Jane Austen Will Never Be The Same Again

It was, of course, my own fault entirely for picking up the book in the library. In reading Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, I have now forever changed my view of her novels. They may look romantic and flimsy but underneath the curtseying and good manners, there are some real revelations.

I had known for a long time that Mansfield Park had one foot in the slavery question, as it is quite apparent that Sir Thomas Bertram, with his estate in Antigua, has made money probably from sugarcane and the slaves that worked the plantation for him. However, I hadn’t realised the feminist undertones of many of Austen’s novels (which I shall very briefly explore later, because I want you to go and read this book – and then read all of her novels again) and I now admire Austen’s skills as a writer much more than I did before.

I must say at the outset, though, that it is very important to read her books with this in mind, rather than simply watch an adaptation, good as it may be; every scriptwriter makes changes to the original text to suit running time, budget restrictions or whatever message the director wants to put forward. So please, go back to the novels and start from the beginning.

Northanger Abbey, possibly Jane’s first novel, was never intended for publication and as a result it wasn’t published until her death. It has made dating it a little problematic, but I was surprised to learn that Gothic novels didn’t really have very much to do with the plot. They were, however, a very clever disguise to explore infant and maternal mortality in childbirth – and Jane’s method would have been seen through by the majority of her contemporary (female) readers. I wasn’t convinced by the argument at first, I admit, but I went back to the novel and there it was – clear as day. After that, I stopped arguing and decided to learn.

Sense and Sensibility deals with the unfairness of primogeniture, but also raises questions about how trustworthy the male characters in the book are – they certainly don’t seem to have the best interests of the female characters to heart. Pride and Prejudice is a class struggle, but also mentions in passing some of the less romantic aspects of living in a garrison town at a time of unrest and upheaval. As I’ve already said, Mansfield Park has undertones of slavery, while Emma deals with enclosures and the food shortages it caused, while Persuasion explores the growing split between science and religion just before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and caused absolute mayhem.

I was quite swept away by this book. If you like Jane Austen’s novels you really must read it, Ms Kelly adds so much depth and information to the novels which, quite honestly, I hadn’t realised was there. It did encourage me to go back to the original texts, which is never a bad thing, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a fantastic read.

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Spotting a Forgery Isn’t As Easy As It Looks

I read a very strange article in the paper recently about an art forger who was so good, he sometimes fooled himself. There’s a novel in there somewhere, I’m sure. I must admit I would have had trouble telling the difference between his paintings and the originals if the newsprint was anything to go by, although it wouldn’t have surprised me at all to find that they’d labelled the photographs wrong. But then this made me think about how one can actually tell if a painting is a forgery or the original, authentic article.

There are a number of scientific tests which can be conducted on the pigments used in the painting which can give away a painting’s age. This, unfortunately, was how Steve Martin discovered that a number of his paintings were – shall we say – not originals, as the white pigment used hadn’t been invented at the time the painting was meant to have been originally done. Some very good forgers go to great lengths to ensure that they don’t get caught out by this, although slip ups do happen and as time has gone on, it’s become increasingly easy to test pigments in a non-invasive way and the tests have become increasingly sensitive.

As anyone who has watched BBC’s Fake or Fortune will know, it’s not always down to the scientists for a painting to be declared a forgery. Almost all well-known artists have what is called a catalogue raisonne, which is the definitive list of genuine works by that artist. If a painting doesn’t appear on the catalogue raisonne, there is a very high possibility it is not by the artist; although occasionally, lost paintings are discovered if there is reference to them in other sources or draft sketches which have been acknowledged by the artist, for example. Ultimately, it is up to the Estate of the artist (if they have died in the last 150 years or so) or whoever retains and maintains the catalogue raisonne to judge if a painting is not a fake – and if they say it has to be destroyed, there’s no appeal.

However, in one area of painting there are so few experts that (I understand) the market is rife with fakes, and that is Russian modernism. It is this area where my original art forger plied his trade and, apparently, his forgeries were so authentic he fooled museums and auction houses all over the world. He even fooled himself, being unable to tell his forgery from an original – which is a bit scary. After all, if the forger himself can’t spot the forgery, how can the rest of us?

A Decade of Austerity has Changed Nothing

This October, it will be ten years since global bank Lehman Brothers went under and the last financial crash took hold. Because of this, people all over the world are living under “austerity measures” (these actually vary on where one lives, but they tend to fall under this heading) which have been promised to end “soon”. What’s never clear is when “soon” is and it doesn’t look like being in the near future.

Looking at it from the distance of ten years, I can’t honestly see what has changed, apart from the haves having more and the have nots having less. Admittedly, there weren’t as many food banks, pound shops, charity shops, people sleeping on the streets, people having to choose between heating and eating, people on benefits being allowed to burn to death because Local Authorities took the cheapest option when it came to refurbishments…

A little while ago I read Naomi Klein’s latest book, No Is Not Enough, and it made me angry as anything. I’m starting to wonder if I should just do a re-read of all her books as they are still as relevant today as they were when they were published. This tells me that despite those promises to the contrary, a decade of austerity has changed nothing at all.

Walter Sickert and Jack the Ripper

Walter Sickert’s name has often been linked with that of Britain’s most infamous serial killer – most recently by the efforts of Patricia Cornwell – but the only definitive link between the two is this painting, completed in 1907, called Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. It was inspired by a room Sickert was lodging in, as his landlady at that time believed that a previous occupant was guilty of the crimes, although this has never been substantiated and the lodger’s identity remains unknown. It’s a suitably dark, gloomy room so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find there was some truth in the idea.

It has to be said, though, that at this time Sickert was going through a phase of painting scenes linked with murders. Another contemporaneous work was the Camden Town Murders, finished in 1908, which shows a couple in a bedroom – she is naked in bed and he is fully clothed and sitting on the edge of the bed. It is unclear from my viewing whether they are killers or victims – or one of each. The painting’s alternative title, “What Shall We Do For The Rent?” doesn’t offer any clues either.

It is generally considered that the idea Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper is a conspiracy theory based in a fanciful story that first became public in the mid-1970s. It is unfortunate that someone of Patricia Cornwell’s standing and intelligence feels that there is a foundation to this idea; particularly when it is not really substantiated by many other Ripperologists (for want of a better word). For my part, I’m merely happy that the Ripper is dead, which is about the only thing we can say about him with any certainty.

Edward Hyde as Addiction

I have to concede that this realisation hit me like a slap in the face. Edward Hyde is the representation of Henry Jekyll’s addiction – to what, is anyone’s guess – and all the clues are in the text. If we assume that Jekyll is addicted to laudanum, let me illustrate my point.

Early in the novel, Utterson is invited to dinner with Jekyll and contrives to stay behind to discuss Utterson’s distaste for Hyde. Jekyll replies that “he can be rid of Hyde at any time”. Anyone who has tried to give up smoking or drinking (or eating) will tell you that they can stop at any time – they just don’t. And so it proves with Jekyll, the temptation to concoct the potion and get away with murder is simply too strong.

Later on – in fact, during Jekyll’s confession – it becomes apparent that Hyde is appearing without the need for the potion, and Jekyll has to go to some lengths to hide his transformation. He describes the oncoming transformation as an “urge” or a “craving” – something any addict would understand immediately. And having to hide Hyde (sorry, but that was going to happen sooner or later, so I got it out of the way now) is just the next stage in the denial process – I don’t have a drink problem, but I keep a spare bottle of gin in the dog basket for emergencies, that kind of thing.

As far as I can tell, Edward Hyde is addiction personified. The only question, which despite three readings I still can’t happily answer, is what Jekyll is addicted to. But all the clues are there if you don’t believe me.

Mithina’s Sad Tale

It’s an interesting contrast, given what I’ve recently learned about Dido Belle, to consider the story surrounding the sitter of this small watercolour by Thomas Bock. This is Mithina, an indigenous Australian from Tasmania and was about eight years old at the time of this portrait.

If she seems rather well dressed for 1842, it may be because she had been “adopted” by Sir John and Lady Franklin, the governor of the province at that time, although they took pains to crop her hair and force her to wear shoes, which hurt her feet. However, here the comparisons with Dido fall away; Dido was given an income, her freedom and was able to dress well, even if she could not mix in polite society. Mithina was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned at the nearest orphanage when the Franklins returned to England and was dead before her eighteenth birthday.

As a convict artist, Bock almost certainly had some sympathy with the indigenous population, driven out of their ancestral lands by white colonists and convicts alike. He painted a series of portraits of various native peoples, treating them with the same respect a society painter would have painted the Franklins.

For me, though, the story behind Mithina’s little portrait is heartbreaking. She wasn’t treated as a person – she was a novelty, an object, fit only to be left behind with the unwanted furniture. This is the legacy of colonialism throughout the world and it’s appallingly sad. It does make you realise how fortunate Dido was, even if she remained a second class citizen herself.

Art Crime and Organised Crime

Anyone who reads this blog with any kind of regularity – that’s you two right there – will know that I have an abiding passion for art crime. I’ve come to the conclusion that I may have been Thomas Crown in a past life or something, but I can’t accept that it doesn’t have a glamorous side. Who wouldn’t want to have a Picasso under their bed in case of financial emergency?

I’m afraid Andrew Graham-Dixon – a man whom I would happily watch standing in front of a brick wall and let him tell me why it was modern art – went a long way to disabuse me of my assumptions. Art crime, as a general rule of thumb, is organised crime; and any mafia worth its protection money has its tentacles in the field, alongside the trafficking, gun running and whatever else they get up to. (I’m afraid I’m still in the era where Al Capone ruled the roost, so I suspect I’m a wee bit out of date when it comes to organised crime).

Graham-Dixon took as his focus the 2002 theft of two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. While neither painting was one of Van Gogh’s best known, they were historically very important; his first oil painting (Seascape at Scheveningen) and a picture of a Lutheran church which was dedicated to his mother. The latter painting, if I’m honest, reminded me an awful lot of his masterpiece Church at Arles, in its composition and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that he had one in his mind when he painted the other.

The fact is that even for criminals who wouldn’t know a Van Gogh from a Vermeer or a Rembrandt from a Raphael still understand that there is money in it; as Graham-Dixon himself points out, criminals trade using “the 10% rule”, meaning that if a painting is worth £100,000 they will trade it for £10,000. More importantly, under Italian law, criminals can return or sell their assets for a reduction in sentence; having a couple of Van Goghs under the kitchen floor (where the Van Goghs were found in 2016) could halve a sentence. So museum-quality art is considered quite the insurance policy for the criminal in the know.

Sadly, the overwhelming majority – almost all, in fact – of art thefts result in significant damage to the paintings, because they are simply not kept in optimum conditions. Fortunately, the two Van Gogh paintings suffered minimal damage – a small patch of paint had flaked off the seascape – but some are almost completely ruined by the damage suffered from endless trading and being kept in poor conditions. The fact that any are (a) recovered or (b) restored is frankly amazing.

Having learned all this, I now understand that there is nothing glamorous about art theft; it’s a nasty, vicious business and involves hardened criminals. The likes of Thomas Crown really are figments of the imagination.

Forgotten Old Movies

I’ve found a television channel that seems to show old black and white movies that have slipped through the historical net and ended up forgotten. In some cases, it’s quite justified but I’ve seen a couple of films lately that are absolutely remarkable, with well-known actors and good scripts. I’m baffled why they’ve ended up on some obscure satellite channel rather than being on mainstream TV, even if it on a weekday afternoon. I know I’d rather watch an old film than yet another run in with Jeremy Kyle.

The first film I caught was Suddenly!, a 1954 film noir starring Frank Sinatra as a gangster hired to assassinate the president (given the date, I’m assuming it’s Eisenhower). The majority of the action takes place in two rooms – and would probably be quite easy to adapt as a stage play – but the script is excellent. Sinatra and his henchmen have commandeered a house to set up the gun in readiness for the arrival of the President at a sleepy California town, as the house has a perfect view. It soon becomes clear that Sinatra’s character is a psychopath who kills for the fun of it, and the actual target is irrelevant to him. The script is taut, the dialogue is sharp and the acting is top notch. Given that Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar for this movie, it’s pretty criminal that (1) I’ve never heard of it before and (2) it’s only been shown on TV on this back of beyond channel.

The other film I’ve come across is also a film noir, a 1947 psychological thriller starring Edward G Robinson called The Red House. It’s not a gangster movie, but has some wonderfully gothic elements surrounding a derelict house in woods owned by a handicapped farmer. If you’re familiar with the genre, you could probably work some of the plot out, but given its age it’s actually really exciting. It’s a good story with an excellent cast who do extremely well with the relatively poor script. Again, this is a great afternoon film that seems to have been buried under the blockbusters, and it’s a great shame.

I’m hoping that I catch up with some other cracking old movies, because they really are worth watching if you like sparkling scripts, well-dressed actors and plots that don’t rely on special effects.

A Blind Spot for Feathers

I read somewhere that the US Government is trying to overturn the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, which would mean that corporations would no longer be penalised for harming wildlife. An exhibition to raise funds to mount a legal challenge opened in New York, and illustrates very clearly why the Act was passed in the first place. Many birds were pushed to the brink of extinction – and beyond – for their ornamental feathers, which were sought after by fashion houses and milliners. Steve Backshall made the same point when he wrote about the birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea; their numbers still haven’t recovered.

I do wonder if people have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to feathers and their origins. I find feathers almost everywhere – in craft sets (my daughter loves them), in bedding, in winter coats and jackets, in jewellery, in costume (feather boas are the most obvious, but shoes as well) – frequently dyed garish colours or marketed as “down”. Most eider, duck or goose down comes from the feathers of birds slaughtered for meat, which I suppose is better than being wasteful, but it’s hardly cruelty free. Craft feathers (for example) I know very little about the origins of, but I doubt very much they are from the average pigeon. Marabou feathers – often found in boas or on shoes or slippers – are from a species of stork that is rapidly becoming endangered.

I have a substantial collection of found feathers – mainly from pigeons, but with the odd magpie and crow for a bit of variety – but I’m reluctant to wear them in any way in case I’m seen as promoting this appalling practice. It’s a real dilemma, because I really like my feathers and I’ve tried very hard not to hurt any birds in the process (although I can’t talk for next door’s cat). For now, my feathers are staying in the feather pot until I can decide what to do with them.

Du Maurier – The Birds’ Other Stories 2

THE LITTLE PHOTOGRAPHER

One of the ladies with whom I work is obsessed with class. If someone annoys her, it’s all because of class and privilege. Like me, she is staunchly working class and to us it’s often obvious that the “higher classes” have a very different outlook on life. This story has a very strong class element but it’s the “just desserts” aspect that I found particularly pleasing, especially as it had an unpromising start.

The majority of the action takes place somewhere on the Riviera, at a beach resort where a Marquise is on holiday with her two children and their nanny. She’s wealthy, bored and attractive and although she doesn’t actively seek a lover, her husband is more focused on his business than his wife. The little photographer is club-footed (well, it didn’t do Byron any harm) and although he works as a semi-professional photographer, he also takes pictures in his spare time of the landscape, the sea and the local wildlife.

One thing leads to another and…

I’m not going to give the end away, because I have to admit I found it quite delicious. If you believe that all actions have consequences – no matter how remote – and that nobody is untouchable, you will love it. It reminded me a lot of The Talented Mr Ripley, despite not having any similarities of plot or location – it’s vintage, it’s glamorous, it’s exotic and very, very wicked.

KISS ME AGAIN STRANGER

I was amazed to discover that this short story had also been filmed, this time starring a young Leonard Nimoy – presumably before he gained immortality as Spock – in the lead role. The story itself is simple and takes place over one evening; a shy young mechanic, finding himself at a loose end in London, goes to the pictures and ends up on an impromptu date with one of the usherettes. Falling madly in love (at first sight), what he discovers the following day changes everything.

Which, if you’re a suspicious old bat like me, has probably given the game away – but there is very little in the story that actually does so until the last couple of pages. Unfortunately, like other stories in this collection, it hasn’t aged very well although I think the fact that it is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War actually works in the story’s favour – I suspect that the filmed version moved it to contemporary (early 1960s?) times and changed the location.

I must admit to guessing the twist wrong, although I got the suspect right – well, that was always going to be obvious really. It does make me miss the ice creams and orange juice I used to get at the cinema when I was a kid. Unfortunately the days of two features, an intermission, ice creams and drinks for less than a pound are long gone – you need a second mortgage for the cinema these days. I wonder if my obscure TV channel that shows old movies will think about putting this one on in the future. I’d quite like to see what they’ve changed.

THE OLD MAN

After reading six of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories one after the other, you would think I would have learned not to take things at face value. Clearly I haven’t, because the last paragraph of this wonderful short story completely took me by surprise. It really wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is, essentially, the story of a family observed by a man who visits a riverbank regularly. The family live near the river, and he watches the couple as they bring up a family of four. He has given them names, but the son, in particular, is the focus of the story as his relationship with his family is much more dysfunctional. The story ends as tragedy strikes and the twist is revealed.

I really cannot say any more because that really will give the game away. It’s a beautifully dramatic little story, a perfect length and seductively told. Aside from The Birds, I think it is probably the best story of the lot. If you can, do try to pick it up and read this – and let me know if you worked out the twist before the end.