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-si├Ęcle 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.