Saturday 29 March 2014

'Aurora Floyd' by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Aurora Floyd was published shortly after her most famous novel Lady Audley's Secret, and explores some of the same themes. Aurora Floyd is incredibly beautiful and is not short of male attention. However, her first great love affair is ruined by a secret so terrible she dare not tell her lover, Talbot Bulstrode. He can't accept that her past is not entirely spotless, claiming '…the past of my wife must be a white unblemished page, which all the world may be free to read'. An utterly frustrating, near infuriating sentiment to the modern reader, but rather telling of the Victorian morals and emphasis on the especial importance for women to appear wholesome and pure. Don't be fooled in to thinking this is going to be merely a fraught love story however, it is so much more. Luckily for our eponymous heroine she has a more trusting admirer in the form of John Mellish, whose love for her far outstrips any concern for respectability - he's willing to marry her without knowing her secret. It's telling of the huge amount of pressure put on the upper classes to maintain respectability at all times that she is so fearful of the shame that revelation of her past will bring on her and her family that she feels incapable of sharing the burden with her most generous lover. It seems she has managed to put her past behind her, and settle in to contented married life, but then a reminder of her youthful mistakes is thrust upon her and it seems she can never truly escape her past. The reader is kept guessing for a large portion of the novel, and when we are let in on the secret the revelation is quickly followed by another mystery. 

The writing is description heavy and may not be to everyone's taste, but I loved it. It's always a joy to read a book where you can luxuriate in the beauty of the writing. That's not to suggest it's all decoration and lacking in content, far from it, this is quite a page turner. There's rather unsettling foreshadowing which just serves to increase the anticipation of finding out what's going to happen. 

The novel is littered with an interesting array of characters from our heroine, the dark beauty Aurora who does not follow convention to her more demure cousin Lucy, who embodies the Victorian ideal for a wife. We get a glimpse of Braddon's opinions on the rules of society with the admittance that although Aurora's passion can cause problems, the men would still rather have her as their wife. John Mellish and Talbot Bulstrode offer opposing views, but they are both good-hearted men. John may not appear the most intelligent but his devotion to his wife is admirable, and his preference for love above all else is a happy departure from a lot of the male characters you meet in nineteenth century novels. 

Mrs Powell and Steeve Hargraves give us an insight in to the workings of a household, and the complex relationship that could be formed between the wealthy families and their staff. Steeve is dismissed from the estate after greatly upsetting Aurora, leaving with a burning resentment. Mrs Powell is no more fond of her tempestuous mistress but remains in the household, delighting in any opportunity to undermine Aurora. How dangerous it could be to have your closest servants wanting to see your downfall.

Aurora Floyd feels very much a novel of its time, whilst exploring themes that would have seemed quite scandalous at the time of publication. With its strong willed, passionate heroine at the centre of a story of mystery, violence and deceit, this is a wonderfully engaging book. Braddon's beautifully written, intelligent, gripping novels are some of my favourites from the period, and I can never understand why she is not more widely read.

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Sunday 16 March 2014

Bath Literature Festival 2014

Having enjoyed the Bath Literature festival so much last year, I once again made my way to Bath for the final weekend of this year’s offering. To kick-start the trip this year was Hanged For Love – a dramatic reconstruction of the 1922 trial of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters for the murder of Percy Thompson. We were in an old courtroom in the Guildhall and so felt part of the action as the actors moved around us. There were three women playing Edith, and two men for Freddie. I thought this a little odd to start with, but by the end it seemed just right. It made it haunting having the echo of their despair, and to have three women standing there in tears heightened the emotion. It was beautifully acted, and the input of the narrator to fill in what was left unsaid was balanced brilliantly. As we moved through the trial, the passionate relationship between Freddie and Edith was revealed through their love letters, and the abusive relationship she had with her husband became apparent. It shone a light on the preoccupation of keeping up appearances, and mistreatment of wives by their husbands being seen as acceptable in the early twentieth century. The frustrating, underlying misogyny of the age was highlighted. The judge showed nothing but disdain for Edith, utterly humiliating her. It was a highly emotional performance of a tragic case.

Next up was seeing Lionel Shriver in conversation. The main focus of the evening was her latest novel
Big Brother, from which she read a passage. It was certainly the most engaging author reading I’ve ever seen. Shriver was very honest about a subject that must be difficult for her to talk about, and made no apology for opinions that may have been seen as controversial. She emphasized the extent of the problem we have developed with food – pointing out that our obsession with food and losing weight has become an intense and widespread neurosis, and that the idea of comfort eating is flawed, claiming it’s more like a form of self abuse. Society not only judges those who are overweight, but we individually judge ourselves for putting on weight. She believes that the only serious case for calling it a moral issue is the strain it puts on the healthcare system, but that people use this to disguise their aesthetic disgust. It was a genuinely thought provoking evening, and quite emotional. When a member of the audience asked her if she would rather be obese or anorexic, it was interesting as she verbalised her thought process, and changed her mind about three times, and I really appreciated the honesty that this showed.

In talking about her work more generally, she commented that she’s always been the weirdo, but now she just gets paid for it. On what a Shriver type book is she claimed that it’s not as depressing as is often made out, but that they can be quite perverse, and she likes to do the unexpected, saying that if the ending is predictable then she’s not doing her job properly. When asked about the directness of her writing she said that when she’s working alone it doesn’t feel like she’s writing anything controversial, but that readers respond to it because it’s something they’ve already thought, and that’s why it works.

The final festival event that I went to this year was the Literary Lunch with Sophia Waugh at the Allium Brasserie. The food was very nice, but the event itself was a bit odd. We sat around a large round table for a couple of hours enjoying the food, and the wine that kept being topped up. It almost felt like the talk was an after-thought (and seemed to start late as it was all very rushed). It wasn’t exactly a coherent talk, more just thoughts as they came to her about various female food writers throughout history. It was quite interesting, and there were certainly some fascinating tidbits of historical fact. She seemed to assume that we already knew a fair amount about the topic, and she wasn’t shy in putting across her opinions on her subjects, as well as vegetarianism, meat eating generally, and processed food. I don’t feel I learnt as much as I was hoping to, but it gave some ideas for things that would be interesting to find out more about in my own time.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain (British Library)

Marking the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I this major exhibition highlights the transforming face of Britain under the rule of the four successive Georges, and shows how this period helped shape modern Britain.

This is a lavish exhibition, showcasing the style and artistry of the upper echelons of Georgian society. With an ever-growing middle class conscious of seeming to be fashionable, gardens and houses were good opportunities to show off. There were some lovely examples of wallpaper on display - the decoration absolutely central to the display of style in the Georgian home, and one that could be changed regularly to keep up with the ever changing fashions. In this opening section there were incredibly beautiful, intricate pictures of plants in gardening books, and architectural images highlighting the importance of aesthetics, and serving to immerse you in the grandeur of the Georgian period.

It wasn't just the exterior and interior decoration of the home that the middle class were concerned with. Luxury goods were being imported, and were an excellent opportunity to show off wealth and style. There are sample books on display showcasing the different furniture available to the style conscious homeowner, illustrating the rise of consumerism, as well as some genuine Wedgwood, alongside a letter in the great man's very own hand. There was, however, a darker side to this luxury and burgeoning consumerist lifestyle - namely the slavery that made it possible. In amongst this beautiful, extravagant exhibition, it feels important that they acknowledge this, not allowing the exhibition goer to get completely caught up in this decadent world, and remind us that this luxury came at a very real human cost. There were those who opposed slavery before the Slave Trade Act of 1807 however, and included in the display is Wedgwood's famous anti-slavery medallion of 1787.

The fashion industry and celebrity culture began life with the Georgians. Clothing was often rather impractical, highlighting the emphasis on style over comfort and purpose. One of my favourite items from this section was the book of silk samples from a dressmaker. The wealthier of the population would have been subjected to critiques of their fashion choices in newspapers and magazines aimed at both men and women, showing that it wasn't merely the preserve of women, and that gossip columns are not an invention of the twentieth century.

It wasn't all celebrity scandal and fashion however. There was a surge in culture - new museums and theatres opened, and ballet became a separate form of entertainment. Dance was central to a lot of celebratory gatherings but it was not as flawlessly elegant as many a period drama would have us believe. Of all the portrayals of dances on display, most of the participants appear awkward and uncomfortable. In Hogarth's 'Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty' there is only one couple who look truly graceful and elegant, standing out against the rabble of other dancers. 

This is a lavish, extravagant exhibition that draws you in to the glamour and splendour of Georgian Britain. There isn't much in terms of the lower classes or the darker side of life, excepting of course the guide to prostitutes of London (Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies), and the criminals who because infamous celebrities. It achieves its aim of showing the many and various ways the Georgians shaped modern Britain. A wonderful array of absolute treasures side by side with the more day to day items, this is an absolute gem of an exhibition. I'd happily go back for a third visit.