Category Archives: Victorian Lit

Charlecote Park – The National Trust

Morning everyone, wherever you are! 

As you may know, I am a lover of Victorian novels, and my love for all things Victorian meant that I was incredibly excited to visit Charlecote Park yesterday. It’s not too far from me, being near Wellsbourne, Stratford upon Avon. 

It’s a grand, elegant and beautiful Victorian house, belonging to the Lucy family for over 900 years. You may remember I mentioned Mary Elizabeth Lucy’s memoirs in a recent post. It was really special to experience her house, influenced by their many travels abroad, and their beautiful grounds with her book in the back of my mind. 

  
Within the house, we can only see the central part because the family still live here. The paintings were bold and proud, the wallpaper still in its original form in a number of the rooms dating back to the 1830s. 

  
For me, the library is impressive. It boasts of views across the River Avon, books all around, a comfortable fireplace for winter, and inviting seating. I could have happily moved in. Once more, it is easy to imagine the family reading together, and Mary writing her memoirs here for her grandchildren. 

    

As I’ve mentioned already, the grounds really were spectacular. Deer and sheep roam freely, and it is really quite beautiful and tranquil to see. It’s easy to see how inspiring this place is. 

   
 
One little anecdote that does make me smile from Charlecote, is it’s link to William Shakespeare. It is believed that a young Shakespeare was caught poaching deer from here and was sent to Magistrates court. In his ‘revenge’ it is also believed that in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the Lucy coat of arms, as well as a poaching incident are referenced, that the character of Justice Shallow is based on Sir Thomas Lucy. Naughty Shakespeare! 

  

There’s also a brilliant bookshop here – I picked up a bag full. Before I spoil it for you, make sure you visit yourself. It really is breathtaking. 

To find out more visit:

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/charlecote-park/ 

BL x

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Filed under Days Out, Historical Fiction, National Trust, Photography, Stratford upon Avon, UK, Victorian Lit

The Figure in the Carpet – Henry James 

Back in February, Penguin released 80 little black classics to celebrate their 80th birthday. Naturally, I went out and bought a number of these. They are cheap (only 80p each!) and they are perfect for a quick read covering a range of writers and topics.  

As you may, or may not know, getting teenagers into reading for pleasure is a big passion of mine. Therefore, with these inexpensive and short reads, I was able to persuade some of my students to buy some of these for themselves. Being as they weren’t faced with a 200+ page novel, some of the resistance towards reading was removed. Thank you to Penguin for such a brilliant idea to celebrate their birthday. 

So, I’ve broken up from school for summer and I’m feeling incredibly tired. I decided to read another little black classic because that way I’m still reading, despite feeling exhausted. Henry James is a fascinating writer I discovered when I was at university. The Figure in the Carpet is a gripping little read with a thought provoking title. 

Henry James is one of the masters of writing Victorian mysteries, and this story is no different. It features an unnamed literary critic, who feels he has reviewed the latest work of Hugh Vereker, a distinguished novelist, as a successful masterpiece. However, when the unnamed critic meets the author in person, Vereker informs him that he whilst he sees the review as being an intelligent piece of writing, he feels he has missed the hidden underlying issue which informs all of his writing. The narrator pushes him into revealing the nature of the mystery, but Vereker adamantly refuses, claiming that it will be self-evident in any close reading of his work. 

The narrator is unable to let the mystery lie, so he enlists the help and support of his friend, the writer George Corvik and his fiancée Gwendolen Erme. However, Corvik’s mother is strongly opposed to the match. They all fail in trying to uncover the secret pattern, but, when Corvik visits India with a commision for journalistic work, he excitedly writes back to announce that he has worked out the secret. 

Corvik then manipulates this power, and refuses to reveal the secret until he has married Gwendolen. He then decides to visit Vereker in Italy on his way back to London. We are then given every reason to believe that Vereker confirms Corvick’s solution to the mystery. Corvick decides the time is right to write the definitive interpretation of Vereker’s works. 

In a turn of events, Gwendolen’s mother dies, Corvik’s wedding takes place, but he is sadly killed in an accident when he is on his honeymoon. When the narrator, rather emotionlessly, appeals to his widow for the key to the mystery that pins the whole plot together, she refuses to reveal any information she may have. It is then revealed that Corvick’s study of Vereker’s work is actually no more than an introduction, which reveals nothing regarding the mystery of the hidden underlying message of the original works. 

The narrator is adamant that Corvick would have revealed the secret to Gwendolen that he contemplates marrying her to gain this information. Despite this intention, Gwendolen publishes another book of her own and marries a fellow novelist, Drayton Deane. He is perceived as a literary and social rival on all levels. This obviously is displeasing to the narrator. 

Gwendolen then dies in childbirth, leaving the narrator to appeal to Drayten Deane. The narrator asks if she had passed any information to him regarding the key to the mystery. Sadly, she has not, and they are both left to contemplate the fact that they may never find out. 

“It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it.” 

A punchy little read, with a detailed and mysterious plot. I’ve only selected one quote because I don’t want to ruin it for you, and the story is incredibly short anyway! I was left feeling like I wanted to know the mystery too and frustrated that I didn’t know or work it out. It raised the question of what is the intention of the writer? And why? 
Thank you Penguin for these excellent little black classics for your birthday. 

Big love x

  

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Filed under Book review, Little Black Classics, Victorian Lit

The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Exam season. The most stressful time of year for any teacher, regardless of what subject you teach. Today was the English exam that my lovely Year 11s were sitting. The first year group of my career – they are special to me. I always feel nervous and worry about them all, I am desperate for them to do well. Yet, I could literally burst with pride. They are cool as cucumbers, telling me to “relax miss”  and showing me that they have learnt so much this year. So whilst they are frantically writing remembering all the exam skills we have spent a year fine-tuning, I look back to the start of my career.

I started at the deep end. I was teaching Gothic Literature to a top set, very bright group. Thinking back I know I was incredibly nervous. What if they asked me something I didn’t know the answer to? We started with The Yellow Wallpaper. These students, with some slight changes to the group have shaped me into the teacher I am today. 3 years I have spent teaching them. It has been mostly sheer joy. As a leaving present I bought each of them their own copy of The Yellow Wallpaper (which I signed and dated.) It seems right that today I post a review of this book, which also happens to be one of my own personal favourites.

I can remember the first time I read this incredible short story. I got carried away and it ended far too quickly (6000 words isn’t enough!) I felt a range of emotions when reading this, and still do when I re-read today. Mostly I felt a lot of anger and uncertainty when reading this. It must be the little feminist in me! The fact that the narrator isn’t given a name (or a name that is confirmed. Potentially she is called Jane) still bugs me.

The opening provides crucial information regarding who she is. ‘It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral homes for the summer.’ From this we know the narrator is obviously female as she is married, most likely to be middle class and has a husband named John. These three traits, all in the first sentence, foreshadow the importance for the development of the plot rather than her identity or personal history. As a Victorian story, these highlight the conflicts during this period of time, especially regarding women.

The plot shows how the narrator, unreliable as she is, descends into madness. Her husband tries to be supportive but he lacks the understanding of his wife – typical of the time period. He believes it’s in her best interest to go on a rest cure after the birth of their child. They stay in this mansion which she states has “something queer about it.” They move into a room upstairs which has lots of windows, however they are all barred. There is also tears in the wallpaper and scratches in the floor. The narrator assumes these attributes are from children, yet as a reader I’m not so sure. There is something that doesn’t quite sit right, yet I can’t put my finger on it. (Although it obviously becomes clearer at the end of the text.)

The narrative continues to describe the wallpaper. It’s “yellow smell” and the “breakneck pattern”, missing patches and the way it’s leaves yellow stains on skin and the clothing of anyone who touches it. The vivid description of how the the longer she stays in the room the more it seems to change and mutate is quite astonishing. The narrator believes she can see see a female figure in the wallpaper. The description is so detailed, when I closed my eyes I could easily imagine it for myself.

The wallpaper is clearly a metaphor for the narrator’s own freedom. She believes she needs to peel off the remaining wallpaper to set the woman she sees within it free. On the final day of summer she locks herself in the room and decides she needs to take all the paper down. Yet when John arrives back he has to use a key to get in. Finally, she claims “I’ve got out at last.” This quote will forever stay in my mind. The blurring of the narrator and the wallpaper as they seem to become one is rather astonishing.

This book is truly special in the way it deals with the relationship with madness and Victorian women. The vivid description, the well paced plot, the contextual accuracy makes it a really interesting read. It is important to note that a Victorian reader this text was unprintable and shocking. It’s by no means a pleasurable read. It’s uncomfortable, unnerving even. But it is a superb snapshot into early feminist writing.

BL x

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Filed under American Literature, Book review, Feminism, Victorian Lit

The Narrative of John Smith – Arthur Conan Doyle

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I stumbled across this book when I was on a book pilgrimage in Hay-on-Wye. I genuinely couldn’t believe my eyes. An unpublished Conan Doyle book that I knew nothing about? I fell in love with Doyle’s writing after reading/sleeping/dreaming the Sherlock Holmes novels at university. I (potentially rather stupidly) expected my same passionate reaction for Holmes to seep through into this book, making it impossible for me to put down. Rather high expectations I must admit! So I had to buy it.

What is rather beautiful albeit slightly sad about this book is the story behind the manuscript. In brief, the original manuscript was written and sent for publishing by Doyle in 1883 but sadly got lost in the mail. Doyle agonised over this lost script and tried to piece it together again but he gave up and never completed it. Fast forward to 2004 and The British Library bought the unnamed, unfinished manuscript at an auction. 7 years later they published it under the title of The Narrative of John Smith.

This work is rather short, spanning over 6 chapters, with each chapter representing a day. It begins with the protagonist, John Smith, being confined to bed for a week with rheumatic gout. After trying to get out of it, the doctor persuades him to use this time to write a book. Various topics are discussed such as: what may drive talent out of a man, what service a doctor brings, as well as other thoughts that don’t seem to link to each other. The image that stays in my mind as well as JS is Mrs Rundle’s three children arguing over a penny.

Chapter two begins with the doctor visiting and a discussion regarding medicine. He meets his neighbours, admits his love of art and then decides to debate ideal conditions for life and more importantly how to achieve eternal life. Another key aspect to the short novel is war and political standings for men and women.

The final chapter opens with the doctor discussing disease as a battle, claiming that JS has won. Then the manuscript ends. It left me thinking what would come next? What train of thought would Doyle have his protagonist have next? It appears to be random so predicting would be futile. To be honest, it left me with more questions than answers! I love the little snippets and the snapshot of different thoughts when one is almost a recluse at home, but I felt a sense of loss. Loss of this story meant that some of the young Doyle genius was lost, and sadly never replaced.

A mixed reaction from me for this book really. It wasn’t as compelling as the Holmes series (I genuinely don’t know if I will find anything to compete with it!) it was much more personal showing snippets of how Doyle really thought as a young twenty something year old man. One little touch which is quite special is the original lines crossed out and reworking of sections. It’s always a treat to see how a novel is developed. I would recommend this book, but it didn’t blow my socks off.

BL x

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Filed under Book review, Victorian Lit