Advent 18: 5 Steps To A Spooky Christmas

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I can’t tell you how happy this picture makes me.

Christmas horror and Christmas ghost stories were once integral to Christmas in Britain and Ireland. Luckily for us, we can partly blame the Victorians (our great Ur-parents, from whom society inherited a mass need for therapy). From the 1855 cessation on paper tax onwards, Britain saw an explosion of periodical magazines, with the mass marketing of ghost and vampire stories. These stories were generic, sensational, and exploited both Victorian fears of the past, in all its disquieting, revenant, primitive messiness, and anxieties about the future: Dracula (1897) imagines a terrifying Eastern European immigrant who wants to suck the life force out of the rising generation of imperialists. Spirit photography supposedly captured ghosts, while homes became the sites of seances. Stories literally domesticated the Gothic, bringing the ghost story into fireside and domestic reading. Christmas, with its profusion of annuals, gift books, reading-aloud, and superstition, is the ideal vehicle for a bit of horror. European mythology has much to answer for – I’ve already blogged about the Icelandic Yule Lads. But if you want to get into a thoroughly spooky Christmas spirit, here are the five things you need. Why not listen to my Spooky Christmas Playlist while you browse?

  1. Fearful folklore

We’ve met Spoon Licker and the child-catching Yule Cat, but many other countries have mythical and malevolent winter monsters. Check out the malicious Karakoncolos who, in Serbia, disguises his voice as that of your loved one, lures you out into the snow and jumps on your back. Then there’s the Greek Kallikantzaroi, a group of demons who steal any babies born between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. Fancy some winter sun?

victorian-ghost-story2. Spine-tingling short stories

‘A Strange Christmas Game’ (1865) by J. H. Riddell is a charming story of fun, games, counting thirteen people when only twelve are present – and of a girl with a broken neck. Christmas games can seriously damage your health, so be warned: don’t end up like the heroine of this 1884 poem, the bride in Thomas Bayly’s ‘The Mistletoe Bough’. Or there’s Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Old Kit-Bag’ (1908), a heart-warming seasonal tale of suicide and severed heads. Feliz Navidad. Bringing us nearly up to date, there’s Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Dark Christmas’ from 2013, where awkward festive plans (‘We had borrowed the house from a friend none of us seemed to know’) turn into an Edwardian horror story. M.R. James has, perhaps undeservedly, become king of the Christmas ghost story even though his tales are rarely set at Christmas – the BBC is broadcasting a dramatisation of one story on Christmas Eve, starring Greg Wise.

3. Frightful films

‘Holiday horror’ is a genuine subgenre. Whether you want to see Joan Collins bury a fire iron in her husband’s head before being stalked by a psychotic Santa (Tales from the Crypt, 1972) or watch a snow-covered New York  reunion turn fatal as the kiddiwinks start murdering their parents (The Children, 2008), there is a Christmas horror film for you. A clip of Tales from the Crypt is on YouTube: warnings for bright red poster paint.

4. Chilling culture

Not everything was the Victorians’ fault. The plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe tell us that supernatural fictions also kept the Early Moderns warm on winter nights. In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), Barabas recalls a tradition of seasonal scares: ‘Now I remember those old women’s words/Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales/And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’ Poor little Mamilius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-11) has clearly had similar experiences, confidently telling his mother and her attendants ‘A sad tale’s best for winter’. There are also cheerier Christmas superstitions in Shakespeare’s plays: at the end of the first scene of Hamlet, Marcellus gets one of the play’s simplest and most beautiful speeches:

MARCELLUS:
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The rest of English Literature tends not to share Marcellus’s view: spirits, witches, and fairies abound in our Christmas heritage. Sorry, Marcellus.

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5. Ghoulish gifts

Buzzfeed has a handy list of 21 Gift Ideas For The Goth In Your Life, and you can also buy a haunted doll from Ebay (because of course you can), sometimes very specifically so (‘This doll is haunted by Stacey, 16‘). But if you want something moderately rather than traumatically scary, there’s the Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, with tales by Arthur Conan Doyle and Walter Scott, or the Folio Society’s illustrated edition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Or, because in the vernacular of those hideous Facebook posts, The Greatest Gift We Can Give Each Other Is Time, why not cuddle up with a friend and follow this Rookie Magazine tutorial on how to make Victorian hair-based mourning jewellery? Amazing Christmas gifts!!

Oh wait. Everything is the Victorians’ fault.

Have a spectacularly spooky Christmas. And, yes, making Victorian hair jewellery is something I desperately want to do.

 

 

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Advent 16: a Victorian Christmas

ME: I’m going to blog about December 1888.

WIFE: Why is that, my love?

ME: [Emotional] Because 1888 is my favourite Victorian year.

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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (John Singer Sargent, 1889).

1888 is the best my favourite Victorian year because it combines Ellen Terry’s Lady Macbeth, the stage version of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Whitechapel killings. You are probably wondering why this is Christmassy. Macbeth opened on 29 December 1888, with coverage boosted by the traditionally slow news week between Christmas and New Year, and the feverish public interest – amounting to hysteria – in yet another murder story. Mr Hyde had given London its first fictional psychopath, and medical theories of the Ripper as a gentleman-by-day, murderer-by-night, seemed to have offered a real-life version of Hyde. Now the stars of London’s theatre, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, were starring as the ascendant, murderous Macbeths, pushing the orthodoxy of the Victorian power couple to its limits. As the Pall Mall Gazette put it, it was ‘Horrible murder without. Horrible murder within’.

AGAIN, this might not seem EXCEPTIONALLY FESTIVE. And yet, researching this foggy, mysterious Christmas for my first book (if you want more, try Chapter 2) developed my obsession with Victorian periodicals. I hope you love them too – in any case, welcome to Advent 1888.

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Girl’s Own Paper (8 December 1888).

Christmas Books (Pall Mall Gazette, 1 December): aspirational parents were recommended such ‘books for Boys’ as Joseph Hatton’s Captured By Cannibals: ‘Though the book is a work of imagination, “there is not a single incident” – so Mr. Hatton tells us on the authority of actual travellers – “which might not have happened”‘. Captured by Cannibals included some ‘very spirited drawings’. Also praised was Tom’s Nugget by Professor J.F. Hodgetts of the Sunday School Union, in which the hero ‘meets some very rough customers in the bush, and passes through several thrilling adventures, which the author graphically describes. A fine moral tone pervades the book’. A book on Juvenile Literature As It Is surveyed Victorian children, revealing that ‘It is notable that the girls should read the Boy’s Own, while not a boy admitted preferring the Girl’s Own‘ (Pall Mall Gazette, 15 December).

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Tom Smith crackers, popular in 1888.

Madame Mariette D’Auban was advertising for ‘Ladies of the Ballet, for Good Christmas Engagements, London and Provinces’ via her academy in White Hart Street, according to the Era (1 December). By 10 December, a festive-feeling Pall Mall Gazette was acclaiming the fashionable Christmas cracker as the ‘one glittering article, light almost as air, and uniting in it more colours than the rainbow, which pushes its way every year more and more to the front among the charming trifles without which no merry Christmas is complete’. Praising the factory of ‘Mr. Tom Smith […] in Wilson-street, E.C.‘, the Gazette singled out ‘the “Palmistry cracker,” […] each cracker containing a diagram of a hand on which the various lines which are fraught with meaning are clearly traced and explained in rhyme’.

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Christmas card, 1888.

The Guernsey Star, meanwhile, waxed pragmatic over the Christmas card: ‘The Christmas card so thoroughly suits an age which, though very busy, has very definite notions on taste, that we need not wonder at its popularity. From being a fashion, it has become something like a national custom […] On the whole, the Christmas card industry is a decidedly creditable offshoot of the artistic movement which is doing so much to disseminate sound views on colour, design and workmanship among all classes of our population’ (Star, 11 December). Meanwhile, ‘the annual Christmas sale of fat stock, the property of the Queen’ saw cross-bred lambs fetch 125 shillings per head at Windsor (Morning Post, 13 December).

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Mappin & Webb Christmas catalogue (1888).

Charitable appeals were everywhere. On a single morning – 15 December – the front page of the Morning Post gratefully acknowledged subscriptions for the Royal Albert Orphan Asylum, the British Home For Incurables (slogan: ‘HELPLESS! HOPELESS! HOMELESS!’), the ‘Midnight Meeting Movement’, and Chelsea Hospital for Women (this was in amongst the usual amazing mix of Victorian adverts, including for ‘a thoroughly good Select Finishing School and kind Home near the Crystal Palace, where [an Officer’s] delicate daughter has recently been’).

Screenshot 2017-12-16 22.49.41But above all, the public wanted to know what celebrities would receive for Christmas. The Duchess of Connaught had received ‘an umbrella with a solid silver and enamelled handle set with a valuable gold watch’, while the lucky Princess of Wales was due to get a writing table ‘of mahogany and marquetry’, which cost £86.

Then as now, ‘Dolls could be had up to any price’, with the very best dolls’ house, ‘a decent detached villa for a ladylike doll’ costing £12, including kitchen fires ‘lighted by small spirit lamps’.

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Lillie Langtry in 1888. My QUEEN.

Celebrity tastes in perfume were also key, and it gives me great joy to end with two of my favourite Victorian ladies: Lillie Langtry and the Lyceum Lady Macbeth herself, Ellen Terry:  ‘Ellen Terry and Mrs. Langtry both like opoponax, the scent sold by Piesse and Lubin in New Bond-street, who supply Mrs. Gladstone with her fumigating ribbon and the Queen with frangipanni’. Oponomax was a type of sweet myrrh popular with Victorian perfumers, and ‘Bouquet Opoponax’ (recently reconstructed in New Jersey) had become a bestseller for Piesse and Lubin. A similar scented candle is available from Diptyque!

Poor Mrs Gladstone. Fumigating ribbon doesn’t sound as nice as opoponax, or frangipanni. Let’s hope Mr Gladstone took some time off from rescuing prostitutes and ballet dancers (no, really) to buy her some perfume of her own.

[EXHIBITION & TALK] Magdalen’s Wilde

wilde-poster-1-768x1086The current Old Library exhibition at Magdalen is on Oscar Wilde – I curated it, alongside our former Fellow Librarian Christine Ferdinand. The exhibition is open to the public on 15, 22 and 29 November, and at other times by appointment (contact library@magd.ox.ac.uk ). Displaying the very best of Magdalen’s holdings on one of our most famous alumni, the exhibition includes a little-known MS of Lady Windermere’s Fan, an array of first editions (and pirated editions!) from the UK and Europe, odd appropriations, Cecil Beaton costume designs, theatre programmes, salacious details from the trials, and (slightly heartbreaking) original letters.

On 21 November at 5.30 p.m. I’m giving a talk to accompany the exhibition, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition. To attend the talk, please email library@magd.ox.ac.uk – it’d be wonderful to see you there. Pia de Richemont reviewed the exhibition for Oscholars over the summer: read her review here.

P.S. this is a (reasonably) rare opportunity to get inside Magdalen’s beautiful Old Library and see the petrified wig. To give you an idea, it’s the central image in my blog header (if you’re reading this on RSS, click here).

Red Velvet at the Garrick

Back in 2012, I was historical advisor on the original production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, the theatrical biopic of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge was the first African-American actor to gain fame in Europe, and the play tells the turbulent story of his 1833 Othello at Covent Garden. My job was to introduce the cast to the world of 1830s theatre, and (the best part of all) help them recreate the melodramatic acting style that gives Red Velvet’s play-within-a-play sequences both humour and power. I drew on my expertise in the history of acting style, and images I’d worked with both at Oxford University and in the collections of the Garrick Club. The play ran at the Tricycle & has since toured to Brooklyn. Now, brilliantly, it’s part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick Theatre. I was delighted to be invited back  to work with the new cast, who are absolutely lovely, and full of curiosity about the characters and their world.

Working with theatre companies is one of the very best parts of my job: play in the truest sense. Red Velvet has taken me places I never expected to go, and it’s enriched every aspect of my research. Even completely unconnected activities somehow link back – for example, as part of the final throes of Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle (out soon!), I was watching a 1988 film of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891–1992) giving, as a nonagenarian, a masterclass for young Juliets. One of them was Lolita Chakrabarti herself – and thus I was able to get a first-hand account of the intergenerational mentoring that’s so crucial to my book.

I’ve also written academically about Red Velvet in Staging the Other in Nineteenth-Century British Drama (ed. Tiziana Morosetti, and published by Peter Lang, 2015). My chapter is entitled ‘A Progressive Othello: Modern Blackness in Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012)’ and examines intersectional politics, race and biography. I talked about my experience as an historical advisor in Oxford and London, and you can read more about my work on Red Velvet in Guardian article which Adrian Lester wrote at the time.

Theatre and theatre history have different priorities. As a rehearsal-room advisor I constantly strike a balance between historical enthusiasm and encouraging the company I’m with to jettison anything that’s only historically, rather than artistically useful. Actors, directors and designers are always meticulous and their enthusiasm is so rewarding – never more  than on Red Velvet, where Indhu Rubasingham, the director, has been especially generous. I’m so proud the show now has its West End transfer. Go and see it, and on your way in, pay particular attention to the statue just opposite the theatre. Ira Aldridge [as played by Adrian Lester] now faces the Irving Memorial, D.F. Cheshire’s statue of Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905). Irving was Britain’s first theatrical knight, and the most powerful actor- and actor-manager on the late Victorian stage. It’s great to see two ground-breaking nineteenth-century actors in such proximity, and even better when it comes as a sign that Aldridge is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Elizabeth, Victoria, and Ellen

This evening, Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. This is interesting to me not merely because I have deeply conflicted feelings about royal babies and their great-grandmother vs. workshy princesses and the amount of social housing you could build at Highgrove.

Queen Victoria in 1897 (slightly after becoming our longest-reigning monarch, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee! …I say ‘celebrating’…).

Until 5.30 this evening, our longest-reigning monarch is still Queen Victoria, who reigned 1837–1901. Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch by outlasting poor old George III (1760–1820), exceeding the length of his reign on 23 September 1896. The morning papers were, as you’d expect, full of adulatory editorials on the Queen’s longevity and popularity.

But 23 September 1896, coincidentally, was also the day that the Victorians’ best-loved actress, Ellen Terry, woke up to hyperbolic reviews of her own British royal. The evening before, Terry had opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre as Imogen, the British princess who’s the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Victoria was queen of the British Empire, and Terry was the queen of British theatre.

Ellen Terry as Imogen, 1896 (Creative Commons).

Just after finishing my DPhil, I wrote about the 23 September coincidence for Platform‘s Spring 2014 issue, and this morning seemed quite a good time to revisit it! So, if you want to read about theatrical curation and memory with a royal twist, “Dynasty, memory, Terry: curating the 1896 Cymbeline” is now open-access via academia.edu and in its original home on Platform

[CFP]: Victorian Dirt

Victorian Network is an open-access, MLA-indexed, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate and early career work across the broad field of Victorian Studies.

The tenth issue of Victorian Network (Summer 2015) will be guest edited by Professor William A. Cohen (University of Maryland) on the theme of Victorian Dirt. Dirt – its causes, consequences, and control – obsessed the long nineteenth century, from the fuels and detritus of the Industrial Revolution, to the obscene books sold on London’s Holywell Street (which boasted fifty-seven pornographers by 1834). Technological advances brought increased pollution, while cities’ growth generated more dirt and the new urban workforce crowded together in sickness and in health. Meanwhile, public legislation and agitation tried to clean, civilise and purify the populace in both body and mind. Writers and cultural commentators debated the middle and upper classes’ responsibility to relieve the plight of the poor and dirty, but also drew on the metaphorical valences of dirt to explore cross-class attraction and repulsion. Rubbish mounds and the filthy, sewage-infested Thames are the iconic images of Charles Dickens’s exploration of class relations in Our Mutual Friend; Hannah Cullwick, diarist and domestic servant, documented her relationship with the barrister Arthur Munby – a secret connection based on the potential eroticism of dirt on the working-class body; and ‘slumming’ emerged as a term and practice in the 1880s, as well-to-do Londoners went on organized or individual tours of the East End. Recent scholarship and exhibitions have revealed the changing nature and status of dirt in the nineteenth century, taking an interdisciplinary approach to uncover (quite literally) the science and significance of the filthy, disposable or disgusting in Victorian life.

We are inviting submissions of no more than 7,000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to, any of the following:

  • Dirt in industrial processes and products: coal, smog, smoke or ashes.
  • Dirty money: blackmail and corruption; smuggling; the sex trade.
  • Filth: scandal, gossip, obscenity and pornography.
  • Disgust and horror; dirt and the Gothic; dirt and the atavistic or bestial; dirt in the laboratory.
  • The earth: dirt as life source; dirt as land; possession; burial ground and charnel house.
  • Roads, woodlands, waysides and canals.
  • Ashes to ashes: dirt and putrefaction; decay; decomposition and death.
  • Dirt and disease: overcrowding, sanitation; refuge, dust and disposal; the relationship between dirt and poverty.
  • Washing, cleanliness, purification; moral and physical dirt.
  • Housework and domestic service
  • The use of dirt in racialised imagery; dirt and the exotic; dirt and the colonial mission.
  • The dirty body; sweat, grime, and other fluids; eroticised dirt.

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines. Deadline for submissions: 15 January 2015.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com


This is my first issue as Editor of VN, and I am extremely excited. And resisting (temporarily) all manner of “send us your dirtiest work in Victorian Studies” puns. And slightly alarmed by the kind of google searches that might lead people to this post. Fifty-seven pornographers, though.

 

Rehearsal notes: thoughts on The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith

Today, I was back with the cast and crew for Primavera’s production of The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play about the relationship between a radical female demagogue, and the young MP who abandons his wife and career for her. Living as political comrades and lovers in Venice, Agnes Ebbsmith and Lucas Cleeve are visited by his rakehell uncle, the Duke of St Olpherts, who plays the very longest of games in attempting to neutralise Agnes’s influence over her lover, and return Lucas to his wife.

Writing that summary caused me great pain, because re-reading the text and working with the company has reminded me what an ambiguous, complicated and wonderful play it is. It’s also one that I find incredibly sad (which is somewhat unfair, given that I laughed out loud frequently during the run I watched). As well as the standard historical advice bit (pockets! Wedding rings! What is Dr Kirke doing in Venice?), I also gave notes to a cast for the first time in years, which was a daunting but enjoyable– and also one that reminded me how illegible my note-taking is, during a run. I should say that I only gave notes at the behest of Abbey Wright, the marvellous director who has cast the production incredibly cleverly (full disclaimer: she’s an Orielensis and from Warwickshire, although I didn’t know either of these facts when I took the job. Disclaimer son of disclaimer: also just discovered she directed the 2012 run of Bitch Boxer, which I saw in 2013). In particular, her casting resists the temptation (and I think thereby doing a rather better job than Pinero’s original text might have done) to turn the supporting female roles – Gertrude, a young widow from Yorkshire, and Sybil, the MP’s aristocratic wife – into mere foils. Julia Goulding and Sarah Madigan are as strong and arresting as the eponymous lead.

Primavera’s production is the first since 1895, which is remarkable given that The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (his 1893 work, to which this was the career sequel) is done fairly regularly – and that this, in all its ambiguity and obsessive negotiation of gender and class, is actually a great play for today.

The Duke of St Olpherts reminds me of those better known fin-de-siècle flaneurs, Lord Henry Wootton, Lord Darlington and Lord Goring. He’s actually more dangerous and more interesting than all three. Although patently attracted to Agnes (and not pace Gladstone, “in the missionary spirit) and a lifelong rakehell, he doesn’t have an emotional crisis and offer her his hand (Darlington), or preach aesthetic philosophy (Wootton), or offer witty salvation to the hero, as Goring does to Lord Chiltern, Wilde’s version of the compromised “coming man”. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” and this is a play without a hero – Lucas Cleeve isn’t Robert Chiltern. But although Olpherts isn’t Wootton, he is Wildean. Responding to Agnes’s frankly splendid account of his outrageous and enterprising past, St Olpherts declares “I detected the tendency of the age”. This reminded me of what Wilde wrote in his prison his prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (which, although subsequently titled De Profundis, George Bernard Shaw saw as Wilde in excelsis). Comparing himself to Lord Byron (actually a far better role model for St Olpherts than Wilde), Wilde wrote ‘I was a man who stood in symbolic relation to […] my age”. St Olpherts stands in symbolic relation to Agnes, to Lucas, and to all of monied, dissolute fin-de-siècle society. Agnes calls him a torturer; at times he seems like a natural Pandarus forced into precisely the opposite role. There are also moments when he’s the most shocking character in the play.

He’s also, physically, the sickest person in a play that’s overwhelmingly about sickness – what it means to be healthy, unnatural, or mad. Anyone interested in health, class, or gender should see this play. Between 1898 and 1918, the trades union movements grew especially fast, and the political rhetoric Pinero gives the working-class Agnes anticipates much of the language of the suffrage and socialist movements. But back to sickness. In a tiny cast of characters, there are two doctors, and two nurses: Agnes is professional, and Gertrude has helped with nursing Lucas because of her devotion to her (Amos, it seems, may have made a third nurse). Lucas has been recently violently unwell, although it’s unclear whether his troubles are more mental or physical. Gertrude has terrible bouts of depression and has experienced the deaths of husband, lover, and child. Agnes faints and is attended by Kirke in the course of the play; we subsequently see her with a burned and bandaged hand. “Mad Agnes” also discusses the extent of the misery and privation she’s suffered in the past – until her “bones were through [her] skin”. The original, in fact the only other Mrs Ebbsmith was Mrs Patrick Campbell, who in 1895 was considered horribly thin. Sadly, today her physique is the default and pinnacle for film acting, although theatre remains (mercifully) more diverse.  It’s also a play in which characters desperately try to alleviate each other’s suffering, with Amos and Gertrude ultimately presenting spiritual healing as Agnes’s only possibility of an effective “cure”.

I’m so glad I was able to be involved with Primavera, and I can’t wait to see the full show: today’s run was a joy. It was also my first visit to the Jerwood Space, via Jubilee line chaos, an emergency cab dash, and a fascinating chat to the driver about The Knowledge (3 years! full time! 400 routes to memorise). These are rambling notes, but I’m trying to make the blog more active and not let the perfect (eloquent) be the enemy of the good (published).

Finally, I hope my UK readers aren’t suffering too badly from the smog. My eyes are itching horribly and London today was so polluted that, in comparison, the half-a-dozen trees beside the Tate as I walked up to Blackfriars smelled like a verdant meadow. And then my journey back to Oxford took 90 minutes longer than expected, thanks to a diversion. I feel I could now win Mastermind with my specialist subject as the backstreets of West Wycombe.