Bruce Robinson May Love Jack But He Hates The Victorians

jack

Considering how much credit I’ve got on my Amazon account at the moment, it really was rather naughty of me to have bought this in Waterstones, but I justified it by picking up a couple of Lego Batman figures while I was there*. It’s also had very good reviews, was longlisted for a number of awards and was recommended to me while I was reading the blurbs on the back by a little old lady with a mauve rinse as being “the best of the lot”. So it wasn’t much of a contest really.

Now, I have to confess that I’ve only read the first chapter (and it’s a rather thick book) but I’ve already alternated between outrage, horror and a couple of giggling fits. Bruce Robinson, a wonderful American screenwriter, wastes no time in stripping the veneer off Victorian values and showing them up for the hypocrites they were. He does it with a caustic wit that I can see myself quoting rather a lot for the foreseeable future. If I may offer a few quotes:-

“Reactionary nostalgia for the proprieties of Victorian England is unfortunate, like a whore looking under the bed for her virginity.” (That’s the opening sentence. What a start.)

*In 1888 you could f*** a child for five shillings, but you couldn’t read Zola. What the Establishment didn’t like about Zola was his treatment of the working class, who he had the French neck to represent as human.” (I rather like Zola as well.)

“MPs call themselves ‘Honourable’ because no-one else would.” (Ouch)

I have not come across a book so righteously – and rightly – angry in a very long time. I think in this era of right-wing Little England mindset (and I daren’t know what to think about the other side of the pond, apart from it being quite terrifying) this kind of “Victorian values” thinking is all too common. It’s lovely to have a blunt, honest appraisal of what it was really like, and what bloody appalling double-standards were applied, even if this is meant to be a book about a murderer. It may yet be – I’ve got another twenty chapters to read yet. If they are half as good as the first one, I’m going to be delighted.

And I really must buy that little old lady a cup of tea next time I see her. She really does know a good book when she sees one.

* I got Commissioner Gordon and Mr Freeze.

ROMANTIC OUTLAWS by CHARLOTTE GORDON

Of late, I’ve found good biographies pretty difficult to find. Good biographies that are interesting and easy to read are rare enough; but a biography that is interesting and easy to read whilst simultaneously telling two life stories side by side is about as easy to find as unicorn poop. Finding this book, which details the lives of two women I’ve long found fascinating, can only really be described as a fine example of the best unicorn poop I’ve come across. If you see what I mean.

It helps, of course, that Mary Wollestonecraft and Mary Shelley were mother and daughter and, in their own way, blazed particularly distinctive trails, one as an early feminist and political libertarian, the other as a noted Gothic novelist whose greatest creation survives today. One of the (many) things which struck me, however, is how despite having written a number of novels between them, each woman was best known for her first work – Wollestonecraft for A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Shelley for Frankenstein.

The book interweaves their lives, giving each woman a chapter in turn – the first and final chapters are, if you like, joint chapters – shows the parallels their lives took to remarkable effect and allows the reader to show just how deeply the daughter was influenced by her mother, despite never having known her.

The central figure linking both women is William Godwin, husband to one and father to the other. Gordon does not paint a terribly flattering picture of him and the most charitable view of him from the biography is of a curmudgeonly old hypocrite more interested in extracting money from his son in law than in having any kind of social relationships. Indeed, he frequently ignored his family members, noticing them only if a bill was to be paid or they had some money with which to settle the outstanding (and rising) debts.

Of course, it is impossible to write about Mary Shelley without mentioning the Romantic poets, given her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the close association both of them had with Lord Byron. Both of the poets came across realistically, but I can’t help wondering if Gordon instinctively felt closer to the Romantics than she did to Godwin. Of course, there is always the possibility that Godwin really was a curmudgeonly old hypocrite and both poets were arrogant and idealistic, although Shelley seemed the more empty-headed and flighty of the two.

Gordon makes extensive use of the women’s unpublished writings, relying on letters and journals to illustrate their mental processes and the development of their respective outlooks on life. For both women radical politics were of fundamental importance and their interpretations of what it meant to be a woman at the turn of the 19th century is still worth reading today. It doesn’t feel like much has changed sometimes, although at least wives are no longer their husband’s property – for now.

This book was a chance find in my local library and I’ve loved every page of it. It’s an essential read if you love either of the main subjects, or even radical politics or Romantic poetry. It doesn’t feel like a heavyweight book, which is an amazing achievement for 500 plus pages.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Yesterday, upon the stair
I saw a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh how I wish he’d go away.

My first version of this blog was, I will admit, entirely different, mainly because I’d always thought this poem was written by someone else and wrote the entire blog about that person. This means, of course, that my wonderful theory about the underlying message in a piece of nonsense verse has become, of itself, nonsense. Poetic really.

That said, the story behind this poem is still quite interesting. It was written by William Hughes Mearns, a child psychologist who believed that silly poems which attracted children’s attention would improve their language development and encourage creativity. It’s certainly easy to remember, and the silliness of seeing a man who wasn’t there is something that a lot of children do find appealing. And, because I thought it was written by Spike Milligan, led me to all sorts of interesting thoughts about mental illness that I’m going to share them anyway – even though they bear no relation to the poem whatsoever.

At the time that Milligan was writing some of his best known nonsense verse – including my favourite, In the Land of the Ning Nang Nong – a common way of referring to people who suffered from mental health issues was to say that they “weren’t all there”. It’s not such a leap, especially for a child, from “not all there” to “not there”. As Milligan himself suffered from mental health problems, including depression, I’m quite sure he would have seen this aspect of the poem quite clearly.

Looking at the poem in that light, it loses its silliness and becomes quite poignant. Can you imagine – being the man who wasn’t (all) there, not (all) there again today, and someone wishing you’d go away? What an indictment on how we treat the mentally ill!

Although the next time I write a post about a favourite piece of nonsense verse, I’ll make sure I’ve established who wrote the poem well in advance of writing.

PETER ACKROYD – THE CASEBOOK OF VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN

frankenstein

This book has sat on my shelves waiting to be read for an absolute age. I think I may have simply forgotten I had it, seeing as most of my bookshelves are double-stacked at best. It’s certainly not the kind of book – or author – I would usually wilfully ignore. On the other hand, it may have been the fact that he was rewriting – and taking a few liberties with – one of my absolute favourite books, which I know so well I could probably recite chunks of it in my sleep. In German. In verse. But this is Peter Ackroyd, an author I normally admire greatly. Surely I should have more faith and trust in his ability to tell a good story?

The first and most fundamental change that Ackroyd makes is to move the bulk of the action to London, although there are forays into continental Europe – in particular the Villa Diodati, and we all know what happened there. His interweaving of fact (there are more Romantic poets in this story than you can shake a stick at) and fiction is both very plausible and very well done. You could almost believe that Frankenstein not only existed, but he gave Mary Shelley the idea for her breakthrough novel.

However, it is the Creature about whom Ackroyd has been at his most mischievous. Rather than being a patchwork of corpses, it is one newly dead poet whom Victor reanimates using what was then cutting edge and revolutionary scientific theories and methods – not to mention relying on some very unscrupulous resurrection men. To say it’s believable is an understatement. You can smell the frying flesh. I somehow prefer this version to poor Igor dropping the intended brain and swapping it for that of a convict.

There are echoes of the original story which Ackroyd uses without changing very much and these fit in beautifully to an otherwise completely different tale. For example, the Creature asking for a mate and Victor’s adamant refusal could have been lifted from the original 1818 text. The ending, however, is totally different and well worth the wait.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is this – why retell an already popular story? Ackroyd’s fiction already has a very distinctive voice and eclectic subject matter, so I find this choice unusual for him. It seems to be a precursor to the recent trend for bestselling authors to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays. Pointless, but I suppose it’s an income.

I can’t not recommend this book. It’s a great story well told and, if you like Shelley’s original novel (which I do) you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. However, it is ultimately not the same story and any further comparisons are unfair to both books. And now, I want Peter Ackroyd to rewrite my other favourite book, Dracula, so I can have a matching pair of monsters.

Conan Doyle – Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

“I suppose that I am commuting a felony. but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life.”

Originally, I was going to write about the title – I mean, unless you know a fair bit about gemstones, you may be puzzled as to what a blue carbuncle really is. Let me immediately put you out of your misery – it’s a sapphire cut en cabochon and looks something like this:

61sarc30_12

No, the thing that has really struck me about this Sherlock Holmes story – from the original collection, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – is actually just how revolutionary and prescient Holmes is in not handing the villain over to the police. He clearly has an opinion that the role of prisons play and it seems has rather a low opinion of them. Whether or not he is right is a debate that still rages amongst criminologists and penal theorists today, but at the end of the nineteenth century, such opinion was well nigh seditious.

Most prisons are large, cold, unforgiving places, frequently overfilled and understaffed and where – to all intents and purposes – the friends one makes inside depend on how well you fare. It is often said that prisons make criminals; I don’t know if this is true, I haven’t looked at the statistics recently. It is also possible that many of the people who are currently in prison probably shouldn’t be there – although equally and likewise, there are a few people not in prison who probably should be.

In sitting in judgment, Holmes has stated that James Ryder ought not go to prison; the fact that his crime has been discovered by Holmes, and that he has lost both the gem and a good Christmas goose has shown that his crime did not pay, is enough to set him on the straight and narrow for life. But there was another criminal in the mix who was forgotten – Lady Morcar’s made was Ryder’s accomplice, as Holmes states earlier in the story, but nothing is said about her fate. Will she make a second attempt to steal her mistress’s jewels, and will she be more successful without the simpering twit that she ended up with in this adventure?

We are not told, and I think the story loses nothing by this. However, I look forward to the sequel where the emerald bracelet disappears and is found in with the Christmas sprouts.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I sorted out some of my bookshelves a while ago and was mortified to discover that for reasons best known to myself, I’ve got four copies of Dracula. One of them looks like this:

dracula-old

I’ve got very fond memories of this particular book. It’s the first one I remember buying myself and is the copy I think I have read most often. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember if there are any differences between this edition and any of the others (I expect the Penguin Classics edition has more extensive footnotes and addenda) but if pushed, this would be the copy I keep.

I like the bold cover design, the dramatic colours and the typography; I’m less keen on the fact that it looks like it’s travelled halfway round the world with me, but since it has I suppose that’s what I should expect. The story itself is exactly the same as it is in every other edition, but this was my first and it’s very special to me.

Although that might change if I ever get my hands on a signed first edition…

The Height of Luxury

orient-express

Reading about the Detection Club, I discovered to my glee that for a long time I had something in common with Agatha Christie (we don’t share it any longer for reasons that will become obvious) – one of our longstanding ambitions was to travel on the Orient Express. It was a journey from Istanbul to London, returning from a trip to see her second husband, Max Mallowan, an archaeologist in what is now Iraq, that Christie conceived the setting for one of her most famous stories. I, unfortunately, have yet to set foot on the train, although I often see it ready for boarding in the summer at Victoria Station.

Even Michael Palin’s been on the Orient Express – it formed the first part of his journey Around the World in 80 days and, if I remember, he disembarked at Venice, rather than going on to Istanbul. As far as I’m concerned, it is the ultimate in luxury long-distance train travel. Having done my fair share of long-distance train travel over the years, I’m quite looking forward to doing some more in a bit of luxury.

I’m not sure that it’s changed much since Agatha’s journey – although I doubt many murders are carried out in the sleeping carriages these days.