Tributes of an old friend

It’s no secret that Fred Stephens has a special place in the hearts of Pre-Raphaelite acolytes. ‘Swoony Fred’ to the initiated, because, well…

f_g_stephens

Yes.

Frederick George Stephens was one of two non-artistic members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Stephens tried his hand at painting and poetry, but, dissatisfied with his efforts, reportedly destroyed most of his paintings (a handful now hang in the Tate) and turned away from poetry:

Most sadly falls this life on me,
With noble purpose unwrought out:
The steeled soul rusteth thro’ the day;—
My life it flitteth fast away.

Poor Fred. He stuck instead to criticism, writing for the Athenaeum for forty years until his conservative views on British art and dislike of Impressionism caused friction. Despite the growing paranoia and grumpiness of his Pre-Raphaelite associates in their old age, he remained a steadfast friend and one of the most ‘sensible’ figures in the bunch.

I’ve got my hands on an original copy of Stephens’ ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, gifted at Christmas 1897 to a Miss Foster from Emma V. Roberts, who clearly knew how to spoil her friends.

fredstephens1

Stephens was aware of the race to the publishing houses in the wake of Rossetti’s death. The outpouring of grief and praise (for a fee) from those who barely knew the man bothered him, as did the bickering of his former Brothers. While some placed Rossetti at the helm of the PR movement, other recalled him floating along in his own bizarre bubble, and others still – particularly an increasingly batty Holman Hunt – were unhappy with the cultish following Rossetti had accumulated (“Rossetti was the planet round which we revolved,” gushed Valentine Prinsep), and took pains to defend their own place in the movement’s history.

In 1894, Stephens published his own biography of his old friend. It’s a short, affectionate book with vivid, amusing descriptions of the early scenes of Rossetti’s life, including the “respectable, but dull” Charlotte Street with its “opposing lines of brick walls, with rectangular holes in them, which Londoners call houses”.

It also contains my favourite description of the student Rossetti in full-on self-conscious Romantic mode, by an anonymous ‘fellow student’ (possibly Fred himself) who had evidently been staring a bit too intently:

“Thick, beautiful, and closely curled masses of rich brown much-neglected hair, fell about an ample brow, and almost to the wearer’s shoulders; strong eyebrows marked with their dark shadows a pair of rather sunken eyes, in which a sort of fire, instinct of what may be called proud cynicism, burned with a furtive kind of energy, and was distinctly, if somewhat luridly, glowing. His rather high cheek-bones were the more observable because his cheeks were roseless and hollow enough to indicate the waste of life and midnight oil to which the youth was addicted; close shaving left bare his very full, not to say sensuous, lips and square-cut masculine chin. Rather below the middle height, and with a slightly rolling gait, Rossetti came forward among his fellows with a jerky step, tossed the falling hair back from his face, and, having both hands in his pockets, faced the student world with an insouciant air which savoured of defiance, mental pride and thorough self-reliance.”

I love that. Have you ever described one of your friends so minutely?

The book itself is rather fragile, one-hundred-and-twenty years on. The tissue paper over the illustrative plates feels like dried petals. Luckily, you can read the text in full at the Rossetti Archive.

fred2

Share Button

Wunderkammer: The Street of Crocodiles

It’s hard to separate the writing and art of Bruno Schulz from the tragedies of his life and death. Schulz’ peculiar inner world was shaped by the traumas of WW1, the death of his father, and an almost pathological solitude that cut him off even from his fellow Jews in the ghetto. In the wake of his death at the hands of a Nazi officer in 1942, many of his drawings and his final literary work, The Messiah, were lost forever. Under cover of darkness, a friend carried his body from where it lay in the street to a nearby Jewish cemetery. No trace of his grave site remains.

brunoshultzI first became aware of Schulz through the Brothers Quay 1986 film of his short story collection, The Street of Crocodiles. Terry Gilliam called it one of the most beautiful films ever made, and he’s not wrong. The stuttering dolls and the clash of rusty machinery alongside throbbing organic matter stay with you long after the twenty minute film is over.

I only read the book recently, needing something brief after a massive Donna Tartt blowout. The Street of Crocodiles bears little literal resemblance to the film, but thrums with the same unsettling energy. Beginning in a stiflingly hot day in the Polish city of Drogobych where Schulz lived and died, the reader is introduced to the strange inhabitants of the city, wheeling about like beetles on the baking pavement. Then come the even more disconcerting denizens of the family home. A shy, thin young man, Schulz inserts himself as an unobtrusive narrator, watching the strange comings and goings of his family with little concern for the creeping madness of his father and the violence of the strangely powerful servant Adela.

Schulz is most commonly lumped in with Kafka and Proust. Having only read Crocodiles so far, he reminds me most of magical realists like Angela Carter and Mikhail Bulgakov; more introverted, like a quiet cousin of theirs, but just as poetic and hilarious.

With Schulz, everyday sights are loaded with meaningful life. The landscape he traipses each day with his mother becomes a character in itself, as much as any family member: “And over the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth.” His disturbed father shares this odd sensitivity, adopting tailors’ dummies and treating them as beings capable of pain: “Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, will to eat into it like fate, like destiny?”

Bruno_SchulzHe is sensitive without being sentimental, as if conscious that the rules of his world are not the same as his neighbours:

“In a way, these ‘stories’ are true; they represent my style of living, my particular lot. The dominant feature of that lot is profound solitude, a withdrawal from the cares of daily life. Solitude is the catalyst that brings reality to fermentation, to the precipitating out of figures and colours.”

Reality goes in. Imagination – distilled – comes out.

Schulz’ drawings remind me of those of his contemporary Mervyn Peake – probably the reason I warmed to him so quickly. Schulz’ hollow-cheeked Jews wouldn’t be out of place in The Hall of Bright Carvings; Peake’s Mister Flay would be quite at home in The Book of Idolatry. Sideways black comedy came naturally to them both, although it’s impossible to look at them side-by-side without the sad realisation that Peake documented the atrocities of the Holocaust as an official war artist while Schulz – and so much of his surreal, beautiful work – did not survive it.

brunosanatorium

Share Button

Leaping into the new year

A belated happy new year to you all. 2013 brought new friends, new skills, and new publications, but I’d be fibbing if I said I wasn’t ready to leap into 2014.

I’ve made headway on a new, inevitably Victorian novel. This was aided in part by my summer experience at the Isle of Wight steam railway, getting to grips with the challenges of hopping on and off steam engines in a crinoline during the hottest weekend of the year. There’s nothing like primary research.

mevictorian

Getting intimate with a new narrator is part joy, part daunting challenge. Emma Darwin’s post, 19 Questions To Ask (and ask again) On Voice, has been a helpful point of focus as I reign in the material of the woolly winter months.

“Yes, Voice, overall, is one of the archetypal writerly things that you can’t, completely, make happen by sheer force of will. But as I was discussing here, it’s a mistake to assume that the only good decisions are those which come from that mysterious place we call instinct and intuition. A bit of clear thinking and precise focus can make things clear for your intuition to recognise. And besides, there are always times in your writing life – the depressed moments, the hungover and lack-of-sleep moments – when intuition fails you. But even then, you can always ask practical, technical questions about language and grammar, and – as I was exploring here – so often when you do get practical and technical, you’re led back to the strange, instinctive stuff of our imagined worlds.”

I spent the Christmas break reading Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and goggling at her masterful world-building. I’ve never been to Mississippi, but, 500 pages later, I feel I know something of its dreary gorgeousness and savagery. “Oh man, you are starting with the wrong Donna Tartt novel,” says just about everyone I mention it to. If that’s Tartt at her worst, I’m intimidated by the possibility of her best.

Which brings me to my resolution. I don’t usually make resolutions. I find myself struggling to think of a suitably righteous goal and become distracted by bizarre Victorian greetings cards encouraging the recipient to fire a pig out of a cannon for luck.

nyepigBut, because I’m feeling disgustingly optimistic at present, my 2014 resolution is to keep striving, keep learning, and above all, as always, keep writing. Rossetti had a lifelong habit of trying to accomplish ‘something in some branch of work’ every day, whether that meant poetry, painting, translation or illustration, and when he wasn’t working – or when he was depressed and unable to work – he was reading, observing, taking things in. As I said on Literary Rejections, experience accumulates. I want to be more conscious of that this year. The practical, technical stuff as well as the strange and instinctive.

Failing that, during ‘the depressed moments, the hungover and lack-of-sleep moments’, I can fall back on my secondary resolution: wear more hats.

Share Button

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter

princesslou

With her latest book, Lucinda Hawksley delves where the monarchy would rather she didn’t.

The life of Princess Louise is one clouded by rumours and misdirection. Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter was said to be simultaneously difficult and charming, dense and witty, beautiful and naughty. With her files still closed to researchers and the public alike, getting a good look at this headstrong woman is a challenging task, fraught with dead ends and muffled hints of scandal. Hawksley’s new biography is the closest we’ve yet come to the true face of ‘Loosy’.

“Luckily the habit of moulding children to the same pattern has gone out of fashion. It was deplorable. I know, because I suffered from it. Nowadays individuality and one’s own capabilities are recognised.” – Princess Louise in a newspaper interview from 1918.

Louise as a child, by Queen Victoria after Franz Xavier Winterhalter.

Louise as a child, by Queen Victoria after Franz Xavier Winterhalter.

Individuality and independence were luxuries Louise refused to take for granted, likely because Queen Victoria’s treatment of her children was toe-curlingly cruel. The Queen frequently communicated through notes delivered by servants (even when the child at fault was sitting beside her) and laced every affectionate statement with a critical undercurrent. Even when they flew the nest, Victoria would do her best to interfere in her children’s lives to a stifling degree. The psychological effects make for heart-rending reading. When Louise’s father, Prince Albert, died, the thirteen-year-old cried out, “Oh, why did not God take me? I am so stupid and useless.”

It is not surprising that Louise strove to be the polar opposite of her overbearing mother. While the Queen deplored the concept of equal rights for women, Louise admired the drive and ambition of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. The Queen adored Scotland – Louise craved sunshine. The Queen was a stickler for propriety, but Louise, who took on many of Victoria’s official duties during her long mourning for Albert, would openly remark her mother simply couldn’t be bothered any more. The Princess’ charismatic disregard for protocol made her charming, yet her mother seemed set on the idea that Louise was had learning disabilities, or was, as she put it, “naughty and backwards”. Most likely, the artistic young woman was bored.

Louise, with Pre-Raphaelite accessories.

Louise, with Pre-Raphaelite accessories.

This frustration found release in the hard physical work of sculpture. Although William Michael Rossetti took a public swipe at her, tartly (but also quite rightly) stating that an artist who happens to be a royal cannot be judged on merit alone, Louise was genuinely a talented and thoughtful sculptor. She befriended a number of the Pre-Raphaelites (though Dante Gabriel Rossetti was out when she called) and adopted their sense of style, moving in Aesthete circles among radical thinkers, to the horror of her class-conscious mother.

The biography sensitively charts the ups and downs of Louise’s unconventional marriage to the homosexual Marquess of Lorne, a man she came to detest, and later to platonically respect. Rumour had it, the Princess knew Lorne picked up soldiers in the park near their apartments. She consequently had the windows facing them bricked up. More shockingly, Louise herself had a number of affairs. This, Hawksley surmises, is why her files are so forcefully concealed to this day. Although her brother Bertie was a famous philanderer, and even Queen Victoria enjoyed a healthy sex life, there are indications that before meeting Lorne, Louise had done the unforgivable and been an unwed teenage mother – via her brother’s tutor. How Louise concealed this alleged pregnancy – and what may have happened to the child – provides a fascinating insight into the Victorian double standards of gender and sexuality, and also Louise’s indomitable spirit.

Louise's statue of her mother at Kensington.

Louise’s statue of her mother at Kensington.

The scandals don’t stop there. Louise was at ease in the company of men, and therefore attracted a great many admirers, including the artist Sir Edgar Boehm. Despite efforts to wipe the affair from the record, it would seem Boehm died during sex with Louise, leading to comical rumours that the body had been rolled up in a carpet and bundled into a cab to avoid a scandal. That Louise continued to be a vivacious, fun-loving woman after this and other such traumatising events is testament to the inner strength forged by years of her mother’s bullying.

But the book is much more than a catalogue of naughtiness. Far some being yet another fawning royal biography, Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise is unflinching about the human flaws of her subjects. Hawksley conjures the nineteenth century in an accessible way, showing the royal family as being an active part of the great Victorian machine rather than simply perching in its upper echelons. She regularly brings up the contemporary republican viewpoint, which may surprise and interest readers. The same arguments are debated today.

Hawksley also brings up a very important point: Queen Victoria’s diaries as we know them now are the product of heavy editing by ‘the arch-inquisitor’ Princess Beatrice. We will never know her stronger comments on Louise’s liberal lifestyle or the lengths she went to to conceal her daughter’s teenage misdemeanours. In the mid-twentieth century, Princess Margaret made an attempt to research the Princess Louise – even she was barred from the most sensitive records. What we do have is the testament of the companions, servants and chance encounters Louise had during her long life; people who found Louise to be an engaging, headstrong, charming, and exceedingly modern artist and princess.

Lucinda Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter is out on the 21st of November 2013.

Share Button

I just learned that A.C. Crispin died of cancer last month.

I feel ashamed to learn this belatedly. Earlier today, I’d been raving about her Han Solo trilogy, how they excited me as a young reader, how they shaped my tastes and aspirations.

The_Paradise_SnareI was a nerdy sci-fi-loving pre-teen when I found The Paradise Snare in – I think – London’s Science Museum, back when a £4.99 paperback presented a considerable investment for your weekly 50p pocket money. A vivid memory: standing on the Circle line, a plastic carrier bag swaying on my wrist, unable to shut this book.

Here were gunfights, aliens, drug-fuelled religious cults and a love story with teeth. It was funny and dangerous and probably not appropriate for a child, but when these things are smuggled in genre fiction they end up in kids’ bedrooms, and why not?

My Star Wars obsession was the kind of love you can only sustain during the 12-16 age gap. When you lived in Suffolk, never more than six feet from a tractor, escapism wasn’t so much a pastime as an essential coping mechanism, and I must have read and re-read those books scores of times. I may even have loved them – whisper it – more than the films.

Unlike Brian Daley’s high-camp Solo novels published in the ’70s (featuring a droid called Bollux – oh dear), Crispin peeled back the swashbuckling to provide a compelling, surprising backstory for this character who started off as a wisecracking space cowboy played by a painter and decorator. “You can write this shit, George, but you sure as Hell can’t say it”.

This was pre-Internet, at least in my house. I didn’t know who A.C. Crispin was, let alone whether this was a man or a woman. I only knew this was someone whose imagination excited me, and perhaps that’s how it ought to be.

The bacta tank - for healthy happiness

The bacta tank – for healthy happiness

It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1997, if you wanted to even begin to experience the kind of shared fandom excitement you take for granted now on Tumblr, you had to get someone’s dad to drive you to a seaside shack in Clacton for the delight of being breathed on by lonely men in all-too-form-fitting Starfleet uniforms. (Actual experience, let’s not dwell on it). Fan fiction was something you stored on a floppy disc and kept to yourself. In the acknowledgements of the final book in the trilogy, Rebel Dawn, Crispin thanked ‘The Star Ladies and all my on-line friends’. Whoa. There were people online like me? Female people? Who get thanked by authors?

I’d been putting together little handwritten books since I was small, but reading Ann Carol Crispin’s Star Wars tie-ins made twelve-year-old me realise the adventures in your head were something you could write down for other people and therefor make real. All these years later, I haven’t forgotten how her books made me feel. And I’ve never stopped writing.

Share Button

Wunderkammer: Doctor Sayre’s Spines

Victorian medical photography often crosses the border into art. There’s a soft, fetishistic quality to even the most gruesome of images.

There’s something about spines in particular that catches my attention. Whether it’s the fact that I narrowly dodged the genetic scoliosis bullet, or that spines are anchored to our language of courage and stability, Lewis A. Sayre’s 1877 publication, Spinal Disease and Spinal Curvature (which you can download free at archive.org) stands out in terms of beauty and weirdness.

scoliosis rack
Sayre – shown above – recommended patients with spinal curvatures suspend themselves twice daily on a contraption resembling a tripod for flogging errant soldiers. The result were these strange photographs, with Sayre and his aides standing by like attendants to martyred saints.

scoliosis rack2
Many of Dr Sayre’s patients are described as working class labourers, ‘stout’ and ‘surprisingly’ healthy, including children whose parents attributed their deformities to heavy manual work; lugging pails of coal, bad school conditions, and the repeated trope of the severe fall in infancy.

spinaldiseases

After treatment, they are nearly all reported to be interacting with nature, paddling ‘stockings off’ in seaside rockpools, feeling ‘no fatigue’ on long country walks and rounds of croquet, as if transported from their working class lives into a J. M. Barrie fantasy. These images are the purgatory between those two stages.

spinaldisease2

 

Share Button

The Wombat is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!

Wombat Friday

Wombie the World-Travelling Wombat looks nervous in the face of so much arsenic and adultery.

I emerge from a week of sinus infection horror raring to plough through the pile of books I’ve accrued and to – finally! – take part in #WombatFriday with the rest of the Victorianists on Twitter.

If you’re unaware of the long and illustrious saga of the noble marsupial in art history, pick up a copy of Rossetti’s Wombat: Pre-Raphaelites and Australian Animals in Victorian London and enjoy the account of Rossetti’s wombat, Top, plodding up to Ruskin (in mid-flow on the subject of communal artistic living as a means of saving humanity) to snuggle between his coat and waistcoat. Ruskin, being British and not the host, carried on “wring[ing] his hand and soul” as though nothing was happening.

Share Button

When I am queen, I will burn down the castle.

They say that one passion leads to another. Long before I discovered Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I lived in Gormenghast.

Gormenghast

Between school bullies, kidney infections, and the oncoming Iraq war (which, I’d somehow convinced myself, was my fault), the year 2000 was a dismal time to be fourteen. But when the BBC released a four-part adaptation of Gormenghast in time for the Millennium, something shifted. From my hospital bed, I imagined the mauve peaks and crumbling spires of the castle on the horizon. I stopped doing my homework. Mervyn Peake’s Machiavellian fantasy was a safe place to escape to.

I never grew out of it. At my first University graduation, seeing the professors traipsing down the aisles in their gowns and mortar boards, I whispered excitedly to the boy next to me: “This is just like Gormenghast!” He had no idea what I was on about.

Years pass. We grow up, our tastes evolve. I fell out with high fantasy, fell into the nineteenth century. But, over a decade after my first encounter with Gormenghast,  thumbing through my paperback trilogy, something sounded familiar…

Fuchsia-and Steerpike

“A girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and, in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered. A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was a flaming red. For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch.”

Oh, hello, Jane Morris.

Jane Morris

For a fourteen-year-old reader, Lady Fuchsia Groan is an easy character to relate and aspire to. Living in isolation where ‘the halls, towers, the rooms of Gormenghast were of another planet’, her response to most things is to run away to her dark attic of storybooks and paintings. She is a petulant child playing Ophelia and Juliet, dying to fall headlong into a world of chivalric romance and adventure.

Fuchsia – in Peake’s own illustrations and his text – has unmistakable similarities to Rossetti’s Jane. Like La Pia, Fuchsia glowers with the lethargic energy of someone who wants to be somewhere else but isn’t sure where. Her unkempt hair and pronounced features give her the ‘unpretty’ Pre-Raphaelite beauty the Victorians were so bothered by. Jane was considered unfortunately unattractive by many. Fuchsia, too.

lapiafuchsiared

There are Pre-Raphaelite echoes in every corner of Gormenghast. Maybe it’s the meeting of the Gothic and the Chivalric, the tragic and the absurd, or Peake’s own network of literary sources including Lewis Carol and The Brothers Grimm. Peake’s childhood in China and later studies at the Royal Academy gave his work a sense of ancientness and the exotic that reminds me of Holman Hunt’s picking and choosing of historical and cultural details. You can see it in The Hall of The Bright Carvings and the almost Tibetan descriptions of the endless corridors and slanting roofs of the castle.

mervynpeakeuptree

Mervyn, acting casual

As a war artist in the 1940s, Peake saw terrible scenes of human cruelty in the rubble of the bombsites and the concentration camps. Perhaps it was only natural to head for the dusty safety of the past.

The BBC adaptation – which I realise is not to every Peake-purist’s taste – is funhouse mirror Pre-Raphaelitism. Nature is vast and unfathomable. Steerpike wheedles his way into Fuchsia’s favour by claiming to be “like the knights of old, your ladyship” only to find he can’t possibly live up to Fuchsia’s fantasies. In John Constable’s later stage show, Fuchsia is even given red hair. (Actual audience comment: “This is horrible. They said it was fantasy. It’s nothing like Harry Potter at all.”)

Fuchsia and Jane

The BBC costumes are luxuriant. Fuchsia starts off as a teenager in a loose red velvet dress embroidered with stars. As she gets older and sadder, her outfits become heavier, more stiffly structured, until she is dragged down into the foaming floodwaters like Ophelia, leaving flowers in her wake.


The costume department referred to some of the same sources the Pre-Raphaelites did – Velázquez and Botticelli – resulting in voluminous layers of fabric and detail (even hazelnuts as buttons!) like a mad dressing-up session in a museum vault. Actress Neve McIntosh would gain two inches in height after taking off Fuchsia’s weighty gowns. Rossetti, with his reams of fabric cluttering up the house, would have loved it.

Lady Gertrude Groan
Excuse the poor quality photograph, but wouldn’t Rossetti have made a great job of this still from the film as a painting? Minus the prosthetic chin.

I wonder if I would have reacted so strongly to the Pre-Raphaelites had I not experienced Gormenghast so young. One good thing leads on to another. What’s next?


Buy The Gormenghast Trilogythe BBC miniseries on DVD, or the fantastic soundtrack by Sir John Tavener who, coincidentally, has Marfans.

Share Button

Inconvenient People

When I was fifteen, I had a summer work experience placement at Ipswich’s psychiatric hospital. St Clements was one of the old ‘asylum’ style hospitals with high-ceilinged wards, green grounds, and a big, romantic entrance hall like something from a smart Edwardian hotel.

Among the patients I got to know, there were two shuffling old men who always stuck together. They rarely said a word, even to each other, and spent their days in the potting sheds propagating seeds to sell in the hospital shop. Someone told me these two men had spent their whole lives in the hospital; that their mothers were sent there because they’d given birth out of wedlock. I was sceptical, not because I didn’t believe such awful things had happened, but because I thought that particular social shame was Victorian in origin.

However, one of the many surprising things I learned when we hightailed it to Highgate this week for a talk hosted by Sarah Wise, author of Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England, is that the old story of the dissolute male knocking up the maid and having her put away in a mental hospital to avoid a scandal was in fact a twentieth century phenomenon. And, more surprisingly, Victorian men were more likely to be maliciously accused of insanity than women – because that’s where the money was.

Those who were eccentric, wayward, rebellious, different in some fashion or even just stood in the way (often of money), were often locked up at the behest of family members who stood to benefit. They were aided and abetted by a growing number of ‘mad doctors’ who readily certified ‘madness’. There was money in the lunacy trade — certainly more than in certifying people as sane…

I haven’t yet read the book, but the talk reminded me of when, in Venice this summer, we took the vaporetto out to San Servolo, the so-called ‘island of the mad’ to see the remains of the hospital there. Most of the building is now occupied by the University of Venice, but the pharmacy remains intact, along with a small museum and an imposing white chapel amongst the botanic gardens, radiating heat.

Like the subjects of Sarah Wise’s research, most of the inmates of San Servolo were not mentally ill at all, but dipsomaniacs (alcoholics) or suffering from malnutrition. Being cheap and plentiful, polenta was the dietary staple of the Venetian working classes, but too much of it can cause hallucinations and erratic behaviour. The doctors only realised this when patients who’d come in raving returned to the community – and thus their regular diet – only to be readmitted soon later with the same old symptoms.

In the museum, there was a long, long line of before-after shots of some of the nineteenth century patients, as if physical appearance can ever really tell us anything.

Having had depression for most of my adult life, there’s always a slightly guilty sense of “there but for the grace of…” when viewing the records of people in similar situations a hundred or so years ago. As Sarah Wise explained, those suspected or accused of mental illness in England were at the mercy of unqualified ‘mad doctors’ and The Commissioners of Lunacy (which sounds like a rubbish steampunk band), a system open to abuse, especially when the theory of monomania drifted across the continent.

Monomaniacs were defined as individuals who appeared fully sane except for one triggering factor, one preoccupation. Monomania was a worrying concept for the public, a) because it was a French theory and therefore probably cobblers, and b) because it made them confront the possibility that mad people looked and behaved just like everyone else.

Which, in my experience, sounds precisely like today’s attitudes.

But doesn’t everyone, healthy or otherwise, have a right to eccentricity? Particularly in England, or so the English tell themselves. And this cognitive dissonance led to some astonishing, uplifting cases of the public turning out in droves to support the accused, even going as far as staging daring rescues. In response to the incarcertion of Lady Lytton — a bona fide case of a disgruntled husband using his influence to silence an intelligent wife — The Somerset Gazette printed in 1858:

Rouse, and assert Old England’s boast
With indignation rife;
From Orkney to The Scilly Isles
Cry ‘Liberty in Life’!

I can’t wait to get stuck into the book. Thank you, Sarah, for an eye-opening talk.

While reaching this article, I was saddened to discover that St Clements, with its vast grounds and grand halls, was turned into a middle class golf resort in 2011. I wonder what happened to those two old men who knew nothing but the asylum.

Share Button

Slap a catalogue number on me, Henry.

Is there anything better than perusing glossy photographs of artificial limbs and trepanned skulls over one’s breakfast? I think you’ll find there isn’t.

This week, I won a copy of the Wellcome Collection’s brand new ‘Guide For The Incurably Curious’.

Wellcome is my favourite museum. If you have the slightest interest in wunderkammer, it’s a playground. The perfect balance of the medical, the historical, the scientific and the artistic, lovingly founded by Victorian philanthropist Henry Wellcome. Look upon his facial hair and tremble.

I’ve spent birthdays there, handling live leeches and drinking gin. I’ve seen Mexican miracle paintings there, verdigris mediaeval skeletons, and glass acorns for warding off lightning strikes. Once, an attendant saw how excited my friends and I were and fetched us goodie bags complete with wearable cardboard moustaches.

Science museums can feel unfriendly to artsy types, but at the Wellcome, the two disciplines interact. Upstairs, in the cool white Medicine Now room, slides of organs are displayed alongside barmy art (there’s a giant purple jellybaby as a metaphor for human cloning). Downstairs, in the darker, more anthropological Medicine Man room, you’ll find a wall of antique forceps and some beautifully detailed glass eyes which could easily be items of jewellery or sculpture. Plus, there’s a Bosch painting, and everyone loves a good Bosch.

But I think what I love the most about the Wellcome Collection is that, in a manner of speaking, I’m in it.

I have Marfan syndrome. The National Marfan Foundation explains:

Marfan syndrome is a disorder of the connective tissue.

Connective tissue holds all parts of the body together and helps control how the body grows.  Because connective tissue is found throughout the body, Marfan syndrome features can occur in many different parts of the body.

Marfan syndrome features are most often found in the heart, blood vessels, bones, joints, and eyes. Sometimes the lungs and skin are also affected.  Marfan syndrome does not affect intelligence.

Specifically, Marfans is caused by a kink in the fifteenth chromosome. So imagine the surreal excitement I felt when I turned a corner in the Wellcome Collection and came across this:

There it is. The Human Genome Project, chapter 15, subheading ‘Verity’s Wonky Genes’. I took it from the shelf with both hands. Buried amongst the reams and reams of baffling code inside was the string of glyphs that spelled out Marfan Syndrome.

Only one in five-thousand people have Marfans. The syndrome will generally make you around six feet tall and willowy in build, with exceptionally long, spidery fingers and toes. You may have a curvature of the spine or an uneven ribcage, and you can probably bend your thumbs into strange angles. Abraham Lincoln probably had it, as did Jonathan Larson, Joey Ramone, and, I strongly suspect, Lux Interior of The Cramps.

Marfans can affect you in all sorts of strange, annoying, sometimes life-threatening ways. Individual Marfs differ. As for me, I’m well looked-after by good doctors. I pace myself, I watch my diet and try not to be a stubborn ass when it comes to clinging to the barrier at Morrissey concerts or vigorous charity shopping the weekend after minor heart surgery. (Although holding hands with Morrissey and acquiring an antique nursing chair for £10 were worth the resulting drama).

One of the things about having an unusual health problem is that you can end up feeling alienated. That’s why I love the Wellcome Collection. Things that could be clinical or morbid, like Jennifer Sutton viewing her old heart after her successful transplant, are greeted with curiosity and joy.

It’s an ambition of mine to get Marfans into the Wellcome more prominently. Short of standing in the entrance hall with a sign on me, I don’t know how to raise awareness. I’m not quite ready to donate my hands. But it’s a syndrome that really lends itself to art. Maybe I can use my nonexistent artistic ability to chop up my MRIs in a nice lightbox, or draw an Edward Gorey-esque bunch of spidery fingers. Or, better still, persuade someone  who actually knows what they’re doing to put Marfans in front of the lens, like Alexa Wright’s ‘After Image’ series.

Where’s an artist when you need one?

Share Button