Subversive Shakespeare

Knowing how bad I am with poetry, not even my love of the Bard could persuade me that there was anything interesting in the sonnets. However, I am currently reading Hidden Shakespeare by Nicholas Fogg, and some of the things it mentions about his poetry have changed my opinion on this point. In particular, his sonnets are actually highly subversive – if you are at all interested in that kind of thing.

First of all, though, one needs to know a little about the history of the sonnet. Essentially a fourteen line poem with a distinctive rhyming structure (which I think is abbaabbaccdd), it was previously used to vocalise courtly love. Now, this is a concept unfamiliar to most modern ears, but essentially, the object of one’s affections must be sexually unavailable (and preferably married to someone else). So, for example, it would be the kind of poetry that a knight would offer to the wife of his liege lord.

Dividing Shakespeare’s sonnets into three distinct groups will help our analysis; group 1 would be the homoerotic sonnets; group 2 would be the “Dark Lady” sonnets; group 3 would be sonnets that don’t fit either of the two previous groups. And this is where the subversion becomes apparent.

Shakespeare obviously took the view (mischievously) that if a sonnet is to be addressed to a person who is sexually unavailable, then why not address sonnets to a man? There is no indication that Shakespeare was gay, and indeed, homosexuality in the Tudor era carried the death penalty. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the sonnets are addressed to Shakespeare’s then patron, the Earl of Southampton, who was well known as being young, handsome and very much an Eligible Bachelor. Within his intimate circle, the suggestion would be that Shakespeare was mocking the sonnet form.

He further mocked it in the Dark Lady sonnets. These are extremely bawdy and sexual and I don’t doubt are written from experience; some of them seem very close to Baudelaire, some three hundred years later. Who the Dark Lady was is, to me, a pointless question – it wasn’t Anne Hathaway, that’s for certain. What is more important is that these sonnets breach the fundamental courtly love rule – the object of these sonnets is definitely sexually available.

I may now have to read the sonnets a little more carefully now I’ve found out a bit more about them. Who knew fourteen line poetry could be so interesting?

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Bug Ugly!

Don’t panic – this isn’t anything like as large as it looks. The acorn weevil is tiny and can often only be seen under a microscope – which given how it looks, is probably no bad thing. Have you ever seen a more peculiar creature? It reminds me of nothing more than a medieval plague doctor.

At the end of the weevil’s beak are two tiny pincers which it uses to bore a hole into the side of a young acorn. It lays its eggs inside the kernel and as both the acorns and larvae grow, the larvae will eat their way out of the acorn leaving just a shell. Infested acorns are easily spotted by the tiny holes in the kernel. What with the weevils and the gall wasps, it’s amazing any intact acorns actually manage to become oak trees!

I must admit that when I first saw the acorn weevil, I was fascinated by the large round eyes and tiny little beige hairs covering its face. It looks like some kind of cute alien. It’s the angled antennae on the beak that fascinate me; that must be a unique feature. It’s not one I’ve seen before and I’m not entirely sure of their purpose – any resident entomologists out there who could explain it for me?

That said, acorn weevils are a pest and if you have an oak tree, it might be an idea to keep an eye on any fruits it produces as the grubs will hibernate underground before developing into adults and climbing into the trees to cause their havoc.

The Gall of the Oak

I love trees. That’s not really news if you know me, nor is it news that I am often finding little oak seedlings growing in my garden due to forgetful squirrels and jays. However, watching a recent documentary on the BBC led me to realise how little I actually knew about this wonderful plant. Out of a host of wonderful and amazing things, the oak gall must be one of the most fascinating.

Oak galls are formed when tiny wasps – the oak gall wasp, unsurprisingly – lays its egg in the female flower of an oak tree. As the flowers are what form the acorn, as they develop, instead of forming acorns the flowers turn into huge, strangely shaped growths from which the larvae of the wasp grow and finally hatch. It is not unusual to find a twig containing three or four acorns and at least one gall. The other acorns will be unaffected.

What I did find interesting is that there is more than one species of gall wasp, and each species creates a uniquely shaped gall. Some are round and quite plain, others have offshoots that look like tentacles. There are quite a few distinct species of gall wasp in Europe and America, so lots of galls to collect if you fancy an unusual hobby.

Oak galls were also used to make ink; and this ink proved to be incredibly important to historians. By crushing oak galls and combining them with iron sulphate and a binding agent, a dark blue-black ink is created which not only darkens over time but is quite permanent. From the earliest years of writing legal documents, this ink was used to create a permanent record and is still used today in the form of “registration ink” – this is what is used to write birth, marriage and death certificates.

It is striking how something that is a pest to a tree can actually produce something so useful and – when you explore the variety of oak galls – unusual. If I hadn’t watched this documentary, I would never have known just how varied and fascinating the product of the oak gall wasp could be.

Mending Pots with Gold

I don’t like Cora Seaborne’s late husband. I think to call him a sadist is bordering on understatement. He’s a vile man and I’m beyond delighted that he dies very early in Sarah Perry’s novel, The Essex Serpent. At one point he tells his wife that he will break her, but like the Japanese, “he will repair her with gold”. I could probably write an essay discussing what exactly he meant by that (he does at least leave her financially independent on his death) but I’ve decided instead to explore kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with precious metals. Gold was the most commonly used, but there are examples of kintsugi with silver, platinum and other metals besides.

As an aesthetic, kintsugi is a way of embracing the flawed and imperfect, celebrating the wear and tear of an object by emphasising its repair. It did not take long for kintsugi to become highly sought after, and there were accusations of people deliberately breaking valuable crockery in order for it to be repaired! If my recollection is half right, there are examples of classical kintsugi in the British Museum – but it might be the Victoria and Albert Museum. I’ve definitely seen some somewhere!

In this modern world where everything is disposable, I think it’s quite nice that something is celebrated for having been broken. I must say, though, that in my opinion it’s something that suits some forms of ceramics better than others. I think that next time I break a plate or cup, I might try a similar form of repair, dying the adhesive in a co-ordinating colour to the crockery. I doubt that I will be able to command kintsugi prices for it though.

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.