Archive for ‘Victorians’

February 8, 2012

and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

Yesterday was Dickens’ 200th birth anniversary and all over the internet (on twitter “Charles Dickens” was trending worldwide alongside “There is a Penis”) people were trying to explain what it is about his work that makes it so amazing. I will inevitably fail to do this.

I spent a lot of my life disliking Dickens. I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist when I was too young to see them as anything other than bildungsromans about virtuous boys and people with funny names. During my teens I read Dickens as a writer of not very good realist novels. I had to read Hard Times in my first year of college and that (with the opinions of most of my class and the addition of an unpopular teacher) was so easy to dislike.

The moment at which Dickens began to make sense to me, and I suspect this reflects very badly on me as a reader, was when I began to read him as weird. In Larry’s post here, he suggests that ‘…the more a Text (or even its Author, divorced as s/he may be from the Text’s semantics) diverges from a Reader’s expectations for what a Text ought to do, the more and more likely that Text will be dismissed as being “shoddy” or “poor”‘. And I needed a tradition, a particular lens to read him Dickens through, to appreciate how wonderful he was.* I’m not sure quite when I found it, but sometime in the last few years it has clicked into place.

And so last year when I first read this first paragraph of Bleak House…:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

… I was thinking about the Victorians and evolution and geology, I was thinking about the cleverness of that compound interest metaphor in this place, I was thinking how marvellous and evocative it all was, and I was thinking fucking dinosaurs and it was the first time I’d started reading Dickens and immediately felt such utter glee.

 

 

*(The Pickwick Papers – which is, after Bleak House, the Dickens work I’ve loved most – I read through a somewhat different lens, and one which took me rather less time to find)

 

February 6, 2012

Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars

I wrote my most recent Kindle magazine column on public domain books while I was revising a conference paper on Egypt-themed fin de siècle invasion fiction. Naturally, then, I felt that the book deserved a few thousand words and that the 500-odd I had in which to write this column managed to say almost nothing. There’s a lesson here, and it’s probably the opposite of write what you know.

 

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When the Nineteenth century turned into the Twentieth, the British Empire was still going strong. This makes it all the more interesting that this period should have seen a trend of “invasion” fiction, in which Britain was the colonised, rather than the colonising country. Some of these would-be colonisers came from the actual colonised countries (the “yellow peril” novels, for example, used the threat of an expanding Chinese population); others were of a supernatural nature. Bulwer-Lytton wrote of a subterranean “Coming Race”. H.G. Wells had England invaded by Martians in The War of the Worlds, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula arrived from Eastern Europe.

Dracula is hardly obscure; it is the definitive vampire novel.  The character has entered pop culture in a vast range of iterations, from the cartoon “Count Duckula” to the magnificently awful film (available on youtube!) Shaitani Dracula.  Fewer people are acquainted with another invasion novel which Stoker wrote a few years later; The Jewel of Seven Stars.

The Jewel of Seven Stars is in part a product of late Victorian (and early 20th Century) England’s fascination with Egypt.  In it, an English scholar named Mr Trelawney, comes into the possession of the preserved or mummified body of an Ancient Egyptian queen and attempts to resurrect her. Malcolm Ross, the narrator, is in love with Trelawney’s daughter Margaret. Everyone is a little surprised to discover that the spectacularly beautiful mummified queen and the spectacularly beautiful Miss Trelawney are physically identical. Naturally (as in most books about reanimated corpses) things go horribly wrong.

In many ways The Jewel of Seven Stars is a weaker novel than Dracula, but a few things make it stand out. One is the way in which it dramatizes the sheer discomfort around various aspects of Egyptology and the colonial enterprise. It’s clearest of all in a scene where the mummified body is unveiled – mummy unveilings often turned into public events. Here, Mr Trelawney and his associates stand gloating at the body of the woman they have stripped while in the presence of a woman physically identical to her, whom they have sworn to protect.

The book is also notable for having two endings. Stoker’s original ending had Tera victorious – the narrator enters the room to discover that not only has she reawakened, but that all the witnesses to her resurrection are lying around petrified and glassy-eyed. When the novel was republished in 1912, Stoker was told to give it a less gruesome ending. He managed, magnificently, to give it one that (to me at least) seems even more ominous. What looks like a traditional, happily-ever-after wedding is undercut by Margaret’s decision to dress herself as the dead queen. I am tempted to read this as a sign that the two women have changed places – that the narrator is now sharing his bed not with the woman he loves, but with a centuries-old impostor. Perhaps even more disturbing is another explanation, that Tera has in some way possessed Margaret’s mind. Either way, Stoker’s ability to amp up the creepiness of his book while pretending to tone it down is something to be lauded.

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