland at the foot of the Cumberland Fells. The subsequent events are here recounted by the older Hester to Rosamond’s children, to whom she has also become nurse.

This is the setting for Continue reading “A sad tale’s best”