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May 14, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Hello new readers!

The wonderful Journal of Victorian Culture Online has very kindly included me in their ‘Bloggers Fair’. So hello, all of you! Do come in, get to know the place, make yourselves at home, etc.

I spent the weekend in Bristol, home of that Victorian landmark the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and so didn’t get around to posting a recommendation of this:

I love this shot, from the BBC adaptation of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. Even the briefest of glances tells you this is neo-Victorian. The wicker trunk, the iron bedstead, the embroidered stool (and floral chamberpot); white cambric cotton pillowcases, snowy white pinafore, sensible brown leather boots; the buttoned-up aesthetic of the governess. Fingerless gloves give her that touch of Fagin, while the hint of tumbling petticoats suggest what might lie beneath.

All shot in the sort of glorious technicolour that was impossible until 1850 (and not realistically possible for several decades after). Look at that hair – we’ll never be able to tell if any Victorian had such a glorious colour. I’m not up on the history of fabric dye (it’s on my to-do list) but purple stockings seem like they might have been quite a pricey item – and I’m willing to bet Jane Eyre’s frocks were not that glam.

The four-part miniseries has recently been released on DVD, and I do recommend it. A soon-to-come post explores some of the problems in Faber’s novel (mostly clustered around sex, and the performance thereof), but it remains a fascinating exploration of the sort of Victorian archetypes – patriarch, wife, prostitute, reformer, priest, child, urchin – that we take for granted. Perfect weekend stuff.

May 4, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Something for the Weekend: Horrible Histories!

I like Horrible Histories very much, and often while away several happy hours watching them on youtube when I should be doing something important. Horrible Histories is a BBC programme for children, based on a very successful series of books by Terry Deary in which the Victorians don’t get particularly good press. The two specific books are Vile Victorians and Villianous Victorians: now, Deary’s USP is the ‘bottom up’ method of history for children – gruesome deaths, bizarre toilet habits, lethal beauty practices, etc – but Georgians are ‘Gorgeous’, Egyptians are ‘Awesome’ (and ‘Awful’, admittedly) and the Greeks are ‘Groovy’. Not everyone gets bad press! Any fans of the show will know that they really don’t seem to like Queen Victoria.

Which brings us to the above. The programme as a whole presents the Victorian period as one of industry, of urbanisation, and of Empire – as a result, the age is also presented as one of cruelty, materialism, and callous acquisition. While I appreciate that this is a children’s show, it is interesting to note that Horrible Histories is relentlessly ‘on message’ when it comes to its periods. Victorians are awful, cruel, mean, factory-owning men; exploited chirpy cockney urchins; a wizened old woman out of touch with reality (that would be the one ruling the country, just to be clear). It’s not necessarily a terrible, cynical thing to focus on certain aspects of one cultural period in order to make a coherent point – but that doesn’t mean that which one you choose does not warrant examination. In this case, the Arts and Crafts resistance of my last post is completely ignored in favour of images of children in factories.

We can probably date the age they are singing about roughly – the Elementary Education Act (1880) made school attendance compulsory for children aged 5-10, while the Industrial Revolution is generally held to have occurred between 1750-1850, and the first Factory Act (which addressed child labour) was passed in 1833.  Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) has as its protagonist the child chimney sweep Tom and is particularly pointed on the subject of child labour.

Having said that, anyone know that tune? ‘Work, Terrible Work’ is sung to the melody of ‘Food, Glorious Food’ from the musical Oliver! (launched as a musical 1960; became universally known when it was released as a film in 1969; based on Dickens’s 1838 novel Oliver Twist)Suddenly, this starts to look multi-layered – the Horrible Histories gang ‘reveal’ a gruesome truth about the Victorian industrial age using images, tropes, and motifs that are as likely to have come from the 1960s as they are the 1860s. Urchins, (terrible) cockney accents, factory owners, sack-like smocks in a fetching shade of grey, co-ordinated dance routines…

While their core message (Victorians employed children! Children like you!) is perfectly correct, surely it is problematic that a programme ostensibly dedicated to revealing the ‘truth’ about history seems unable to clearly indicate the separation of the two eras via cultural indicators? Which is the satire, and which is the precious ‘truth’? As a neo-Victorianist, of course, this is fantastic – clear evidence that our contemporary cultural recognition of the Victorians, and our relationship with them, is irrevocably tangled.

April 27, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Arts and Crafts and Florence and the Machine and…

…now, dear reader, to the sort of post that this blog was designed for: half-baked, idly wondering, curious.

Florence and the Machine is the stage name of British singer Florence Welch and her collection of musicians. Currently, the promotion for her recent album Ceremonials is all art-deco, skyscrapers and cities (as you’ll see if you click on the link to her website)Her first album, however, is usually compared to the pre-Raphaelites. As I’m going to explore today, however, red hair and an inclination to lie in water does not a Millais make – nevertheless, the promotional material certainly re-imagined aesthetics from an earlier age. Lungs was a whirl of Arts and Crafts.

Arts and Crafts, to give a very brief account, was developed by artist, publisher, designer and all-round creative William Morris (1834-1896). As any reader of Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958) knows, Morris was inspired by John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin. Broadly Socialist in nature, and opposed in all forms to industrial capitalism,* the resistance of the Arts and Crafts style took the form of flowing lines, appeals to nature, simplified design and a slightly unfinished quality: overall, what might be called a rustic aesthetic. Flowers, birds, and fruit all feature heavily on pots, paintings, and textiles. This is an imperfect summary but there’s plenty out there on the movement. A visit to the V&A museum is highly recommended.

What’s particularly interesting to me, but needs to be explored in a longer post some other time, is that Arts and Crafts is very similar to neo-Victorianism. It was a movement that harked back to an earlier period – Arts and Crafts was firmly rooted in the neo-Gothic revival (which in itself was huge, just huge, encompassing whole schools of thought in literature, art, architecture, theology, politics, etc). Of course Arts and Crafts, like neo-Victoriana, didn’t just engage with the past aesthetically, but politically – the beautiful pots and jugs were not just beautiful (which they are) but a symbol of the resistance to Victorian industrialisation that could be brought about via re-enacting a Medieval period in which the craftsman was held in high esteem and objects were handmade. Whether papering one’s house in (expensive) Morris wallpaper was truly akin to storming the barricades is unclear, but the impulse was certainly there.

So, is Florence deliberately exhorting the masses to reject capitalism and a manufactured way of life? Let’s see:

Leather, flowing fabric, visible stitching, vines, fruit, birds. Most importantly, look at the fabric that comprises the background. If not directly William Morris it is most certainly supposed to evoke his designs:

William Morris, 'Chrysthanthamum'

The flowing, simple, natural and repetitive patterns of Morris’s designs were replicated here, at this performance. Unlike the album art, I don’t think the stage backdrop is a specific Morris design. What is is however – and what is more interesting to me – is a contemporary design that is clearly re-employing a Victorian design in order to say something about the here and now. Note, also, the presence again of that draped sleeve, as well as more flowers on the microphone stand:

Florence performing

The flowers are sunflower-esque, emphasising that Florence’s aesthetic is a mish-mash of styles. The yellow sunflower was symbolic of decadence and dandyism, and surfaced again in Art Nouveau (closely related to Arts and Crafts). Like pre-Raphaelism and Arts and Crafts, however, Art Nouveau also ‘looked back’ for inspiration. It’s the ‘looking back’ that is in itself an aesthetic position.

Remember that Arts and Crafts appealed to the neo-Gothic characterisation of the Medieval craftsman? Check out the men in this shot, taken from the video to Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up):

It’s not a point-perfect re-enactment of medieval times, sure, but pig’s head, page-boy-esque stylings, minstrels in the background? That’s enough to be getting on with! The figure of the ‘page’ is a particularly easy way of making a contemporary reference to heraldry, the designs of which influenced Arts and Crafts practitioners:

Gothic Tile, designed by A. Pugin, 1847 (V&A)

What really intrigues me about this video still is that is alludes to the transition between neo-Gothic and Arts and Crafts. Look to the right of the picture, between then final couple, on the table there. See those jugs? They’re not neo-Gothic but they most certainly represent neo-Gothic’s closest movement, Arts and Crafts:

Charles Ashbee Decanter (1904-5). From V&A

The looping handles and elongated features are indicative of the ‘handmade’ quality that Arts and Crafts wanted to capture. Both the decanter and the teapot feature visible joins – we can see where the handle meets the body, for example. Not only are the joins visible, but they are a decorative feature.

William Benson Teapot (V&A)

I couldn’t find a very clear shot of the head-dress that Florence is wearing, but in the banquet scene and the one below, the most obvious comparison would be to the famous pre-Raphaelite Ophelia (indeed, the Rabbit Heart video features a scene in which Florence, dressed as she is below, is lowered into the river).

But remember I said Morris was influenced by Ruskin? And, if you image search for paintings of both ‘Lady of Shalott’ and ‘Ophelia’ (John William Waterhouse and John Everett Millias, and Holman Hunt are names you should look for), you’ll see that the headcoverings of all the women are minimal. So we have to look elsewhere for inspiration:

A Cornet of Acorns and Leaves - John Ruskin

The loops and whirls of the design are strongly reminiscent of the embroidery designs of May Morris:

May Morris, Embroidery Design, 1885

Yes, Florence is standing near water in a long gown. Yes, she is standing near weeds. Yes, she has red hair. But does that really mean we have to reach for the Rossetti? Rushes, ferns, and water are all Arts and Crafts as well, you know…

Walter Crane, Swan, Rush and Iris (textile)

What conclusions can I draw from this post? Well, it’s clear that the artwork and promotion for Florence’s debut album invoked tropes, styles and motifs from three main artistic movements: pre-Raphaelite, neo-Gothic, and most interestingly for me, Arts and Crafts. The close interaction of these styles – William Morris fabrics on the album cover, a devotion to the curves and visible construction of the movement, the allusions to neo-Gothic and Arts and Crafts in the same shot, for example – suggests that these choices are deliberate.

Who really knows why? I propose that actually, the motivations behind this choice are less interesting than the fact that it happens at all. It’s enough to know that the ‘looking back’ that we find in this post can be constructed from a swatch of fabric here, a jug on a table there, a pig’s head front and centre. This, to me anyway, is a clear sign of how powerful these Victorian movements were. Even though we think we’ve forgotten them, they’ve wormed their way into our collective consciousness.

Plus, they’re beautiful objects with a socialist twist. The UK could do with a lot more of that right now, say I!


*Wikipedia – yes, I know – states that the ‘Arts and Crafts style was partly a reaction against the style of many of the items shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851, which were ornate, artificial and ignored the qualities of the materials used’. There’s that Great Exhibition again!

April 23, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Doubting Society’s Vision of the Past: Professor Mary Beard

I was reading The Guardian‘s ‘The Saturday Interview’ on well, Saturday, and noticed  Professor Mary Beard musing on a topic that this blog chews over frequently and in fact, chewed over on Friday: linear history, and our assumption that we are the most sophisticated product of it yet. When asked about the incongruity of a Cambridge Professor of Classics using Twitter, Prof. Beard gave an answer that stirred my heart:

What would Epictetus say? Shouldn’t Professor Beard be examining amphorae or poring over fragments of Cicero rather than making telly and strategising social media? “I’m actually in a tradition of classicists with a big public face who like sounding off,” she retorts.

She cites as an example suffragist classicist Jane Harrison (1850-1928), who taught at her all-woman Newnham College, and whom Beard describes in her biography as “in a way … [Britain’s] first female professional ‘career academic'”. “She would have been on Twitter all the time. She once gave a lecture on Greek tombstones in Glasgow in front of 2,000 people.” It’s unfair, Beard says, to think of her professional predecessors as decrepit life forms. “We think of their lives as terribly slow, but they probably weren’t. They had five postal deliveries a day – so you’d have a reply to a morning letter by lunchtime.”

This is Beard’s great theme: to confound the Whig notion of history whereby we’ve become faster, healthier, and have more sophisticated communication technologies than our loser forebears. “We think of our lives as natural, unconstructed, while Romans’ lives were unnatural and based in myths. Not true on either count.”

Full interview here

Wonderful stuff, grist to the mill of any neo-Victorian, for whom the thorny questions of what history is, how it is formed, and how it is transmitted are everyday irritations.  Beard is invoking not just Harrison, but the authority of history itself  in order to silence her critics. ‘History gives us plenty of figures who would do what I am doing’ is the implication, ‘and therefore I have justification; it is you, critic, who doesn’t know what they are talking about’. Self-promotion, Beard implies, is an action that resonates throughout the ages. One single puny human has no option but to take the path of mimicry. The weight of history makes for a powerfully blunt instrument.

Mind you, while I appreciate that she is merely employing a swift caricature in order to silence her critics, Prof. Beard’s stirring defence of the Victorians (and of herself) – that they were just like us! –  is as much of an artificial position as the alternative. After years of twentieth-century folk defining themselves as modern and freewheeling in comparison to Victorian prudery and restriction, the pendulum has started to swing in the opposite direction. Most recently, Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians (2001) stated repeatedly, insistently, that the Victorians were Just Like Us, while a number of academic papers suggest that the Victorian era may not have ended in 1901 after all.

My answer is, of course, that we are somewhere in the middle. It seems entirely self-evident that we are not Victorians – there isn’t a single Victorian alive in 2012. We can’t speak to them – even if we could, who knows what mistakes and miscommunications might occur? We may have a mountain of text left by them but that does not mean that we can know them. Equally, will we ever truly quantify what it is that we do know of the Victorians? Does a researcher know more than a member of the general public? If a million people believe that Queen Victoria refused to believe in lesbians, does that make that more or less a moment of ‘history’ than the truth (the tale is a myth)?

I foolishly started to address this in my doctoral thesis; a month later, my supervisor had to haul me out of a tangled web of words that was going nowhere and never would.

We are…well, who knows. Whatever it is that we are, we are not Victorian. Whatever it is we know of the Victorians, we will probably never know if it is true. It is enough, I think, to know that we want to know the Victorians so very badly – and that, like Professor Mary Beard, we will continue to use them as a definitive touchstone.

April 23, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Book Pile 23.04.12 (Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!)

A pile of old favourites with one – The Eyre Affair – waiting to be read. Against Nature is hilarious (though I’m not sure it’s supposed to be) and I’m halfway through Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl. Tipping the Velvet is a wonderful book and is highly recommended and I can’t remember why I’m re-reading The Trials of Oscar Wilde (something to do with the Big Book). That backwards one is The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, which I just haven’t been getting into. Perhaps it’s one of those books that needs sunshine and open windows.

The Kindle isn’t in shot but even if it was, you wouldn’t be able to tell that I’m racing through The Unsealed Letter by Emma Donoghue, which I’m enjoying very much. Fuller review will come later but any book with a heroine named Fido is a-ok with me.

April 20, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Something for the Weekend: Pirates!

At a loose end? Go and see this:

Not only is it by Aardman, which tends to indicate that something is worth an hour or two of your time, but it’s neo-Victorian! What the trailer doesn’t make clear is that: they run into Darwin on his voyage on The Beagle; Queen Victoria plays a sizeable role; and that someone in the Aardman stable has been reading up on their steampunk.

April 20, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Renewable Energy given a neo-Victorian twist

You may remember that an earlier post discussed the the neo-Victorian tactic most seen in the media – that of the-Victorian-disrupting-the-present – as a political satire on the UK coalition. Well, it’s back: and this time it’s funny.

Lucy Mangan chose to re-imagine Wuthering Heights (1847) in order to comment most effectively on reports that turbines may be erected on the moor that ‘inspired’ Emily Bronte’s novel.

Writing as someone who, like Mangan, tends to come over all Flora Poste when faced with the denizens of a Bronte novel, Mangan’s short jab made Neo-Victorian Thoughts think that perhaps an irreverent ‘Neo-Victorian Flash Fiction’ competition might be just the thing.

For inspiration, behold (a section reproduced below, with a link to the full article):

“Oh Heathcliff! Why have you done this terrible, terrible thing?” sobbed Cathy, sinking to the ground and fairly beating the moorland with her tiny but spirited fists.

Heathcliff looked down at her, his brow furrowed with anger, his eyes flashing with an unnamed passion, his mouth twisted in rage. I, unbiased but frequently baffled narrator, Mr Lockwood, was filled with fear. What if his face should drop off, out here in the windswept moors with only the new turbines towering above us to bear witness to our plight?

“Ha!” roared Heathcliff, masculinely. “You ask me why I have done this terrible thing, Cathy? Why I have granted permission for green energy firm, Banks Renewables, to install a windfarm on the moors around my farmhouse, ruining the view from here to Thrushcross Grange and back again? With particular effect on other householders of perhaps more refined tastes and delicate aesthetic sensibilities? The type who, were a movie ever to be made of our mad, wearyingly tormented lives, could well be played by David Niven? Ha! Look into that mad, treacherous, damned organ you call a heart, Cathy, and tell me why!”

Cathy, so tiny and vulnerable yet so spirited, looked up at her tormentor. “Oh, why must you torment me so, Heathcliff? Very well, I admit it – I know why you have so gleefully despoiled this area that once possessed a beauty as natural and outstanding as my own! Yes, yes, I know your heart too!”

They all know each other’s hearts round here. I don’t know how. They’re years off even getting the telegraph yet.

She drew herself up to her full, spirited, tormented height and shook her tormented hair spiritedly back from her face. […]

To be continued here

Arf.* On a more serious note, the ‘Victorian’ once again functions as an impediment to progress. Victorians themselves are slightly unhinged, in sharp contrast to the cool, unemotional, sleek features of the turbines. The moor itself, meanwhile, is a slice of the green and pleasant land over which conservationists fight, NIMBYS protect their mortgages, and the heritage industry wishes to preserve in frozen perpetuity (you won’t be at all surprised to hear that The National Trust is Victorian). The fact that the moor is also wild and unhinged is financially profitable. Of course this is not always a bad thing – Mangan isn’t lightly joshing around with Wuthering Heights by accident, she’s doing it because contested emblems of the modern world is threatening a section of the UK’s most valued historical ancestors. That it’s wrapped up in a solid spatial metaphor is all to the good – the wind turbines encroaching on the wild, untamed moor is a great image.

It’s rather early in the morning to get into a discussion about the linear nature of history (‘10pm would be too early!’, I hear you cry) but it’s not terribly taxing to understand that everything we humans write and think about history is dedicated to moving forwards. 2016 is in front of us, 2012 is now, and the Romans well, they’re waaaaay back there.  Human genealogy moves forward – our grandfathers are in the past and you don’t have to be Whitney Houston to know that the children are our future.

Progress also moves forward – we get more of it as we move along, we presume. This is particularly easy to see in regard to technology. It allows us to do more things – go further in space, go deeper into the atomic level, make F1 cars lighter, make us live longer. I could go on. We used to hit each other with sticks, now we can blow each other up in all sorts of efficient ways and this, the mantra tells us, is newer and shiner and more efficient and therefore progress.

We therefore run into all sorts of conflicting emotions when our linear progress through time, and our collective dedication to rendering that progress as the natural order of things, runs into the concrete wall that is our desire to go back. We love going back.  But according to our ‘forward-is-best’ mantra, back there – the moor, Cathy and Heathcliff, the Victorians – has to be less developed than 2012. It has to be, or our devotion to linearity threatens to break.

The past, therefore, can be disruptive, unruly, and wild. It can be savage and unwashed. It can be a simpler, more honest way of life. It can be rigidly ordered. It can be a time where you weren’t afraid to leave your door unlocked and everyone was a proud Englisher whose home was his castle (also known as the Daily Mail’s oft-invoked – and entirely imaginary – Golden Age).

What it isn’t, however, is like now.

The cleverest of neo-Victorian fictions are the ones that see this. They see that the past is different, yes, but they also see that human society is intrinsically bound up with the notion that the past has to be less developed. They can therefore play with this narrative, confirming our expectations before (and this is the good bit) whipping them away.

We’ll be coming back to this idea over and over again in later posts. It’s a big neo-Victorian Thing.


*An ex-boyfriend once told me that he took his mother to see the musical of Wuthering Heights, in which the role of Heathcliff was played by none other than Cliff Richard. Can you imagine?! The mind, frankly, boggles.