Tuesday, October 17, 2017

By Grand Central Station: Learning life's lessons rather than weeping!

By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept

As book titles go this one is a stunner.  I always wanted to find and read this elusive book because I loved the title so much.  So seeing it recently in an Oxfam bookshop, I grabbed it with joy. 

I started to read it the other day.  The forward by Brigid Brophy seemed promising. 

"I doubt if there are more than half a dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world.  One of them, I am convinced, is Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept...which was first published in 1945..when to the shame of those professing to practice criticism at the time, it made small stir..."

However, a few pages into the turgid and over-inflated prose and I was ready to throw it into the bin.

'On her mangledness I am spreading my amorous sheets, but who will have any pride in the wedding red, seeping up between the thighs of love which rise like a colossus, but whose issue is only the cold semen of grief'

'I am overun, jungled in my bed, I am infested with a menagerie of desires; my heart is eaten by a dove,a cat scrambles in the cave of my sex, hounds in my head obey a whipmaster who cries nothing but havoc as the hours test my endurance with an accumulation of tortures.  Who, if I cried, would hear me amongs the angelic orders?'

 This is a masterpiece, a cult literary classic?  Some of the images taken separately are amazing but altogether, page after page of this sort of prose is just too much to bear.  it alienates instead of inspiring pity.

I have to confess to a dislike of so called 'stream of consciousness' style novels.  I recently read - because required to for study, not by choice - William Faulkner's As I lay Dying.  I utterly disliked that book, disliked the characters, the setting, the whole point of the tale and the pretentiousness of those who felt it to be an epic odyssey of some sort.   As far as I was concerned, it was dreary, holding out little hope, joy or meaning. Yet, as some wit pointed out, 'you may hate the book or love it, but you'll never forget it.'  So true, because I haven't.  I class By Grand Central Station as one of those types of books that annoys you but makes you wonder, think, query, consider and oddly, in the end, even begin to understand.

Elizabeth Smart

I'm not sure I will ever understand Faulkner.  He is too alien for me.  But Elizabeth Smart was a woman, she was a woman truly, madly, deeply in love with a man who belonged to another.  The whole set up was doomed to unhappiness.  I have like many another woman experienced intense love, the pain of separation, passion, grief and anguish.  So I could relate to what Smart was attempting to express.  She wrote the book at a time when her married lover, the English poet George Grenville Barker, left her to return to his wife.  Apparently he returned through pity for the wife despite his love for Elizabeth but I feel cynical about that.  He seemed a man who tired of the same partner and had many an affair.  He was also a lapsed Catholic and his wife never divorced him despite his serial womanising and he managed to father fifteen children with various women!   (I've observed that women often want to bear the children of these poetic but faithless men as if to keep a portion of the man close to them in this way.) Smart bore him four of them and when asked if the children came first or her man, replied at once, ' My man.'   Yet George Barker wasn't an admirable sort of person at all.  He was a poet, it's true, compared often to Gerard Manley Hopkins.  His poetry has the same mythic, mystical overtones that so appealed to Elizabeth Smart and which profusely invades her own work.  It was his poetry that first drew her to him and she declared she would marry this man some day.   She was utterly determined to have him, wife or no wife, have his soul you might say.

George Grenville Barker

Barker was indeed gifted but vain and convinced of his own genius, a genius not to be wasted in wars and fighting.  Thus he managed to escape Britain and World War Two, by firstly accepting a post in Japan.  There he realised he was in the midst of something even more frightening than the European conflict and recalling this women who had expressed so much excitement over his work, he made good use of Smart's infatuation for him by persuading her to finance his escape from Japan  to America.  He never worked, he never fought but Smart always made allowances and even when he left her to return to his wife, stayed true to him. Even her son couldn't understand why his mother loved his father who, as he said, was almost a Christ-like figure for her.   Barker came and went as the impulse took him, was a drinker, could be violent and unpredictable and they often had vicious rows.  Smart even bit his lip once in a fury (shades of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath but Smart was a tougher cookie than the already suicidal Plath)

Her son wrote that he never understood her book either and Smart's mother was horrified and managed to have sales of the book banned in Canada, burning as many copies as she managed to get her hands on.  People weren't used to such a raw, honest declaration of love and passion, so personal a book.   I just wish she'd made it a proper story rather than couching it in the overblown, often meaningless metaphors and images of her prose which Brophy so admires.  Despite all, there is a sense of the passion; the vulnerability and intensity that lovers feel in that time when they are swept along by a mutually projected archetypal image from within themselves upon the mere mortal before them.  The mortal is still a God in their eyes, not yet a fallible human creature like themselves.  Elizabeth never seemed able to take back her God-like projection upon George till much later in life, if ever.  It had been so deep, painful, joyful, an almost mystical experience which would forever leave its indelible imprint on her soul.  One felt she would meet him again in another life, that maybe they had chased one another through myriad lives before, perhaps till the end of time, a novel in itself.  I understand all that.

I also understand her half -mystical, religious, inflated, archaic style of writing.  My first writings were of this nature but now seem almost incomprehensible, even to me.  My Little World is the first  novel  (starting it in my teens) I ever wrote - and then re-wrote and wrote again.  As Ignazio Sillone put it, 'I would willingly pass my life writing and re-writing the same book . . . that one book every writer carries within him . . . the image of his own soul'   However, it's not a story I want to publish, it's my 'cupboard book' as my daughter puts it . . . not one to inflict on others who would criticise, mock, love or hate those feelings that are meaningful and magical to me alone.  It's too personal and precious though presented in the form of an anguished love story with a resolution of sorts and as such, readable at least.   Which Grand Central isn't . . . that's just a meandering cry of anguish.   My male characters are certainly my inner ones, images of the splintered animus within my breast, yet at the same time they are feelings and insights about real people I have loved and hated, now clothed differently, given a different life.   And through writing this, I discovered so much about myself and my motives in life. 

In my opinion, Smart should have put this slight, yet intense and yes, feeling book into a cupboard and pondered on it as life went on, rather than indulging in a sort of vain longing to have others see her as some tragic heroine in a story from the past.  Tristan and Iseult she may have felt herself to be as I always felt the story of Cupid and Psyche, Beauty and the Beast so strong in myself.  Jung said we all lived out a particular myth and he is right.  But this is for each person to discover and understand.  Know Thyself is a vital key to life, the injunction over the gateway to Apollo's Delphic Temple.   I feel Smart never truly understood herself or the true meaning of her tortuous love affair.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Great Fire of Salonika August 18th 1917

On this day, August 18th 1917, a Great Fire ( Μεγάλη Πυρκαγιά της Θεσσαλονίκης )   broke out in Thessaloniki, a thriving city and the second largest in Greece.  It burned for 32 hours and spread throughout the city right down to the seafront where it then set fire to the caiques and boats in the sea.  This at last brought it to an end.  This fierce fire had by then destroyed businesses, homes and displaced 70,000 people.  It was never again the same city.

Salonika, as it was then called, had only recently been liberated from Turkish rule  in 1912.  But it still swarmed with people of many nationalities.  The Greeks were still in the minority, while Jews formed the majority, running many successful businesses along the wharves and docksides, as well as clothing and jewellery shops in the great arcades in the city centre.  Apart from these were Turks, Armenians, Albanians, Roma and a swarm of other ethnicities.  Added to this 'macedoine', this pot pourri of humanity, were the Allied Forces of Italy, France and Britain who were defending the borders of Macedonia from the Bulgarians and subsequently the Germans. 

Though it was such a rich and important city it was totally chaotic in structure, dilapidated and unhygienic amongst the poor.   Some said the fire was due to a careless housewife upsetting boiling fat, but a subsequent investigation indicated that the fire had begun in the Mevlane or Turkish district in a house occupied by some refugees.  A spark from a kitchen fire is said to have ignited a pile of straw.  No one will ever really know.  Such fires often broke out both in Turkey and in Macedonia as the houses were mainly built of wood in these districts.  In this instance it was ignored partly from foolishness and partly as there was no fire fighting equipment or water available.  The famously fierce Vardar winds of Salonika were high that day and fanned the blaze sending the flames raging through the city.  The water supplies had been commandeered by the Allied Forces to serve their camps and hospitals, high up in the hills and city suburbs and they were not enthusiastic about letting them be used for what they imagined was a small conflagration.  Thus the fire swept through the rich business districts and Jewish tradesmen were forced to flee, losing all their goods and homes.  Chaos ensued as people fled, trying to save some of their goods, paying anything to the hamals (or porters) who profited nicely from the panic. Surprisingly, due to the movement of the wind, most of the Turkish area, higher up by the city walls remained largely untouched and can be seen to this day.  

The French half-heartedly blew up some houses to try and halt the run of the fire but didn't continue with the operation and eventually withdrew.  In the end it was the British forces who helped the unfortunate people as they streamed out of the city, taking them in their military lorries to their depots for tea and biscuits and on to refugee camps, hastily erected outside the city.   Some soldiers in the French forces were accused of looting abandoned shops and even asking for tips to take people away.  Such is the greed of humanity that will profit from the misery of others. 

There is an interesting eye witness account online by Dr Isobel Emslie Hutton worth reading.  I myself read many letters from nurses, soldiers and doctors recounting their own eye witness accounts when writing my book The Long Shadow.  It was one of the most devastating fires of the First World War but it did pave the way for the city to be reconstructed in a better manner.  The beautiful Aristotelous Square was constructed during this time but sadly the entire Hebrard plan was not totally implemented due to lack of funds.  A typical Greek problem!

A good friend, Richard Devereux's grandfather, William, was serving with the Salonika Campaign and no doubt was amongst the soldiers helping the refugees.  Richard has written a splendid little book of poems about this period in his Grandad's life called simply 'Bill'

The soldiers gazed in awe at the glow and smoke . . .
were sent on trucks to give what help they could.
'All hands to the pumps!'  But the fire brigade had none
that worked.  Bill did what he could.  He helped a bloke
load onto a cart his few pathetic goods.
In the photograph, Bill having a fag.  Job done!

from YooniqImages:   Inspecting damage after the fire

For another take on the fire, read my book The Long Shadow, set in Salonika during this period, taken from first hand accounts.  In this extract Dorothy and Captain Dunning have taken a shopping visit to town when they are caught up in the melee of terrified people fleeing from burning homes.

'Those smelly creatures in my car!' said Dunning in horror but his natural sense of justice prevailed and he agreed to drive down the Via Egnatia and see if anyone needed picking up.  When we got near there we began to see the first stream of refugees pouring along the street, clutching their foolish belongings as if they were gold dust.  One woman held a mirror and a brass bowl against her chest and appeared oblivious to the wailing infant yelling and clinging in terror to her skirts.  An old woman was wandering about , calling for her family, looking lost and bewildered.  Others pushed and jostled along, dropping their useless and heavy goods at last in order to lift their children who screamed to be picked up and carried.  To my disgust I saw men load up their womenfolk with precious sewing machines and other items , then leaving them to struggle along in the crowd, took themselves off speedily to save their own lives. 
The noise was unbelievable.  Men were shouting to each other, women and children screaming and behind all this one could hear the crackling roar of flames, the crash of timber and glass shattering and the smell of acrid smoke which billowed up into the air and driven by a fierce wind down the streets which formed tunnels for it.  It was like some strange dragon breathing out through its nostrils.

 The Long Shadow is available in Greek from Okeanida as O Iskios tou Polemou and English:

Friday, June 16, 2017

Film fan or book buff? Elizabeth Gaskell's 'North and South'

Why not Both?

It always annoys me when people grumble about a film adaptation of a famous book.  They complain that the screen play differs from the original, that not every precious word uttered by their hero/heroine is included and search diligently and gleefully for any discrepancies in the historical settings.  What is not taken into account is that these are two quite different mediums of expression; the written word where elaborate descriptions can be included and conversations recorded in detail, and the visual, sounds and evocative expression of film.   A film is constrained by time and the producers demands and though many modern writers may feel equally constrained by their editors and publishers, most classical novels had liberty to ramble on at length.   Our educated ancestors desired long tomes and wordiness, lacking as they did the joys of television, cinema or dvd's to amuse themselves in spare moments. 

I recently re-read Mrs Gaskell's North and South as my literary tutor had set this book for our little group to study.  I agree with her, a first reading tends to be a little hurried, pages skipped in the desire to see how the story pans out.  Good books should always be read again when time has helped the contents to be mentally digested, the thrust of the story now half remembered with that delicious vagueness that time casts over it so that all appears as if new.  A second, even a third reading, will bring out passages missed or forgotten.  In Gaskell's novels, the central love story, on first reading so gripping, can then be seen in its context of the social turmoil of the times.  And her novels were certainly born in times of great turmoil in Britain.  We think we have divisiveness, poverty and problems now.  In the mid 19th century Britain had a great and rich industrial and colonial empire and yet the poverty and misery of the manufacturing towns was appalling, the contrast of rich and poor beyond belief.  The smugness of the idle rich and even the educated, who liked to shield themselves behind the idea that it was all God's will and a punishment on these wretches  - for some unexplained reason - is mind boggling to us now.
Charlotte Bronte

 The Chartist Movement had grown rapidly and there were problems such as the Luddite Riots which subject appears in Bronte' s book Shirley.  Her treatment of the strike and the manner in whcih her heroine saves her lover are simliar to that in North and South.  But Bronte had somewhat similiar heroines for whom love was their prevailing passion, the characters in Gaskell's novels are varied and though they fall in love, it is not the driving force of the story. 

Manchester in 19th century

Gaskell felt the unfairness of it all deeply and became a strong defender of the problems and sufferings of the Lancashire poor, spilling forth her feelings and compassion in her first novel, Mary Barton, published in 1848.   This appeared at about the same time as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and the two became firm friends.  Both authors were amazed at the reaction to their books; the anger of Gaskell's circle of friends dismayed her and her attempts to remain incognito were easily flushed out as Milton was so obviously Manchester where she lived.  Some chose to think she parodied them in her exposure of the middle class and wealthy mill owners.  They felt she was being one sided in portraying only the misery of the poor as driven by circumstances and starvation and the 'gentlefolk', as tyrants who ignored their plight in the comfort of nice homes, laden tables, smart clothes on their backs and pleasurable pursuits.  Nothing indicated the problems faced by the manufacturers, managers and mill masters who had the rise and fall of markets to consider and all the worries of keeping their businesses afloat in uncertain times.  They had all the responsibility while the workers just had to work hard and accept the problems if things went wrong.   Gaskell realised that the two sides simply did not communicate their problems to one another and in North and South, she redressed this by showing both sides of the question through the characters of  Mr Thornton, the master of Marlborough mill, with Higgins, the intelligent and hard working Union man who strives to unite the workers in order to demand a fairer wage. The two men begin to listen one to the other and gain some middle ground of compromise and ways of working together instead of in enmity.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell was born on the 29th September 1810 in Chelsea, London.   Her parents were members of the Unitarian Church and she met and later married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister.  The couple moved to Manchester to take up duties there amongst the many Unitarian churches of that area.  Unitarianism was a radical breakaway from the Anglican Church and did not see Jesus as divine but rather as a prophet of God.  A somewhat arid belief system, lacking as it did in mystery and feeling, it believed in the power of reason, education and freedom to think and question while women were considered as equal as the men.  Elizabeth, as a minister's wife, was to see both the comfortable middle class side of Manchester and also move amongst the poor and downtrodden.   Like Dickens she wanted to write about the terrible conditions she saw and was better fitted to do so because she actually lived amongst them where he had only visited such areas.   Dickens had by then established his magazine Household Words and invited her to include her story. Along with Dicken's  Hard Times, a similar type of social indictment, it was published in monthly instalments, thus tending to have 'cliff hanger' chapters which certainly gave plenty of melodramatic excitement.  In some ways, this style suits particularly well an adaptation to television series.

Their relationship began well but ended in difficulty as both were strong minded characters.  Gaskell refused to let Dickens rule her to much, sticking to her own ideas of how North and South should appear in its serialised form.  However, she did take up his idea that it should be called by the far more appropriate and thematic title and not Margaret Hale as was her original intention.  Dickens could be demanding and did subject her to some editorship, pushing her to finish North and South, which he felt was becoming far too long.

To quote Gaskell's own preface to the published edition ". . . the author found it impossible to develop the story in the manner originally intended and more especially was compelled to hurry on events with an improbable rapidity towards the close. . ."  But she also admitted that the tale was obliged to conform to certain conditions required by a weekly publication.

The Book: Full of Contrasts

 There is no doubt that this is a long book by modern standards but it never drags for me.  The characters in Gaskell's stories come alive through the keeness of her observation, the style and language is colloquial for she was interested in the Lancashire dialect, but easy to read.  There is drama but somehow more down to earth and less overwrought than Jane Eyre, a story which Gaskell found puzzling.  Her life and nature were very different to that of Charlotte, happy as she was in her husband's love, her children and pleasant home life.    Gaskell was a born storyteller, loved by many friends and admirers, socially in demand for the ease and interest of her conversation.  She loved to quote anecdotes, enjoyed gossip and stored up memories and ideas in many short stories which at first she wrote to amuse herself and escape from the demands of her busy life as a mother and minister's wife.   Though there is plenty of drama in her stories, they never seem unreal or impossible.  

North and South is a book where one feels Gaskell achieved a balance in her self and in her own mind.   She was a Libran, sign of the scales and lover of fairness equality and reason. It's title and the chapter headings are all a contrast of opposites.  The characters too are all in contrast to one another. We have Margaret Hale, a gentleman's daughter, reduced to lesser circumstances purely because her father feels it necessary to leave his calling as a Vicar. Mr Hale is thus an educated, thinking man with the luxury of a conscience, he has choices and the ability to survive despite a lowered income and expectations.  In contrast to educated, gentrified Margaret with her southern manners and notions we have a straight talking northern lass, Bessie Higgins, the daughter of an intelligent man but whose only choice in his life is to work like a slave in the mills and keep his motherless children.  Yet he too can be proud and refuse charity.  Bessie is nineteen, the same age as Margaret, but already sick and dying of a terrible lung disease (pneumoconiosis - which can be contacted even now by those working in the textile industries).   Margaret is struck by the contrast in their lives and attitudes.  The two girls form a deep, loving friendship and understanding.  In the book Bessie, constantly yearns for her death, believing fervently that she will be going to Heaven and a happier afterlife while her father is agnostic.  Higgins is thus opposite to Mr Hale who tussles with his beliefs but does not lose his faith in God. 

Then there are the contrasts of Mr Thornton's proud, strong, stately mother to the weak, complaining, dissatisfied mother of Margaret, his silly idle sister, Fanny, to the industrious and dutiful Margaret Hale.  And, of course, the whole contrasting change from the beautiful fields, lanes, cottages, roses and fresh air of Helston, the southern home of the Hales, uprooted as they are to the dark, dirty, smoky, greyness of Milton.   Thomas Hardy spoke of the feudal attitudes and agricultural problems, but this book addresses a different set of people, the rise of the modern industrial, manufacturing man, proud, unyielding, equally harsh in the treatment of his workers though he may himself have risen from their ranks as Thornton did. There is also the contrast of the noise of the mills and the constant whirring of the machinery, the busy crowded streets of the city to the peace of the countryside which the Hales have left behind them.  It is so beautifully done.

The book has often been compared to Austen's Pride and Prejudice and it does indeed contain similar themes such as Margaret's hostile, proud attitude and repressed dour character of Thornton.  But he is a self made man, not from landed gentry as Darcy is and frankly, I prefer his character and the struggle he has had to undergo to rise in the world.   He is allowed pride in his achievements where Darcy's are merely inherited.  Margaret is a less cheerful and vivacious character than Elizabeth Bennett, her life much harder.   But again, there is much to admire in her tenacity and strength in misfortune.  The pride between the lovers is on both sides as well as the prejudice. Both novels have two proposals and in both the hero is rejected before his truth worth really impresses itself on our heroine.   Both heroines have ineffectual mothers and somewhat absent fathers. Thornton's mother opposes the union as much as Darcy's aunt, Lady de Burgh.   But whereas Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners, witty and charming, North and South is dramatic, passionate, intense and explores deeper themes of inequality and social injustices.   It is a novel that is physical, brutal in parts, the sexuality unusually clear for a Victorian novel,  depicted through subtle moods, Margaret's physically saving of Thornton from the striking mob, scenes of anger, jealousy.  Intriguingly there is also a constant reference to hands and handshakes or the refusal of touch (hands are mentioned 237 times!) and the touching scene when Thornton watches Margaret pouring out tea and is fascinated by a bracelet that falls down her soft, white arm as she moves and which is constantly pushed back again only to fall back once more.  

TV Adaptation: Amazing scenic effects

Television is generally the best means to adapt a famous classical novel.  It can span four, six or more parts and the story can be more inclusive of the dialogue of the original book.  However, it is still time limited.  So how to adapt successfully without losing the force, feeling and cohesion of the original?   It is wonderful to be transported visually into the days of yore, to see one's favourite characters spring to life before one's eyes.   If this is well done, the book becomes even more compelling to the mind and heart, fixed in one's consciousness. The BBC adaptation which I watched was made in 2004, the screen play by Sandy Welch and directed by Brian Percival.  The cast were superb.  

In both the film and the book it is the characters of Thornton and his mother, Higgins the worker that remained with me.

Sinead Cusack as Mrs Thornton stayed in my mind perhaps more than any other actor.  She conveyed pride and dignity, strength and devotion and her attitude towards Margaret isn't too surprising in the circumstances.  She and her daughter, Fanny, see her as aloof and haughty, misunderstanding her southern attitudes.   Richard Armitage as Thornton, the mill owner, was handsome, brooding, dark, a little Heathcliffe-ish.  He is not so fierce and cruel in the book.  But the scenes which depict him as harsh and unyielding to poor, weak, Boucher are far more likely to have been acted by such a man in truth.  Plus, we have to recall the Mrs Gaskell upset her friends greatly in her first book Mary Barton where she showed the misery and plight of the downtrodden workers and attacked her own class by so doing.  In N and S she was careful to show both sides of the question and tamed Thornton's attitude somewhat.

Margaret Hale is well played by Daniela Denby Ashe though I felt she wasn't quite my image of the character - but that's personal.   The actress conveyed her sadness, intelligence, inner strength and feeling beautifully.  And Brendan Coyle as Higgins gives a magnificent portrayal of that kind, proud, strong man, one of the noblest characters in the book.  We see all the characters in the novel change and grow from their Pride and Prejudice attitudes to become softened, more feeling, more open and inclusive of each other's views. This change of feeling has to be shown in four one hour shows.  Thus it has to be condensed into visually striking scenes that can say a great deal more than whole passages in the book.  I feel it was admirably done.

"I believe I've seen Hell: it's white.  It's snow white"

This TV adaptation excels in the visual above all and this can be dramatic and immensely moving in a direct manner which may elude one through mere words.  The opening shots of the titles...which in themselves are very visual with the North in sturdy, block like, dark letters, the South in gentle, curling scripts, already begin to introduce us to the contrasts of the two areas.  We open with evocative music and a scene of the mill interior, the grinding of the machines, the monotonous, steady mechanical movements of the workers, working in unison, in and out, in and out with the long weaving engines.  They have in essence become a part of the iron monster they wield, individuality lost as they move in monotonous rhythm with it.  The air is like a snowstorm as cotton flies around them everywhere, settling on clothes, machines, floor, and entering their lungs. This scene is not in the book, in fact we never enter the mills at all and I doubt Mrs Gaskell ever did do so.  But she knew of the effects of such work.  It is a stunning scene and the sight of the little children employed to crawl beneath the machines to retrieve cotton, then hastily moving out before the machines clank their way back again is deeply moving as well as horrifying.  It sets the tone for the whole story.

True, the TV adaptation doesn't stick totally to the book, how could it?  It's a long and detailed book, some say overly long.  For instance, Mr Bell,  Mr Hale's Oxford friend and the owner of the mill properties, has to physically appear early on and plays a bigger part than he does in the book which I think works well.  The film shows plot movement through brief scenes, snatches of conversation and expressions indicating how the characters feel.  Much is conveyed between the lovers in long, throbbing looks, between all the varied characters in facial expressions of haughtiness, disgust, pain, gladness (I love Fanny's curling lip and sneering face).  Little shots here and there contrast the teeming, busy streets of the city, the rich and poor houses, the ragged participants with their starving children during the strike, the groaning banquet at the Thornton's home where the masters discuss how to squash the strikers and keep the mills grinding.

The ending of this four part series is the one most talked about.  In Gaskells story, as I have said, the ending was a little hurried and to my mind out of character.  Suddenly Margaret Hale, our brave, sensible heroine, who usually spurns men's sexual admiration and advances, becomes coy and quite daft, hiding her face in her hands and acting like any Victorian maiden.  The film ending, while keeping her a little shy and charmingly apologetic for the fact that she was, in essence, saving her man again, was far more visually dramatic, romantic and delightful.  This is after all a romantic story as well as a social one.  I feel sure Mrs Gaskell would have approved.   We ladies loved it!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Exhibition of Women's Fashions: The madness of a Wasp Waist

We women like to blame men for some of the foolish fashions we espouse, saying it’s what men like.  But the truth is that men can be conditioned into ‘liking’ a certain style of fashion and then began to expect their women to follow it.   Once a woman is seized by the idea that a certain look is attractive, she will go to any lengths to adopt it, even if it is harmful, punishing her body to conform with the fashionable look. Thankfully, fashions flow back and forth like the tides of the sea while some particularly obnoxious ones are washed away forever.

Amongst obnoxious fashions was the binding of feet by upper class ladies of Old China. 
tiny pointed shoes for bound feet
Young girls had their toes broken and bound from an early age so that they would have tiny little stumps to hobble on for the rest of their lives.  This was deemed feminine and attractive.   Apparently it made women walk in a certain way, much as very high heels do nowadays, which had an erotic effect on the men.  Such dainty, feminine, shoes no more than three or five inches at the most!  Can you imagine walking on such feet?  Imposed imprisonment and madness, typical exploitation of the female body we might say these days. . . . yet this fashion was apparently started by a tenth century court dancer, Yao Niang.  The men liked it, of course, as it kept women weak and in their place but they were not entirely to blame.  It was the
Bound feet
mothers who kept this up because it was not considered feminine to work in the fields and no self respecting upper class girl wanted to look like a servant or a farm woman with huge boats for feet.

Another horrible fashion or custom is genital mutilation (and there's a case for male circumcision too but that's another issue) Again it is the mothers who perform this ceremony on their daughters, a custom intended to reduce the dread threat of female sexual desire and promiscuity, keeping the girls virginal and pure.   All it does is make coitus and childbirth very painful, creating a lifelong trauma in the women and ghastly health problerms.   As for the mothers, well, it’s what they had endured, it was the ancient custom, it was what ‘men liked’ and deemed to be right – so why should their daughters escape what they had suffered?  Plus who would marry a girl with normal feet or genitals?   By now, their men wanted and expected such abnormalities.

It seems a woman's lot will always be connected with her body image and the pain of trying to conform to some current fashion.  Nowadays it’s all about dieting and keeping fit in a gym so that women should look toned and healthy which is certainly better than some of the weird practices of various native cultures and the ridiculous, distorting fashions of so called civilised societies. We’re into muscles now, not the soft, plump feminine flesh loved by men of yore.   It's as if women want to look more like pretty young boys.  And the usual desire to play about with the body is evident in the craze for breast implants, liposuction, botox, hair colourings in astonishing dreamy shades and all the other aids to youth and beauty – even though these are often proved to have harmful side effects.  The recent fashion is for youth and nowadays men also enter with enthusiasm into these fashionable ideals.  We cannot bear to age, we want to be eternally young, mobile and energetic, always busy, always rushing around in a frenzy of activity.  Age and its limitations, its calmer pace, its philosophical time for contemplation no longer has dignity but is viewed with horror.  The psychologist, Carl Jung would have called this a ‘puer/puella’ mentality.  The puer is the Greek name for the Eternal Youth, the Peter Pan syndrome in other words.  We are all, men and women, becoming Peter Pans.

All fashions that involve, mutilation, piercing, tattooing are ways of enhancing, elaborating or mortifying the flesh.  The popularity of thin stiletto heels  and the cramped pointed toes of the 1960's often created deformed feet and bunions in women (apart from ruining parquet floors and linoleums)   And we still want to wear enormously high heels despite the fact that the woman is constantly walking on tip toe and they can throw our pelvis or back out and are so uncomfortable when worn for too long a period.  They are considered erotic and make legs look longer and more shapely . . .  and so we wear them. 

Intriguingly, fashions also move around the body parts, the so called 'erogenous zones.'  The prudish Victorians showed considerable areas of flesh round shoulders and bust when young and single or when dressing up for theatre, opera and evening activities.  But showing an ankle or petticoat was most inflammatory it seems.  Hats also seem to have had an interesting significance through time and the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a trend setter of her day, introduced hats that almost swept the ceiling with their enormous plumes and piles of false hair.  They were often threatened by the candles in the chandeliers.  And the wide skirts of the 18th and 19th century were equally dangerous if a lady got too near to a fire or oil lamp.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

The advent of the corset is perhaps one of the oddest of all fashion items used to alter a woman’s figure.  Men have also used a corset, of course, and still do so (one of my Greek uncles used to wear one in his forties when his belly began to expand with too much moussaka).  Nowadays a strong corset may be used medically to help those with back problems, or in order to fit comfortably into certain clothes, or for erotic purposes and fetish wear but they are not as dangerous as some of the corsetry worn in other periods. The fashion went to its greatest extreme in the Victorian age when wasp waists became the rage.

Corsetry has been used for centuries, even practised by primitive tribes. Before this period,  corsetry was used by the Tudors but these corsets, which were fortified by 'buckram', a canvas material stiffened with glue, were intended to flatten the bust and not make impossible tiny waists.  In fact they were considered to be quite comfortable and supportive of all the heavy skirts and clothing of the period.  There is also mention of whalebone for stiffening in the lists of Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe.   In the usual shifting of erogenous zones, this was a time of flat busts.  Even nowadays, the flatter bust of clothes models is preferred to the big and busty look which is always associated with more erotic clothing and activities.  Though we all know that men generally prefer the latter shape!

However, like the process of footbinding and genital interference,  corsets were introduced early in a girl's childhood.  She was put into tiny little corsets to train her body into shape.  In the mid to late 19the century the fashion amongst young women took over to pull the waists in tighter and tighter until an incredible tiny waist was achieved making the body a very strange, wasp like shape.   They were very proud of having a waist that a man could span with his hands.  These began to be made less restrictive as doctors and wiser people began to realise just how some of the wasp waists were affecting a woman's health, squeezing her insides into a narrow and unnatural space.  It certainly must be one of the reasons heroines in books and in real life too were always fainting all over the place!  Interestingly there are also adverts for young boys using corsets at the time. But we don't hear of them lacing up and making wasp waists.  It isn't a dead fashion either.  There are still exponents of the wasp waist, both male and female in this day and age.

DonnaFugata, Sicily exhibition

The look in the Edwardian era shifted again and the oddest shape, the 'S' bend now emerged , where the bust was thrust forward and bottom thrust back.  Tiny waists as well.  Again, it affected a women's walk and posture.   Oh, oh, oh...the madness of wasp waists!

At a recent exhibition at the Villa Donnafugata in Sicily there were several examples of corsetry for children and ladies.   It has to be said these corsets look attractive and sexy.  The clothes of the time so beautiful.  But also uncomfortable and fussy and formal.  All the same, I'd rather like to sweep around in some of these dresses I found in an old fashion magazine!

child corsets
a child corset and two varied adult shapes.

Interesting sites:

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Making his Homes reflect Art and Character

 Rossetti was one of those unique, brilliant men who stand out amongst their contemporaries and remain fascinating figures for future generations.  It is true that his deep, searching, sometimes tormented poetry may no longer be considered of such interest, but his art still draws us with its colour, sensuality and mythical themes.

A home is a reflection of its occupants.  And it is interesting to see how homes change or are altered along with the character of the occupants, each new inhabitant putting their personal stamp upon them.  To my mind, a house, or anywhere we consider as home, becomes a reflection of our feelings and physical bodies, the symbolic place the soul inhabits.  Often when a building becomes neglected and starts to need repair, a person’s health also suffers as if the house is an outer shell to the human bodies within it.  Jung might have considered this as synchronicity but I have observed a definite relationship with bodies and surroundings and the places that draw us to them or the type of house we may want to live in but which life and fortunes deny us.  We still dream.  I always yearned for a villa in Italy but that’s not going to happen in this lifetime!   It isn’t because I couldn’t do so but I choose to stay in a country with which I am now familiar, near family and the English countryside I love. 

On the whole, woman was and still is largely the home maker and a house reflects much of her taste.  It’s always interesting to see how single men furnish or neglect their home!  Their taste is generally more sparse and utilitarian but perhaps things are changing as men and women share the task of homemaking far more. Gabriel Rossetti did share his first real home with his eventual wife, Lizzie Siddal, but after her death remained a widower till he died.  In his case, both of his important homes tended to reflect his own dominant, energetic, eclectic personality far more than a shared one.   And it was by no means a utilitarian or sparse taste.  It befitted such an artistic, flamboyant nature with a love of unusual and beautiful objects to delight the eye.  

Rossetti moved around London at first, renting studios.   He and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt, Stevens and Collinson chanced upon a beautiful old house along the riverside at Chelsea.  It was said to be built on the site of a mansion used by Queen Catherine Parr, Henry the Eighth’s last wife, and named Queen’s House or Tudor House.  It had a many bedrooms, sitting rooms, drawing rooms and a kitchen and cellars.  The young artists easily envisaged having a studio each.  But the rent and the long lease were more than they could afford and they regretfully gave up the idea, going for separate studios instead.  Gabriel took a room in Newman St. over the top of a dancing academy and continued to live at his parental home.

This was followed by a studio in the garden of a house called The Hermitage on Highgate’s West Hill. During this time, Gabriel was painting and falling deeply in love with his red-haired muse, Lizzie Siddal.   His fascination with the great Dante Alighieri, his namesake, led him to see Lizzie as his own Beatrice.  He often painted her as such in his varied pictures with Dantesque themes.   However, it was a complicated relationship due as much to the fact that their social standing was very different and so marriage seemed unlikely in those class-ridden times. They were said to be engaged but it was nothing definite or declared publicly. 

Lizzie Siddal (Rossetti archive)
Chatham Place, Blackfriars:

For various reasons, of which Lizzie was one, Gabriel needed a new ‘crib’.  He and his brother, William,  (who purportedly shared it and paid half the rent) eventually found rooms on the second floor of a house in Chatham Place, very close to Blackfriars Bridge and over the confluence of the Fleet and the Thames.  The buildings no longer exist sadly, part now of Blackfriars Station.  There were two rooms; one was to be the studio, the other a small bedroom with a balcony overlooking the river from whence arose the stench of sewage, meat thrown in from Smithfield’s and other unpleasant odours.  Londoners were used to the foulness of their river.  It was a busy river in those days and no doubt interesting.  It had its charms according to Gabriel’s visitors.

Lizzie as Beata Beatrix painted after her death
The rooms had windows on all sides and virtually hung out over the river, which made it light and cheerful. As always, Gabriel begged and borrowed furnishing from home, particularly mirrors which he considered essential for his studio. He was always fond of mirrors.  This, his first home, so to speak, reflected the young Rossetti.  It was cheerful, bright, adequate to his simple needs and his beloved Lizzie lived just a short distance away in the Old Kent Rd.  A convenient place therefore for her to model as well as remain and dine with him, allowing them to enjoy each other’s company without interference.   George Boyce, an artist friend, wrote that it was a picturesque place, especially at night with the gas lamps on the bridge and wharf side shedding their wavering reflections on the river.  Here was enjoyed the intelligent, good-hearted  company of gentlemen who could speak freely without need for coarseness or fear of public mores and opinions.  The whole ethos of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood . . . and they did indeed feel like brothers at first . . . was that it was to be about truth, freshness, no pretentious nonsense, secrecy or chiaroscuro.   It seems that these were Gabriel’s happiest days; deeply in love yet uncommitted, his greatness rising and manifesting itself in his poetic and artistic works with more beautiful work still to come.  Poetry in his heart and soul.  Simplicity was the order of the day then.  He disliked ‘tobacco, tea, coffee, stimulants’, drank water, allowing others in his usual easy going and uncritical manner to imbibe what they would.  How different he became in later life when disappointment, tragedy and depression overcame that sweet, pure young soul.

Rossetti at last committed himself to marriage with Lizzie in 1860.  They had been together for so many years that love had altered to companionship and mutual understanding but the fires of passion had long gone.  By this time Lizzie, always a sensitive, refined woman had become sickly, perhaps a little hypochondriac, unhappy and sad, reliant on laudanum to ease her pains of mind and body, feeling that Rossetti was now replacing her with younger models and perhaps in love with them.  But his love for her was real and constant in its way even though, as with all long-term relationships, well past the ‘first fine careless rapture’.   He had at one point broken off their engagement but knowing she was very ill, married her as much from pity as anything else.  Sadly, in 1861 she lost her eagerly desired first child, a stillborn girl, becoming pregnant again almost immediately that year. Whether she suffered from postnatal depression, or was heart broken because she felt that Rossetti’s love was slipping away and thus committed suicide, we shall never really know.  Ford Madox Brown destroyed the note she left and the verdict was recorded as an accidental overdose.

Tudor House, Cheyne Walk  

Cheyne Walk in early 1800's
By 1869, Gabriel had changed greatly.  He was now addicted to drugs and alcohol . . .  this the young man once desirous of being clear-headed and inwardly pure!  From a slender, handsome young man he was now corpulent, said to eat enormous amounts of food where once he had lived simply and lightly. 

After Lizzie’s death, Rossetti was able to achieve his earlier dream of renting the house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, the large, rambling place called Tudor House. Thus, his new home was now enlarged like himself!  It was a quiet, out of town location along the Thames close to the Chelsea Physic Garden and the Royal Hospital.  Now as the centre of the bustling London Metropolis, it is hard to imagine that it was once such a quiet peaceful backwater with moorings, landing places and boats and barges sailing past.  There was no embankment built at that time and occasionally the tides would flow over from the river and flood his cellars. The house itself is still there and very imposing, with its elegant courtyard and well-proportioned windows and doorways.

Cheyne Walk today

 16 Cheyne Walk.  You can just see the blue plaque behind me.
The Sitting Room at 16, Cheyne Walk by Henry Treffry Dunn (a studio assistant of Rossetti)

At first, Rossetti hoped to be able to bring all the women of his family together in the large house to take care of the place and himself.   Marriage held no attractions for him.  One doubts if it ever did and if his release from the invalid, Lizzie, was not a relief deep down in his heart, much as he grieved her loss and grieved for old memories of passionate love.  However,  grief or not, within a very short while, he installed Fanny Cornforth, his golden haired model of many years, purportedly as the housekeeper.  Fanny, who did love Rossetti, had by now left her husband whom she had married in a sort of pique when Rossetti married Lizzie.   She was followed by Swinburne the poet, Meredith the novelist and William Rossetti who also now occupied the large house.   Rossetti was an individualist and a loner, yet like many such loners, he did not want his own company for too long.   He needed people around him, needed recognition while at the same time spurning it.  A complex character.  The whole idea of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded on the idea of non-conformity to the given artistic values of his day.  Rossetti steadfastly refused to enter his pictures in the Royal Academy and exhibited them privately if at all.  Yet as he grew older, hopes of nomination did arise.  Thus do we all change our tunes as we grow older and become the very thing we once despised!

Tudor house began to take shape in the style of Rossetti.  The large, spacious, beautiful rooms slowly filled with amazing and unusual items picked up from curiosity shops, a mix of high quality articles and junk.  Many of the items were used in his pictures as background; furnishings, materials, peacock feathers, pieces of jewellery.  None of the decorative jewellery was of any real value, his favourite being the pearl pin, which features in many portraits.  Sadly, this has not survived though other items did.  While away with his brother William in Antwerp, the two men enjoyed themselves scouring old shops for brooches, ‘a large jar with blue birds’ old prints and varied items.  When a fried, Henry Munby, dined with Rossetti he was amazed and fascinated by the wonderful drawing room filled with so many objects, curios, mirrors on ever wall, pictures and Italian cabinets, Dutch blue tiles on the fireplaces.  He walked up and down the room, examining everything with delight absorbing ‘the aroma of its manifold romance’.  On another occasion, an evening this time, he found the room bathed in the glow of the firelight with huge Elizabethan candlesticks gleaming on ebony furnishings, silver gilt dishes  and flagons, creating a delightful ambience of poetry and beauty.  Rossetti lived out his inner romance through his house and his unique style of furnishing.  The intriguing and eclectic mix also reflected Rossetti’s own interests and the breadth of his conversation which all those who loved and knew him acknowledged to be erudite and filled with arcane as well as modern knowledge.

Rossetti's bedroom reflected in a mirror by H T Dunn.

The strangest room in the house was Rossetti’s bedroom, which was particularly dark and heavy.  In it he installed a dark black mantelpiece that rose to the ceiling. 
According to Hall Caine, the bedroom ‘was entered from another and smaller room, used as a breakfast-room. This outer room was made fairly bright and cheerful by a glittering chandelier (the property once, he said, of David Garrick), and from the rustle of trees against the window pane one perceived that it overlooked the garden; but the inner room was dark with heavy hangings round the walls as well as the bed, and thick velvet curtains before the windows, so that candles seemed unable to light it and voices sounded thick and muffled.’
The thickly curtained windows, the heavy hangings around the dark oak four-poster bed reflected Gabriel’s inner state.  While the rest of the house glowed with colours, imagination, brilliant objects as did his portraits, here were the dark, depressed thoughts with which Gabriel lay down to his slumbers and to which he awoke. 

Rossetti now turned to becoming an avid collector.

Blue Porcelain:

One of Rossetti’s most obsessive and passionately acquired collections was for blue porcelain.  When living with Lizzie, he had begun with standard willow pattern pieces.  (Intriguingly, the willow pattern design appears to have originated in England based on a tragic Chinese love story and then adapted by the Chinese for their designs.)  Then Gabriel began to collect beautiful pieces of ware from Nanking.  This particular porcelain, painted with greater precision and detail and with finer glazes, was considered superior to the Canton china.  China produced a great deal of the blue and white ware in the 18/19th century when it became highly popular both in the States and in Europe. The exquisite blue colour was derived from Persian Cobalt, exported to China and used to make bowls, ginger jars, vases, plates and so on.  The craze for this blue found its way to Europe, where it took hold in Parisian circles.  One can imagine how it might appeal to the artistic society: something about this colour draws us to it all the time, spiritual, sky, heaven, purity, calm and peaceful.  Certainly, something needed in the rather zany household of Rossetti and his friends.

His great rival in collecting was the artist Whistler who lived close by.  They tried to outdo one another by buying up choice pieces from antique shops, the Oriental warehouse in Regent Street and abroad.  ‘My pots now baffle description altogether. Come and see them!’ said the exultant Rossetti to his friend Ford Madox Brown.  Whistler was said to eat his heart out with envy if Gabriel secured a particularly splendid piece.  And no doubt vice-versa as well!

The Zoo

His other famous collection was of varied animals, which he kept in his garden.  The garden flourished in a wild state, left as Nature intended for the ‘survival of the fittest.’ In it roamed peacocks, whose irritating noise kept neighbours awake and indeed resulted in Lord Cadogan inserting a clause into the lease of Tudor House forbidding that these birds be kept in the garden. Other inmates of this scatterbrained zoo were a deerhound, a barn owl, rabbits, dormice, hedgehogs, wombats of which Gabriel was particularly fond, lizards, salamanders, parrots armadillos and a kangaroo.  A fierce zebu (an Indian bull) was also brought in which turned out to be so ungovernable, chasing Gabriel into the house and almost uprooting the tree to which it had been tethered, that it was promptly resold.   The animals were mainly kept in specially built cages but unfortunately, Rossetti was as ignorantly neglectful of these myriad pets as he was of the women in his life. Many ate one another, burrowed their way out of the garden or simply died from lack of adequate nutrition and care.  One of the armadillos was said to have turned up in a neighbour’s kitchen much to the horror of the cook.

There was even talk of buying a lion, gorilla or an elephant. Not a garden for the dainty to enter!  Thankfully this didn’t happen.

Images of Jane Morris

Gabriel’s studio also reflected his desire to collect.   He collected feminine beauty in the form of first Lizzie, his Beatrice, then later with his compulsive longing to possess Jane, the wife of his friend William Morris.   He could not quite do so (though it is generally assumed they were lovers (perhaps not physically however) but he possessed her as his muse and model’  Her image looked out on all sides of his studio, the place where he could indeed possess his loved ladies, stacked against the walls, sketches and drawings, paintings and photographs.  Rossetti was searching all his life for this inner muse, his anima figure and felt that she eluded him, as do all writers, musicians and artists for we can never really capture this inner being in flesh and blood.  Both Lizzie and Jane became beauties in his portraits though neither was especially handsome and even slightly masculine in their looks.   Dark haired Jane seemed to reflect the Italian genes far more.  

Jane as Blanzifiore (Snowdrop)

Gabriel did move into Kelmscott with Jane and William later in life but it was never his home as such, rather reflected the taste of Jane and William and their family.   He kept the tenancy of Tudor House till he died.  By then the animals were long gone, the garden totally overgrown and Rossetti a complete wreck.  Fanny Cornforth remained faithful to him all his life but she was never a great love of his, rather a person with whom he could relax, feel comfortable and cared for knowing she truly loved him.  It is always good to feel loved.   However, the mores of the times prevailed and Fanny was not considered a suitable person to attend his funeral and kept away.  In April, 1882, Rossetti died on Easter Day, aged 54, at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, his last and temporary home.

photo of Jane Morris (Rossetti archive.org)

Main Sources:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Painter and Poet by Jan Morris Weidenfield and Nicholson, London.   To my mind one of the best accounts of his life.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, An Illustrated Memorial of His Art and Life
Blanzifiore (Snowdrops) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti :: artmagick.com
Google Images

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.