Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mansfield Park

an unfortunate nickname

Whoever thought it was a good idea to titles ladies with the name Frances “Fanny” must have been a cretin. Thinking of it the English way is even worse. For Fanny Hill, I suppose, it is entirely appropriate; for Fanny Price, however, it can almost make one believe she deserves her Cinderella status in Mansfield Park.

I’ve never read this book, and having long meant to, I must do so now. I hate to say that ITV made me do it. But at last, despite crackly reception, I’ve seen Billie Piper do a period role, and I wasn’t half impressed. She was subdued, and all those longing stares after the Doctor have made her quite adept at looking forlorn and soulful. This adaptation seemed to for a middle ground between the respectable but rather boring 1980s BBC adaptation and the 1990s motion picture treatment that both steamed things up and tried very hard to bring the slavery question into play. If it was remarkable for anything, it was for a very lovely score.

Mansfield Park does have a reputation for being the most boring of the Austen novels, revolving as it does around mostly the single location of the great estate of the title. Fanny, too, is usually regarded as the least popular heroine, being considered prudish, vanilla, and bland. This adaptation tried to dispel this by means of an interior monologue-like introduction—getting the exposition out of the way as quickly as possible and also trying to introduce us to Fanny’s inner world—as well as giving Fanny the long stares and an even more pronounced Cinderella treatment than I can recall seeing before.

Pipes’ Fanny is undoubtedly beautiful, quite in touch with her childish side. But admirably, to me at least, her blushing protestations and modest refusals made sense, for someone who is so locked into her role of pleasing everyone. Anne Elliot may have adopted this attitude later in life, but in Fanny it is both curious and believable, and Pipes does a pretty good job with it. Of course putting her in low-necked 18th-century gowns is just a lazy attempt at making her even more visibly different from Maria and Julia, who are barely in this adaptation. Of note here is Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny’s uncle, who is given a sympathetic portrayal here entirely at odds with the one in the Purefroy version. Also worth mentioning is Edmund, who is a believable clergyman and yet one can see why Fanny has fallen for him—I was rather impressed with his realization of his own self-deception in his “love” for Mary Crawford. Alas, we can convince ourselves of almost anything given the desire.

Austen’s creations Henry and Mary Crawford are surprisingly devilish characters. Contrary to the general rule, in which Austen makes her “villains” less charming, they are entertaining, nuanced, and even slightly sympathetic. The play’s the thing here, and yet in contrast to other catastrophes like Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth’s affair and Cousin Tom’s brush with fever, the theatricals all feel curiously without consequence. The stuck position at Mansfield brings on tedium barely relieved by the first line dance I can ever recall taking place outdoors, during Fanny’s birthday picnic. Like all recent Austen adaptations, apparently, Mansfield Park doesn’t seem to know how to end, and puzzlingly we are left with Edmund and Fanny waltzing out of doors at their wedding. Weird.

While the addition of Fanny’s beloved brother is welcome—and the cross he brings her from his naval escapades is strikingly similar to one Austen’s younger brother brought her from sea-faring—I found myself really missing the hyper-realism of a visit to Fanny’s “real” family in a modest village house containing about thirteen children. Ah, but that belongs to the aesthetic of a different film. Anyway, the important thing is that Pug was there to run across the screen so I could shout “Puuuuuug!” every time.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Pirate Loop (with illustrations)

Martha tries her hand at seducing badgers.
Tennant fancies himself Pertwee and fights with nasty badgers!
Jocelyn the Badger Pirate with pink lipstick
The Doctor Dances (again)
The Doctor and ice cream?! I'm there
The Doctor (strangely looking like Oscar Wilde) with Mrs. Wingsworth
Mouthless Men!

The subtleties in reviewing The Pirate Loop are that, because I sort of know the author, I knew about it for quite awhile before it came out and was eagerly anticipating it—as everything I’ve read of his I’ve pretty much liked. The other factor is that I’m just an eensy bit envious of him, and the meaner side of my critical nature is inclined to be nitpicky. However, I can say without bias I did quite enjoy the book. Simon is after all the first person who pointed out to me that the new Doctor novels are more like the Target novelizations (when I’d rather meanly told him I found them dumbed-down for twelve-year-olds). A fun way to pass the time.

It’s interesting to me to look at this book in light of “Voyage of the Damned,” also set on an ostensible pleasure cruise ship with a clear delineation between passengers and crew. It also has a familiar vibe since it has space pirates with nostalgic trimmings, a fact the author seems to catch: The fortieth century had quite a vogue for old-school piracy in space, recalled the Doctor. You know me: I’ll take pirates any day. I even learned something I didn’t know about pirate earrings: The single loop is an old tradition. If Archie here gets himself killed, his comrades can claim his earring as payment for seeing he gets a decent funeral. The starship on the cover just seems so “Enlightenment,” I still would have preferred the scary badger pirate illustration.

There’s a wonderful opening line: Six thousand robots danced through the streets of Milky-Pink City. Within the first few pages, the Doctor is alienating Martha (he forgot they were both in Denmark together) and being very Seventh Doctorish (pulling yo-yos out of his pockets). The end of the first chapter, however, is a pure Simon-ism: The sentence died in her throat as the man in the leather apron stepped out into the light. He was tall and muscular, his eyes alive with fear and excitement. And he didn’t have a mouth.

More Simon-isms (God, I sound like a stalker now): the time loop itself is initiated by an experimental drive in the starship Brilliant and causes what are at first some wonderful fake-outs: a tentacled creature named Mrs. Wingsworth dissolves into pink light, a helpful robot named Gabriel (apparently kidnapped from Heroes) is exploded, and then Martha herself appears to die. This recalls, of course, They Keep Killing Andrews from The Time Travellers. To be honest, at first I found this really annoying. By the time there were some “real” deaths, I was appalled at the carnage and felt like ranting about the Holmes-ness of it all. When the end is a relatively happy one, I have to admit I was too contented to think about reset buttons.

I have read that people have been annoyed that a) badger pirates exist; b) they speak in Hampshire accents. Since the only equivalent I could come up with in my American brain is Bill Oddie as the camp pirate captain in Doctor Who and the Pirates, I was content to let them talk that way. Similarly, I think criticism has been garnered by the childishness of the badgers. When I stopped and thought about it, however, they reminded me of the few yobs I’ve had the misfortune of meeting (mostly in bus stations in Swansea). The juvenile attitudes toward everything, especially boredom and causing pain and suffering, seem to coincide. Give those yobs guns that spurt out pink light and they would probably use them with the indifference of Dash, Archie, and Jocelyn. I appreciated that the badgers were grown in labs (that they actually occurred in nature would have taxed our belief!), and their plight reminded me of
The Last Dodo.

Mrs. Wingsworth, a tentacled Balumin, speaks as though she should be in an Oscar Wilde play. I admit I found her pretty tiresome at first. By the end, however, she acquired some depth: ‘I don’t expect they’ll be very interested, dear. They [my family] never were in me.’ And then I thought, oh dear, he’s pulled another Mrs. Moore with us. Oh, ye of little faith. It’s difficult not to warm to the badgers, too, especially their love of food (perhaps they’re Hobbits in disguise), despite their errant ways. Though Martha takes a shine to the human crewmember Thomas, all the humans seemed pretty flat and bland. (Though for some reason, try as I might, for Captain Georgina I couldn’t get out of my head the image of Beryl Reid as the captain in “Earthshock.”)

I’m rather impressed at the way the author captures Martha. There are good insights into her character. In the Rose and Martha books I’ve read, without fail it’s been Jacqueline Rayner who gets the crush thing right, and men like Stephen Cole and Justin Richards who just don’t quite. So I’m surprised to pronounce Simon Guerrier successful at capturing Martha’s feelings for the good ol’ Doc. The Doctor gazed at her, deep brown eyes open wide. Martha felt the smile on her own face falter, her insides turning over. She had come to accept that the Doctor didn’t share her feelings for him, but sometimes the way he looked at her . . . The way Martha deals with the badgers, and feels compassion for nearly every character at various points, makes you want to give her a high-five. Nevertheless, it’s interesting, these differing visions of Martha: I always thought she was a coffee person, and here the Doctor even knows her milk and sugar tea preferences.

Speaking of tea . . . As Archie might say, Cor. The mouthless men offer tea to make people feel better, the Doctor asks for it in lieu of liquor, the Doctor constructs a fantastic Teasmade, and I’m reminded a bit of the last few lines in “The Awakening”: ‘
Is tea good?’ Archibald asked him. ‘Oh,’ said the Doctor darkly. ‘It’s not for everybody. It can be quite dangerous.’ ‘I’ll ‘ave a cuppa tea.’

I’m also rather surprised at the amount of description we get of the Doctor physically: his skinny fingers, his height, his prominent cheekbones, his dark eyes, his messy hair, his furry sideburns (it begins to smack of a certain fan fic writer . . . ahem). I enjoy it, though, it fleshes out the story even more. One thing I noticed about the beginning of the book was long passages of exposition and analogy (which I seem to recall in Time Travellers too) giving the Doctor the opportunity for long-windedness or over-abundant silliness (it was a criticism I had of The Resurrection Casket as well). I think the Tenth Doctor is a bit harder to write in prose than on screen, as he bounces all over the place and is physical and comic, like Tom Baker I guess. However, the Doctor gets to duel with a badger pirate queen. How Pertwee, I thought. How indescribably cool. Jocelyn the badger notes during the duel that Martha fancies the Doctor . . . well, what an apt scene to make that observation anyway.

I’m usually very critical of endings, but I thought this one just made me smile. First of all, there’s the Doctor fixing milkshakes in a giant party consisting of Balumins, robots, badgers, and humans. Then there’s the moral dilemma of a lifetime of ease and boredom, or going back out into the hostile universe. Very Doctor-ish. But this: The Doctor took Martha’s left hand in his, put his right hand on her waist. Realizing what he meant to do, she put her hand to his shoulder, so close to him she could feel the buttons of his suit against her chest, so close she could feel his hearts beating. I love that.

My Martha fics:
Doctor Who the Musical season 3
Over and Under
1969 Diaries is done but not on yet

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sweeney Todd vs. Anne Elliot

Figuratively of course, as obviously in a real fight Sweeney Todd would win. But then again, Captain Wentworth might just pistol-whip Sweeney into submission. What I mean is Sweeney Todd and ITV’s Persuasion are the most recent movies I’ve seen (excepting, of course, Casanova).

While I was around last spring to catch the Northanger Abbey from this series (curiously not Mansfield Park, though, which I’d wanted to see because of Billie Piper), I missed Persuasion so I was keen to see it on PBS. I still think the Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds version is the better one, but I enjoyed this one. Now that I’m old, I think Persuasion is my favorite of the Austen stories. It has a depth and maturity in its characters who, though many of them outrageous, are very human. There seems to me to be so much of Austen herself coming through in the concerns of a woman, twenty-seven, unmarried, and considered past her prime.

Sally Dawkins was probably pretty close to Anne Elliot in actual age, and in general her portrayal was very good, surprisingly good. I can’t decide whose portrayal I like better, hers of Amanda Root’s. The director, however, seems to be taken with the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice and has absconded with long shots of running, 360-degree camera panning, and heroines giving long, passionate stares into space. Also with the Romantic with a capital R piano score, distressingly obvious when Anne plays Moonlight Sonata on piano, then a country dance on piano forte. Oopsies.

All the actors are quite fine, though I was racking my brains until 6 a.m. this morning trying to figure out where I had seen Mr. Elliot the cousin before (he played Brutus in Rome). Anthony Head was above and away the best characterization as Anne’s vain, snobbish father; he was great. Rupert Penry-Jones’ Wentworth was a pale imitation of Ciaran Hinds’, however, too waxen and boring by far. Wentworth should seethe and yet retain his naval dignity. (Perhaps I was biased, as in Casanova Penry-Jones was the villain!)

Costumes: beyond reproach. Cinematography: good, although I was disappointed to see less of Bath than I was expecting (now that I’ve been there, dammit, and would recognize it!). It started very badly, way too much exposition; the earlier version required much less and got moving much faster. The ending was also a bit flat; again, I think, taking too much from the Keira Knightley P & P. It was still fun, though.
So. Sondheim seems to write a lot of musicals about murderers. What I remember is that in 1924 Hamburg a man was put on trial for biting and sucking the blood of young boys, hence urban cannibalization is not just the stuff of mere legend (as we know from reading more recent headlines). In any case, the musical combines the lyrical genius of Sondheim, some powerful melodic themes, and a delightfully biting cynicism. Two of my favorite songs, “The Worst Pies in London,” and “A Little Priest,” are the best examples of this. From that point of view it’s a natural project for Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter, and Johnny Depp to tackle.

The costumes in the film will put us about mid-nineteenth-century, though the dark maze of urban decay—epitomized in probably my favorite part, a rapid camera zooming in to the spastic end chords of “No Place Like London”—seems more of the end of the century. This puts me much in mind of another project by the trio, the animated (and musical!) Corpse Bride. Admittedly when hearing of the film I was leery of how the musical aspect would translate onto screen; as much as I love musicals, by sheer fact of their existence they are not practical—they exist in a world of high emotion where either bursting into song on a street corner or singing in one’s head is convention. Sweeney Todd does both, more or less as well as any film musical I’ve seen.

I was impressed with Depp’s singing voice. As a member of Jack Sparrow’s harem, (if he had one) I knew Depp was up for the emotional side of a crazed man whom the world has treated badly (and yet recognizes “we should all die”). His voice is higher than most stage Todds; nevertheless, with or without the aid of recording wizardry, it’s quite smooth and generally equal to the vocal acrobatics (Todd does not require the range of a Phantom but Sondheim’s overlay of lyrics is sometimes challenging). I was also surprised at Helena Bonham Carter, who is younger than most stage Lovetts and whose voice was also of a different quality—yet she did a fine job in “My Friends.” I think in fact a younger Mrs. Lovett makes sense—she would have been quite young indeed when Benjamin Barker was carted off and therefore her crush would have been real, thus making the fact she doesn’t tell Todd about his wife more believable. Conversely Toby was played a lot younger than on stage. Though Alan Rickman was fine as Judge Turpin, I felt cheated at the presentation of deeper characterization only to be whisked away in the place of a real cardboard cut-out villain. Johanna was practically nonexistent though the actress sang “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” beautifully. What was the deal with Anthony?! Wonderful voice, but ineffectually androgynous. And his part was greatly reduced. More the pity. The real gem of the casting, however, was Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli. I loved that.

The story is bloody, and I knew it would be. At the same time, may I argue in favor of the stylized depictions of violence that the stage version would have, by necessity, presented us with? There were women laughing in the theatre as Todd eviscerated Turpin simply because the spurting blood looked so ridiculous. I imagine it’s Burton’s yen to shower us with as much blood as possible, but I almost think the Judge’s death would have been that much more powerful had we not seen the razors in all their glory beforehand. Also, two of my favorite songs were gone. “Kiss Me/ Ladies in Their Sensitivities” showed up in portions elsewhere, but just the few minutes of this song would have brought loads of depth to Anthony and Johanna. And the title song. Come on. I suppose it is very theatrical, and I am impressed at how Burton managed to run an instrumental version over the opening credits, but this song is the cornerstone of the entire production and I felt its loss very, very keenly. (To be honest, though if I’d heard it, I might have seen the Cybersofa of DOOOOOOM and Cybermen wailing, “Lumic, Lumic, Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuumic!”) And interestingly, “By the Sea,” a song I’d completely ignored in the stage version, was beautifully staged and just a nice bit of comedy all around.

Casanova in Love

As I’ve stated before, Casanova is one of my pet subjects, being the topic of two poems and a short story of mine. This was long before I saw the David Tennant movie, which I’ve finally seen and can comment upon.

As written by Russell T Davies, scored by Murray Gold, and populated with actors who all showed up in the second series of Doctor Who, one might say it’s all a dress rehearsal for the 10th Doctor’s reign. Performance-wise, I feel Tennant plays Casanova exactly as he would play the Doctor later—down to the Estuary accent (to be fair, it would seem rather strange for Casanova to have a Scottish accent, but IMHO, sexier). From what I know of the man, the Davies/Tennant characterization and Tennant’s physical appearance are about as dissimilar from the real Casanova as possible, except perhaps in the exuberant lust for life and the penchant for lying through his teeth that both Casanovas are seen to exhibit. (Casanova was more typically Italian in appearance, fairly robust and muscular, though if I remember rightly perhaps as tall as Tennant. And he had brown eyes, dammit, but don’t get me started on that rant.)

However, that isn’t to say this Casanova didn’t make me laugh, which the real one did too, and indeed Tennant was all charm, just as the real Casanova was. I could see Davies’ personal agendas oozing out of every facet of the story, in order for us to identify with and love Casanova. First off, yes, he was born poor to an actress and, I believe, an acrobat father, and indeed, he was seduced very young by a servant girl (Bettina Gozzi, I believe, was her name). The rags-to-riches story may be true, though not nearly as prominent as is portrayed. Henriette was certainly one of the great loves of his life. Bellino the castrato who was actually a girl was also factually-based, an entertaining facet of Casanova’s love-life just as portrayed in the movie (right down to Casanova sticking his hand down Bellino’s pants and finding “proof” of “his” manhood). Nina Sosnyana was quite delightful as this outrageous-but-true character.

Other lovers are referenced (condensed much as they were in the equivalent Love in the Time of Cholera) such as an allusion to drunken homosexuality, (in Turkey I believe) and impregnating several nuns. He did sleep with a couple sisters at once, (actually I rather liked this part of the movie; as my friend Patricia noted, the ‘MA’ warning appeared in the upper left of the screen at this point for a reason!). The Signor Bragadin incident was more or less true. He did leave Europe strewn with his bastard children (and you’d think after his childhood he would have tried harder to support them all, which the movie tries hard to justify by his bringing up his son by one of the nuns.) The duel with Grimaldi I think is true, though I can’t remember if it was over Henriette or not. I was very happy to see Casanova’s escape from Venetian prison handled more or less factually, as it’s one of the most exciting incidents of a very full life. The same is true of the French lottery, which he really did invent. And then gambled all his money away. He mentions Voltaire having written about him, when in reality he later met Voltaire (though as he says in the movie, he didn’t think much of the French writer).

The section in London really let me down, though, as it left out his escapade with La Charpillon, for whom he almost committed suicide (admittedly of interest to me since that’s what the short story was about). I was also not surprised to see Casanova’s brush with incest confined to his son and his daughter, rather than himself and his daughter (which was the case), and felt it a bit sanctimonious for the movie character to be so horrified. Also, Casanova’s deceptions and intrigues were shown mostly as playful and not hurtful, and while in general I would like to believe that, some, I think, could not be seen in such a positive light. In a way I felt Casanova was being portrayed as much a rebellious modern icon as Marie-Antoinette was in the Coppola film; the music and costumes, not to mention much of the direction and the fact Casanova was going around saying “oh bollocks,” were highly modern in some sections. (Still not sure what the point of Casanova being dressed in very modern cutting techniques was supposed to signify.) So in some sense I disapproved; I guess I was expecting an eighteenth-century more along the lines of the hyper-realism of Perfume. I was a bit annoyed, too, that all the characters were soooo shocked by everything, when, according to Julie Peakman in Lascivious Pleasures, Casanova’s tastes were “tame.”

On the other hand, it was a fun romp. The frame story was about as perfectly constructed as the fake-out at the beginning of Eric Saward’s “The Visitation”; that is to say, clever but almost too clever. O’Toole made a very good old Casanova, and again here was another reason to sympathize with him: he’s old, he’s a penniless librarian (which is how he ended his life), he’s still pining for Henriette. (While the movie didn’t go into this too much, he was still capable, physically and mentally, of seducing girls like the young and slightly annoying serving maid Edith. It’s almost like “Rose” all over—introduction to the mystifying male character through the view point of a young, sassy, sensitive girl.) Casanova was indeed writing his memoirs at this point, for which we are indebted to him, but I found myself getting highly impatient with the frame story and wanting to return to the young Casanova storyline!

I must, however, confess to a bit of disappointment despite the ever-present ‘MA’ warnings; I think David bared more in “Smith and Jones” than in this entire story, which is supposed to be all about sex! (That’s being disingenuous; the most I’ve seen him bare was in that photo in heat last year on the beach where they gave him the dubious title of one of the Worst Bodies of 2006.)
I have to admit it’s a bit frightening that an actor should go from a sex symbol to a children’s icon! I mean, he was very good at being charming but it was THE SAME character as the Doctor, and I was hoping for something a bit less cursory, I guess—with more layers?

I have to admit the production’s guts in trying to condense a life this big and bold into a mini-series, getting so many location shoots, so many extras in period costumes, all the dances, etc. Though I’ve not seen the Heath Ledger film, I understand its theme is the hardened Casanova falling in love with one woman, a theme shared with this film. Alas, I don’t think he would ever be happy with one woman, but it must be a popular notion. Ah, what the heck, despite my elevated commentary, I thought it was fun.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

An Opera Without a Phantom

“The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, of the superstition of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet . . . Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade.” --Gaston Leroux, Phantom of the Opera (2002 Modern Library Paperback Edition[1];translator DeMattos, I think, though the different editions is a discussion in itself)

“He’s [the Phantom] got low self-esteem, and he’s deformed—but who isn’t in one way or another? He’s never been hugged or kissed. So he does all the things people do when they feel they’re not good enough. He overcompensates. He manifests his talents in ego. He becomes clever and codependent.” --Kevin Gray (Phantom actor, Broadway)

“When someone has denied his own needs for that long, then the first attempts at getting them met can take every ounce of courage that can be mustered. And then, not getting those needs met isn’t even an option—anything that gets in the way can cause some pretty irrational, explosive reactions. The vulnerability beneath the facade of the seductive ‘angel of music’ is intense. . . .
“And speaking of hateful, another important key to the character is his own self-loathing. [Hal Prince] said, ‘You exist in a world where everyone hates you, but no one hates you as much as you do.’
--Thomas James O’Leary (Phantom actor, Broadway)

For a book whose whole basis is the supernatural, the entirety of Phantom of the Opera (1910) is rationally explainable.

One has to remember that, at heart, Gaston Leroux was a newspaper reporter. That’s where he had cut his teeth, and his dabbling in the legal profession probably left its mark. I think he tended to regard morbidity with humor, probably because of the fatedness he saw in his own birth in 1868 in a train station—which later became a funeral parlor. “I sought a cradle where I found a grave.” His experience reporting in Persia of course gives us the Persian elements—was the truly perverse torture chamber his own invention or did he know of such a thing in Tehran? It’s hard to say. From my own research into Origins, I know when the first telegraph wires were laid out in Tehran (1858), but that’s about it.

The settings are real. I’ve had the good fortune now of seeing two of the main settings, the Garnier Opera House in Paris and Perros-Guirec in Brittany (though I couldn’t find the exact cemetery mentioned in the book, I think I did find the beach where Raoul and Christine met circa 1870). The Garnier Opera house, begun in 1861, interrupted by the Paris Commune in 1871, and finally completed in 1873, is an excellent setting for both the “above-ground” scenes of glittering Belle Époque society and the sinister, Gothic domain of the “ghost.” The Opera is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, inside and out. But its chequered past as a Commune prison and the fact that, yes, there are several levels below ground and there is an underground lake make Leroux’s leaps of imagination just believable. So, too, of course, any deserted theatre after dark is just a bit spooky. Leroux also took inspiration from an event in the 1890s when a chandelier counterweight fell and killed an audience member.

When a teenager, Leroux met the then-pushing-60 diva Christine Nilsson, the Countess Casi de Miranda, at a party. She is thought to be the inspiration for the Swedish ingénue Christine Daaé. Adelina Patti, the Italian diva with a Swansea connection (!) is said to have inspired La Carlotta. But from whom did Leroux derive his anti-hero ghost? Erik’s name is Scandinavian, but “he said that he had no name and no country and that he had taken the name of Erik by accident.” It is suspected that Leroux may have been influenced both by the Dreyfus Case (1894; Leroux was at the trial) and George DuMaurier’s Trilby (1894) in the character of Svengali. There were rumors, apparently, of a ghost during the construction of the opera house. Recent phans have tried to a) insist there was a worker on the opera house fitting Erik’s description; b) that an Erik can be found in the de Chagny family tree. It’s fun for the phiction writer to suppose these things, but frankly I don’t think they’re giving Leroux’s imagination enough credit!

What is certain, however, is that Erik is a human, not a supernatural manifestation, unlike, say, Dracula, who is clearly not human. “I am not an Angel, nor a spirit, nor a ghost . . . I am Erik!” It has been put forth in the past twenty years of literary criticism that Gothic horror comes in two types, the “male” wherein the horrors are real and the result is generally depressing and demoniacal, and the “female,” where the terrors are greatly exaggerated and often the products of an overactive imagination, where virtue triumphs and, like fairy tales, a moral lesson is proven. (They are so-named because the former is generally the domain of male writers like Louis Stevenson, Lewis, Stoker, and Wilde. The latter is mostly explained by Anne Radcliffe’s novels of the late eighteenth century.) Though written by a man, it is hard to say Phantom is “male” Gothic horror because all events—except the exceptions I’ll get to—can be rationally explained.

The ghost is not a ghost. From the beginning, the corps de ballet, the superstitious diva La Sorelli (who Leroux slyly hints is a tramp), firemen, the usher Madame Giry, and the unfortunate Joseph Buquet all attribute supernatural powers to the “phantom” or “ghost” (depending on your translation). This is because they hear him without seeing him, when they see him he looks inhuman, and since he is usually encountered underground, it seems unlikely anyone but a ghost could survive in such conditions. It is only until the end of the story that Leroux reveals all of Erik’s tricks (naturally so, otherwise, where’s the suspense??).

First of all, he has extraordinary abilities as a ventriloquist. In the rather ridiculous chapters “The Singular Attitude of a Safety-Pin” and “The Safety-Pin Again,” which seem to exist entirely to baffle and poke fun at opera management, we find the true extent of Erik’s impressive, but entirely human, powers. This is also how he seduces Christine, but instead of a ghost, the rather naïve ingénue believes the Voice comes from heaven. This explains, too, how he causes Carlotta to “croak,” by giving her a drug to make her lose her voice and then substituting his own. The exciting disappearances and legerdemain perfected by Erik are theatrical tricks, no more. Secondly, having built his home in the foundations of the Opera, Erik knows the entire above- and below-stage areas very well and even the rooftop! Thirdly, Erik is in physical appearance like a skeleton (contrary to acid-splashing and hunk-burn versions in the films). There are several theories as to exactly what medical condition Leroux was referring to (if any). The one I find most convincing is porphyria, which some say is responsible for myths of vampirism. Others have cited syphilis, since he has no nose!

Erik may not be a ghost, but he is probably a murderer. He is at least indirectly responsible for Joseph Buquet’s death. Joseph Buquet shows up hanging from some scenery early in the book, an apparent suicide. Erik’s nemesis the Daroga
[3] thinks otherwise; he recognizes the handiwork of the “Punjab lasso.” Buquet stumbled into Erik’s ingenious but horrible torture chamber and died by suicide or was killed by Erik. The concierge who is killed by the chandelier is Erik’s responsibility as well, though he protests to the Daroga that the cables were “old.” Count Philippe, Raoul’s older brother, is killed while crossing the underground lake; this is one of the shady areas I will get to later. According to the Daroga, Erik killed many in Persia to entertain his patron the “little sultana.” At the height of madness brought on by betrayal and jealousy, Erik plots to kill the Daroga and Raoul, and it is only by Christine’s courage that he does not succeed.

These are Erik’s crimes. One has to wonder how much of his seduction of Christine was her naiveté and how much was his manipulating her. No doubt she truly wished to believe in the Angel of Music, but it was he who approached her through her dressing room mirror. To be fair, he did “help” her achieve greatness in the opera company. His tour-de-force is a violin serenade in a cemetery in Perros-Guirec, one of the creepiest and yet one of my favorite scenes from the book. Erik plays The Resurrection of Lazarus waltz while seeming to appear out of a mass of skulls. Even Raoul, who is, by his own admission, “a good Catholic,” is at a loss to explain this rationally: “She knelt down by her father’s grave, made the sign of the cross and began to pray. At that moment, it struck midnight. . . . if Christine’s Angel had existed, he could not have played better, that night, on the late musician’s violin. . ..
“Q: Did it not occur to you that the musician might be hiding behind that very heap of bones?
“A: It was the one thought that did occur to me . . . I saw a terrible death’s head . . .and in the presence of this unearthly apparition, my heart gave way, my courage failed me.”
In addition to everything else, Erik is an accomplished musician and singer.

The entire book is permeated with a vein of ultra-realism. The Prologue and Epilogue assert to the reader “The Opera Ghost really did exist.” The narrator got his story from the Daroga, who got it from the principal players of the story, bit by bit. There are official reports, interviews, letters, and other “documents” persuading us to believe the story is true. With so many rational explanations, how can we not? There are three things that cast a shade of the macabre and inexplicable “male” Gothic horror, and these are the rat-catcher, the siren, and the Shade.

The siren, it appears, is a defense mechanism employed by Erik around the underground lake; according to the Daroga: “Had I been inclined to superstition, I should have certainly thought that it had to do with some siren whose business it was to confound the traveler who should venture on the waters of the house on the lake. . . . But this invention was so perfect that, as I leaned out of the boat, I was impelled less by a desire to discover its trick than to enjoy its charm; and I leaned out, leaned out until I almost overturned the boat.” How exactly this works and whether it is mechanical or human (Erik himself) I’ve never been able to figure out, even through the original French and several translations. My best visualization is from the Lon Chaney version in the film from 1927.

Now, a rat-catcher would seem like a good idea. However, the way Leroux describes this entity is among the most surreal and frightening parts of the book: “A head of fire came toward them, at a man’s height, but with no body attached to it. the face shed fire, looked in the darkness, like a flame shaped as a man’s face.” As if that’s not bad enough: “And the little waves passed between their legs, climbing up their legs, irresistibly, and Raoul and the Persian could no longer restrain their cries of horror, dismay and pain. . . . ‘Don’t move! Don’t move! Whatever you do, don’t come after me! I am the rat-catcher! Let me pass, with my rats!’” If that doesn’t seem slightly supernatural, I don’t know what does. I wish they’d accomplished it a bit more terrifyingly in the stage play! (All of this is a bit like Orpheus descending into the Underworld!)

Finally, the most confusing of Leroux’s little winks at the reader: “ . . . A shadow that did not carry a lantern . . . a shadow in shadow passed . . .
“It came near enough to touch them.
“They felt, on their faces, the warmth of its body . . .
“They could see enough to distinguish a coat that enveloped the Shade from head to toe. It wore a hat of soft felt.
“It stretched, running its foot along the wall and sometimes, in the corners, kicking them”
(my translation).
Leroux says: “The reader must try to guess for himself, for I promised . . . to keep secret regarding the extremely interesting and useful personality of the wandering, cloaked, Shade which, while condemning itself to live in the cellars of the Opera, rendered such immense services to those who, on gala evenings, for instance venture to stray away from the stage. I am speaking of state services; and upon my word of honor, I can say no more.” Why no one has ever written a book about this I don’t know.

So, as a ghost story, Phantom of the Opera is something of a failure! There are no ghosts in Leroux’s world. Why, then, does it not disappoint? I venture to say because the Gothic machinery is so richly imagined, from the Poe-like Red Death scenes at the Shrovetide Ball, to the Faustian overtones of Méphistophèles on stage and the Phantom in the wings. Its strange, almost convoluted (Andrew Lloyd Webber thought so) structure and narrative forms make it an oddity—is it an adventure story? A romance? A detective story? Who is the hero? Raoul? Erik? Christine? Listing all of Erik’s vices makes me slightly uncomfortable to declare that compassion for his character is the main reason for my obsession.

At the end of the story, Leroux gives his ghost origins, too—the son of a mason in Rouen, Erik’s mother rejected him from birth and made him his first mask. Exhibition in a freak show followed; Susan Kay in her “prequel” Phantom makes explicit the degradations and abuse suffered by the theoretical Erik as a certain outcast to humanity; think of the Elephant Man. But Joseph Merrick didn’t go around snapping people’s necks with the Punjab lasso: “Thinking himself beyond the pale of humanity, [Erik] was restrained by no scruples and he employed his extraordinary gifts of dexterity and imagination, which he had received by way of compensation for his extraordinary ugliness, to prey upon is fellow men.” Nevertheless, we are exhorted by the narrator to show pity: “Poor, unhappy Erik! Shall we pity him? Shall we curse him? He asked only to be ‘some one,’ like everybody else. But he was too ugly! . . . He had a heart that could have held the empire of the world . . . Ah, yes, we must needs pity the Opera ghost.” It is easy, of course, to see the Opera ghost in one’s own self: the part that is, we think, too ugly to be loved.

He is a fascinating character, this fake ghost. As Kay makes explicit, what Erik suffers most from is not ostracization and abuse, but total lack of love, especially, we are led to believe, romantic love. The book is chock full of Christian imagery, from the Faustian overtones to the Lazarus references to the ultra-redeeming kiss of compassion he receives from Christine (on the forehead in the book; in the musical, it’s on the mouth, which is much more visually powerful). The musical capitalizes on all this, making the Phantom both pitiable and suave, sexy and damaged, musically lithe and, in the movie, something of a vigilante. Clearly this leads many viewers to be seduced, ironically in the same manner as Christine. I suppose I was.

For a failed ghost story, Phantom has proved massively resilient. Of course, it is based in some ways on a very, very old myth (Beauty and the Beast or, further back, Cupid and Psyche). The musical is huge, still going strong in London after twenty years, and breaking records on Broadway; there are new editions of the book coming out all the time. There have been plays and other musical spin offs, novels, comic books, not to mention the 10+ film versions. It recurs often in Doctor Who, especially when Robert Holmes is involved! So far, to my knowledge, the only analytical study of the book is by Jerrold Hogle, with whom I disagree on a number of key points, finding his analysis over-Freudian. However, it seems evident to me that if I can write a five-page paper off the top of my head on only some of its themes, it deserves to go up there in the canon with Dracula and The Castle of Otranto as multi-layered Gothic horror.

[1] All the following quotes are from this edition unless otherwise noted.
[2] In Chambéry, France, where I lived for five months, I saw a man with no nose. I am not sure if this was a medical condition or an injury related to accident or violence (George Perry suggests Leroux drew inspiration from World War I veterans who came back with reconstructed faces due to war wounds). So Leroux’s giving Erik these physical attributes is not as far-fetched as it initially sounds.
[3] Persian chief of police.

The Sparrow

I believe in God the way I believe in quarks. People whose business it is to know about quantum physics or religion tell me they have good reason to believe that quarks and God exist. And they tell me that if I wanted to devote my life to learning what they’ve learned, I’d find quarks and God just like they did.

I just finished Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, another recommendation from Simon Guerrier. I’m not going to review it in the detailed fashion I’ve used before simply because at this point I’m too lazy, and I don’t want to give the majority of the plot away. Suffice it to say I really enjoyed it and consider it one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read. The author’s profession is as a paleoanthropologist, which may beg the question: can she write a decent fiction book? The answer is she must be a voracious reader taking note of all the elements that make good fiction, as she nails them all, along with an impressive grounding in astronomy, physics, social and physical anthropology, and linguistics—it’s enough to make one’s head spin. (And while, as a former academic, she gives a semi-bibliographic listing, I’d like to have a longer, more detailed list of her inspiration.) She has a great idea, truly memorable characters, excellent pacing (for the most part), and attacks the huge, overarching themes of human life.

The story takes place in the near future, with one end of it being the result (Naples 2060) and the other being the cause (2019), meeting up nicely in the center and suspending suspense in a very artful way. The premise is unbeatable—intelligent life is discovered on a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, and a mission of four Jesuit priests, an astronomer, a doctor, an engineer, and a computer expert is sent to make first contact—though people I’ve told the story to have scoffed at the convenience of intelligent life in such a near (relatively-speaking) system. To quote another book I recently finished, Doctor Who Completely Unofficial Encyclopedia, this could just be a case of Whirling Fans (ie, just accept that it is the way it is).

What are really impressive, however, are the characters. Russell gives excellent characterizations that a) make you sympathize with the characters, almost right away; b) make them real, whole, three-dimensional. There aren’t enough words to describe the title character, Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico, a scholarship boy, a frustrated lover, a linguist, full of humor and humanity, without just reading the book. (Interestingly Russell reveals he is not based on anyone she knows, but I actually know someone he reminds me of.) I’m also very impressed by Anne Edwards, a fifty-something physician; I feel like I know her, or I know someone like her, even though the author says she is partly autobiographical. (Here are two sides to her: “What’s an ionosphere?” Anne asked. Jimmy gaped at her. “Sorry. I’ve heard the word but I don’t know what it is, really. I’m a doctor, Jim, not an astronomer!” and the title quote.) There’s her husband, George, who I also feel I know, an engineer and sort of jack-of-all-trades. (Their zesty sex life leads to much amusement.) There’s Jimmy Quinn, a giant Chicago astronomer who likes to get along with people, who tries to find ways to please his parents, his teachers, his buddies, his girlfriends. Marc Robichaux, a French-Canadian Jesuit artist, who I can see very clearly and even hear cursing in Québecquois (I can’t understand French-Canadians in English or French). D.W. Yarborough, a Texan who reminds me of several Texan friends rolled into one. John Candotti, Edward Behr, Alan Pace—all Jesuits, all good characters. Sofia Mendes, a Sephardic Jew in “intellectual prostitution” and loved by all—though curiously I found her the least convincing character.

Though the book is in parts very funny (it even quotes The Princess Bride), it’s also dark, serious, and disturbing. I thought what a wonderful film this would make, how rich these characters would be, what a succulent challenge for designers, directors, artists, but I realized this will never get made. The Christian Right, for one, would have a heart attack, perhaps the Vatican would too, and others surely would find the revelation at the end too upsetting, and in general the story too bleak. The ending was certainly bleaker than I had imagined, and my one criticism is that as the destructive elements of the climax were set in motion, it was too rushed—not that I want to dwell on the violent and humiliating aspects of this section, I just felt since the rest of the book was so well-paced, this sudden acceleration was a bit sloppy. The book is a response, in some ways, to the revisionist views on the Columbian contact dating from 1992 (which we explored in depth in my class Inventing America)—though I wonder how far the parallel with the Arawak, Taino, Lumbee, and other native groups and the alien Runa and Jana’ata can go.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera

At last I finished the book, which I began in September, nearly finished, then had to return to the library, and in between saw the film. I was rather relieved to find A Hundred Years of Solitude to have preceded this book. I make no secret of the fact I found Solitude to be sprawling and a bit too wild for my tastes. But now that I see that Garcia Márquez’s talents culminated in LitToC, I feel better for not having appreciated Solitude more. I appreciate LitToC, and in fact it rather gives me a warm fuzzy feeling when I think about it.

Part of that, I think, is my realization that Márquez is at the crossroads of Naturalism and Magical Realism. He records the minutiae of daily life in a way reminiscent of Dreiser and, more recently, Kundera, the unimportant facts that add up to a whole. At the same time, his worlds are fantastic and chivalrous, impossible things happen in them. This was definitely true of Solitude, but I think what solidifies better in LitToC is because its central theme is one love story. For dramatic purposes I think this works better than the chaos of Solitude.

And what a love story it is. What I think is remarkable about Márquez is his ability to capture a person’s actions and thoughts from age 18 all the way to age 70, and all the variations in between. I myself find it very difficult to write any character older than I am, so I think Márquez has time’s advantage, but at the same time, it’s definitely a talent I could never cultivate. His lovers are Colombians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, separated initially by class, then by marriage and sheer stubbornness. The exquisiteness of first love, or adolescent infatuation if you prefer, is well-captured, in a way that slightly makes fun of us at our tender age: Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them. . . . What is unique about their case draws parallels to Dante and all the Provençal troubadours: Moreover, from the moment they saw each other for the first time until he reiterated his determination a half century later, they never had the opportunity to be alone or talk about their love. Whatever you may think of the two protagonists personally, there is a part of the reader rooting for them to get together. I dare you to read it and not root for them.

Fermina in fact shares in common with Sally Lockhart some supreme bitchiness. Obviously when her father takes her away to prevent her marriage to Florentino, she’s to be sympathized with. Even before this, however, it’s clear her love, if you want to call it that, is of a different level than Florentino’s: . . . it was also her nature that caused her letters to avoid emotional pitfalls and confine themselves to relating these events of her daily life in the utilitarian style of a ship’s log. When she gets back from exile with her cousin Hildebranda, her youthful, Juliet-like qualities inspire hope in the reader—She no longer thought of him as the impossible sweetheart but as the certain husband to whom she belonged heart and soul—that Florentino’s long-standing passion will be rewarded. This isn’t the case, of course, and into Fermina’s life strolls Dr. Urbino.

Márquez takes pains, I think, to make Dr. Urbino, who Fermina marries of course, as interesting a character as the other two, which is a very good stratagem for a love triangle (think of Éponine, Cosette, and Marius or Christine, Erik, and Raoul . . . on second thought, in both of those examples there is a weaker character . . . perhaps a better analogy is Kim, Chris, and What’s-her-name in Miss Saigon). Dr. Urbino is quite interesting and “does” more than Florentino, and he certainly loves Fermina. At the same time, I never quite get over the initial impression that he’s a chump (much as I feel with Raoul, though I have gained considerable sympathy for him over the years). Nevertheless, in getting to know Dr. Urbino, Márquez often illustrates for us some of his most lyrical passages, including what is possibly my favorite in the book: In Paris, strolling arm in arm with a casual sweetheart through a late autumn, it seemed impossible to imagine a purer happiness than those golden afternoons, with the woody odor of chestnuts on the braziers, the languid accordions, the insatiable lovers kissing on the open terraces, still he had told himself with his hand on his heart that he was not prepared to exchange all that for a single instant of his Caribbean in April. He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. Márquez’s other talent, obviously, is in his beautiful descriptive passages which often contain a good deal of wisdom. The above is an excellent example of that.

Interestingly, Florentino’s seduction on a riverboat anticipates or mirrors Oscar Hopkins’ seduction—actually, rape—in Peter Carey’s wonderful Oscar and Lucinda. Men being forced to give up their virginity is so rare in fiction, it does make quite an impression, especially since in both cases the woman’s taking advantage is rather whirlwind, unromantic, and even violent. It’s interesting that both of these seductions can only be related in the nineteenth-century, and both of them on boats (well, almost). Florentino next begins his grand saga of having sex with any woman he feels like (if she feels the same, and most do) while still remaining true to Fermina in his mind at least. Whether I feel he actually is being true is something I seesaw about. He makes the very good comment, “My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse.” Does Márquez imply that consensual sex for sex’s sake (or love if you want to call it that) is fine since it makes us feel happy? Why hold back? This would seem to correspond to another good quote, He had taught her that nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love.

If so, what purpose does the long chase after Fermina serve? How can one love surmount other loves? How can there be monogamy in the midst of plurality? I’m not sure Márquez ever answers this question to my satisfaction, but he at least raises in my mind the possibility that it can be both at the same time. Not to the point I’m going to start having sex with everyone I fancy and try to remain true to one love, but it has made me think. I’m impressed with the way Márquez understands love in all its quirks and follies, much like I was with The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I have felt the way Florentino does here: Once his revenge was consummated, however, he repented of his own wickedness; and here, That idea broke his heart, but he did nothing to suppress it; on the contrary, he took pleasure in his pain; but also Fermina here, for better or for worse, [Florentino Ariza] was the only thing that had ever happened to her in her life.

While Fermina has her difficulties with a long, volatile marriage and an unfaithful husband, Florentino continues his conquests, whom Márquez describes in loving detail (one suspects with a grain of personal knowledge!). Two who made an impression on my mind were Leona Cassini and América Vicuña. The former reminds me a bit of the woman in My Girl Friday, tough, practical, at work in an office, sort of a best-friend-with-benefits to Florentino who he calls his “lion lady.” One thing I didn’t appreciate much about her background was that she apparently very much enjoyed being raped. Um, no. América was also a bit shocking, being school-age with Florentino as her elderly sugar daddy. I’m sorry, but I can’t regard this as anything but pedophilia, even if they loved each other. I get the sense throughout the book that Márquez does not wish to make judgments on love between anyone, young, old, or a combination of the two. I thought América’s story interesting, but I had to be a Puritanical schoolmarm and tut about it.

The real joy of this book is at the end, when Florentino is finally able to renew his suit to Fermina. I have to say I’m a sucker unrequited for love and feel vastly for men who are on the unrequited end, ie, Erik the Phantom, so analyzing myself, I can see the truth in this statement, of why so many women fawned over Florentino: No man was better company because no other man in the world was so in need of love. One really lovely scene was at an outdoor film—ironically, the setting for an important scene in The English Patient—where Florentino is sitting near the distant object of his affections, can hear her speak, and is just flooded with love and happiness. I melted. On the other hand, I was a bit skeptical when Dr. Urbino comes in a vision to Fermina to say, “But when a woman decides to sleep with a man, there is no wall she will not scale, no fortress she will not destroy, no moral consideration she will to ignore at its very root.” Thinking about it again, however, I think it is true for many women, if not all.

Again, Márquez is adept at capturing love even in the evening of life, and I love this commentary on the contrary nature of all of us, on our being shy and wanting the other person to be bolder: Fermina Daza had spent the entire afternoon wondering what stratagems Florentino Ariza would use to see her without knocking at her cabin door, and by eight o’clock she could no longer bear the longing to be with him. The end couldn’t be more romantic and life-affirming, much more so than the end to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. For they had lived together long enough to know love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

I know the prevailing attitude is don’t judge a book by its film, but I thought quite highly of Mike Newell’s film for a book many said couldn’t be filmed. The opening sequence quite caught my eye, it was sort of a chalk drawing of a Colombian jungle, very stylized—the Magical Realism bit, I think. What the film did that the book did not, I felt, was really show the beauty of Colombia in eye-popping grandeur. (Also it made it look dirty, dusty, humid, and full of cholera. :-P ) Shakira on the soundtrack helped a lot in this regard. I was hoping the film would show us some of Paris and a ride in a hot air balloon; alas it didn’t, but the scenes in Hildebranda’s home and on the river were spectacular.

I was impressed that the film opened the way the book did, with Dr. Urbino’s death, then tell the story in a sort of circle from near-end to beginning, middle, and end—I love when films do that. Casting has been an issue for the film in reviews. Benjamin Bratt, I think, was cast as Dr. Urbino mostly because of his good looks and the fact he’s a popular actor who happens to be Hispanic (I’m being cynical but I think it’s the truth; he was on the talk shows, not the other two stars). But he did as much as I think he could with the role. I didn’t find [the Italian actress] to look anything like I saw Fermina, and I wasn’t quite convinced on her acting, though I felt she did the “old” Fermina quite well. Both [one] and [two] were outstanding as Florentino, just a joy to watch, completely as I saw him in the book.

Florentino’s conquests are understandably condensed for the purposes of the film and become a point of much-needed humor. I think the funniest moment was on the boat after he had been seduced by the lady in the Mompox sleeves. Having stood in front of her cabin door the night before and having been seduced, he shuffles in front of the door once, twice, three times, walking off not a little disappointed! Leona Cassini is completely left out, fairly understandable, but everything about América Vicuña remains, aside from one important detail. In general I was quite impressed at how faithful to the book the script stayed; there was the Widow Nazaret and the outrageous lady poet who sucks on a pacifier. There was the wonderful moment when Fermina and Hildebranda get their photos taken in antique costume (so visual; it was crying out to be filmed), revived in a beautiful flashback later when Florentino discovers the fading photo in a junk shop.

I think there’s a valid reason that films condense the time between Scrooge’s waking from his ghostly visitation and buying Christmas goose and stuff from one year to a few hours: it’s dramatically more involving. In the case of the film of Love in the Time of Cholera, I am glad the decision was made to condense the period between Florentino’s renewed proposal and Fermina’s accepting of him as a companion. Of course it’s truer to her character in the book, but so much more satisfying as it is on screen. I was also impressed at the way the film did not shirk from showing love between two 70+ people, a taboo subject in our world, which even Fermina’s daughter considers “revolting”—the film’s bold enough to show Florentino and Fermina’s well-deserved consummation after fifty years in fairly graphic detail. What made me honest-to-God cry was when Florentino and Fermina finally kiss on their riverboat.

If the amount I’ve had to say about this is any indication, I enjoyed the book and film. I do have to wonder, as I always do when I read books in translation, about how well it translated. In general I think it is pretty flowing and succinct, but occasionally the translation feels awkward. I wish my Spanish was good enough to read it in the original!

The Mouse and His Child


My first exposure to Russell Hoban would have been through his Frances books, about a domestic badger, when I was quite small. I didn’t realize The Mouse and His Child was by the same author; the book came highly recommended. The New York Times makes the obvious parallels with the works of Tolkien and E.B. White, and that’s what this is: a children’s book with layers of meaning for adults.

I found the beginning, in a toy shop after dark, quite reminiscent of another children’s book, The Story of Holly and Ivy. Like that book, there is a definite, hostile toy hierarchy, where toys are allowed to speak before dawn. The book opens and closes at Christmas, and I’m reminded how very many children’s stories revolve around toys. Think of Ralphie’s childish awe at the department store, with all its requisite toys, in A Christmas Story. Or the strange Isle of the Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or considerably earlier, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, transformed into The Nutcracker.

In The Story of Holly and Ivy, Holly was a doll. The protagonists of The Mouse and His Child are the eponymous pair, wind up toys who dance in an interminable circle (at least until misfortune befalls them). The book cover blurb mentions the strange endurance of the images from the book, aided no doubt by the both gritty and charming illustrations by David Small: the tin mouse pair in their velveteen suits, the wise and foolish Frog wearing an old glove, a rather Fagin-like rat named Manny in paisley silk, and the tramp and his little dog Bonzo, hovering over the entire tale with a hint of not-altogether-beneficent omnipotence. Even with animals and toys as its principal players, the satire and worldliness of adulthood is rarely far from the text. The dolls in the department store dollhouse are vapid and can only spout stories from their newspaper components: “Bucket seats,” remarked the gentleman next to her. “Power steering optional. GOVERNMENT FALLS.”

At first, the Mouse and Child’s existence is that of a typical toy’s, until they are thrown out “into the world.” This is when the adventure becomes rather Tolkien-like, with their narrative driven by survival and a quest: in their case, to find the dollhouse, elephant, and seal from the toy shop. There is such an uncompromising look at the randomness of violence—I was a bit shocked, to be honest, that the Mouse and Child laugh at the death of a stupid, mean rat named Ralphie, even though his death gets them closer to their goal. The height of this grim outlook occurs during the savage battle of the shrews, which says much on the nature of war and futility of territory: “This is a nice territory,” said the female [weasel]. . . . their heads were so close together that when the horned owl swooped down out of the moonlight his talons pierced both brains at once.
“My land,” wheezed the owl . . .

A rather less interesting section of the book is a somewhat trite indictment of actors, audiences, and critics. This is quickly followed by an eccentric Muskrat, pond adventures with a tiresome turtle and an engaging, Ugly Duckling figure named Miss Mudd. It is here that the Mouse and Child take the initiative in determining their own fates (even though they are “only wind ups”): “If I’m big enough to stand in the mud all this time and contemplate infinity,” said the child, “I’m big enough to look at the other side of nothing.”

The Mouse and Child’s journey develops them beyond the scope of your ordinary toy. After they’ve literally hit bottom, former uneasy allies who considered betrayal are there to help the mice topple Manny Rat’s reign over the junkyard. So, despite an unpromising beginning their story actually ends happily. Manny Rat’s defeat and rehabilitation are as miraculous as that of the Bumble in Rudolph, in more than one way, though I like that it’s less than permanent, in Manny Rat’s case.

I like, too, that the snobbish toys of the dollhouse, particularly the elephant, learn through hardship to be less self-important. The elephant, indeed, consents to be the Child’s mother: “He has come to admire—more than that, to love—someone so far above him that he dare not hope she will reciprocate his feelings,” says the Mouse to the elephant.
“Ah!” said the elephant. “Though perhaps a little taller, she has never really been above him.”
(In this magical world, elephants and mice are at the same scale.)

Of course, toy awareness even in Hoban’s world is different than ours—sitting without speaking in a box for four years is tedious but endurable and one’s parts being undone results in fainting, not death. (I suppose a little like when Data’s deactivated in Star Trek?) I have to tell you I hated Animal Farm, but this anthropomorphizing of animals and toys has profound things to tell us. “We aren’t toys anymore,” said the father. “Toys are to be played with, and we aren’t We have endured all that Frog foretold—the painful spring, the shattering fall, and more.” To my relief, the Mouse and Child remain father and son throughout their tribulations: “Our motor is in me,” says the Mouse. “He fills the empty space inside himself with foolish dreams that cannot possibly come true.” I suppose I feel like that sometimes!

On the whole, an entertaining, profound book for children and adults alike.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Shadow in the North/Brand on the Brain

Pretty in a strange way, half English—the blond hair, the trim figure, the neat, practical clothes—and half not: the dark brown eyes, the air of decision and intelligence and boldness. The Americans had girls like this.

I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed the first book in this series by Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke. Pullman’s name is much in the news now for the His Dark Materials series, but I doubt those books could be better than the Sally Lockhart trilogy.

In the intervening six years since The Ruby in the Smoke, the impressively mature and resourceful sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart has grown up to run her own financial consultant business—unlikely but possible in 1878 (so Inventing the Victorians would seem to suggest). Many of the characters from the first book are back, including photographer Fred Garland and jack-of-all trades Jim Taylor, but Fred’s sister Rosa was sorely missed. The crush between Sally and Fred from the first book has bloomed into all-out love on Fred’s part, though Sally spends most of the book acting like a total bitch. In everything else I can sympathize with her, but her attitude toward Fred seems inexcusable. (Perhaps because I’ve always been on the unrequited side of these things.) Or perhaps I’m a bit too hard on Sally; maybe it’s a case like that of Jo March and “Laurie” Lawrence in Little Women. Still, I think Fred’s hit the nail on the head here: “You think I’m no different from anyone, man or woman. There’s you and there’s the rest of us, and we’re all inferior—”

The plot is every bit as intriguing and complex as in the first book, both wonderfully old-fashioned and strikingly relevant. There are fake mediums being exposed with photographic techniques (though Pullman doesn’t discount psychometry), intrigues with steam companies, Russian manufacture, Scots law, and some clearly well-thought-out logistics. Sally and her friends must unravel the connections between Lady Mary Wytham, her marriage, her bankrupt father, a medium called Nellie Budd and her music hall performer sister, the sinking of the Ingrid Linge and a mysterious firm called North Star. I thought myself most clever when I anticipated one plot twist, only to find it was a red herring anyway. I’ll never be able to write mysteries.

As usual, Pullman has created some really interesting characters. Top of the list is Alistair Mackinnon, a slippery, cowardly, deceitful yet charismatic magician. I felt his character somewhat disappointed toward the end, but in general, he completely defied easy categorization. So, too, did Axel Bellmann, Sally’s arch-nemesis and the mastermind of North Star. An attractive, powerfully-built Swede, intelligent, charismatic, he reminded me a bit of Ellsworth Toohey from The Fountainhead: “Once enough of them have been built, wars will come to an end, and civilization will develop in peace and harmony for the first time in the history of the world.” Isabel Meredith is a bit pitiful in the end, but she, too, as a seamstress with a birthmark suffering from unrequited love, is quite interesting.

I don’t remember The Ruby in the Smoke being especially violent but now I think back on it, it probably was. The sequel certainly is, with two intense, extremely painful deaths I’d better not give away. Both made me extremely angry with Pullman for killing his characters off! I’m a bit disturbed, too, at the way both Jim and Fred launch themselves into fights, getting themselves quite physically beat up, even if it is in the name of justice. (The Doctor would not have approved.) Perhaps even worse than Jim and Fred’s fights is a scene of complete devastation enacted against Isabel Meredith; this is almost physically painful to read.

It goes without saying, I guess, that despite the snipping back and forth, Sally and Fred get back together. What is surprising, however, is amount of sensuality Pullman is able to pull off in a young adult book—“He seized her in the doorway and crushed her to him, and she came without hesitation, and they kissed more passionately now than they’d done earlier; but it could only last a second or two.” Parts of the book were intensely dreamlike, especially the end sequence, and Jim’s almost unbelievable, but brief, liaison with Lady Mary.

Speaking of the ending, it left me rather floored. It’s hard to describe without giving the plot away, but I feel alternately awed by the author’s skill—a scene between Bellmann and Sally is almost Richard III-like—and a bit unwilling to accept it. There was also an aspect of it that felt too pasted on, but I am certainly going to find the third book in the trilogy and will read more of Pullman’s work. This is more than a mere young adult novel.

I saw a very unusual film by Guy Maddin on Sunday called Brand on the Brain. You might think this is a Supersize Me-type film (actually, such a one, called King Corn, was advertised before the film—this is at one of Albuquerque’s art film houses, the Guild) but you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact it was a strange, dream-like evocation of silent films, but subversive, as the best Gothic horror is. My dad took me to it, claiming it was like Gothic horror—I was afraid it would be like City of the Lost Children, the French film I saw five years ago and did not like at all.

While I think the film could have benefited from judicious pruning (not unlike most every Doctor Who serial made) in techniques it was breathtaking. Filmed in black-and-white, silent (aside from narration by Isabella Rosselini and some interesting sound effects), with weird, grainy views that appeared to be through keyholes, splicing, title cards, (though I didn’t think much of the font used for these) and a division into twelve chapters—with a break for information on the “Aerophone”—it boggles my mind. How did this look on the page? I’ve never seen a script for a silent film (though it occurs to me the 1927 Phantom script should be in one of my books). How did Maddin manage to cram all these visions for angles, cuts, setting up of shots, superimposition of images, in his head?

The story, while not uniformly as breathtaking as the technical side, was still fairy-tale-wonderful and certainly appealed both to the 1920s fan and the Gothic horror fan in me. Half-fable, half-horror, with enough psychological subtext of violence and sexuality to entertain Jerrold Hogle for hours, there was a grim kind of humor in its weirdness—at least I thought so, sometimes I was the only one in the theatre laughing. Set on an isolated island in a lighthouse, the story is told in flashback from the adult hero, also named Guy Maddin, when he returns. The lighthouse housed an orphanage run by Guy’s parents, his overly-affectionate but strangely excessive Mother, and his inventor father, who works in a basement lab and looks like Viktor Frankenstein. Guy’s sister, Sis, is styled after the 1920s girl-next-door; she has a knack for getting undressed. Visiting the island is one half of a detective pair, I suppose like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, or later, the Boxcar Children: Wendy Hale.

The actress playing Wendy gives a tour-de-force as, not only does she vamp it up as the object of Guy’s affections, she also cross-dresses to seduce Sis, disguised as her brother Chance Hale, and looks androgynously attractive as both (a bit like Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto!). The cross-dressing thing alludes back to The Picture of Dorian Gray and Shakespeare, of course, though by the end I suspect it’s just an excuse to get two women to kiss repeatedly (and they do a bit more than that). However, the two women look so striking on celluloid, this heterosexual female can mostly deal with the lesbian overkill on the part of the director. But the film doesn’t shirk at the idea of getting men naked, too—the eldest of the orphans, Savage Tom, seems to indulge in some sort of Lord of the Flies fantasy. And don’t even ask about the father.

The mother we are never sure is entirely evil, despite her implication in the twisted mystery of how the orphans get holes in their heads (very Gothic). The images of her in the lighthouse, spying on her children and the orphans, seem very primal. The Aerophone, by the way, is an invention of Guy’s father, which acts like a radio except it only works if the broadcaster is in a state of high passion. This produces many instances of Guy being called to dinner by his mother’s angry, screaming voice. The film is so strange and melancholy, it draws a thousand comparisons in my mind of things I’ve seen before. This may seem like a bad thing, but in fact the references are so disparate, the film actually stands out quite a bit.

Inventing the Victorians

It was inevitable I would one day pick up Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know About Them and Why We’re Wrong because my interests tend toward that direction anyway. I’m glad, though, I was able to read it now when I have time to digest it. The research is impressive, the level of analysis keen, and it sticks to its thesis solidly, setting it apart from other general interest (but still excellent) historical studies like Liza Picard’s Elizabeth’s London, Maureen Waller’s 1700: Scenes from a London Life and Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of Great Fire of London. Maybe it’s best first to announce my own “credentials” (or rather, I suppose, prejudices):

Victorian things that interest me and I have studied and the works they have produced
Mesmerism/hypnotism/spiritualism (The Mesmerist, a radio play)
Murderers (such as Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, Jack the Ripper, and death masks of the same) (“Frailty,” a poem, "The Code," a short story) particularly women murderers (Kate Webster, the Liverpool black widows, Madeline Smith & Adelaide Bartlett) (“A Visit to the Waxworks” a paper/short story)
Sideshows and freak exhibits (particularly as relating to the 1893 World’s Fair, as well as Anna Swan & PT Barnum) (“Where You Were,” “Origins,” “Dwarves Without Giants”)
women’s sexuality (“The Cravings Proper to Her Sex?,” paper)
costume (innumerable paper doll sets)
The Great Exhibition of 1851(The Mesmerist)
tea in the nineteenth century (Chanoyu, a long poem)

So I’d like to think Sweet was somewhat preaching to the choir in my case, but that’s not entirely true. Of the things he says the Victorians invented, I didn’t know about the following: the fax machine, vending machines, the petrol-driven car
[1], commercially-produced hardcore pornography, plastic, free universal education, environmentalism, fish and chips, and paper bags. In both his introduction and conclusion, Sweet immediately attacks the stereotypical visions of the Victorians, centering on some well-known myths. The phrase “Lie back and think of England,” he says, actually comes from a diary of 1912, debunking at least partially the image of the enslaved Victorian woman (my first exposure to it, interestingly, was from a wry Billy Bragg lyric: “how can you lie there and think of England / when you don’t even know who’s on the team?”).

Though I knew that Victorians really didn’t have aversions to seeing uncovered piano legs, at last I found a source for this, an 1839 Dictionary of America (amusingly the American reputation for prudishness goes back this far, when it is jokingly asserted that we cannot even discuss legs without our modesty being offended). As for the oft-cited text of William Acton that argues that women are not really troubled by sexual feelings, Sweet notes it would be as foolish to take this as representative of a common perception as in thinking Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is representative of the modern attitude. In quoting from a 1918 TLS, Sweet asserts his personal passion for the Victorians: “We live in a world that they [the Victorians] built for us, and though we may laugh at them, we should love them too.” Needless to say, I am glad Sweet does not single me out for having spread vicious lies about the Victorians, as he does to other authors I’ve read, including Daniel Poole and Fraser Harrison.

The book starts off with a bang by leading us through the Victorian love of amusement. Sweet draws, of course, parallels with our own age: “It suggests a culture drunk with a sense of its own success, its dizzying complexity; a population goggling at the endless opportunities for spectacular pleasure made possible by those qualities.” He quite rightly cites the Factory Act of 1847 for creating mandatory holidays and therefore more leisure time. In addition to all kinds of games, concerts, panoramas, waxworks, and variations on photo-stereoscopics, he notes the popularity of “sensation drama” (the word wasn’t invented until mid-century). I have to laugh when he cites the “helicopter moment” in Miss Saigon, which, if you haven’t seen it, is when a combination of sound effects, lighting, and half a helicopter shell convince you on stage is an actual helicopter. If you look deeply enough into the history of another Brit “opera-cal,” Phantom, you find Parisians were recreating spectacles of fire, water, and even bringing live horses onstage in the 1830s in their theatres, in addition to the examples Sweet cites. There is a long and drawn-out example of the all-but-forgotten acrobat Blondin who performed many feats on a high wire over Niagara Falls (Sweet has to visit a States-side Ripley’s Believe It Or Not to find the last souvenirs of Blondin’s sensational triumph). So many tall tales were coming over from America, it’s understandable that until Blondin got to Britain there were some skeptics. (A Times correspondent who rode the train through Georgia came away with the belief that “Southern passengers fought regular duels to the death.” The Wild West, indeed.) Even to this twenty-first century person, I feel Blondin’s feats defy belief.

Less convincing, I find, is Sweet’s insistence on the cinema as a Victorian genre. Though he makes the very good point that Victorian authors such as Hardy and Mary Elizabeth Braddon saw their books made into films (“The catalogue reads like some eccentric rewrite of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’; six Jane Eyres, nine Dr Jekyll and Mr Hydes, ten Uncle Tom’s Cabins, ten East Lynnes”) the films in question weren’t made until 1913, 1910, 1915, 1919, 1925, etc. I admire the amount of research he’s put in, and his findings that probably no one ran screaming from L’Arrivée d’un train (the Victorians were more savvy than that!) cast into doubt the chestnut that 1920s movie-goers ran screaming from Lon Chaney unmasked as the Phantom.

The first spam, Sweet contends, was generated in1865, by telegraph, and it goes like this: “Messrs Gabriel, dentists, Harley-street, Cavendish-square. Until October Messrs. Gabriel’s professional attendance at 27 Harley-street, will be 10 till 5.” A shrewd marketing ploy by ballsy Victorian businessman, people began getting showered by telegrams advertising all sorts of services and products. Sweet says that the average street in the nineteenth century was more advertising-heavy than one today (principally the ads being on handbills in massive circulation). “Product placement,” he notes, “was pioneered by French novels in which the characters would call into real shops and celebrate the qualities of their products.” Reading this, I thought about Captain Jack in “Bad Wolf” telling Trinny and Susannah that his jeans were from Top Shop and how I hovered on the fringes of Top Shops across Wales, not daring to go in ‘cause I didn’t have the money, but thinking about this product placement nonetheless. I really like the section of the book that talks about Victorian personal ads. I had seen a few of these before in American newspapers of the period from the collections at the Center for Southwest Research where I used to work, but Sweet dug up some real gems: “Laha, tired of the quiet and monotonous life of a country girl, wishes to become the wife of an actor, and go upon the stage. She is nineteen, pretty, more fair than dark, and rather brilliant-looking by candlelight” (1866). I am also very tempted to use the 1853-4 vogue for encrypted newspaper messages in a story.

Obviously the chapter “I Knew My Doctor Was a Serial Killer Because . . .” (as long as the Doctor isn’t a serial killer!) was of interest to me. I disagree that Victorian murder takes on a “Christmassy” feel, but I will agree with the sort of nostalgia it induces, as brought up by George Orwell in “Decline of the English Murder”: “Murder was something the Victorians did with style.” This is certainly the feeling one gets reading Richard Altick’s rather morbidly enjoyable Victorian Studies in Scarlet. I tried to figure out before why all other murder should leave me (suitably) cold but I get intrigued by Victorian gore—I must just be a horrible person. It was, of course, the Victorians who produced Madame Tussaud’s—which I’ve still never seen—and its Chamber of Horrors, so they too mirror us in our morbid obsessions. Victorian broadsides, as both Sweet and other authors such as Jill Newton Ainsley, Mary S. Hartman, and Judith Knelman note, were incredibly popular and prolific, producing such winners as: Horrible Case of Starvation of a Child “who was starved by its parents, till it actually ate its finger-ends as well as the skin off its feet” (1833).

In addition to those who killed with knives, others such as Dr. Palmer preferred poison—as did Dr. Cream and those acid-splashing Frenchwomen who sought to maim, not kill, with engraving acid (I’m not kidding). Though I suppose I feel an amount of embarrassment in Sweet’s indictment of Ripperologists: “These days, you can take a guided tour of the East End alleys where Jolly Jack sliced up his victims. Women’s groups occasionally protest, but the tour organizers show no sign of giving in to such pressure.” It was a horrible night, raining and freezing, and there’s really very little left of nineteenth-century Whitechapel other than the Ten Bells pub, but still I followed Donald Rumbelow on his tour so he could tell me about prostitutes getting hacked to bits. The first time I took Gothic Horror as a course, before I co-taught it, we did a unit on Jack the Ripper where we had to pick a suspect and convince everyone why our suspect did it. You can only stare at the Mary Kelly picture so many times before even you, as an interested party, get sick. Priding myself now, after years of occasional study plus the East End tour, I still found out something about the case that I didn’t know: in August 1888, with Mary Kelly still alive, there was already a waxworks exhibition of the Ripper’s crimes—and Sweet makes the very good point that the murderer was probably there admiring his work.

Next Sweet attacks the received wisdom about London opium dens, as seen in, for example, From Hell. Sweet traces these places back to probably two shops and the recycling of a few writers’ words; Sir John Bowring took issue with Dickens’ depiction in Edwin Drood of an opium pipe. Dickens insisted he had written it as he had seen it; Bowring replied, “No doubt the Chinaman whom he described had accommodated himself to English usage, and that our great and faithful dramatist here as elsewhere most correctly pourtrayed a piece of actual life.” I am very amused that Sweet mentions these “sinister visions” of the Chinese working themselves into Conan Doyle and Doctor Who (as he undoubtedly must mean “Talons of Weng-Chiang.” I’ve been threatening to write a study of how Victorians are depicted in Doctor Who, and now I may just have to go through with it). I’m intrigued by Hannah Johnston, “Chinese Emma,” who married Ah Sing and helped him run his opium business. There’s another story.

More prosaic, we learn once again that laudanum’s the thing, opium could be purchased for a penny at your local chemist’s, that Mariani is wine fortified with cocaine (I learned at eleven years old that Coca Cola used to contain cocaine). I’m delighted that Sweet puts in an aside about the dangers of green tea. I learned in Roy Moxham’s Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire that eighteenth-century teas imported into England (black tea) were doctored and full of lovely dyes and/or other substances, but I didn’t realize the same thing was going on with green tea in the nineteenth.

Next are debunked attitudes to the Victorians as overly polite and obsessed with protocol for the sake of protocol. Very enjoyable is the section on Victorian Days at Llandrindod Wells. I confess it was something I wanted to visit, but the way Sweet describes it—“anything that fitted this basic pattern of nostalgic comfort—even if it had nothing to do with the nineteenth century”—makes me think of a sort of Victorian Fair going on at the Crystal Palace grounds in July when I was there. Needless to say I ditched it for the dinosaurs! I personally never had the impression that Victorian food was boring or staid (probably because they invented afternoon tea and I could eat that all the time) but I didn’t know that the first vegetarian restaurant opened in 1849. Gleefully The Rough Guide to Wales proclaimed that curry was the British food of choice in 2006; little did they know curry restaurants preceded fish and chips in London. Another jab at Americans: “American advice manuals published in the 1830s and 1840s say nothing wrong in eating off your knife—‘provided you do it neatly and do not put in large mouthfuls, or close your lips tightly over the blade.’”

One section of the book that I wasn’t really looking forward to was the one on Victorian interiors and furniture, but it actually caused me to have a revelation. One of my favorite catalogs to look through is The Victorian Trading Company, based in Lenexa, Kansas, which stocks clothes, furniture, knickknacks, food, artwork, stationery, all based on the assumption it’s “Victorian” when some of it has nothing to do with the Victorian. I was most surprised when I called up to a place an order to be greeted by, first, someone calling himself Robert Louis Stevenson, and then Charles Dickens! Clearly the predilection for Victorian knickknacks has permeated me more than I thought.

Next was the chapter I knew I was going to find fascinating, “In Defence of the Freak Show.” I must agree with Sweet that “the post-Victorian media has so successfully suppressed images of human physical deformity” in a way that, exploitative or not, the nineteenth century did not. (I find it interesting, though, that of all the photos Sweet could have chosen to illustrate this chapter, he chose the relatively tame wedding photo of Tom and Lavinia Thumb. To be sure, he wanted to illustrate the high and cultivated status of many “freaks” like the Thumbs, but perhaps he could have chosen one of the many bearded ladies in correct Belle Époque dress with gorgeous long hair and a bushy beard? Why not the Fee Jee Mermaid, which he discusses later, or the many talented pairs of Siamese Twins?) Speaking of Tom Thumb, I saw his wedding suit in the Orlando Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, certainly the highlight of that visit.

Ever since I got a book on Ripley for my eleventh birthday, I have been interested in “freaks” and cryptozoology and stuff like that. I don’t know why exactly. So the Fee Jee Mermaid (which Sweet correctly notes was falsely advertised as a voluptuous siren when it was actually a monkey and a fish sewn together) and Joice Heth (another of Barnum’s brilliant PR examples) were familiar to me. I would like to hope that if Sweet read my short story about the life of Canadian giant Anna Swan, he would be gratified to see that I describe her life with Barnum—singing and playing the piano for delighted, genteel audiences—as much happier than being teased at school and constantly outgrowing her clothes. I think Sweet makes an extremely shrewd point in noting that the freak show has gone to the cinema, not least of all with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). As for the poor Elephant Man, I’ve never actually seen the movie or the play, which would seem very strange for someone as big a Phantom fan as I am. Interestingly, Susan Kay most certainly invokes the image of the freak show as exploitative and cruel (which is of course picked up in the 2004 film) in Phantom (1992), whereas Leroux seems to think Erik’s most painful time was having his mother make him masks and basically be cruel to him. Oh dear, I seem to have digressed.

I never really thought of Victorians as mean to children; for some reason I see porcelain dolls, Little Women, and boys with Little Lord Flaunteroy outfits when I think of Victorian children. Someone must think of Victorians as mean, as it’s another stereotype Sweet battles against. He reminds us that, of course, it was only after Rousseau’s Émile (1762) that children were thought of as sweet and innocent and childhood to be savored. “To take issue with it today,” says Sweet, “is to invite mistrust.” Indeed, I can only think of the Edwardian Headmaster in “Family of Blood” who gets killed because of his inability to process that a girl-child with a balloon might be a killer. Sweet concedes, of course, that some Victorians were nasty to children—such as baby farmers, where payment was made to starve an unwanted child to death (for some reason this conjures up the same practical attitude to death as the scene in Wuthering Heights of Hareton strangling puppies because there isn’t enough food to see them through the winter). It seems, according to Sweet, that Dickens’ novels are partially responsible for the “gallery of child-crushers”; he rather condescendingly suggests Dickens was obsessed in this area because he had to labor in a glue factory as a twelve-year-old (much, I suspect, as O. Henry kept writing horrible aunts in his stories because he had horrible aunts).

Sweet brings up a very good point in the following chapter—how come we still read Lewis Carroll when we know he photographed young girls in the nude? Oxfordian cult of girls or no, a rather astonishing fact Sweet presents is that only in 1889 was the age of consent in California was raised to fourteen from ten. Black-and-white depictions of the inappropriateness of relations between men and children are all the rage (spot the pedophile being gruesomely punished in “Small Worlds”). Meanwhile, Sweet shows us that the seeds of emancipation for women were sown in the nineteenth century, though results were slow to follow. While I am sure he is correct in saying “telegraphic offices on both sides of the Atlantic preferred to engage women,” (though my own great-grandfather was a telegrapher in Chicago) perhaps they did so because they could pay women less? The previous books I mentioned about the Elizabethan and post-Restoration eras have similar facts about women being employed in trades; one can only think we make big leaps forward and then curtail ourselves yet again. Still, I don’t think Sweet can deny that until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, women had little legal recourse especially in cases of mistreatment. I am glad, though, that he sends up books such as The Rules (1995), which I’ve had shoved into my face as a way of securing a husband (though admittedly I can understand how a girl could be so desperate as to take at face-value the messages in that book!) as neo-conservative self-help books.

Finally we conclude with what I think Sweet sees as the saucy end to his thesis, Victorian sexuality. He is quite right to bring up that “the term ‘homosexual’ was coined in 1868 . . . did not get into print in English until 1892” and that “Victorian sexuality was much less systemized and tribalist than our own
[2].” While Sweet makes his case, I think, that Wilde was not a standalone martyr, before his time as Velvet Goldmine implies (well, Velvet Goldmine implies he was an alien so I don’t know if you can take that seriously), the truth is he did go to jail and his career was ruined! I am glad Sweet finally puts to rest the rather absurd story that a Prince Albert piercing is so-named because Prince Albert had one, in order to wear really tight trousers (I read this, actually, in a history of piercings again, at the Center for Southwest Research).

In general, Inventing the Victorians succeeds utterly in its arguments, and entertains, enlightens, and provokes. The notes are extensive, though I wish there was a selected bibliography as well, though I realize many of the sources are fairly rare. Sweet’s level of analysis is, as I said, extremely developed. The only time I think he strays somewhat is when he tries to be self-consciously poetic, usually at the end of chapters or when describing the Crystal Palace as “Joseph Paxton’s flatpack glass cathedral to global capitalism.” I could barely put this down. I will most certainly be buying this book.

[1] They had electric cars, of course, at the dawn of the twentieth century, marketed primarily to women for short drives, but they didn’t really catch on.
[2] Have you filled out a British application for employment lately? I don’t recall ever seeing a U.S. one ask for your sexual preference, even if it is on the anonymous, statistic-taking section.