Is The Essex Serpent Just a Mirage?

There’s a wonderful scene in the March section of The Essex Serpent where Cora Seaborne and William Ransome are walking through the village and come to the riverbank; one of the barges seen out in the estuary appears to double in size and develop sails that it never had before. Both of them are aware that they have seen something special, but it doesn’t take long for the ever rational Ransome – unusual for a Victorian vicar – to have explained it all away as a form of mirage called a Fata Morgana.

Unlike many other forms of mirage, a Fata Morgana is so called because it significantly distorts the original image, forming a mirage that looks nothing like the original object; so the barge would transform into a three-masted man’o’war in full sail rather than just appear upside down in the air, for example. There are suggestions that the legend of The Flying Dutchman, the ghost ship that can never go home, is a Fata Morgana; they are rare and unusual sights, although they can be seen anywhere where the atmospheric conditions are right.

This begs the question of whether the Essex Serpent is a mirage, rather than either a genuinely prehistoric creature (as Cora believes, which would make it another version of the Loch Ness Monster if it existed) or completely imaginary (as Ransome has always maintained). If it were shown to be a mirage, the locals would understand that although they were not imagining things but that the threat was not real; and it would also prevent the village from being overrun by well-meaning amateur scientists intent on capturing the beast.

I’m still in the middle of the book and I have no idea whether the Essex Serpent is a mirage or not. Part of me hopes that it is, because it would allow everyone to save face; but there is much more to this story than just a submerged creature which I must admit I’m enjoying a lot more.


A Girl and Her Fossils

I have quite a vivid memory, if I’m honest, of a plate in my well-read (and now sadly lost) copy of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia, of a young woman of indeterminate age in full Victorian flounce, attacking a spiral etched in rock with a small hammer. I remember thinking that the lace around her bonnet was a bit much and surely her bloomers would get damp as the tide looked like it was only three feet behind her. Such sartorial considerations aside, I was reliably informed by the caption that Mary Anning was the foremost fossil hunter of her time and excavated most of the Dorset coast around Lyme Regis.

Whether or not all of this is true – Mee was well known for rendering his work child-suitable in often hilarious ways – the name lodged itself in the back of my brain to a point where any mention of Lyme Regis provoked a reminder. However, outside of the brief biography given by Mee in the Encyclopedia, I have to be honest, I know next to nothing about a woman who was clearly at the forefront of amateur palaeontology in her time.

Anning was born in Lyme Regis to a cabinet maker who supplemented his income by selling found fossils – presumably usually of ammonites and such like – to tourists and amateur geologists who visited the cliff area now known as the Jurassic Coast. It didn’t take long for the children of the family to earn their keep picking up fossils on the sea front for their father to sell, but it was Mary for whom this became a lifelong passion.

Her work led to changes in scientific thinking about geology and palaeontology in general, and indeed, Anning discovered the first intact ichthyosaur, the first intact plesiosaur and the first English pterosaur skeletons, as well as correctly identifying coprolites as fossilised dinosaur poop and many important fish fossils. Despite all of this, and despite the acknowledgment she received from many geologists around the world, she was not permitted to join the Geological Society because she was female – indeed, many of its members tried to take credit for her discoveries.

And yet, I remained slightly peculiar amongst children of my age in that I had minimal interest in dinosaurs and fossils, and consequently minimal interest in Mary Anning. This is a criminal shame, because she is vitally important to the history of science and really must not be forgotten. She should be an inspiration to young women of all ages who think that following their passion is not going to get them anywhere. What can I say? Ichthyosaurs don’t discover themselves… and all those geologists busy buying fossils from a seaside stall were missing what a teenage girl was bringing to the surface.

Losing A Tradition

After a recent bereavement, I found myself looking at Victorian mourning clothing on Pinterest – not that I was planning on wearing it as I didn’t know the deceased particularly well, but I do think that there are certain mourning customs that we’ve lost over the years and not necessarily for the better. The main one I did like a lot was the custom of mourning jewellery.

This tradition is centuries old; I have seen mourning rings dating from the Tudor and Stuart periods. These are often relatively plain items which are engraved with the name and date of death of the deceased and would, I assume, be worn by the next of kin as they often resemble wedding bands. Obviously, such items would only be acquired by the wealthy – the price of a wedding band was out of the budget of the majority of people in that age.

The heyday of mourning jewellery was, amazingly, the Georgian period; there are some wonderful memento mori brooches and rings which look eminently wearable and their true meaning need only be revealed if asked. The majority are diamond, pearl and/or enamel in gold, often featuring a skull or skeleton, or even an eye with a crystal tear. Again, though, these items are more for the wealthy; if the working classes wore such items, they do not appear to have survived the centuries unless they are in the plainer, Tudor tradition.

The Victorian era saw mourning become much more “regulated”, with distinct periods for various relatives for the deceased (a widow was looking at five years in various stages of mourning), each of which had its own dress code. For the first three years, a widow wore nothing but black and consequently jet jewellery became the thing to wear. Whitby was the centre of the jet industry for years (and still produces some wonderful examples) and produced everything from mourning tiaras (presumably for attendance at Court) to beads, brooches and, of course, rings.

One funerary tradition which is perhaps best left in the past is hair jewellery. It was immensely popular during the Georgian and Victorian eras and began with taking a lock of the deceased’s hair and placing it in a pendant or ring. Gradually, it became popular to weave or embroider the hair into an elaborate design which is then placed in a pendant. Some of these are remarkably detailed; I have seen sprays of flowers and even a classical temple, all embroidered from hair.

Hair jewellery was probably a tradition practised by poorer people who wanted a keepsake; as many of the women would have had extremely long hair, it was often woven into bracelets or ribbons holding a valued piece of jewellery and worn by a female member of the family (I doubt the menfolk would have been able to do so, as they would probably have lost it while working). There are some lovely examples of this kind of thing, but whether or not one would wear that kind of thing now is quite another matter.

And finally – the mourning ring of the Chief Mourner herself, Queen Victoria. Quite a glum affair, if I’m honest, being a combination of jet and mother of pearl. It does seem a shame though that the tradition of the mourning jewellery has become lost over time. Perhaps this is a tradition that could do with coming back?

Whistler – The White Girl

Alongside Manet’s controversial picture, Lunch in the Garden, James MacNeill Whistler exhibited what appeared to be an uncontroversial portrait to which he gave the title Symphony in White No. 1, starting his trend for giving musical titles to his artworks. The painting shows a young woman in a white dress standing near a chair with her hair down. It’s relatively inoffensive (in that everyone has their clothes on) and well executed. So why was it refused exhibition space in the main Salon?

Well, the clue is in the official title. It’s white; very white. In fact the only picture I can think of that had more white than this is Monet’s The Magpie but that was still some years in the future. You would be hard pushed not to use it as a test card when buying paint in a DIY store.

The girl in the painting wears a white dress before a white curtained window from which shines brilliant sunlight, bleaching the colours and making everything appear even whiter than they probably were. It is, if you like, an exercise in subtlety; the shades of white do vary but you really have to be paying attention to notice. The brightest colour is in the model’s hair; red enough to provoke comparisons with the Pre-Raphaelites and for Whistler to be branded an eccentric.

In fact, the most colour found in the painting is in the bearskin rug on which the model stands. Interestingly, the head of the rug faces the viewer – the mouth is open, an aggressive stance in an otherwise entirely passive picture. Much has been made of the possible symbolism of the rug – placid femininity trampling on boorish masculinity – but I’m actually reminded of the Strength card in the Tarot. I’ve no idea whether or not that was intentional.

Given that the Impressionists were interested in the play of light in painting and how best it could be represented, Whistler’s picture very clearly shows how strong light bleaches colour, making bright shades even brighter and actually quite painful to the eyes. It’s a fascinating study and technically well done; but if I’m honest, apart from the rug there isn’t really anything to it.

Is Zola Mocking the Impressionists

Reading his novel L’Ouevre (The Masterpiece), which is the companion volume to La Bête Humaine and featuring Jacques Lantier’s brother Claude as the main character, you would be hard pushed, I think, to be able to tell. It is, in part, the story of the early Impressionists and, in particular, the Salon des Refuses of 1863, where Manet’s controversial masterpiece, Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe (Lunch in the Garden) was first exhibited to the Parisian public. Indeed, this painting is the inspiration for Lantier’s work “En Plein Air” (Open Air) which features a number of nude females and one single fully dressed male, and makes his name in the art world. His obsession with matching it and creating his masterpiece, a portrait of Paris, is what leads to his downfall.

One of the problems with this novel is that Zola himself knew a lot of the Impressionists; he grew up with Cezanne, knew both Manet and Monet and reported as an art critic on the Salon des Refuses; but as he got older his tastes changed, and the Impressionists were no longer his thing. In fact, as they had become increasingly successful, he became increasingly critical and fell out with most of them. Certainly, Cezanne never spoke to him again after reading this novel and Monet distanced himself from Zola for some time after he’d read it.

Is the novel really that critical of the Impressionists? Well, it’s very hard to see that it is. It shows the artists as creative, with friendly rivalries and lots of banter – which I think is the case in any group, regardless of their profession. Lantier is shown as highly passionate and tempestuous, but is this unrealistic? It was considered to be so common among painters that it became known as the “artistic temperament”, although these days we’d probably say they were being a bit of a diva. Given what is known about the public reactions to the paintings shown in the Salon des Refuses, it would be hard to say that Zola’s portrayal of the artist is that unfair.

That said, it is known that both Cezanne and Monet were deeply offended by Zola’s novel, and in particular what they saw as Zola’s betrayal of their friendship. I wonder if this is the real root of Zola’s growing criticism; as the artists are no longer his friends, he doesn’t see why he needs to be nice and if the paintings aren’t up to scratch then he wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. By his later years, the Impressionists were starting to be superseded by the Post-Impressionists, artists such as Gaugin and Van Gogh, who painted more primitive images in more vibrant colours and I’m not sure Zola was that impressed with this new trend either, although by this stage he was more interested in political journalism than art.

I’m not sure that Zola did intend to either criticise or mock the Impressionists; he was one of their early champions in the French press and I sense a considerable amount of affection for them in this novel. I think it was their reaction to it which changed things, and this has coloured how people read the book, I think. Personally, it’s not his best novel but it remains very readable and his vision of mid-nineteenth century Paris is lovely – even when it’s pouring with rain.

Madame Schreck’s Monstrous Brothel

I’m struggling a bit with Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus. I’ve only really read her short stories before, which I quite like, but I seem to be having a bit of a love/hate relationship with this longer work. It reads beautifully and the language is wonderful, but it annoys the hell out of me and even though I can’t seem to stop reading it, I’m not finding it enjoyable. People’s reactions to Marmite are less complicated.

There is a section about mid-way through Part 1 where Fevvers, the main character who is a giantess with wings (put very basically indeed) is enticed into working for Madame Schreck, a brothel keeper in Victorian London. Unusually, Fevvers doesn’t get sexually involved with the clients; she is there to be looked at rather than touched. But I was fascinated by the whole concept of Madame Schreck’s brothel; it was a house of freaks and catered for very specific tastes indeed.

All the girls are “monsters”; there is a dwarf, a girl who sleeps apart from fifteen minutes a day to eat and poop, a girl with four eyes, a fully functioning hermaphrodite, and Madame Schreck herself is a living skeleton. Yet they are all astonishingly ordinary.

The Victorians loved a freak show and before he died (and became a medical marvel) John Merrick, the Elephant Man, spent some years being exhibited at fairs around the country. I am sure that Madame Schreck would argue that she is simply following a trend and satisfying her public’s appetite for the monstrous. Like the music hall acts that feature in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, there’s a very dark side lurking behind Victorian London and I find I absolutely love it.

I Blame Baudelaire

It’s the odd throwaway comment in Nights at the Circus that catches my eye, then sticks in my brain and festers until I do something about it. Business at Ma Nelsons, the brothel where Fevvers is raised, is slowing down as younger men find their tastes lie elsewhere; Fevvers declares later, dictating her autobiography, “I blame Baudelaire”. This is followed by a brief explanation that the poet, whose work ranks highly in my estimations, felt strongly that prostitutes were to be viewed as sources of horror rather than pleasure.

I know Carter was familiar with Baudelaire’s work; her short story, Black Venus, is about his lover, Jeanne Duval, and her relationship with the poet. So this comment would have been made in the knowledge of his poetry and his view of women generally. It’s been a while since I last read Baudelaire – and in fact, the last poem of his I did read dealt with his ennui and wish for death – but I’m not sure my memory of Les Fleurs du Mal concurs with this assertion.

Jeanne Duval was also a “working girl” (as it were) and I can’t reconcile his love for her with her job being the source of horror. However, I can reconcile his love for her being the source of horror – it must be difficult to feel yourself completely under someone else’s spell, and it’s pretty clear on my reading of them that she inspired quite a lot of his poetry. However, as I said, it’s a while since I last read any Baudelaire, so I’m going to stop here and refresh my memory before I drop myself in it any further.

Caliban and the Aztecs

It’s okay – I have read the Tempest all the way through, and I do know that Caliban and his mother Sycorax were exiled from Algiers, so there’s no way he could be Mesoamerican. It’s a thought worth following through though, especially when you consider Prospero’s treatment of them when he, in turn, arrives on the island and how it reflects on the Spanish Conquista of South America, which was well underway at the time Shakespeare was writing the play.

Caliban and Sycorax had long been exiled on the island (which is never named) for some years when Prospero arrived. So far as it is possible to tell, they were alone apart from Ariel, an elemental spirit Sycorax used to work her magic; but after disobeying a whim, she imprisoned Ariel in a pine tree for twelve years. Prospero freed the spirit on the condition that Ariel served him and – in due course – Ariel would gain his freedom.

Almost immediately, Prospero treats Caliban and Sycorax as – at best – slaves and at worst beasts. The language used to describe them is bestial, violent and suggesting that they are savage, uncivilised and freakish – even though Prospero was treated respectfully and had shown Prospero around the island. This is very similar to how the Spanish were treated by the Mesoamericans when they arrived in South America. The Aztecs and Incas, in particularly, treated the Spanish very civilly, but were slaughtered on mass for their riches. One can only assume if Prospero would slaughter Caliban if he were no longer of any use to him.

This imagery is reinforced when Caliban meets Trincolo and Stephano in Act 2, and his reaction to meeting new people is shown to the audience for the first time. This is not the action of a savage beast – but of someone not used to people unlike himself. And the attitude of the Neapolitans when they meet him is that of the conqueror rather than the friend.

There is a lot here to provoke discussion about culture and colonialism, and this makes the Tempest a very rewarding play.

Machiavelli Would Have Been Proud

One of the interesting things about The Tempest is how Alonso, the King of Naples, is almost usurped by his brother Sebastian, at the instigation of Antonio – who in turn had already usurped his brother Prospero as Duke of Milan. While the political arguments Antonio produces could have come straight from the pages of The Prince (and I don’t doubt this text was well known in the Tudor and early Stuart Courts), it’s the fact that the throne of Naples is what’s at stake here.

Alfonso Borgia, Cesare and Lucrezia’s grandfather, was made cardinal by the then King of Naples – who was also the King of Aragon and the Borgias were, in fact, a Spanish family. If I were going to add insult to injury, I would also point out that Machiavelli was a courtier to the Borgias and it was in their service that he wrote The Prince, which essentially justified their behaviour in the quest for obtaining and retaining power. So there is a clear link between Shakespeare, the Borgias and an important political textbook, all of which is embodied in the character of Antonio.

It must be remembered that at the time Shakespeare was writing, Italy was not a unified country but a collection of city states ruled by various families. The Borgias ruled Naples, the Medici ruled Florence and the Pope controlled Rome – whether or not the occupants of the various thrones actually came from those areas. As I said, the Borgias were originally Aragonese, and Naples was gained by a combination of force and manipulation after the death of Queen Joanna of Naples in the mid-15th century. There’s no doubt that Machiavelli would have been aware of the origins of the family he served, and in writing his masterpiece he would have argued that usurping the throne from a useless monarch was not only acceptable, but completely justifiable.

Which is exactly what Antonio suggests in Act 2 of The Tempest, as Alonso is distraught at the apparent death of his son and is clearly incapable of running any kind of country. If he were out of the way then the clearer headed Sebastian could take over….

I’d like to think that any courtiers who saw The Tempest in the 16th century would have understood the Machiavellian references and approved of the portrayal of the Borgian mindset as villainous. I do think, though, that Machiavelli would have been proud to have inspired such a character.

A Tempestuous Rivalry

Reading about the Borgias has not only refreshed my memory of A Level 16th Century History, but also shed a little light on a Shakespearean puzzle. In the Tempest, Prospero is the exiled Duke of Milan (Antonio, his brother, having usurped the title) and Alonso is King of Naples. It struck me as odd that Prospero should be so keen to wed his daughter, a princess of Milan, to the son of the Neapolitan king – but in the context of the politics of the time (and given that there was a Catholic monarch on the throne as well) it could be seen as promoting peace in the Mediterranean as well as the wishes of Rome.

I’ve only just got up to the accession of Rodrigo Borgia to the throne of St Peter (and now know more than I ever wanted to about how popes are elected) and how he manipulates the rulers of Milan and Naples. It is possible to suggest that Borgia had divided loyalties up to a point – as a Catalan, he owed some loyalty to Naples, which was a fiefdom of the throne of the now united Spain; but he would not have been elected pope had it not been for the efforts of Cardinal Sforza, related to the Dukes of Milan and allied to the French. He could not really afford to be caught between warring factions and endeavoured to keep the peace between the rulers as much as possible.

The Reformation could not have been an easy time to be in England either, as the state lurched from Protestant King to Catholic Queen to Protestant Queen to Catholic King. Shakespeare would have had to tread very carefully in his politics if he wanted his plays to be performed – unless he knew that he was dying and didn’t really care whether The Tempest were performed or not. As a Scot, James VI/I would have probably sided with the Milanese over the Neapolitans, but as a Catholic, he would follow the will of the pope, and if that promoted Naples, then Naples it would be. Joining the sides in a dynastic marriage would be the solution to the knotty problem, and given the fact that this is the option Shakespeare uses in his play, I don’t doubt the King would have been well pleased.