Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Salome and the Head: A Modern Melodrama, by Edith Nesbit


Forgotten Books, Classic Reprint Series 2017
originally published 1909
published in 1910 in the US as The House With No Address
309 pp


"What is Salome's dance without the head -- the head of love and horror?" 

Not Victorian but published not too long into the Edwardian period, Nesbit's Salome and the Head is about as far from her children's stories as you can get.  The "modern melodrama" promised in its subtitle comes from elements of crime, sensation, and romance found in this story about  a young woman by the name of Sandra Mundy.

original cover, from L.W. Currey 
Some eight years prior to when this story begins, Edmund Templar, about to embark for South Africa and the Boer War, is on his way to say goodbye to his aunt and uncle.  Taking a walk through a forest glade, he comes to a stop when he sees a young girl dancing. Stunned by the beauty in what he's seeing, he hides and watches from a distance.  After he is discovered,   they chat  and he is captivated. She stays on his mind over the next eight years and on his return, he hopes to see her. In talking to his aunt and uncle, he discovers that young Sandra has had her share of ups and downs while he was away, and that she was last seen at the train station; currently they have no clue as to her whereabouts.  Flash forward to Templar in London, where he finds that the city gossip is all about the latest dancers:
"He dined with the Browns -- and the talk was of Miss Matilda Solitaire and dancing. He lunched with the Joneses -- and dancing and Miss Peggy Pirouette were served with all the courses. He had tea with the Robinsons -- and their talk was of dancing and Dorothea Donald."
These conversations all ended the same way, with his hosts telling him that he "should see Sylvia -- that's all!"  Templar doesn't share their enthusiasm, because
"He knew better than anyone in the world, what dancing should be. He alone, in all London knew it. For he alone had seen a little brown dancer in a forest glade."
Eventually  he joins his friends to see Sylvia perform, and is completely flabbergasted to see his young friend up there on the stage.   He refuses to wait for the finale in which she does the dance of Salome, and leaves the theater. He discovers that she is a complete cypher -- no one knows where she lives, no one's ever spoken to her, and she will give neither interview nor autograph.  From then on solving "the mystery of Sylvia" becomes his "object in life."  I get that so far this all sounds like the stuff romance novels are made from, but trust me,  that idea is quickly dispelled as the story moves past this point.

"A child, a witch, a wonder."  from Wikimedia Commons
Throughout several episodes in this book, Nesbit portrays Sandra as

 "the chief among ten thousand, -- strong, self-reliant, brave. All her life's training had been a training in self-reliance, in strength, in courage." 
Men have consistently tried to control her life, but she isn't having it. She's a woman "with a vein of hardness in her, running beside the vein of romance."  Sandra has no qualms exercising this "hardness," and she is the least likely woman to allow herself to become a victim. While she's a powerful example of an independent female, it's the men here who really come under scrutiny.

One more thing: I started looking into this book, and discovered that there is surprisingly very little written about it. What I did find though was that according to scholar Amelia Rutledge in Thompson's Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question, Sandra's career on the stage was modeled after that of dancer Maud Allan. (233)  Allan, it seems, had seen a performance of Oscar Wilde's play Salome and was inspired to create her own version of the character in dance, premiering her Salome in Vienna in 1906. In 1908, according to the blogger at Faithful Readers, Allan gave "265 performances of "Vision of Salome," making five hundred pounds a week while filling the "1700-seat Palace Theatre from March through November." It is well worth jumping over to that blog where the author has done a tremendous job with Maud Allan's Salome performance, including photos.

from Faithful Readers
As I said at the beginning of this post, Salome and the Head is about as far from the author's children's fiction as one can imagine.  This is my first Nesbit novel so I have no idea about her work other than this book and her ghostly/supernatural tales (which are just great by the way), but I'm definitely up for another. Yes, it is crazy melodrama but getting beneath the surface of things there's a lot to discover here.

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Country Gentleman and His Family, by Mrs. Oliphant

Forgotten Books Classic Reprint Series, 2012
originally published 1886
243 pp

A Country Gentleman and His Family is a classic example of a Victorian "triple decker," or novel published in three volumes.     It is also, quite unexpectedly, a very dark novel from beginning to end, one whose central character was described in a contemporary review from The Spectator (5 June 1886) as a "prig of the first magnitude."   In my opinion, that's letting Theo Warrender off way too easily -- had this book been written today, he'd have likely been diagnosed with some sort of major psychological disorder bordering on the psychotic.   Given the somewhat innocuous title, having a character like this in center stage  turns this novel into something well beyond the range of disturbing; this is no flibbertigibberty, lightweight Victorian novel nor is there anything at all dull about it.

The novel begins with two deaths -- one, that of Theo Warrender's father which brings young Theo home from Oxford, and the second that of Lord Markland, both of which will become turning points in Theo's life.  Theo's mom, who had been married for the past 26 years to a man who was content with things remaining the same throughout their entire married life, is now ready to enjoy her freedom.  While she "shed the truest tears," on his death, she's also looking forward to being able to "shake the dust off her feet, to leave her home and all her associations, to get out into the world and breathe a larger air."  Her home "was a prison to her," and what she really wanted was to be away from it.   At the same time, though, she understands that she has to go through the "make-believe which convention forced upon her," and that includes going into public mourning, and having to deal with the decisions of her son Theo in his new role of head of the household.

As the Warrenders (also including daughters Minnie and Charlotte aka "Chatty") are dealing with their loss, they also become involved in the death of Lord Markland, who is brought to the Warrender home after a fatal accident.  His widow, not able to grieve very much, had married very early and hadn't quite realized just what she was getting herself into in this marriage.  As we're told,
"Young Markland, it was understood, has sown his wild oats somewhat plentifully at Oxford and elsewhere; and it was therefore supposed, with very little logic, that there were no more to sow. But this had not proved to be the case..."
The young Lady Markland had spent a great deal of her marriage alone as her husband was out doing his thing; she devoted herself full time to her young son Geoff, who is only eight at the time his father dies.  Needless to say, the lives of the Warrenders and the Marklands will become interwined as Theo develops a grand "passion" that drives him to become ever closer to the young widow.

Forgotten Books, 2012
originally published 1886
242 pp

 The story follows these characters, and in Volume 2 Oliphant adds something new in the form of a mysterious house called "The Elms," which is owned by the uncle of young adventurer Dick Cavendish, who has been sent to toss out its tenants.  We are sort of left in the dark for a while as to who occupies it; in the meantime Cavendish, who is an old school friend of Theo's, gets to know his family.  While this is going on, Theo is getting closer to Lady Markland; as he does so, he begins to understand little Geoff as his rival, which brings his seething, inner anger closer to a boiling point.

Forgotten Books, 2012
originally published 1886
226 pp

As it turns out though, throughout the first two volumes as Theo is going off the rails, we haven't even begun to see him at his worst.   The story of Dick Cavendish continues, as we discover that he has a dark secret that impedes progress with young Chatty, with whom he has fallen in love.   

Aside from the disturbing but great story, there is so much that falls under the microscope here, including  the relationship between mothers and sons, parenthood in general,  and the constriction of social conventions, especially for women of a particular class.  Widowhood is another topic, but the real question here seems to be this: if you're a widow with a child and you remarry, whose needs should come first? 

Despite its 711 pages,  A Country Gentleman and His Family goes by very quickly.  While it is definitely disturbing, Oliphant takes on a number of contemporary issues involving women in Victorian society.  There is a sequel called A House Divided Against Itself, which, considering my sheer dislike of Theo Warrender, I'm not too sure I want to read, but who knows.  This one I can definitely recommend, although beware -- it's dark and gets darker as the story progresses.  

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Miss Cayley's Adventures, by Grant Allen

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally serialized in The Strand, 1898-1899
220 pp

Miss Cayley's Adventures is another cross post from my crime fiction page .  Our Miss Cayley is, like Loveday Brooke, an independent woman; they also share similar traits as examples of the "New Woman" of fin-de-siècle Victorian literature.  Unlike Loveday Brooke, however, Miss Cayley has not chosen detection as her primary occupation; she has just graduated from Girton College and has made up her mind to go "round the world" in search of adventure.  She defines herself as "a bit of a rebel," and has come up with a plan of
"going out, simply in search of adventure.  What adventure may come, I have not at the moment the faintest conception. The fun lies in the search, the uncertainty, the toss-up of it."
The novel is a surprisingly fun hybrid of detection, travel narrative and adventure, with a bit of romance throw in, but it is so much more.  The words "plucky heroine" come to mind, but that's really sort of belittling what author Grant Allen has done here with his lead character. It's a refreshing take on the Victorian New Woman, but there's a LOT going on in this book around our Miss Cayley. The fact that a man wrote this makes the book doubly interesting, in my humble opinion; you can read all about it here.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

from the crime page: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

Wildside Books, 2012
originally serialized in Ludgate Monthly, 1893
first published 1894
142 pp


Occasionally there is going to be some overlap between this page and my crime fiction page since I'm very much into Victorian crime literature.  I've posted about this book here  for anyone who may be interested; The Experiences of Loveday Brooke was published in 1894, and this creation of Catherine Louisa Pirkis just may be the first example of a "New Woman" detective, arriving at a time when the first "New Woman" fiction was coming out.

As I said in my original post, the stories in this book are good, not great, but for me it's all about Loveday Brooke herself, making her way in what was normally a male profession, often doing a better job than her male counterparts.

I will definitely be back with more work by this author; she wrote thirteen novels so at least one is bound to cross my path, especially her sensation fiction.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Wormwood, by Marie Corelli

Broadview Press, 2004
originally published 1890
407 pp


"You mean to tell me...that Absinthe, -- which I have heard spoken of as the curse of Paris, -- is a cure for all human ills?" 
Well, I must say there's nothing like adding a page onto one's reading journal and then putting nothing on it for over a month. I got sidetracked with Jan Potocki's magnum opus The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a true behemoth of a book, as well as a week away from home and other distractions.

Anyway, the here and now is what's important; today's focus is Marie Corelli's Wormwood, published in 1890. As an author,  Marie Corelli  (1855-1924) was pretty much universally despised by critics, and as Sutherland reveals in his Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, by 1889
"reviews of her fiction were an orchestrated chorus of ridicule and savagery." (148)
She was known to "her detractors" as "the idol of suburbia -- the favorite of the common multitude," (60); another author, J.M. Stuart Young wrote in 1906 (as quoted in Kirsten Macleod's introduction, 10)  that
"no intelligent reader could enjoy Corelli's books and that her 'appeal' was only to the 'unthinking classes.' "
So much for literary snobbery, though -- as scholar Annette R. Federico in her book Idol of Suburbia: Maria Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture points out,
"Corelli was also admired, at least for a time, by some of the literary and theatrical lights of London: Oscar Wilde asked her to write for Woman's World, she was introduced to Robert Browning and Algernon Charles Swinburne, Ellen Terry adored her, and Lillie Langtry asked to perform in dramatizations of her novels."
She also "broke all publishing records:"
"on average, a Corelli novel sold 100,000 copies a year. At the turn of the century sales averaged 175,000 copies, and in 1906 The Treasure of Heaven: A Romance of Riches achieved a first-day record of 100,000." (2)
Corelli was also admired by no less a personage than Queen Victoria herself;  Sutherland says that while In the 1890s her work was actually "boycotted by several journals,"  at the same time, her novels were "devoured" by British and American readers "as fast as they appeared."

Wormwood is my introduction to Corelli's work, although I've picked up and plan to read many others. While it works on several different levels, the most obvious is that it reads like the Reefer Madness of its day, a cautionary tale that centers on the evils of Absinthe and its degenerating effects on  those who become addicted to it.  It is also, as the cover blurb on my edition reveals,
"a lurid tale of unrequited love, betrayal, vengeance, murder, suicide, and addiction"
which just about covers the plot in its entirety, but it is also her look at some of the more decadent aspects of Parisian society of the time. In her preface to the book,  Corelli asks her readers to consider that the spread of "French drug-drinking" might just become as "à la mode" as  French fashions, habits, books and pictures that have become "particularly favoured by the English."

the original cover of the 1890 edition, designed by Corelli herself. From The Virtual Absinthe Museum

Written in the first person and looking back in retrospect,  Wormwood is the story of Gaston Beauvais, son of a highly-respected French banker of Neuilly whose story, as he puts it, begins with "love."   We first encounter Beauvais on a bridge overlooking the Seine, looking down at the water and seeing "faces peering up at me," wondering if they "want something" from him. He feels strangely "impelled toward them," as they draw him "downwards by a deadly fascination..." but tears himself away "with a violent effort." From there, he reflects on his life story.    Beauvais recalls how he fell in love with and eventually becomes engaged to Pauline de Charmilles, who has just returned to her family home after being away at school. For Beauvais, it is love at first sight -- he worships and adores Pauline, and decides to ask her father for her hand in marriage.  Pauline's cousin Heloise, however, urges that he give Pauline some time -- after all, she had only just completed finishing school after having been educated in a convent:
"She is sweet, she is good, she is a little angel of beauty; but she does not understand what love is, she cannot even translate the passing emotions of her own heart"
and begs Gaston to be patient and to "give her time to be quite sure of herself."  It is advice that Gaston would have been smart to heed, since on the very day before the two are to be married, Pauline reveals that she has another man and other plans in mind.   While in Paris after this shattering announcement, suffering a broken heart beyond all measure,  Gaston runs into André Gessonex, an artist acquaintance of his who invites him to a cafe and there introduces him to Absinthe as a "remedy" to ease his suffering. Gaston, who has never imbibed, muses that if only it could
 "quench mad passion -- if it could kill love! -- if it could make of my heart a stone, instead of a tortured palpitating sentient substance --..."
and then takes his first taste of the "Fairy with the Green Eyes."  Several tumblers later, and Gaston is on the road to his own complete and utter deterioration, beginning with his own plans for revenge against those who have wronged him. As he gives into his cravings, he notes that it was the start of his life as one of the city's Absintheurs, who
 " are the degradation of Paris, -- the canker of the city -- the slaves of mean insatiable madness which nothing but death can cure." 

What follows is a look at a man spiraling down into the depths and the effect of his addiction not just on himself, but on everyone in his orbit.

I loved this book, melodramatic as it can often become,  and couldn't get enough of it. If I'd read it in 1890, I probably would have joined the ranks of  those "unthinking" suburban readers eagerly awaiting the release of  Corelli's next novel -- this book has everything.   Wormwood is  neither stodgy nor dry,  it has all the hallmarks of the best, most scandalous sensation fiction, and fits in nicely with Decadent tradition,  despite the fact that Corelli implies it as an attack on fin-de-siècle French society.   That is just one contradiction to be found in his novel -- another example can be found in Corelli's own use of the Naturalist style while making it quite clear that she deplores it   (she lets loose on Zola more than once here), but then again, she may have done it this way on purpose. As Macleod says in the introduction, up  until the time she wrote Wormwood, Corelli's books were all the kind "associated with women readers and writers;" in taking on the style of Naturalism, "a 'masculine' literary genre," she had hoped it would "earn the respect of the male-dominated literary elite,"  perhaps to show them that women writers could move beyond simply writing novels enjoyed mostly by other women.

Anyone who has it in his or her mind that Victorian fiction is positively dull really needs to read this book. Trust me, it is anything but.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Inaugurating my new journal page with Mr. Meeson's Will, by H. Rider Haggard

Waking Lion Books, 2006
originally published 1888
193 pp

I've been stockpiling quite a few lesser-known Victorian and British novels for a while, and figured that I needed a separate space for talking about them.  Just to set the record straight, I'm not an English major, not a reviewer, and definitely not a writer.  I'm just a plain old casual reader person who loves books and loves to share my thoughts about them.  So if it's real reviews you're looking for, or deep insights on the books I'm reading you won't find them here -- there are plenty of bloggers much smarter than I who can help you out. 

So now to Mr. Meeson's Will.  I first found this title while doing research for my year-long project of reading in the area of the history of mystery/crime/detective fiction, but it didn't take too long to realize that this book really didn't fit into that category.  In fact, there's a tag at the top of the cover that says "Classics Books Library: Suspense," but  it's really one of those novels that sort of defies any attempt at pigeonholing, since it combines small touches of satire, shipwreck, adventure, romance, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek courtroom drama.   The story begins when a mean-spirited, hot-tempered, avaricious publisher from Birmingham refuses to give any more money to one his bestselling authors, whom he has also cheated out of her rights to that book and any future work.  His nephew, Eustace, just happens to be in the office that day and tells his uncle just what he thinks about how Miss Augusta Smithers had been treated, and is thus disinherited.  It gets worse: without the money to take her very sick sister away to a warmer climate, the sister finally succumbs to her illness.  Refusing to go back to Meeson, Augusta arranges to start her life over in New Zealand, where she has a relative who will take her in.  Off she goes on the RMS Kangaroo, and as luck would have it, discovers that her nemesis Mr. Meeson is on board as well.

After a terrible tragedy not too far away from the Kerguelen Islands, Augusta finds herself stuck in a lifeboat with Meeson, two sailors and the young son of a friend made on board the Kangaroo. Landing on these desolate islands, where only a few whalers ever turn up, Meeson becomes ill and decides that maybe he was too hasty in disinheriting his nephew.  He wants to write a new will, but there are neither writing materials nor any sort of paper to be had.  The only option, it seems, is to tattoo a new will onto the skin of one of the survivors, but the only person willing to volunteer is Augusta.  Luckily one of the sailors is handy with a tattoo needle, and the will is eventually written on Augusta's back.  But the fun really begins when Augusta is rescued, brought back to England, and young Eustace makes his claim. 

from Wikipedia
The sad part of reading a modern reprint of this novel is that it leaves out the lovely illustrations, as in the drawing above showing the judge examining the will on Augusta's back.  On the other hand, while I'd never give it the moniker of great literature, it's a lighthearted fun read and pokes fun not only at capitalist greed, the anonymity of the working man and as in Bleak House, the legal profession and the plight of inheritors when a case gets stuck in Chancery court.  This book, however, was controversial in its day, which I discovered by following a Wikipedia link that took me to an Australian newspaper article of 1888, where Haggard was accused of plagiarizing the story.  According to the article's author, 
"The central idea, and in fact the only idea in it ... is that of a girl who allowed a will to be tattooed on her shoulder.  The entire plot is hung upon this ridiculous incident.  The 'idea' -- such as it was -- sold the book, but unfortunately it belonged to another writer.  The writer from whom Mr. Rider Haggard borrowed the tattooing idea is Mr. Charles Aubert, and his book is a collection of stories called "Les Nouvelles Amoureuses," published by Marpon or Flammarion, Paris, 1886."
The specific story in that book he was said to have plagiarized from was  "Le Cas de Mademoiselle Suzanne," evidently with a similar plot device.  But looking past Haggard's reputation for plagiarizing, his books are still widely read, and recently Mr. Meeson's Will has been re-examined by scholars, noting that the "plot seems to lend itself to feminist interpretation." 

It's good for a relaxing afternoon read, fun, not too taxing on the brain; if that's the sort of story you're looking for, then you've found it.