Saturday 27 December 2014

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination - British Library

The British Library's biggest Gothic exhibition to date traces the development of the genre over 250 years. What better starting point than Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, an essential catalyst for the Gothic revival of the mid-eighteenth century? In the exploration of the origins of this novel and the life of its author we are introduced to some of the settings and plot devices common in the literature of the genre. Progressing through the eighteenth century we arrive at the nineteenth century and the added psychological dimension developed by some of the great novelists of the age twinned with the absorption of contemporary concerns in to the portrayal of the Gothic horrors.

The latter part of the exhibition focuses on modern Gothic with its continued obsession with current concerns - now manifesting themselves in anxiety around psychological and bodily trauma and an obsession with the fragility and eventual decay of the body. It is shown that the same strong themes have permeated the genre from early novels through to modern film and fashion as well as highlighting ongoing concerns over the damaging effect of the exposure of young people to such horrors, fears which were so prevalent back in 1796 with the publication of Matthew Lewis's The Monk. 

A broad exhibition which never loses its focus, and successfully shows how modern manifestations of the genre are firmly rooted in tradition. Whether you're drawn to it because of a love or literature, film, or all things Gothic there'll be something to satisfy your desires. I certainly came away with a long list of books and films to explore further. The labyrinthine feel to the design of the exhibition space with its semi-opaque black curtains creates a somewhat mysterious feel leading to a more immersive experience. 

The exhibition runs until 20th January 2015 and is definitely worth a visit. 

Tuesday 30 September 2014

The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists is the story of Supreme Court judge Teoh Yun Ling and her attempts to record her memories before the aphasia strips them away. There’s a complex narrative chronology split between the present, her time as a prisoner of war, and the time in which she sought out the Emperor’s ex-gardener Aritomo to teach her to create a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong.

From the start we see Yun Ling’s obsession with ageing and decay and how the way in which she views the world is shaped and coloured by the war. Two of the main themes of the novel are remembering and forgetting, and there are some painful scenes where the horror of losing the ability to comprehend the world is poignantly portrayed. There’s both a desperate need to remember – to remember loved ones who are lost, to remember what happened, and to honour those who didn’t make it whilst also dealing with the issue of how much the past should be let go of, the difficult fact that holding on too tightly can damage the present.

As the story progresses we learn more about the complex development of the various relationships depicted. The narrative order makes this particularly interesting as you work backwards to discover how relationships were shaped. There are revelations for both the characters and the reader as we learn that most of the key players are harbouring some form of guilt, and we are constantly forced to re-assess our opinions.

This is a slow burner of a novel which is very real and very human. At the centre is a deep pain which winds itself around the story and permeates every aspect of the characters’ lives. There are references to very specialized knowledge about the art of gardening as well as a good dose of history, but the universal themes of guilt, regret, love, memory, and obsession mean that the story has the ability to resonate with any reader.

Monday 8 September 2014

The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham

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This review details some events in the novel that may spoil sections for those who have not yet read it.

The Moon and Sixpence tells the story of Charles Strickland, stockbroker turned artist who gives little explanation when he leaves his life in London to while away his hours painting in Paris. Maugham took his inspiration for the character from the life of Paul Gauguin, but there are reminders throughout that this is not Gauguin’s story, an obvious example being that it is specifically mentioned that Strickland had never met Van Gogh.

Our narrator is an author, writing a book about Strickland’s life. This has an impact on the way he writes the story, and he admits that he embellishes and interprets what Strickland actually said. In his opening explanation as to why he feels it necessary to add a further book to the existing selection on the topic he explains his own opinions on art and that he believes the artist puts part of themselves in their work – an opinion worth remembering throughout as he attempts to dissect Strickland’s personality. We do, however, learn more about our narrator’s character than his subject in the opening chapters. The book as a whole is an interesting examination of the complexity of individual psychologies and we learn a lot about him through his interaction with others. He comes across as socially awkward and naïve with set ideas about what  constitutes appropriate behaviour at different stages of life.

He judges Strickland for his behaviour and lack of concern, increasingly seeing him as an odious man and he has no qualms in telling him that he finds him despicable. Strickland does not care for the opinions of others and points out that it is really this lack of power that distresses the narrator. There’s something oddly admirable about Strickland’s total absence of care in regards social pressure and expectations, although there’s no denying that his behaviour is far from ideal. He is a complex character; both incredibly straightforward and upfront but with unexpected passion and hidden concerns. For all his flaws he seems to understand deeply some truths about human nature that others do not. Any sympathetic feelings toward him do tend to dry up as the novel progresses and he seemingly heartlessly breaks up the marriage of someone who has shown him nothing but kindness, and feels no pity when it ends in death.

Strickland is often described as having sensual features and he has a lot of pent up lust that he has to relieve on occasion, a fact he seems to resent as an unworthy distraction from his art. He does at least see lust as natural, love on the other hand seems to him to be a weakness. He does not believe Blanche Stroeve loved him, merely that she wanted to possess him, and thinks her foolish for her actions. He shows no remorse or concern for either her or her husband, Dirk.

On leaving his wife, Strickland felt no guilt at forcing her to fend for herself, and indeed her reaction to his departure suggests he may not be entirely wrong in his views on the nature of relationships. She is greatly concerned with what people will say, and remains ashamed of earning a living (she is by no means a feminist figure). In many ways they are an incongruous pair, he caring nothing of what people think of him nor for physical comfort, but for all their differences they do share a devotion to different forms of art, albeit a passion that manifests itself in very different forms.

Despite his affection for Strickland’s wife, our narrator is surprised by her concerns and disturbed by the assertion that had she been called to her husband’s deathbed she would willingly have gone and cared for him. This he sees as a strange passion in women, almost as if they look forward to being able to play this role. He learns a lot about the world and the complexity of personal relations interlinked with the outside world from his dealings with Strickland, and seems to mature because of it.

The Moon and Sixpence is full of absolutely fascinating characters whose backstory and the impact this has on their psychology is gradually revealed throughout. Rarely have I come across a novel that is so sage in its approach to its characters’ mental development. Despite the constant reminders that we have an unreliable narrator who does not know all the facts and elaborates on those he does, you’re left with a very clear sense of the varied characters. Strickland may seem despicable in his actions but its also clear that his compulsion to paint enslaves him, making him an intriguing protagonist.

This was the first of Maugham’s work that I read, and it left me eager to read more.

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Sunday 17 August 2014

White chocolate and blackberry cupcakes

Makes about 18 cupcakes


  • 250g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 150g white chocolate, chopped
  • 440g caster sugar
  • 250ml milk
  • 225g plain flour
  • 75g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 125g blackberries, halved, plus extra for decoration
  • 110g butter, softened
  • 250g icing sugar
  • 150g white chocolate, broken in to pieces
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp milk
  • Preheat oven to gas mark 4/180°C/350°F and line a muffin tray with cupcake cases.
  • Combine butter, chocolate, sugar, and milk in a saucepan and heat over a low heat, without boiling, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat, pour in to a bowl, and allow to cool for about 15 mins.
  • Using an electric whisk add the flours and then the vanilla essence and eggs and whisk until combined.
  • Gently stir through the blackberries.
  • Spoon the mixture in to the cases to about a third full and bake in the oven for 25-30 mins. The cakes should be a golden brown and have quite a crunchy top when fully baked.
  • To make the icing, melt the chocolate over a pan of water. Remove from the heat once melted and allow to cool slightly.
  • Use an electric whisk to beat the butter. Gradually add the icing sugar, beating well so that the mix is pale.
  • Add the white chocolate and vanilla extract and mix in. 
  • If the mix hasn't come together well or needs to be a bit softer, add the milk and mix well.
  • Once the cupcakes are fully cooled pipe on the icing and top with a blackberry.

Friday 8 August 2014

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

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Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland’s first season in Bath and all of the potential pitfalls of a life in society. Her love of Gothic literature and a timely visit to Northanger Abbey lead her on a mock Gothic adventure where she learns the difference between fact and fiction and discovers the true nature of some of her friends.

The reader is assumed to have some knowledge of literary tradition, with the assertion right from the first line that Catherine is not a typical heroine. The initial passage of description is in stark contrast to the character study of Jane Austen in her brother’s preface. This highlights the importance and interrelation of all aspects of a book and not merely the novel itself. As an avid reader we can assume that Catherine herself is aware that she is not in possession of the expected credentials of a heroine. Her meagre return home so different to the triumphal return of the great figures of literature is not lost on her, and we are reminded throughout of her failings as a Gothic heroine. Austen’s mocking of the oft-exaggerated Gothic female protagonists means that this is no damning judgement of her character. We are encouraged to laugh at her naivety and the misunderstandings caused by her over-active imagination, but ultimately we see her learn from her mistakes and mature in a fashion entirely appropriate to her young age.

Her love of novels goes beyond mere enjoyment of the story and starts to colour her view of the real world and the expectations she holds. It is therefore with great excitement that she sets off for Northanger Abbey, imagining it will be as if it were straight out of an Ann Radcliffe novel. Henry teases her on the journey, claiming she would not like it if it were as threatening as all that. Determined that she would she invents mystery where there is none and judges people for their imagined role in wicked activities. Henry realises where her mind has wandered and sets her straight. It is at this point that she realises how foolish she has been and that her sensationalising of events has led to an oversight of very real suffering.

It is not only this strain of childishness which is highlighted with her stay at the Abbey, but also her ignorance of what is fashionable as she does not show the desired sense of awe at some of the fine items. Throughout we are reminded that she has not been brought up in a way that would have equipped her with the necessary sensibilities to succeed flawlessly in society. She worries terribly when she thinks she has offended her friends but soon learns well enough that the appearance of friendliness must always be maintained. It is quite a revelation to her that people are not always entirely truthful in order to make themselves seem more impressive. In this way she learns not merely abut social expectations but also about human nature.

Austen gently mocks the ladies hunting for husbands, showing them to be easily swayed by flattery and occupying their time with shallow concerns. The scene in which it is asserted that an ignorant woman is far more likely to find a suitable husband is both a judgement on the qualities looked for in a genteel wife and also of the ever-changing focus in fashion and the subsequent shifts in art appreciation. That Catherine feels ashamed of her ignorance in such matters shows that she has a more genuine appreciation for that which she considers beautiful. It also again hints at the status of the novel at the time – she is well-read in popular fiction but this is not considered an intelligent activity and would not be discussed with potential suitors.

A light and humorous novel with a naïve but endearing protagonist which pokes fun at so much that was popular in the late eighteenth century. Lovers of Gothic fiction will enjoy the many references, even if Austen doesn’t seem the biggest fan of the genre. Not particularly to my taste but if you enjoy light hearted happy endings with a good dose of historic social commentary then you’ll probably appreciate this more than I did. 

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Thursday 24 July 2014

The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

The title doesn’t give much of a clue about what you’ll see at this exhibition. It’s about the Georgians, yes, and it makes sense that the focus is on the monarchy seeing as it’s produced from the Royal Collection. The main perspective, however, I’d struggle to tell you.

The first room doesn’t make a huge impression despite containing one of my favourite items – a letter from Frederick, Prince of Wales to his son (and future King) from 1749 saying he won’t regret not being King so long as George rules worthily. This I found particularly touching considering the Hanoverian reputation for family feuds. Sentimentality aside, it’s a fairly weak start, suggesting the disparate nature of the exhibition as a whole.

After a vague introduction to the royal family there is a painting of James II and his family, hopeful of regaining the throne. Admittedly it is interesting to contrast this with depictions of the Hanoverians, but the impact would have been far greater had it been placed side by side with just such a painting rather than in a connecting room. It raises the idea of opposition but you first have to pass through a room focused on the royal palaces before the theme is taken up again with an area devoted to the Georgians at war.

I’ve been to a fair few of the Georgian inspired exhibitions in London this year and none of them particularly touched on this issue so I felt my interest piqued. I did learn a fair amount and particularly enjoyed the certificate confirming four spies had infiltrated to Jacobite camp on the eve of the Battle of Culloden, as well as the striking medley drawing by J. F. C. Schilling. Plans of battle don’t often have the power to engage me but I imagine if they do that you’d really enjoy this section.

That the next area deals with Hogarth signifies the unconnectedness that let this exhibition down. The final two rooms were inhabited by a plethora of decorative art and furnishings and although I felt as though I saw some impressive pieces they would likely have been more fully appreciated had they been presented in a more coherent fashion. It wasn’t the grand and impressive art that made it worthwhile being there but the personal touches such as the letters.

With so many excellent exhibitions celebrating the anniversary of the accession of the Hanoverians this one, sadly, would not be at the top of my recommendations.

The First Georgians: Art& Monarchy 1714-1760 is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 12th October, 2014.

Monday 21 July 2014

The Humans, Matt Haig

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Professor Andrew Martin has just solved the Riemann hypothesis, one of the most important, unsolved mathematical problems. A distant planet, Vonnadoria, sends an assassin to kill him and destroy all evidence of his discovery. This is how we meet our narrator, in Professor Martin’s body but with none of his memories and only a theoretical knowledge of the human race. He is naked, on the motorway, and doesn’t yet have a strong grip of the language. His first attempt to learn about life on Earth involves reading a copy of Cosmopolitan, injecting a thread of humour that will be woven throughout. Armed with his new knowledge and what he’s picked up about social interaction from the way in which passing drivers have reacted to him he tries to find his way to Cambridge and work out who knows about the discovery.

The alien’s motives are a point of ambiguity – are the Vonnadorians trying to stop the technological advancement of humans for sinister reasons or for their own good? A lot of mathematical geniuses are driven mad in their pursuit of knowledge and he reasons that by deleting all evidence of the discovery, which would have led to mathematical advancement exceeding their psychological maturity, he’s saving more lives. This is a logical conclusion for someone from a planet where individual desires are sacrificed for the collective good. He doesn’t have a very high opinion of humans, however, judging them to be vain, greedy, and violent, and he seems to have no qualms about leaving the paramedics who came to look after him after he was hit by a car writhing in pain. Later in the novel he experiences some kind of guilt about the advancement he has prevented by deleting this breakthrough.

It is slightly ironic that he judges humans for their own sense of superiority whilst treating them as vastly inferior to his own race. The moment when his opinions of the species begin to change is when he experiences music and poetry. He realizes that humans are aware of their flaws and that they use art as a way to reconnect with their nature. Eventually, he seems to come to respect humans for their ability to cope with their own mortality and for their courage to love despite the inevitable pain it causes.

At no point is there a lengthy description of Vonnadora; we are given snippets of information as the story progresses. We learn that it is a kind of paradise where life is effortless and there is no pain or death. The shift in our narrator’s opinions show us that the idea of perfection is flawed and that a lot can be lost in creating such an existence. This seems to be the main message – that pain is a necessary part of the human experience and that to truly appreciate love and happiness you have to have known pain.

This is a book that deals with some big ideas, but don’t be fooled in to thinking the author spends the entire time philosophising. The story is interesting and you come to care for the characters as their histories are revealed. There is a slow release of information about the real Andrew Martin which does not paint him in the most positive light. You’re forced to think about how the way you behave impacts on those around you (and hope that if your body was taken over by an alien your loved ones wouldn’t think it an improvement!). The ninety-seven point list of advice for humans may seem to some slightly over-done but there’s some solid advice from an author who has clearly thought deeply about the human condition. The pitch-perfect humour means that it never becomes a dense read. It’s rare to find a book that is so easy to read but also makes you question the way you see the world. For anyone who has ever felt the depths of despair it is a reminder that the pain makes you appreciate the beauty of life, and it is ultimately a hopeful story.

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Tuesday 15 July 2014

Adventures in Brontë land

Haworth's Main Street at night
At the weekend I embarked on something of a literary pilgrimage. The village of Haworth, where the Brontës lived for much of their lives, remains a place of great fascination for fans of their work. The Haworth Parsonage has been converted in to a museum and it’s a very special experience walking through the rooms they lived and worked in. The second room on the tour is that in which some of their best loved novels were written and it’s wonderful to imagine the three sisters sitting in there together in an atmosphere that fostered such remarkable talent. Heart wrenching to think of Charlotte alone in the room after Emily and Anne had passed away.

As I walked around their house I was struck by just how incredibly sad their lives were. For their father to outlive his wife and all six children is a harrowing thought. A family of many talents, I had never realized what a tortured soul their brother Branwell was. His painting himself out of his portrait with his three most famous sisters is a deeply sad suggestion as to how he viewed his position in the family.

As well as the opportunity to see the rooms preserved as close to how they were when the Brontës inhabited the parsonage as possible they also have an excellent permanent exhibition which gives a broader context to their work and lives beyond Haworth. It was wonderful to see so many documents in their hand (mostly by Charlotte) and some of their drawings, paintings, and embroidery. It was also interesting to learn of the struggle to make living conditions more sanitary in the village, a problem that goes some way in explaining why so many of the graves in the churchyard hold the remains of those who died so young.

Top Withins
After thoroughly enjoying all that the museum had to offer it was out on to the moors. I’d printed off this walking guide which includes Top Withins as well as the Brontë bridge and waterfall. It’s all fairly well signposted but if you like a bit of reassurance you’re headed in the right direction it’s useful. As I walked the moors I was struck by the timelessness of nature and revelled in the thought that I was experiencing similar views to those that would have been so familiar to some of my favourite authors. I was glad to have walked the extra distance to Top Withins despite the sign pointing out the fact it doesn’t actually resemble the description of Wuthering Heights in the book. I actually found this reassuring as I’d thought on approaching that it didn’t look as I’d imagined it from my reading. I’m also always fascinated by people’s insistence on finding real life parallels in fiction and this is an excellent example.

The trip was every bit as wonderful and inspiring as I’d hoped and I came away wanting to read all the Brontë novels I’ve not yet experienced and re-read all those I have (despite having only just re-read Wuthering Heights in preparation for the visit).

Oakworth station
What I hadn’t realised when I booked the trip was that the steam railway that runs through Haworth is the very same one they used in the film of The Railway Children. This being one of my favourite children’s books and film you can imagine my pleasure on discovering this. There’s something special about steam railways, a romantic evocation of the past that is thoroughly enjoyable.

I stayed at the beautiful YHA run hostel in Haworth which has gorgeous interiors very fitting to its time. I’d definitely recommend it for very affordable accommodation (and an excellent breakfast that will keep you fuelled for all that wandering on the moors). Haworth is a charming village and everybody seemed incredibly friendly. If you’re a fan of the Brontës there’s few nicer places to spend a weekend.
Inside the hostel