Lost In A Pyramid

One of the best vampire short stories I’ve read recently has to be Lost in a Pyramid, not least because it’s a really interesting take on the genre, but also because it proved revelatory when I considered the last work by this author. It’s written by Louisa May Alcott, best known for that saccharine take on sisterhood in Civil War America, Little Women. I always wanted to be Jo, mainly because she was the only one who seemed to have any personality.

Anyway, back to the subject in hand. Lost in a Pyramid is, in my mind, two stories in one; the first half details the expedition to Ancient Egypt and the latter half details events following what they found. To say any more is to give it away, but it really isn’t what you think it is and I thought it was really very clever. More to the point, it was nothing like Little Women, which I found amazing!

I don’t know if Alcott wrote any more horror fiction (I suppose this does count as horror, as it’s quite creepy in places) but if she did, it really does deserve to be better known. I found this in my copy of Dracula’s Brethren, a recently released paperback featuring a number of late Victorian and early 20th century vampire stories which I really do recommend.

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Where Are All the Women?

When one is reading a novel as short as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – I think, in fact, it is really only a novella – it is very hard to find something that hasn’t been discussed before. And when the novel is as well-known as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it’s well-nigh impossible. If you’ve read anything like this before (and probably done better) I apologise, because I’m carrying on regardless.

If you’ve read it recently – and this is only the book I’m discussing, as the films are completely different – you may have been struck by the distinct lack of female characters. Such women as there are in the book are mere sketches, rarely mentioned and never named. Given that even a minor male servant who appears only at the book’s climax is named as Bradshaw, it’s startling that the crucial witness to the murder of Sir Danvers Carew is simply known as “Maid”. None of the characters appear to be married or have any kind of “love interest” – it’s as if women simply don’t exist.

Some commentators have suggested that this is due to Stevenson’s latent homosexuality, but I’m less sure. I think, if I’m going to be honest, that women simply didn’t feature in the story he wanted to tell – it was late Victorian men doing things that late Victorian men did, and the fact that none of them was married was incidental. It could have been explained by Enfield, Utterson and Lanyon all being elderly and Jekyll himself being too absorbed in his experiments, but I’m disinclined to read much more than that into it.

Still, it would have been nice if the eye witness had a name.

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.

Variations on a Gimlet

Before I get carried away on the many variations of this classic gin cocktail, it might be a good idea to ascertain firstly what a gimlet is. A gimlet is a cocktail of gin, and lime cordial over ice – and the variations come in the proportions of gin and lime (the ice is just to top up the glass). Amazingly, such a simple change can produce vastly different flavours, so this was an experiment I was quite looking forward to.

Because I can’t do a blog about a cocktail without having drunk it, can I?

First of all, there is the classic gimlet. This is equal proportions (one shot glass each in my case) of gin and lime cordial, shaken with ice and poured into a glass – or in my case, a 330ml beaker. If it reminded me of anything it was the old fashioned lime fizz boiled sweet, and was certainly not unpleasant. If it hadn’t been the fact that I was doing a taste test, I’d have stopped there and poured myself another.

The first variation is two parts gin to one part lime cordial. I was surprised at just how sweet this was; you get a very definite hit of lime which goes really well with the sharpness of the gin. I rather like this one as well, if I’m honest. But then again, the gimlet contains two of my favourite things, so I’m on a winner whatever happens.

Variation Two is three parts gin to one part lime cordial and is probably the closest thing to perfection I can think of that doesn’t include either sprouts or beetroot (my other two favourite things). The balance between sharp gin and sweet lime is spot on. Lengthened with a fair bit of soda water and this could be the perfect summer drink. Better than Pimms, anyway.

Variation Three is four parts gin to one part lime cordial. Essentially a lime martini, this is just when you need to disguise the fact that you’re an alcoholic. Very, very dry.

I think there may have been another version, but I couldn’t entirely swear to that, as by this time I was finding the whole experience far too enjoyable and had to go and have a lie down afterwards. If you are going to recreate this tasting test for yourself, please do so responsibly, don’t drink the entire cocktail unless you don’t have to get up in the morning and please try and remember which one is which so you can let me know what you thought.

Cranford for the 1950s

It’s amazing the bargains I can find sometimes – three Barbara Pym novels in the local charity shop for a pound being only my latest. Barbara Pym isn’t someone I read on a regular basis, but her books did come recommended to me when I was looking for something easy to read. And on that count, I can’t get them on the trades descriptions. I do most of my reading on my commute home (about an hour and twenty minutes) and in that time, I can get through a hundred pages with relative ease.

I was trying to describe her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, to a friend of mine and the best I could come up with was a cross between Cranford and Mapp & Lucia, but set in the 1950s. I still don’t think that’s doing it justice. The main characters are two middle aged sisters, neither of whom have married, but each of whom have “crushes” (for want of a better word) on members of the clergy – neither of whom reciprocate. They clearly have independent means as they have a maid and cook, although do a little cooking themselves, and regularly have people round to finish their upholstery or make clothes, and such like. The cast are hilarious. I especially love Miss Prior, the tartly bitchy seamstress – her backhanded compliments are delicious.

The second novel, Excellent Women, is (essentially) more of the same – life in a country village where the spinsters of a certain age involve themselves in Good Causes and get on each other’s nerves. They are comedies of manners, much like Jane Austen – I can see Emma Woodhouse fitting in very nicely – but with modern touches, such as professional women, motor cars and railways and, of course, the telephone. I don’t doubt that there are still people who live like this, but they are very much a dying breed and part of me thinks that’s a great shame.

The third one, Jane and Prudence, I haven’t read yet, but I’m reliably informed it’s very much like the others.

Barbara Pym isn’t for everyone, I’m the first to admit that. Her silly spinsters fawning over curates half their age can get annoying after a while – but it’s meant to. It’s meant to be silly. It’s meant to hold a mirror up to them and show their little foibles. That’s why it’s entertaining. I’m not sure I’ll read any more, but I’m pleased I’ve read these three and at a time when I was feeling a little burned out, they were the perfect easy reading on the train home.

La Grande Odalisque – Ingres

I’m not sure if any readers would remember the Oscars ceremony from a few years back, when Angelina Jolie wore a terribly ill-fitting black dress and every time she stopped for photographs, her right leg stuck out? The reason I mention it is because for a short while afterwards, that leg was photoshopped into a variety of photographs to greater or lesser humorous effect. Looking at the highly dodgy anatomy of this painting, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Angelina’s leg had been photoshopped here as well.

For an artist specialising in the human figure – he was well known for his portraits of society ladies – the proportions here are completely wrong. Her back is too long, there appears to be no structure to her arm and those legs – we may need Angelina’s for a spare. She seems to look like a blancmange sculpture, poured onto the chaise longue and left to slowly melt.

By contrast, the luxurious fabrics and her peacock feather fan are recreated in exquisite detail. This is an artist who knew his textiles – I’m in love with the dress worn by the subject of one of his portraits in the National Gallery, it’s so detailed I’m tempted to tear it off the wall and wear it home. So what went wrong?

Ingres would have argued that, although based on a real life model, the odalisque portrays an idea – as continental travel became increasingly fashionable and orientalism was all the rage, this was a European’s idea of an oriental concubine. She’s not meant to be real at all, she represents a fashion, a style, a mood of languid indolence and luxury. This also explains why the fabrics are so detailed – if they were not, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the velvet and the satin.

Is it a good painting? It’s not my favourite Ingres, but it is possibly his best known and it was highly influential on some later Impressionists – an interesting comparison would be with Degas’ Olympia, another reclining nude. If I’m honest, I’d rather have the fabrics.

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.

The Strange Life of Dido Belle

The BBC really are earning their licence fee at the moment, in my opinion. Some of the drama is top notch and I’m yet to be disappointed by BBC4 (except for the reruns of Top of the Pops – I don’t need to be reminded how little taste I had growing up). In fact, it was on BBC4 that I learned the fascinating story of Dido Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a British naval admiral and an African slave.

There is much that is distasteful about British history and the slave trade is a significant part of that. What still irritates me is that people still seem unable to tell the difference between slavery and the slave trade, indicating that the former was abolished in 1807. It wasn’t. Slavery was abolished in England and Wales in 2015; it was the trade in slaves which was abolished in 1807. This means that you could still own slaves if you inherited them (as property, they could be bequeathed in a Will), but you couldn’t buy or sell them. If you are going to discuss history, please try and get it right.

This is an important point, because Dido’s great uncle was (at that time) the Lord Chief Justice of England, and some of his decisions were instrumental in the trade in slaves being abolished. Indeed, in his own Will, Lord Mansfield LCJ granted Dido her freedom (as she was otherwise still a slave, even though his own nephew’s child) – thereby ending her status as chattel and granting her, for want of a better expression, personhood. Although a servant, Dido was considered more a companion to Lady Elizabeth Murray, another (but legitimate) niece of Lord Mansfield, and also helped with the household accounts and occasionally as Lord Mansfield’s secretary – but she did not dine with the family and did not appear in society. She was in a difficult position, as she was the child of a nobleman (and so could not mix with the staff) but she was too different (being black) to be fully part of the family.

Lord Murray did his best for her; she was well educated, housed and clothed in luxury and given a very generous allowance; her portrait, alongside that of Lady Elizabeth, still hangs in Scone House, the Earl of Mansfield’s seat just outside Perth. It reflects her status perfectly; elegantly and expensively dressed yet standing behind her companion. As a portrait of an individual from an ethnic minority, it is quite unique for its time and it is that rarity that allows us to consider Lord Mansfield’s – and Dido’s – role in the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

Mary Delany’s Botanical Collages

I blame the Savoy for this. In the atrium, just before you go into Kaspar’s restaurant, they have a room filled to the rafters with the most wonderful artwork. The large feature painting was a portrait of the Queen, but my eye was caught by five small pictures on the lintel above the entrance to the restaurant. I am ninety nine percent convinced that they were original Mary Delany botanical collages, made in the early 1770s out of coloured paper on a black background. The majority of her works – of which there are 938 in total – are in the British Museum and are incredibly fragile, so it is wonderful to see some “in the flesh” as it were.

Mary Delany was born in 1700 to an army colonel, and her uncle was Baron Lansdowne. She was married twice, firstly to a man over forty years her senior and, after his death, to an Irish clergyman, Patrick Delany. It was after becoming a widow for the second time at the age of sixty eight that Mary Delany started work on what she called her “paper mosaicks”, which she continued until her eyesight failed – by which time, she was in her late eighties.

As Mary and her late husband were both interested in botany, she made sure that her collages were as accurate as possible, using layers of sheets of tissue paper to create shades of leaf and petal appropriate to whichever plant she was trying to represent. It is thought that she dissected the plant to ensure her accuracy, but her collages are nevertheless incredibly detailed.

She also corresponded with many of the leading figures of the time, such as Fanny Burney, Jonathan Swift and Sir Joseph Banks – who created Kew Gardens – and her letters offer an equally detailed picture of polite society of the time as her collages do of polite society’s gardens.