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July 3, 2012 / Louisa Yates

NeoVictorianThoughts went to Hay-on-Wye!

And did some neo-Victorian Thinking!

Most straightforwardly, I Thought about Kate Williams and Clare Clark, both of whom were interviewed by Rosie Boycott and both of whom really sold our little neo-Victorian world to a thrilled audience. Williams (a historian known for her work on Queen Victoria) was there to promote The Pleasures of Men, a neo-Victorian murder-mystery and Clark was there for Beautiful Lies, a really intriguing novel that fleshes out the few historical sources available on Maria Lowe, wife of a Scottish Radical MP who is not all she seems (I’ll leave you to find out)…

Both novels were promptly added to the neo-Victorian bookshelf here at neo-Victorian Towers. But what really fascinated me wasn’t the books (though I’m looking forward to reading them). It was the burning desire of both Clark and Williams – and the audience at Hay – to dig about in the nineteenth century. Oh, how we loved the tales of Jack the Ripper, inventor of tabloid reporting WT Stead, and a vast cast of Urchins. Best thing of all was Williams’s recounting of the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887), which featured the giant face of the monarch, constructed from fireworks. This pyrotechnic marvel then malfunctioned in the vicinity of one eye, much to the delight of the crowd – the malfunction meant that their monarch was not only made of fireworks, but appeared to be winking at them!

Williams and Clark both spent about ten minutes in deep discussion about the similarities between Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Both were vast displays of pomp, wealth, and civic pride, both of which rang hollow in the face of a collapsing economy and a series of riots. Both Queens were criticised for not looking happy enough, and both of them had their lack of appropriate joy ascribed to the absence of their consort (Philip having a bladder infection rather than being dead like Albert – whether Victoria was correspondingly more solemn than Elizabeth went unremarked at Hay-on-Wye). The audience loved that as well, loved the similarities between them and us. There are moments at which neo-Victorian texts like to emphasise the differences between them and us, but this was not one of those moments.

In a time of great instability, it’s an immensely comforting thought that we’ve been through it all and survived. Personally, it’s an immensely depressing thought to realise that we never learn. A little too depressing for Rosie Boycott to suggest, I’m sure, but more than one audience member must have had that thought cross their mind.

And while I was listening to them both, guess who I missed? Kate Summerscale! I am a really big fan of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. It is something of a groundbreaker, collapsing the distinction between a history derived only from textual sources and fiction (two thumbs up from Neo-Victorian Thoughts), and I was very, very sorry to have missed her.



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