Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Few visitors to London include the Albert Memorial in their itinerary, unless by chance if they find themselves wandering in Kensington Gardens. There they will encounter what has been called the ugliest monument in Britain, a Gothic Revival monstrosity commissioned by Queen Victoria to immortalize her beloved husband Albert who died unexpectedly in 1861 after 21 years of marriage. I’ve just finished reading A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the death that changed the British monarchy by Helen Rappaport which details the next forty years of Victoria’s life. Her crippling grief for her husband became an obsession, her only interest in life creating memorials to the sainted Albert, and she sparked a boom in the mourning industry by remaining in widow’s weeds for the rest of her life. Rappaport shows that by elevating grief to an art form, Victoria was the main inspiration and shaper of the morbid, overly sentimental Victorian culture of death and mourning.
We are so used to that image of Victoria as a shrunken old woman in widow’s weeds that it is hard to see her as the pretty, flighty girl she once was. A portrait by Winterhalter shows a sexy young woman, bare shouldered, her long hair enticingly draped across her breast. As far from the “Victorian” image as you can imagine. In We Two: Victoria and Albert: rulers, partners, rivals Gillian Gill takes us back to those happy years of Victoria’s youth and marriage. She was quite a party girl, staying up late dancing and gossiping with her entourage, habits which the sober, serious Albert soon ended. She gave in to him on everything because she was madly in love, keeping footmen busy running back and forth with love notes all day. She would have been a natural for instant messaging and twitter. Her breathless notes and letters are full of bold capital letters, under linings, and exclamation points. She was poorly educated and unenthusiastic about the tedious paperwork involved in governing. Albert took her in hand and taught her how to be Queen, doing much of the work himself. It was said that he overworked himself into an early grave.
Another unexpected view of the Queen is found in Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the rebirth of the British monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy. This reveals a plucky Victoria surviving eight assassination attempts, impressing her subjects with her bravery. It dampened the republican enthusiasm that was growing as the Queen persisted in mourning for decades. Victoria was also mother to nine children, all of whom survived infancy, unusual for the times. Albert was the more hands-on parent, firmly in charge of the domestic life of the household as of everything else. On his death the children, some still very young, didn’t get any support or attention from their mother who was too involved in her own grief. But she did rouse herself to make sure her daughters made good marriages to European royalty and soon her family members controlled most of Europe. Born to Rule: five reigning consorts, granddaughters of Queen Victoria by Julia Gelardi tells the story of the next generation. The most famous of Victoria’s granddaughters was the doomed Tsarina Alexandra of Russia, wife of Nicholas II. Her grandsons, too, were destined for historic roles. George V and Kaiser Wilhelm were cousins who ended up fighting as bitter enemies in World War I. Albert would have been appalled. He was a German Prince who loved his native land as much as his adopted country.
The unpopular Albert Memorial was once threatened with demolition and there is a rumor that during the Blitz Londoners prayed that it would take a direct hit. But it was restored during the 1990’s and remains as a grand testament to the extravagance of Victoria’s adulation of her husband.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
In centuries past Londoners fled the city in summer months to escape the plague. This year grumpy Londoners are fleeing to escape the chaos of the Olympics. Complaining is Londoners’ favorite pastime and the Olympics is supplying plenty of material. The crowds, the traffic disruptions, the security excesses – missiles on top of apartment buildings! – and worst, the abomination of a ban on food vendors selling the iconic British food, chips, because McDonalds has a monopoly on “french fries.” Even the weather, a reliable staple of London grumbling, is proving worse than usual. As I have learned from several Londoners recently, instead of enjoying the opportunity to host the premier international sports event with pride, they are leaving town for the duration.
I must admit as a former Londoner I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the Olympics myself. That was until I learned that the theme of the opening ceremony, Isle of Wonders, is inspired by English literature, specifically the pastoral literature of England’s rural past. Directed by Danny Boyle, the ceremony will begin with the ringing of a 27 ton bell inscribed with Caliban’s words from The Tempest: “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises.” Twelve horses, three cows, two goats, ten chickens, ten ducks, nine geese, seventy sheep and three sheepdogs will participate in the spectacle. So now the noises we hear are the complaints of animal lovers afeard that the experience will cause undue stress to the animals. The entire ceremony has become a focus of complaint and controversy before it has even been staged, just another topic for London grumbling.
Reading all about it at The Guardian I was inspired to recall some of my favorite books and writers of rural England. The classic works of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot evoke English country life as it was in the 19th century, both a rural idyll and a place of hardship and tragedy. My own personal favorites are Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and Eliot’s Adam Bede. The Guardian article mentions the poetry of John Clare and Edward Thomas as specific inspirations for the Olympic ceremony. Both can be read in any good English poetry anthology. Check the library shelves in Dewey Decimal number 821. John Clare is the subject of a recent novel short-listed for the Booker Prize, The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. Set in rural Essex, it is based on the true story of Clare’s descent into madness and the time he spent in an experimental lunatic asylum. The author, also a poet, lyrically evokes the surrounding natural world that inspired Clare’s writing.
In a lighter vein, the classic comedy Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is always a delight to return to. Set in the Sussex countryside in the 1930’s, the novel satirizes the doom and gloom genre of rural fiction epitomized by Wuthering Heights and a host of lesser imitators. Hilarity ensues when Flora Poste, a young London socialite, is orphaned and goes to live with her farming relatives, the eccentric Starkadder clan. Rachel Cusk delivers a more recent satire of the genre in The Country Life, winner of the Whitbread Prize. Here a modern Jane Eyre desiring to “exist in a state of no complexity whatever” leaves London for a job as a nanny on a Sussex farm. Needless to say her expectations prove far from the reality in this very funny novel. In non-fiction who can resist James Herriot’s books about a country vet based on his own experiences in the Yorkshire Dales. A less well-known book about contemporary rural life is David Kennard’s A Shepherd’s Watch, a memoir about life on a Devon farm with the author’s working sheepdogs.
For insight into just why Londoners might be curmudgeonly about the upcoming ceremonies check out this new book about the London character, Londoners: the Days and Nights of London Now by Craig Taylor. The subtitle says it all: “as told by those who love it, hate it, live it, left it, and long for it.” As one who left it and sometimes longs for it I shall be sitting in front of the television for the Olympic opening ceremony to see just how the director of Slumdog Millionaire interprets rural England for our times.
Wednesday, May 02, 2012
What is so special about 2012 other than the Mayan calendar prediction for the end of the world, the London Olympic Games, and the American Presidential Election? Well eclipsing them all for booklovers is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, an event marked by festivals and exhibits across the globe and an outpouring of appreciation and commentary online. Check out the official Dickens 2012 web site for a complete guide to the celebrations, actual and virtual. There is even an App revealing London through the eyes of Dickens and his characters. Or you can follow Dickens 2012 on Twitter @Dickens2012.
At the library this is the perfect time to check out and reread a favorite Dickens novel or one you missed. Can’t decide which one? Try this tongue-in-cheek guide from the Guardian, which rates the novels on a scale of how “Dickensian” they are. Deemed most Dickensian is Bleak House. Paperback copies of Dickens’ most popular titles are available in the Reading List section of your library. Or check the library DVD shelves for one of the many film versions of Dickens’ books including my personal favorite, the BBC production of Bleak House with Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. Claire Tomalin’s acclaimed 2011 biography Charles Dickens: A Life is a readable and entertaining portrait of the writer, his family, and his times. There is also an excellent brief life by Jane Smiley in the Penguin Lives series. In fiction, Gaynor Arnold imagines the Dickens marriage from the point of view of his long-suffering wife in the novel Girl in a Blue Dress. A good way to introduce children to Dickens is through the lives of the children he wrote about, featured in Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren.
Visitors to London can travel back in time to the city as Dickens knew it in Dickens World, a Disney-like theme park south of the Thames in Chatham. Billed as a “multi-sensory interactive experience” the attraction recreates the buildings, sights, and sounds of Victorian London with costumed actors bringing Dickens’ characters to life. There is a Great Expectations Boat Ride, a Victorian School complete with nasty schoolmaster, and a Haunted House. Some literary purists may be horrified at this concept, but Dickens himself, a tireless self-promoter and huckster for his work, would probably be delighted. You may prefer to visit Victorian London in photographs, for example this online gallery from the Telegraph.
As for that saying “What the Dickens,” apparently it has absolutely nothing to do with Dickens. Shakespeare even used the phrase in The Merry Wives of Windsor. “Dickens” was commonly used in the sixteenth century as a euphemism for the devil, so that those wishing to curse could avoid actually naming him. No word on what Dickens thought about his name being a pseudonym for Satan! But we wish the great man a very happy 200th birthday and thank him for giving so many readers so much pleasure.
Montgomery County Public Libraries