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.


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?

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.

The Whisperer in the Dark

When I sat my first aid certificate refresher course recently, a discussion emerged during a coffee break about operations. Strange, discussing medical things at a first aid course, but there you are – we’re a morbid lot really. One of the attendees claimed that he’d read somewhere that an entire head transplant was proposed for later in the year. “It’s a massive operation,” he said. “It’s going to take two days. They’re going to do it in teams.”

I certainly didn’t believe him then, and I’m not sure I believe him now, but I don’t doubt that sooner or later, this will not only be achieved, but routinely possible. Just imagine – I really could end up looking like Morticia Addams! So can you imagine how such an idea must have sounded when Lovecraft wrote this late tale, in the early 1930s? Even in these days of modern medical and surgical wonders, the idea of transplants still seems like something out of science fiction. Okay, maybe we have got used to kidney and lung transplants, but heart transplants or multi-organ transplants are much more complicated – and that’s before we get onto such things as entire limbs or heads….

If I say anymore I really will give the game away.

It’s a really well written story. I think by this stage in his career, Lovecraft had got the idea as his later stories are well paced and genuinely creepy. The things that you think may happen don’t always – and what happens instead is often scarier. I’d not read this story for a long time and I’d actually forgotten just how clever it was. Even if you do work out the end, it’s pretty chilling so stick with it. It’s a good one.

Murder Most Banal

After reading Zola’s La Bete Humaine, I must admit that I’m really starting to wonder about this. Virtually all the main characters either consider or resort to murder at some point in the story as a solution to whichever problem is at the forefront of their mind at that moment. For example, Severine dislikes her husband (who has already murdered Gironcourt and got away with it) and wishes to marry Jacques, so she suggests that Jacques murder her husband as he is an obstacle to their happiness. Jacques’ aunt is murdered by her husband so he can steal her inheritance of 1,000 francs. Jacques’ cousin Flore murders scores of people by rigging a train crash because she is jealous of Jacques’ relationship with Severine and wants her out of the way so she can marry Jacques.

And so on. As the killer in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem would note, there is no style to these murders. They are common and unartistic and beneath the serious killer. One would hope that Peter Ackroyd was being tongue in cheek there, because that’s quite a controversial mindset to promote.

I was struck as I finished the book at how easily everyone simply killed people who got in their way; although it’s very possible that there were elements of northern France in the late nineteenth century who really did behave in such a way, but it really didn’t feel realistic to me – although that said, I realise that it may be an all too realistic representation of life in somewhere like a favela in Rio, for example. In those environments life is all too cheap, so it doesn’t really do to get wrapped up about it.

I suppose reading this so close to finishing Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has made me realise that in certain quarters, murder is (if you like) a craft, and there is a special satisfaction to creating a masterpiece; even if that masterpiece happens to be a corpse. My years of studying old issues of True Detective have taught me, if nothing else, that there are many serial killers who believe that they are artists and their murders are works of art; and we can see the same thought process in series such as Hannibal. You have those murderers who see value in their work and those who just view it as a means to an end.

Forensic psychology isn’t really my thing, but I did find this aspect interesting. I’m fairly sure there’s a thesis in here somewhere for someone much better placed than me to write it. What do you think?

An Ideal Dinner Party

Before my friends and family protest – I’m only imagining one. I don’t cook, I loathe cooking almost as much as I loathe having other people in my little sanctuary. So please view this in the spirit in which it is intended, as an entertaining thought experiment and not much more.

But – if I were to have a dinner party, who would I invite? Apparently, there are rules to these things; firstly, you must have equal numbers of men and women; secondly, all the invitees are to be fictional characters*; and thirdly, it is assumed that you’ve got an unlimited budget in terms of food, drink and catering generally. I don’t believe that a detailed menu is required, so I’m not providing one. They’ll get what they’re given and like it, as my gran used to say! So, here’s my list of dinner guests:-

1 – Miss Havisham, if she can be crowbarred away from her rotting wedding breakfast and enticed into polite company. She’s allowed to keep the wedding dress, mind.

2 – Jay Gatsby, because at least he knows how to throw a party. And besides, he’d probably know where to get some more booze if we run out.

3 – Morticia Addams, because it wouldn’t be a very good dinner party without her. She’s elegant, witty, intelligent and disarmingly funny.

4 – Gomez Addams, for the same reason I would invite his wife. Although in his case, he would probably be armed and funny.

5 – Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) because she’s a wonderful character and I think a blooming good meal with great company would do her the world of good. And she can practice her swordplay with Gomez.

6 – Wolverine, because he’d bring his own cutlery and keep things from getting too boisterous.

7 – Alice, because I want to know if her wonderland is real. And besides, someone has to pair up with Gatsby…

8 – Count Dracula, assuming he actually eats and promises to leave the guests alone. In return, I promise not to use him as a target for archery practice.

And there you have it. Mind you, ask me again tomorrow and I’ll give you a completely different list…

* An alternative version has real people who are deceased. Nobody living is ever allowed.