Wednesday 28 October 2020

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal

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Set against the backdrop of Victorian London, Macneal’s debut is part thriller, part love letter to art. Iris works in a doll factory with her sister Rose, painting faces on dolls and unable to resist trying to divine whether the child its meant to represent is dead or alive. This little tinge of darkness that appears at the start will set the tone for much of the book. Louis is a budding artist and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, desperately working on a piece for consideration at the Royal Academy. When he sees Iris he knows she is perfect as the inspiration for the Queen in his painting. Silas spends his life away from polite society, preserving and stuffing dead animals, often selling them to artists, but ultimately hoping to open his own museum. The Great Exhibition, in construction at the time the book is set, is his immediate focus. Their lives intertwine in a tale of passion, obsession, and ambition.

Iris is keenly aware of the precarious position of women in society. She watched as Rose’s life fell apart when the man she was due to marry broke off contact when she fell ill. They’re now stuck in unhappy lives with parents willing to cut them off if they do anything considered inappropriate. Rose dreams of owning her own shop and Iris longs to create art. She spends her evenings working on paintings considered scandalous, scraping together dregs of art supplies. When Louis shows interest in her she sees her chance to be trained as an artist, but her association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and her role as model means she is shunned by society, who consider her little more than a prostitute. As time passes it becomes apparent that Louis is oblivious to her diminished status, and that even his peers do not take women seriously. We are reminded time and again how fraught a woman’s position is and how vulnerable to male violence. 

Iris’s sections of the book are nonetheless the much lighter - her budding talent and enthusiasm for a life different to the one she has grown to expect are heartening, as is her first taste of love. The sections focussing on Silas however, become increasingly sinister as the book progresses. In early passages you almost feel pity for him - he is an oddball and an outcast and mourns the loss of his childhood sweetheart. It soon becomes apparent however, that he has a violent streak and an unhealthy obsession with women with red hair, such as that of Iris. We are given hints that his violence may have led to fatality and it makes the book unputdownable as you want to discover the truth of his past and how it will impact on the other characters. He is entirely delusional, imagining an elaborate love story between himself and Iris, and unable to cope when she doesn’t behave as he’d like. The reader is led to worry for her safety as we see how easily he snaps, how other characters seem to remember attacks he has carried out, yet Silas has convinced himself an innocent party, misunderstood and mistreated. He is an extremely unpleasant character, yet fascinating to read.

Fans of the period will enjoy references to famous personalities and the art world, Macneal seamlessly placing the fictional Louis in the company of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her descriptions of the capital ooze with atmosphere and danger, and shines a light on the lives of those struggling to survive. The compassion and generosity of Albie, an orphan who sells animal corpses to Silas in order to save for a new pair of teeth, is touching. He has his own dreams but puts his younger sister, who has been forced to sell her body, before himself. Iris is like a sister to him and he is wracked with guilt when he realises what he’s brought upon her in introducing her to Silas. Albie is one of the most likeable, sweet characters in the book, and you root for him to have a happy ending.

Despite dealing with dark subjects, Macneal succeeds in bringing some lightness to the book with moments of touching emotion and humour, often provided by Louis’ pet wombat Guinevere. This is a promising debut with evocative writing and intriguing characters. There are perhaps a few too many side stories of no real consequence, but once you’ve got your head around who is who it’s a hard book to put down.

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Wednesday 14 October 2020

In Search of Victorian London

When wandering the streets of London it’s not hard to see remnants of the nineteenth century city - from the grand sweep of John Nash’s parks and surrounding streets, the extravagant museums of South Kensington to the imposing memorials in the likes of Highgate cemetery, and many churches dotted across the city. In honour of Victober, a month-long celebration of literature from Britain’s golden age of writing, I’ve put together this post of places to visit to walk in the footsteps of some of your favourite creatives.

Charles Dickens Museum at Christmas
Charles Dickens

The author most closely associated with Victorian London, famous for walking the streets at night, his writing evokes the darkness and squalor of many of the areas he knew. A great place to start in your search for Dickens’ London is the Charles Dickens Museum. His home between March 1837 and December 1839, it is decorated similarly to how it would have been when he lived and worked there. The museum also owns the property next door, meaning they’ve been able to expand their exhibition space. The interior has been digitised on Google maps, so even if you can’t get there in person, you can still explore the home of this most famous of authors.

If you really want to experience London through Dickens’ eyes, why not indulge in a self-guided walking tour, this one put together by the BBC is excellent.

Mary Shelley

St. Pancras Old Church
A little north of the site of Dickens’ home lies the birthplace of Mary Shelley, in Somers Town. The building itself is no longer standing, having been demolished in 1904, and now being home to Oakshott Court, a plaque nonetheless commemorates her birth on 30th August 1797. Not far away is the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old Church. Those familiar with the legend of Shelley will know that it’s believed her father taught her to write her name by tracing the lettering on her mother’s grave, as well as being a meeting place for secret liaisons with Percy Bysshe Shelley in the early days of their relationship. The house where she lived her final five years is still standing at 24 Chester Square, a blue plaque marks its historic significance.

Wilkie Collins

There is a blue plaque at 65 Gloucester Place, Marylebone, marking the house in which Collins once resided, but it is perhaps Hampstead that is most associated with him. He lived in Hampstead as a child, when it was yet to be consumed by the city. Fans of The Woman in White will delight in walking across the Heath, the location of Hartright’s walk immediately before his first encounter with the eponymous figure at the junction of modern day Finchley Road and Frognal Lane. Hampstead also makes an appearance in both Armadale and The Moonstone. It remains a beautiful place to explore and has retained its village feel despite now being much better connected to the rest of the capital. While you’re in the area, it’s also worth making a stop at another literary location - Keats House. One final stop for those so inclined is Collins’ grave in Kensal Green Cemetery.

William Morris' Red House
William Morris 

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is a wonderful place to start your William Morris journey. Housed in a villa that he lived in during his late teens and early twenties, it is an inspiring museum that delves beyond his famous designs  (although you'll find plenty of them there too) into his wider creative and political work, and it’s free to visit. South of the river is Red House, a home Morris commissioned his friend Phillip Webb to build shortly after his wedding to Jane. The house was designed and decorated by Morris and his friends, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, and has been described as a ‘palace of art’. Sadly, the dream only lasted for five years, when he had to move his family back to central London. Finally, a visit to the William Morris Society, housed in the basement of Kelmscott House where he lived for the final eighteen years of his life. Unfortunately, their exhibition space remains closed due to Covid, but there is a virtual tour available on their website.

The Royal Observatory
Joseph Conrad

You can find a blue plaque on Conrad’s former residence at 17 Gillingham Street, Victoria, but to delve into the London of his novel The Secret Agent, it’s Soho and Greenwich that you want to explore. Soho is the location of Verloc’s shop and the area is portrayed as dark, confusing, and threatening. It oozes with atmosphere and the air of corruption that it was known for during the nineteenth century. The novel revolves around a plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, inspired by a real life attempt in the late nineteenth century. It remains a brilliant place to visit and dwell upon the importance of it at its creation, as well as offering panoramic views across the city.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Braddon serialised her novels Birds of Prey and Charlotte’s Inheritance in the magazine Belgravia, for which she was editor. In these novels she places London centre stage as she dissects the veneer of respectability, and the darkness hidden beneath, in areas such as Bloomsbury. The buildings in the area are largely still in tact, and it is a pleasant area to wander around, keeping in mind also, of course, the literary associations of the later Bloomsbury Group. Braddon also has connections to the outer suburb of Richmond. She lived with her husband John Maxwell in Lichfield House from 1874 until her death in 1915. The House no longer stands however, having been replaced by the modern development, Lichfield Court. Her final resting place is Richmond Cemetery, where her grave can still be visited, as well as a commemorative plaque in St Mary Magdalene Church in Richmond.

Another literary landmark not too far from Richmond is Strawberry Hill House, Horace Walpole’s famous Gothic Revival house. In Richmond itself, Virginia Woolf’s former home and the place where Hogarth Press was established, can be seen on Paradise Road. It is now a private residence.

Wednesday 7 October 2020

My Name Is Why, Lemn Sissay

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In 1967 Sissay was born to a young Ethiopian woman in Wigan. The authorities removed him from her despite her refusal to sign adoption papers. He was given a new name, a fact he didn’t discover until a teenager, which made reuniting mother and son more difficult and cut him off from his origins. Official records show that his mother tried to get him back after she’d returned to Ethiopia to be with her dying father, but attempts were blocked. He was never told that his mother wanted him, loved him, and he grew up believing that he was all alone in the world. He was placed in a foster family and subsequently a series of children’s homes that damaged his sense of self-worth and were unhelpful during his periods of depression.

The book consists of his own recollections interspersed with copies from the official files kept on him, which he fought for three decades to be allowed access to. They reveal a system that used bureaucracy to keep him from his mother, for example, sending her a letter with a response deadline of one month when it took that long to reach her. The injustice of ripping him from his family was further exacerbated by the constant interpretation of positive reports from school as being special treatment because of his race rather than acknowledging that he was genuinely a personable and bright child. In reality, he was on the receiving end of a lot of negativity because of racism. 

It was not only the officials chipping away at him. The foster family he was with from birth to around the age of twelve were strictly religious and were unwilling to compromise or accept any differences in behaviour. They taught him that he had evil inside him and that it was his fault he had to leave because he didn’t love them. He was removed from the only family he had ever known and made to believe it was his fault. His social worker, at least, did seem to be on his side, but stuck in a system distinctly lacking in care where his successes were twisted into negativity, it was hard to move forward.

His darkest days were yet to come, when he was sent to Wood End, a remand centre where abuse was common, while a new home was supposedly being sought for him. He includes responses he received from a piece he wrote about his time there, full of trauma and ongoing mental health issues because of the appalling treatment they endured. 

A book that will fill you with a sense of the unforgivable injustice meted out to an innocent child. This is an eye-opening account of life within that care system that lays bare the deception, manipulation, and abuse, that proliferates within the system. Sissay’s determination and talent have meant he has made a success of his life despite all attempts to limit it. 

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