Monday, October 28, 2013

So You Want to Have Oscar Wilde Over for Dinner?

Someone recently said they would love to have Oscar Wilde over for dinner, which raised the question of whether he would have actually made a good dinner guest. Having a little bit of my own bias, in this case, I looked for objective advice on what makes a good dinner guest and have measured Wilde according to seven basic standards.  
  1. Show up: Wilde dined at many dinner tables, including one in "in the earth's bowels," a silver mine in Colorado. If he accepted a dinner invitation, I imagine he generally arrived... eventually.
  2. Show up ten minutes late: “I am always late on principle, my principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.” So, Wilde will show up, but we can't be sure when.
  3. Dietary limitations: I don’t believe Wilde had any dietary limitations. If he had any food issues, they might have come from being raised on sugar (literally the profits his dad made buying and selling sugar) and listening to his dad talk about the diseases that sprung out of the Irish Potato Famine.
  4. Don’t bring your kids: Wilde seldom brought his wife or children anywhere. “It is most dangerous nowadays for a husband to pay any attention to his wife in public. It always makes people think that he beats her when they are alone.”
  5. Have a drink: At dinner with Walt Whitman, Wilde shared a bottle of Whitman’s "notoriously vile elderberry wine." Sharing a bottle is a bit more than having a drink. Wilde could put back a lot of liquor without appearing drunk, this would make his drinking expensive, but not obnoxious.
  6. Step away from the kitchen: Wilde ate at restaurants far too often to want to set foot in a kitchen. In a letter to Bosie from Reading Jail, Wilde writes: “One of the most delightful dinners I remember ever having had is one Robbie and I had together in a little Soho café, which cost about as many shillings as my dinners to you used to cost pounds. Out of my dinner with Robbie came the first and best of all my dialogues. Idea, title, treatment, mode, everything was struck out at a 3 franc 50 c. table-d'hôte. Out of the reckless dinners with you nothing remains but the memory that too much was eaten and too much was drunk.” From this, I would guess that, if you really wanted to have Wilde over for dinner, you shouldn’t buy him the most expensive food, but make sure you buy an awful lot of it. 
  7. Be amusing: If you are reading this, you would probably find Wilde to be an entertaining dinner guest. He once said that: "After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations." However, he was one of those people who seemed to enjoy the sound of his own voice and would probably have a lot more to say than any of your other guests. 
In conclusion, I would say that Wilde would be an excellent dinner guest, if you've got a lot of good wine, cheap food, don't mind when dinner gets started and are ready to listen to him talk. It's only one evening, right?

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cycling for the Insane

Feeling down? Get outside and ride your bike! That’s the advice C. Theodore Ewart M.D. Assistant Medical Officer at the Leavesden Asylum put forward in his article: “Cycling for the Insane,” published in the Journal of Medical Science (July 1890).

It’s easy to look back at the scientific ideas of the past and poke fun, but this idea of exercising for depression and other issues of mental and emotional well-being hasn’t died off at all. To me, this is like adding insult to injury, telling a person, who is already down, that they are also lazy. There is some merit to Ewart’s ideas. I certainly find some relief from doing exercises when I’m feeling down, but, when Ewart wrote the following, he couldn’t have been discussing a cure-all.

Rushing through the air at 12 miles an hour, will lift the gloomiest thoughts from the mind, be it only for a short period, and what torpidity of soul is not surmounted by the continuous, delicate interaction of nerve and muscle!
Surely, none of the patients at the Leavesden Asylum suffered from agoraphobia.

I joke, of course, but I did find some real value in reading this old article. I got to look up pictures of Victorians on bicycles and tricycles and it is an interesting reflection of what was happening culturally at the beginning of the 1890s. Bicycles were still considered a new thing. When Ewart writes about riding them, he talks about “operating the machine” and this was a hip topic in 1890.
The object of the following remarks is to discuss the question of cycling purely in its relations to health. No attempt will be made to give a history of its growth from the “dandy-horse” and “bone-shaker” to the roadster, racer, tandem, and sociable. A knowledge of cones, balls, spoon or band brakes, of steering and gearing, although practically useful, has little direct bearing on the hygienic aspect of this pursuit, with which alone we are here concerned.
 When the ordinary non-cycling observer sees a rider gliding quietly along a bit of smooth roadway with apparently the least possible expenditure of muscular power, he is apt to believe that speaking of bicycling as “exercise” in the ordinary acceptation of the term is to be guilty of culpable exaggeration. ... he will be inclined to suggest that bicycling exercises only the legs, and that on this account it falls short of the standard of ideal exercise.
When Ewart uses the word “hygienic” above, we all know that he meant “healthy” and didn’t mean to imply that riding a bike was like disinfecting your hands or taking a shower. For example, “hygienic dress” was something many middle-class reformers were all about, when it come to the hazards of tightly-laced corsets and women’s health.

It seems that, in writing this piece, Ewart was negotiating some tricky and complicated territory. He uses the pronoun “he” a lot to talk about people in general, but he really wants to talk about women because they made up most of the population of his asylum and Victorians had this view that women were fragile and shouldn’t be subjected to vigorous exercise, but he does want to say that they should exercise.
The main feature of the exercise is not so much the propulsion of the machine as the balancing of it - the adjustment of the body in its application of motive power in such a manner as to secure and equal distribution of its weight on each side of the direct line of motion.
But, don’t discount it as anything less than marvelous just because it’s easy.
For any exercise to take a really high rank, it is requisite that it should be taken in the open air, and in this respect few, if any, can approach cycling.
Building up cycling as an acceptable and useful exercise for insane women wasn’t enough for Ewart.

He had to take down walking.
A walk may often be a dull affair, the fixed natural objects passed may be too familiar to the walker, who, from the comparatively limited area at his command, has of necessity to traverse the same ground; variable objects, animate and inanimate, do not present themselves with sufficient rapidity to break the spell of monotony. The cyclist, however, need never find his ride dull - he has a larger range at his command, the number of objects of interest he passes is multiplied by his pace, and the mind is supplied with a constant succession of occasions for pleasant observation.

Sports were gaining popularity among women by the 1890s, but connotations of the New Woman still accompanied women’s fitness and healthy living. Ewart was aware of this trend and, as a professional working in an insane asylum, he was also aware of the higher rates of institutionalized insanity among women.
It is impossible to over-estimate the value of any out-door exercise which provides itself both suitable and attractive to women, and there is nothing whatever in the nature of the exercise to render the use of the use of the tricycle of more service to one sex than to the other, whereas the greater degree of confinement in the asylum to which the female patients are necessarily subjected, and the more restricted number of out-door exercises which are open to them, render it all the more important that this recent addition to the list should receive full and general recognition.
Of course, Victorian women weren’t more prone to mental illness any more than their male counterparts, but their male counterparts had significant power over their lives, which easily led to abuse. The husband, father or guardian of a Victorian woman of any age (if she were older this could be her son) could and did have women certified as insane without doctors ever talking to her. Hysteria was a popular diagnosis, but epilepsy, infidelity and independent thought were also reasons women found themselves in asylums, like Ewart’s Leavesden.

That being said, Ewart talks about them like they are just really sad and ought to ride a bicycle.
For most of us the exquisite loveliness and delight of a fine summer’s day have a special charm. The very life is luxury. The air is full of sound and sunshine, of the song of birds, and the murmur of insects; the meadows gleam with golden buttercups, we almost fancy we can see the grass grow and the buds open; the bees hum for very joy; there are a thousand scents, above all, perhaps, that of new-mown hay. There are doubtless many patients before whom “all the glories of heaven and earth may pass in daily succession without touching their hearts or elevating their minds,” but, in time, it is possible even these would, by means of cycling, have their love of Nature, which had been frozen or crushed out, restored. Thus all Nature, which is full of beauties, would not only be a never-failing source of pleasure and interest, but lift them above the petty troubles and sorrows of their daily life.
Though “Cycling for the Insane” seems to be written from a place of compassion, it reveals a basic lack of understanding of mental illness within the institutions Victorians built to cope with mental illness. I say that Ewart writes from a place of compassion because I know that many institutions treated their patients like side-show freaks.

Though Ewart writes to encourage other asylums to adopt and encourage exercise regimens that include cycling for women, this piece reads like general advice on how to stay healthy and mentally stable, even though it was published in the Journal of Medical Science.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Pictures of Women in Dorian Gray

Through his work with Woman’s World in the late 1880s, Oscar Wilde positioned himself as an important connection for aspiring woman writers in 1890s London. Although journalism was opening up as a viable career path for women, men still had more access to information and opportunities about London’s writing life, making male contacts, like Wilde integral to a female writer’s success in the field. Wilde was happy to help.

The question I ask today is what did Wilde think of these women? Of course, I don’t feel there is anyway that I can really know the answer, but I am going to try to get a sense of Wilde’s view of women through his portrayal of women in his only novel: The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I took the text of the novel on my computer and searched it for Wilde’s use of the word: woman. The result has provided views of different kinds of women from the rich and the poor to the young and the old, interestingly most of them are old.

We also have the problem that not everything Wilde says in Dorian Gray is meant to be taken as his opinion. For example, the words and opinions Wilde writes an uneducated young girl as speaking can hardly be assumed to represent his own views directly, but may tell us something of what he thought about uneducated young girls.

I present my findings in the order they appear in the novel, separated by commentary.
"Humph! tell your Aunt Agatha, Harry, not to bother me any more with her charity appeals. I am sick of them. Why, the good woman thinks that I have nothing to do but to write cheques for her silly fads."
Contrary to what we think of today as “slumming” that is what Aunt Agatha is doing here. In the 1890s, slumming referred to both rich people acting poor and rich people helping the poor. Upper- and middle-class women were especially involved in charities, like Aunt Agatha, and Wilde probably met lots of Aunt Agathas through his work at Woman’s World.
So that was the story of Dorian Gray's parentage. Crudely as it had been told to him, it had yet stirred him by its suggestion of a strange, almost modern romance. A beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion. A few wild weeks of happiness cut short by a hideous, treacherous crime. Months of voiceless agony, and then a child born in pain. The mother snatched away by death, the boy left to solitude and the tyranny of an old and loveless man.
I’m beginning to read stories, like Dorian Gray’s origin story, as Victorian urban myths or legends that were perpetuated to keep “respectable” women from straying too far from the domestic sphere. That is all.
"A blush is very becoming, Duchess," remarked Lord Henry.
"Only when one is young," she answered. "When an old woman like myself blushes, it is a very bad sign. Ah! Lord Henry, I wish you would tell me how to become young again."
As editor of Woman’s World, Wilde was well-informed about women’s health and fashion. I wonder if the Duchess is worried about her blood pressure?
She laughed nervously as she spoke, and watched him with her vague forget-me-not eyes. She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy. Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church.
I love that description. It describes so many people I know today, if they lived in Victorian times. It describes a woman, who is full of dreams and passion - though she often chases the wrong ones, but that doesn’t matter because she has mastered the art of mending her broken parts.

"Never marry a woman with straw-coloured hair, Dorian," he said after a few puffs.
"Why, Harry?"
"Because they are so sentimental."
"But I like sentimental people."
"Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed."
Ever since reading Franny Moyle, my reception of Wilde’s view of marriage has changed. I think he was really disappointed in his marriage because it was supposed to be an exercise in aesthetic living, but wound up being until-death-do-we-part. I also sort of suspect that he started fooling around with men to maintain a certain level of faithfulness to his wife.
"My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals."
"Harry, how can you?"
"My dear Dorian, it is quite true. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rouge and esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can't be admitted into decent society. However, tell me about your genius. How long have you known her?"
Well, this does sound like the view of a man, who no longer works as editor of a woman’s magazine, though today I imagine him being fired for that. Too bad Wilde is identified as gay, otherwise David Gimour could read that and they could be best friends.

"You don't understand her, Harry. She regarded me merely as a person in a play. She knows nothing of life. She lives with her mother, a faded tired woman who played Lady Capulet in a sort of magenta dressing-wrapper on the first night, and looks as if she had seen better days."
 "I know that look. It depresses me," murmured Lord Henry, examining his rings.
Ok, time for a confession. I wanted to repeat the same process that I’ve been using to write this analysis by searching Dorian Gray for all of Wilde’s usages of the word: man. However, the search proved exhausting and I went to bed at an unholy hour. Such a comparison, I thought, would add balance to my reading, but the truth is that many of the things Wilde says about women he also says about men. I don’t think Lord Henry is depressed about women getting old here. I think he sees himself getting old and that depresses him. Wilde elsewhere called women the “decorative sex,” but what is Dorian Gray in chapter one, but literally a decoration.
"Mother, Mother, I am so happy!" whispered the girl, burying her face in the lap of the faded, tired-looking woman who, with back turned to the shrill intrusive light, was sitting in the one arm-chair that their dingy sitting-room contained. "I am so happy!" she repeated, "and you must be happy, too!"
Spoiler: this is Sybil Vane talking to her mother, who is to be left with no living children at the end of the story. Thanks to Dorian.
"I don't know how we could manage without him," answered the elder woman querulously.
The Vane family are poor and, in Victorian times, in need of a man to provide for them. There are elements of the fairy tale in this, but it’s sad.
The elder woman grew pale beneath the coarse powder that daubed her cheeks, and her dry lips twitched with a spasm of pain.
Again, this is Sybil Vane’s mother, but also a demonstration of why Dorian Gray sought to hold onto his youth and beauty.
For a moment a hideous sense of humiliation came over the woman. Her head drooped. She wiped her eyes with shaking hands. "Sibyl has a mother," she murmured; "I had none."
This reads as if she read my comment and is trying to make me feel guilty.
“...I love Sibyl Vane. I want to place her on a pedestal of gold and to see the world worship the woman who is mine. What is marriage? An irrevocable vow. You mock at it for that. Ah! don't mock. It is an irrevocable vow that I want to take. Her trust makes me faithful, her belief makes me good...”
I told you that I thought that Wilde was disappointed in his own marriage. There was even an air of temporariness to it, when it started, but I think that some way in Wilde realized he was not living an idealized aesthetic life. He was living a life, committed to a woman. The words he puts into Dorian’s mouth above are characteristic of Victorian ideals of marriage and wifehood. Putting anyone on a pedestal, no matter what it's made of is impractical to say the least.
"My dear Dorian," answered Lord Henry, taking a cigarette from his case and producing a gold-latten matchbox, "the only way a woman can ever reform a man is by boring him so completely that he loses all possible interest in life..."
Aye! There is the rub!
"...That awful memory of woman! What a fearful thing it is! And what an utter intellectual stagnation it reveals! One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar."
To me, the above lines represent the death of Wilde’s earlier ideals about aesthetic matrimony.

"...The one charm of the past is that it is the past. But women never know when the curtain has fallen. They always want a sixth act, and as soon as the interest of the play is entirely over, they propose to continue it. If they were allowed their own way, every comedy would have a tragic ending, and every tragedy would culminate in a farce. They are charmingly artificial, but they have no sense of art ... Ordinary women always console themselves. Some of them do it by going in for sentimental colours. Never trust a woman who wears mauve, whatever her age may be, or a woman over thirty-five who is fond of pink ribbons. It always means that they have a history..."
The extraordinary woman in the above passage is Sybil Vane. She couldn’t console herself, making her, in Lord Henry’s eyes, wonderfully romantic. So, what is wrong with a woman having a past? Women were to be sheltered and protected from life experience, until marriage. No wonder they seemed boring. How do ordinary Victorian women console themselves?
"Oh, the obvious consolation. Taking some one else's admirer when one loses one's own. In good society that always whitewashes a woman. But really, Dorian, how different Sibyl Vane must have been from all the women one meets! There is something to me quite beautiful about her death. I am glad I am living in a century when such wonders happen. They make one believe in the reality of the things we all play with, such as romance, passion, and love."
"I was terribly cruel to her. You forget that."
"I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated. I am sure you were splendid..."

And we are suddenly reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Ok, I’ve never read Fifty Shades of Grey. My point is that the above passage is an incarnation of an insidious popular myth. I’m sure that Wilde knew that some men loved to be dominated and refuse to dwell on that bit of nastiness too long.
"...Poor woman! What a state she must be in! And her only child, too! What did she say about it all?" 
"My dear Basil, how do I know?" murmured Dorian Gray, sipping some pale-yellow wine from a delicate, gold-beaded bubble of Venetian glass and looking dreadfully bored. "I was at the opera. You should have come on there. I met Lady Gwendolen, Harry's sister, for the first time. We were in her box. She is perfectly charming; and Patti sang divinely. Don't talk about horrid subjects. If one doesn't talk about a thing, it has never happened. It is simply expression, as Harry says, that gives reality to things. I may mention that she was not the woman's only child. There is a son, a charming fellow, I believe. But he is not on the stage. He is a sailor, or something. And now, tell me about yourself and what you are painting."
Now, we are clearly back to Sybil Vane’s mother. In this passage, I believe, we are to see the cruelness that is consuming Dorian Gray. This is the stuff that is rearranging the paint on the Picture Basil gave him and, so, I think we are made to understand that Wilde also views this attitude as abhorrent and unusually cruel.
What of the second Lord Beckenham, the companion of the Prince Regent in his wildest days, and one of the witnesses at the secret marriage with Mrs. Fitzherbert? How proud and handsome he was, with his chestnut curls and insolent pose! What passions had he bequeathed? The world had looked upon him as infamous. He had led the orgies at Carlton House. The star of the Garter glittered upon his breast. Beside him hung the portrait of his wife, a pallid, thin-lipped woman in black. Her blood, also, stirred within him. How curious it all seemed! And his mother with her Lady Hamilton face and her moist, wine-dashed lips--he knew what he had got from her. He had got from her his beauty, and his passion for the beauty of others. She laughed at him in her loose Bacchante dress. There were vine leaves in her hair. The purple spilled from the cup she was holding. The carnations of the painting had withered, but the eyes were still wonderful in their depth and brilliancy of colour. They seemed to follow him wherever he went.
Now, we have a portrait a wife and of a mother. The wife is "thin-lipped" and unremarkable. Wilde was close to his mother, but not as close as his alcoholic brother was. Her “moist, wine-dashed lips -- he knew what he had got from her.” Sadly, when Wilde’s mother died of bronchitis, he room was full of empty gin bottles. I’m sure Wilde was aware of the problem.
Staveley curled his lip and said that you might have the most artistic tastes, but that you were a man whom no pure-minded girl should be allowed to know, and whom no chaste woman should sit in the same room with.
What was I saying about women not being allowed to experience life? Yes, that!
"I must speak, and you must listen. You shall listen. When you met Lady Gwendolen, not a breath of scandal had ever touched her. Is there a single decent woman in London now who would drive with her in the park? Why, even her children are not allowed to live with her...”
Lady Gwendolen was clearly susceptible to the corrupting influences of Dorian Gray, much the way that Dorian was susceptible to the corrupting influences of Lord Henry. Maybe men and women aren’t so different after all?
He looked down and saw the policeman going his rounds and flashing the long beam of his lantern on the doors of the silent houses. The crimson spot of a prowling hansom gleamed at the corner and then vanished. A woman in a fluttering shawl was creeping slowly by the railings, staggering as she went. Now and then she stopped and peered back. Once, she began to sing in a hoarse voice. The policeman strolled over and said something to her. She stumbled away, laughing.
This, I think, was used to make the neighbourhood seem more creepy. It seems like we are in Jack the Ripper’s hunting grounds here. Also a message to women about not straying too far from the domestic sphere.
At some of the letters, he smiled. Three of them bored him. One he read several times over and then tore up with a slight look of annoyance in his face. "That awful thing, a woman's memory!" as Lord Henry had once said.
With all of his banter, Lord Henry has corrupted Dorian, making him hate the thing that could mast reform him and make him good again: women. How sad for Dorian.
It was a small party, got up rather in a hurry by Lady Narborough, who was a very clever woman with what Lord Henry used to describe as the remains of really remarkable ugliness. She had proved an excellent wife to one of our most tedious ambassadors, and having buried her husband properly in a marble mausoleum, which she had herself designed, and married off her daughters to some rich, rather elderly men, she devoted herself now to the pleasures of French fiction, French cookery, and French esprit when she could get it.
Lady Narborough sounds just like the kind of woman that Wilde wanted to have writing for Woman’s World. In the following passage, she begins to sound like Wilde’s wife.

"Of course I go and stay with them every summer after I come from Homburg, but then an old woman like me must have fresh air sometimes, and besides, I really wake them up...”
Constance Wilde frequently needed to get away for her health.
Lady Ruxton, an overdressed woman of forty-seven, with a hooked nose, who was always trying to get herself compromised, but was so peculiarly plain that to her great disappointment no one would ever believe anything against her...
That, I think, was just supposed to be funny. Funny because it was true? Probably, I don’t think that Victorian women were as committed to respectability as we like to think.
"Dear Lady Narborough," murmured Dorian, smiling, "I have not been in love for a whole week--not, in fact, since Madame de Ferrol left town."
"How you men can fall in love with that woman!" exclaimed the old lady. "I really cannot understand it."
Love isn’t for anyone else to understand, silly old lady.
"You will never marry again, Lady Narborough," broke in Lord Henry. "You were far too happy. When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs."
"Narborough wasn't perfect," cried the old lady.
"If he had been, you would not have loved him, my dear lady," was the rejoinder. "Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them, they will forgive us everything, even our intellects. You will never ask me to dinner again after saying this, I am afraid, Lady Narborough, but it is quite true." 
"Of course it is true, Lord Henry. If we women did not love you for your defects, where would you all be? Not one of you would ever be married. You would be a set of unfortunate bachelors. Not, however, that that would alter you much. Nowadays all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married men."
"Fin de siecle," murmured Lord Henry. 
"Fin du globe," answered his hostess.
I love that, although it is wrought with generalizations. The truth in it is that all of Wilde’s characters were so different that they seem to more accurately represent people. I hope I can do that in my writing.
"What nonsense people talk about happy marriages!" exclaimed Lord Henry. "A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her."
Oscar, is that why you clung so desperately to Bosie? Is it?

"He bores me dreadfully, almost as much as he bores her. She is very clever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness..."
Oops! It sounds like I’m having a conversation with Wilde again. This is not intentional, but fun, so I will leave it as it is and hope you have as much fun reading it.
A dull rage was in his heart. As they turned a corner, a woman yelled something at them from an open door, and two men ran after the hansom for about a hundred yards. The driver beat at them with his whip.
Wild women in the night again! I think this is a sign of degeneration, decadence and drink that Wilde was pointing to. Just because factions of Victorian society saw Wilde as the symbol of degeneration, doesn’t mean that he didn’t see it elsewhere.
Two red sparks flashed for a moment in the woman's sodden eyes, then flickered out and left them dull and glazed. She tossed her head and raked the coins off the counter with greedy fingers. Her companion watched her enviously. ... Dorian walked to the door with a look of pain in his face. As he drew the curtain aside, a hideous laugh broke from the painted lips of the woman who had taken his money. "There goes the devil's bargain!" she hiccoughed, in a hoarse voice. 
"Curse you!" he answered, "don't call me that." 
She snapped her fingers. "Prince Charming is what you like to be called, ain't it?" she yelled after him. ... The woman gave a bitter laugh. "Little more than a boy!" she sneered. "Why, man, it's nigh on eighteen years since Prince Charming made me what I am." ... He broke from her with an oath and rushed to the corner of the street, but Dorian Gray had disappeared. When he looked back, the woman had vanished also.

Oooh... Dorian almost forgot that just because he’s not aging doesn’t mean that others aren’t. This creepy aged woman in the night comes across as almost mystical, though it is Dorian that is enchanted.
"Greek meets Greek, then?"
"I am on the side of the Trojans. They fought for a woman." 
"They were defeated." 
"There are worse things than capture," she answered.
And we are back to Fifty Shades of Grey. I probably shouldn’t talk about that book, unless I plan to read it.
"How fond women are of doing dangerous things!" laughed Lord Henry. "It is one of the qualities in them that I admire most. A woman will flirt with anybody in the world as long as other people are looking on."
I saw this quote (or part of it) somewhere on the internet recently. It was listed as a Wildean insult. Is it? In the context of all Wilde’s other mentions of women in Dorian Gray, we have women painted as creatures that must be frightened and scared into not straying out of the domestic sphere. Gentlemen, Wilde seems to suggest, don’t be afraid to dominate them a little. Clearly, women wouldn’t mind breaking free and Wilde knows that. Remember, "there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can't be admitted into decent society."
“...She is a charming woman, and wants to consult you about some tapestries she is thinking of buying. Mind you come. Or shall we lunch with our little duchess? She says she never sees you now...”
When Wilde’s women are remaining in the domestic sphere, Wilde’s men are encouraged to spend a little more time with them there. If that was prescriptive, Wilde wasn’t good at following his own advice and didn’t spend nearly as much time with Constance as she would have liked.

The picture of women in Dorian Grey isn’t one that I want to paint. I’d especially like to leave out that stuff about dominating a woman, but I like that his woman aren’t too different from his men, even if the men and women joke about one another.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sexton Blake and the Penny Dreadful

I could here and there see the reflection of light from the window of some student, who was busy at his studies, or throwing away his time over some trashy novel, too many of which find their way into the trunks or carpet-bags of the young men on setting out for college. - William Wells Brown on his visit to Oxford in 1850.
Those were also the days of Edmund Gosse’s terrible childhood.
No fiction of any kind, religious or secular, was admitted into the house. In this it was to my Mother, not to my Father, that the prohibition was due. She had a remarkable, I confess to me still somewhat unaccountable impression that to 'tell a story', that is, to compose fictitious narrative of any kind, was a sin. - Gosse, Father and Son (1907)
In consequence of the stern ordinance which I have described, not a single fiction was read or told to me during my infancy. The rapture of the child who delays the process of going to bed by cajoling 'a story' out of his mother or his nurse, as he sits upon her knee, well tucked up, at the corner of the nursery fire—this was unknown to me. Never in all my early childhood did anyone address to me the affecting preamble, 'Once upon a time!' I was told about missionaries, but never about pirates; I was familiar with hummingbirds, but I had never heard of fairies—Jack the Giant- Killer, Rumpelstiltskin and Robin Hood were not of my acquaintance; and though I understood about wolves, Little Red Ridinghood was a stranger even by name. So far as my 'dedication' was concerned, I can but think that my parents were in error thus to exclude the imaginary from my outlook upon facts. - Gosse, Father and Son (1907)
Though Gosse was a child in the 1850s, his upbringing was a sign of things to come. By the 1860s, certain types of fiction were considered incredibly dangerous, especially the sensation novel. Drawing from gothic and romantic literary fiction, the sensation novel appealed to the uncultured masses through shocking themes, like adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction, and murder. Other than relying on shock and awe, sensation novels separated themselves from other more respectable genres by using common settings familiar to their poorer middle- and working- class audiences.

By the 1880s, the sensation novel was replaced by the ‘penny dreadful,’ known as ‘dime novels’ in the United States. Stanford's Dime Novel and Story Paper Collection celebrates the era, which “benefited from three mutually reinforcing trends: the vastly increased mechanization of printing, the growth of efficient rail and canal shipping, and ever-growing rates of literacy.”

I’ve always thought of these as serial novels, published in story-based (I hesitate to use the word literary) publications. Again, their low price made them accessible to the uncultured reading masses, filling their minds with the kind of trash Mother Gosse sought to protect her son from in the 1850s.

In the 1890s, the British newspaper and publishing magnate, Alfred Harmsworth, decided to take on the corrupting influence of the penny dreadfuls, but wound up creating the same thing for less: The Half-penny Marvel, The Union Jack and Pluck, all priced at a half-penny. A.A. Milne once said, "Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha'penny dreadfuller." But Harmsworth made some thing wonderful happen.

Meet Sexton Blake, who, in the 1890s, was known as “the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes.” Though written by many hands (Harmsworth owned the rights), the first Sexton Blake story, “The Missing Millionaire,” was published on 20 December 1893 and really sought to capitalize on the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, who Arthur Conan Doyle was already getting tired of writing about.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake was a consulting detective operating out of Baker Street. Blake’s Watson is called Tinker, who didn’t appear until 1904 and is more like Batman’s Robin. Blake’s love interest is Yvone Cartier and his housekeeper is Mrs. Bardell. Blake is a little more clean-cut than Holmes, but is actually an educated medical doctor, like the real Sherlock Holmes.

The Sexton Blake franchise continued on through the 1960s and the official fan website calls for a revival in the 21st century.

So why was Sherlock Holmes considered literature, while Sexton Blake was considered trashy? My focus is on the 1890s, so I’m not going to comment on what might have happened to the franchise in the 20th century, but the fact that it actually was a franchise might have had something to do with it. Maybe having multiple authors had something to do with it? During my undergraduate degree, I took a class, in which we read novels of many shapes, my fellow students found that they had a lower opinion of what a book would be like, based on its shape. If it looked like a Harlequin romance book, they expected it to be trashy. They were often surprised by what they found inside. Maybe readers in the 1890s didn’t take Blake seriously because of the cheap quality of the publications?

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Monday, October 7, 2013

How to Raise a Horror Writer

Bram Stoker was a sickly child and spent a lot of time in bed, while his loving Irish mother, Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley (hereafter referred to as "Mother Stoker") entertained him with stories. Many of her stories were oral histories, the kind that the Brothers Grimm sought out in Germany, the kind that appeared in Speranza's Ancient Legends many years later. Sometimes, Mother Stoker would tell little Stoker about the horrors of the potato famine, as he drifted off to sleep other times the stories came from her own family history.

One was about her great-great-great... grandfather. I haven't been able to find much evidence to support her ancestry, but the story of this particular grandfather is scary and fascinating.

First, I didn't know the word "lynch" had different etymology rooted in Ireland than it does in the States. The Irish etymology predates the American through the Stokers' grandfather, James Lynch Fitzstephen, also sometimes called James Fitzstephen Lynch.

Lynch was the infamous cold-hearted mayor/judge of Galway Ireland. The story goes that Lynch's son Walter was jealous of his father's Spanish houseguest, whom he believed was wooing his lady. In a fit of rage, he killed the Spaniard, but sobered up and confessed his crime. The people of Galway, for some reason, were on Walter's side and pleaded mercy on his behalf, but his ruthless father found him guilty and hung him out the window of their home. The house is gone, but the window is still there, marked with a plaque.

This memorial of the stern and unbending justice of the chief magistrate of this city, James Lynch Fitzstephen, elected mayor in A.D. 1493, who condemned and executed his own guilty son, Walter, on this spot.’ He was one son who was not spared.
As gruesome a story as this is, especially for telling a sick little boy, I did find a compelling argument for why the American etymology is more popular. Lynching is something that takes place outside of the law, whereas the mayor of Galway acted within the law. Earliest published use of the term dates back to 1811, well after Charles Lynch added his name to the list of terrible Lynches associated with the word, but, as if to accommodate differences of opinion on its etymology, the OED specifies that in its early use the word implied only "the infliction of punishment, such as whipping" etc.

I have to stop there because the history of the word is so awful that it makes me sick and I lose sleep. Other stories Mother Stoker used to tell were about deaths through the Potato Famine (1845-52). It's possible that she told these stories from her own memory. Punch comics sure had some things to say on the subject.

If Mother Stoker didn't make her son an author of horror stories with those tales, she also had Manus the Magnificent to talk about. Manus O'Donnell (d.1564) was an Irish clan leader and important member of the O'Donnell dynasty based in County Donegal. His father, Hugh, was crowned king of the O'Donnells during their clan's terrible feud with the O'Neills. Just reading his wikipedia entry is like watching the Game of Thrones.

Stoker fans everywhere look for traces of the Tales of Mother Stoker in Bram Stoker's Dracula. I can certainly see that when I think of Dracula talking about history after reading about Manus the Magnificent. The Mayor of Galway also posed a good model for a villain and might have made Stoker more sympathetic, when reading about Vlad the Impaler. But Stoker read about Vlad as an adult, so he must have loved listening to the terrible stories his mother told him as a boy.


A few days after I originally posted this, pieces of the stories that I imagine Mother Stoker telling her son start turning up in all of Bram Stoker's writing for me. Most shocking are the final words of Stoker's best known short story, "The Judge's House." My focus is overwhelmingly on the 1890s and Dracula, so as obvious as the connection is between the Mayor of Galway and "The Judge's House," I overlooked it until now. The story ends with the line:
There at the end of the rope of the great alarm bell hung the body of the student, and on the face of the Judge in the picture was a malignant smile.
Please, post a comment, if you find any other connections that I might have overlooked.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray Book Cover Collection

The Picture of Dorian Gray was possibly the most scandalous book of the 1890s. It was first published as the lead story in the July 1890 edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Right away, reviews criticised the novel for its decadence and homosexual content. During his infamous trials in 1895, the prosecuting attorneys used the novel against Wilde, referring to it as a “sodomitical book.” Wilde was sentenced to prison for shamelessly loving young men the courts, along with the press, made Dorian Gray became the chief exhibit of his shamelessness.

Book covers are used to sell books and the way they are designed reveals aspects of how the reading public receives the contents within.

The original magazine publication, 1890.

First edition, 1891.

Charles Carrington, Paris, 1908.

Penguin, 1949.
Thriller Picture Library, 1956.

UK Edition, 1960s.

Franklin Library, 1988.
(Accented in 22kt gold.)

CÁTEDRA, 1992.

Penguin Books, 2010.
Intervisual Books, 2010.

I think my current favourite is the 1988 edition, accented in gold. There's merit in producing an editon of the Picture of Dorian Gray as elaborate as that.
And so, for a whole year, [Dorian] sought to accumulate the most exquisite specimens that he could find ... books bound in tawny satins or fair blue silks and wrought with fleurs-de-lis...
Books are beautiful things.

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