Sunday, 24 May 2009

Lost in Romance

Isn't the weather lovely? Oxford is crammed with people eating ice cream and enjoying the way the college stone looks in the sunshine. The river is teaming with punts, and no one seems to be falling in. Bank holiday weather of the most sublime sort - and I don't even care that I'm actually working tomorrow. With weather like this, and the promise of more to come for summer, I could work every day as long as I got a Pimms at the end of it!

I spent much of the day in the Botanic Gardens, marvelling at the riot of colour, and reading about a different sort of colour in Jude Morgan's brilliant 'Passion'. Dovegreyreader was talking recently about Jude's latest book, which reminded me I had yet to read the above mentioned, and it seemed fitting after 'The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth', which mum has just picked up, and which seems to hardly be suited to such a day. It needs to be read during a storm. 'Passion' on the other hand, is ideal for the heat and brightness of today, for what other words could be used to describe the four women that are shown in the novel. Mary Shelley and Fanny Brawne have yet to burn as brightly as Caroline Lamb or Augusta Leigh, but it seems to be only a matter of time, before they too fall into the embrace of Byron, Shelley or Keats.
How different from Wordsworth, who has only an obsessed sister to cast a shadow over poetic respectability.

I am barely halfway through, but I am being whirled along, as if I too were engaged in a waltz with a dissolute rake. Jude' style is mesmerising and mercurial; hardly the same from one page to the next. Sometimes taking the voice of one woman, speaking directly to the audience, and at other times allowing the reader to be less involved. On the periphery, untouched by scandal, but seeing it just the same.

I must go tend to my pink arms, and see if I can make my shoulders the same colour. I was too involved in reading to notice the tan lines ....

Monday, 18 May 2009

Retail Therapy

I needed to cheer myself up after work, and thanks to a friend who, forgetting she'd already given me a birthday present, refused to take her second cheque back, I popped into Blackwells on my way home and indulged myself.

Firstly I bought A.S. Byatt's 'The Children's Book'. I've been a bit wary of her work, as although I think 'Possession' is amazing, I've never been able to get through the diary section, and have given up twice in the same spot. However, it has been recommended fervently by Dovegreyreader, so I shall give it a chance, even if A.S. Byatt is a literary snob about Harry Potter ('
Ms Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip') Humph.

Secondly I bought Mark Bostridge's new biography of Florence Nightingale. I heard him speak about this at the Oxford Literary Festival, but didn't buy it, as it was only out in hardback at the time, and I had to choose between it and Penelope Fitzgerald's letters.

So, I feel a bit better now, and am taking myself to bed to delve into a book - not sure which one yet though!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Doomed Love

I don't know what's got into me this past week, but suddenly I am devouring books quicker than normal, and I've been totally immersed in the lives of women on the periphery. If it's not Dorothy Wordsworth, then it's Nelly Ternan. Does it say something for my subconscious that I seem to be reading about woman who were repressed (deliberately or otherwise) by the men that loved them? I do hope not.

It's hard to write a biography when there is not much evidence of the person being scrutinised. Ellen (Nelly) Ternan was a young woman brought up in an acting family with what looked like a decent, if not completely promising, acting career in front of her, until one day Charles Dickens decided to take his amateur acting up a level and hired her, and the rest of her family, to take the roles that his family had previously played. From that day in 1857, Nelly was inextricably bound up with Dickens and as a result slipped almost completely from the pages of history.

Certainly as the Victorian era's best model for family values (even if he did abandon his wife and was unduly critical of his children) Dickens could afford no scandal to touch his name, and he therefore endeavoured to keep Nelly as cloistered as possible, but the subterfuge went so far that even after his death, Nelly remained silent on the subject of her famous patron.

Claire Tomalin's portrait is an interesting one to read, because even with the scant information there is to enable us to form a clear picture, there is still enough snippets for us to gain an understanding of where she came from and where she went after a thirteen year vanishing act. The fact that Dickens had a mistress doesn't particularly shock modern sensibilities, but when the news was breaking just after the First World War people were outraged. The person it appears to have hurt the most, however, was Nelly's son from her marriage after her time with Dickens. Geoffrey had been brought up believing his Mother was young and truthful, wholly in love with his father, and never anything more remarkable than the wife of a schoolmaster. To discover she had once been an actress, was a decade older than she pretended to be, had possibly deceived his father for the whole of their marriage, and might have never truly loved him, was too much. Geoffrey refused to talk about the potential truth for the rest of his life, and is believed to have destroyed much vital evidence that would have helped us put a character to the many images we have of Nelly. Interestingly, the reverse is true of Dorothy Wordsworth - we have many words, and only two images, one a silhouette.

I wonder sometimes if there are any other invisible women to be discovered. Half the Victorian world seems to have lived double or triple lives; who else split their lives into public and private and managed to get away with it - up to a point? One can only wonder at the scandalous stories that are still to be revealed to the world.

Not today, I've got a headache

Halfway through my MA in Life Writing, I was instructed to read Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere journals. The event was not a happy one, and I don't think I ever made it through more than a third. This was a woman who, it seemed to me, had a headache every other entry and was totally preoccupied with getting letters from her brother, William. 'He's only been gone two days!', my mind screamed as she moaned, 'pull yourself together!'

Unsurprisingly I completely missed the point, preferring only to see the words and not what their underlying impetus told me about the relationship between the two.

I have just swallowed Frances Wilson's 'The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth' whole, which I wrote about when I went to Dartington last year. It's an intriguing book, for Frances Wilson takes the bare words of the journal, complete with running commentary on health, and seeks to find the thinking, feeling, person beneath and between the lines.
Dorothy, she states, is rarely seem in the journal, all we get is a mass of finely jangled nerves, observations of nature and details of her brothers' activities. She is less visible in his presence because of the space he takes up - although
as Frances Wilson herself says 'Without William, Dorothy has no substance: even in her journal she is hardest to see when she is most alone.' When we see her most clearly, it is almost always when she is reporting on the lives of those closest to her.

I have never really 'got on' with Wordsworth, having always seen him as something of a failure. Now, before you all respond with a cry of 'heathen!', let me make clear that I don't mean him to be a failure as a poet, rather it is as a Romantic that he fails. The German poet Friedrich Schlegel said Romanticism was an art that is eternally in the 'process of becoming' and 'can never be completed' (quoted in Frances Wilson's book p 29) and if we consider the most famous romantic poets, then we see that Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron and Clare all died at fairly young ages, with their poetic dream incomplete. Wordsworth on the other hand, transcended the romantic ideal and became in the end a much feted Victorian Gentleman. Can you imagine any of the other Romantics becoming Poet Laureate?

To return to Dorothy, however, I feel somehow that Frances Wilson has changed my opinion of her. True enough, the headaches are in as much abundance as they ever were, but I can now put them into context. Dorothy was a remarkably emotive woman. She never seemed to have felt anything by halves, even though she uses the word often enough in her journals and letters (she is half full, half afraid, half overcome) and the love she was deprived of when her father cast her out of the family at the age of seven when her mother died, seems to have crashed forth like a waterfall when she turned her back on polite society and went to ramble with William all over the countryside. This was not the usual practise for young woman and at one point during the period she and William lived near Coleridge in Somerset, the group was described as 'a mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen', which seems a perfect way to sum up the early Romantic era.

Who was Dorothy? Why was she so devoted to her brother? Did they, in fact, have a more intimate relationship than their friends ever guessed? Was she completely senile by the time she died? The answer to all these questions, even after reading Frances Wilson's book seem to be 'I'm not quite sure.' No evidence other than readings of journal entries have been found to prove an incestuous relationship; the woman seen in the journal is quite different from the one presented in her letters or her friends recollections. She is an unsolvable riddle, but one that biographers will continue to puzzle over. I'm off to hunt out my copy of her journals, for I see now they have more to say than I previously supposed.

Friday, 15 May 2009

What a difference a year makes

It seems that I have been blogging about my literary passions for a whole year now, so I thought I'd celebrate in the form of a post about the book that caused me to change my whole outlook and made me really love reading.

So, why don't you grab a chair (that bean bag in the corner is comfy), help yourself to tea and cake (there's some white chocolate brownies circulating) and I'll tell you all about it.

The book is 'Legacy' by Susan Kay, and I highly doubt if most of you have heard of it. As historical fiction goes it's not all that different from the Jean Plaidy, Philippa Gregory or Norah Loffts that so dominate our shelves now, but what makes it special for me is that it was the first book that completely captured my attention, and at one point, I got so drawn in to the story that I lost all sense of time for about half an hour. I missed Neighbours and Home and Away (which when you're ten is a big deal)!

The novel is basically the story of Elizabeth I's love affair with Robert Dudley - a tale that has been told many time over the years. I'll always remember the start, because it focuses on Anne Boleyn, and the short time she had with her daughter in a beautiful way. Elizabeth is left pulling the head off her favourite doll after overhearing servants gossip - a haunting image.
It's been years since I read it, but it's essence has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Up until then I had think I'd been ambivalent about reading, but this book showed me a world I didn't know and I wanted to find others that would do the same. A bookworm was born!

Is there a particular book that opened everything out for you, or made you take your reading more seriously? I'm sure there's at least one for everyone!

Saturday, 2 May 2009

His Dark Materials

There are some books that you would love to see realised on stage or film, but you can't quite visualise how it would work, and dread anyone trying.

This is how I feel about the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. I've always loved the books because of the depth in both the plot and characters; the fact it's partly set in Oxford makes it all the more magical to me. The film of the first book doesn't do any justice, and it's always struck me as odd that it should have been made when there was never any intention of completing the trilogy.

When the National Theatre staged a two part adaptation of the books, I desperately wanted to see it, but I never got the chance. Today, my dream finally came true, as I spent six hours in the Oxford Playhouse watching the most wonderful performances.

It's a notoriously difficult plot to stage, not least because of the daemons the population of one world are supposed to have. And how do you create armoured polar bears? The answer, it turns out, is puppetry. Beautiful puppetry, that makes use of the puppeteer, so that even if you are slightly distracted by a snow leopard being manipulated by a human, it doesn't matter, because the human is the voice, and therefore part of the enchantment.

If you happen to be in Bromley, Northampton, Edinburgh or West Yorkshire over the next couple of months, I urge you to go and see it. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that you should make a trip specially to see it. I can't possibly talk about all the aspects of what makes it so wonderful, or how they manage to cram so much into six hours, but if anyone has questions, then do write in the comments.

I doubt anyone from the National is reading this, but I really wish and hope that someone films the stage version, it's truly remarkable!