How To Be A Victorian


howtobeavictorian
How To Be a Victorian

Ruth Goodman is one of those historians I want to turn up on my doorstep with adoption papers. Brits will know her from her hugely popular television series, Tudor Monastery Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Victorian Pharmacy, where she physically lives the history, coping without heat, going without baths, and stooping for backbreaking farm labour in corset and bonnet.

Her enthusiasm for the daily grind of our ancestors shines through everything she does, from sealing jars with pig’s bladders to grinding up beetles for cure-all pills. Ruth shies away from nothing and reports back with glee. So it’s no surprise that her new book, How To Become a Victorian, stands out among its contemporaries for its sheer physicality and empathy.

My hero

My hero

The book takes us through an average Victorian day, from the moment your feet touch the bedroom floor to collapsing in bed after a brutal working day. Or, in the case of the privileged few, dozing off after a 12-course dinner.

Drawing from a wealth of primary material – maids’ diaries, middle class memoirs, and plain old household paperwork – Goodman brings to light some surprising details rarely featured in costume dramas.

For example, would your bedroom kill a canary? Dr Arnott of the Royal Institution thought so.

Ventilation was a big deal to the Victorians. One dubious study stated that a canary, kept in a cage close to the ceiling of the average Victorian bedroom, would die of carbon dioxide poisoning before the night was through. Another claimed it was “madness to sleep in a room without ventilation – it is inhaling poison […] deadly”.

So pervasive was this myth, impoverished parents, wanting the best for their children,  would keep the bedroom window open in all weathers, even when blankets were in short supply. It makes you wonder what barmy customs we’re following today for no good reason.

undiesCompare this with the practise of woollen underwear in all weathers. Porous in humidity, insulating in deep cold, a woollen vest and drawers would guard a body from the sudden changes in temperature believed to wreck the constitution. In 1823, Captain Murray of the HMS Valorous returned to Britain after a two-year tour of duty along the freezing Labradorean coast. Each man aboard was given two sets of woollen undies and commanded to keep them on. On his return, Captain Murray was pleased to report he had not lost a single man despite great changes in temperature – this was a record, and one he attributed to wool. For the rest of the nineteenth century, a good set of woollen undies would become recommended by doctors all over the British Empire, even in the Tropics.

illustrated-police-news-june-25-1870Naturally, Goodman has tested this advice, along with the long-term use of tight corsets. Lovely to look at, and surprisingly practical for work involving constant bending, Goodman experienced two unpleasant side effects of a tiny waist: 1) Corset rash is worse than chickenpox, and 2) after a time, her core muscles wasted away, giving her a high, breathy voice a Victorian may well have termed feminine and pleasing. She had to retrain her diaphragm with rigorous singing exercises.

Goodman’s other Victorian adventures included setting her petticoats on fire, narrowly avoiding being crushed beneath a startled carthorse, and going without washing her hair for four months. By far my favourite detail was that vodka makes a suitable substitute for laudanum when a recipe calls for it. I think they call that a life-hack.

Unsurprisingly, I loved the book. It’s an invaluable resource for anyone embarking on a historical fiction project. The attention given to the unromantic nitty-gritty of daily Victorian life is much appreciated, and Goodman’s dedication to trying everything, no matter how uncomfortable, dangerous, or potentially infectious, is hugely entertaining for historians, re-enactors and anyone else in danger of death through tight lacing.

Ruth Goodman’s How To Be a Victorian is available now in paperback.

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

7 reasons you should watch American Horror Story: Coven

In this house, we like horror and we love American Horror Story. The latest series, ‘Coven’, follows a school for talented young witches in New Orleans, and you should be watching it.

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It passes the Bechdel test. Every episode. In fact, all three series of AHS features women talking to women about things other than men. This is so damn refreshing. See, screenwriters? It isn’t difficult.

The magnificent sets revel in all the trappings of Southern Gothic: dreary swamps, ramshackle cemeteries, and grand white houses with jazz drifting in from the streets and bars. You can almost taste the mint juleps.

Myrtle Snow

Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow

Myrtle Snow’s costumes by Lou Eyrich. She is flawless.

The music. Stevie Nicks is a keystone of the Coven series; her lyrics a thread to follow. All three AHS series have made use of a spectrum of music, including Carina Round, Pete and The Pirates, and Soeur Marie’s Dominique – which will now be stuck in your head for all eternity.

Jamie Brewer. An actress with Down’s Syndrome who isn’t there purely to demonstrate the protagonist’s compassion, isn’t asexual, and consistently gets good lines. Brewer also features in the first series – ‘Murder House’ – without as much complexity, but the writers are clearly interested in diversity without tokenism, and that’s something I think audiences really want to see.

Kathy Bates as serial killer Delphine LaLaurie. Horror fans will already be warm to Bates, and, as you’d expect, she looks 100% at home scowling in a frumpy antique frock. Though Madame LaLaurie is a cartoonish character, AHS uses her to explore the deeply entrenched racism of America’s South through her grudging friendship with witch of colour, Queenie, played by Gabourey Sidibe. It isn’t unproblematic by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s good to see a fantastical mainstream TV series touching on actual social horrors. When LaLaurie attempts to excuse her vicious past with “I was a woman of my time”, Supreme witch Fiona responds: “That is a crock of shit.”

Cheese. AHS is unashamedly cheesy. Witches casually playing theremins, your requisite zombie uprising, teenage necromancers flouncing around in impossibly high heels and sunglasses…it’s silly. And silly is good. Watch it.

Verity gets a hamster. Kind of.

I always thought I had no crafting talents. Friendship bracelets, daisy chains, iced cupcakes – all a total loss. Turns out, I’m alright at taxidermy.

As a child, I was hugely upset by stuffed animals. I seem to remember it stemming from the conviction that a squirrel would appreciate a proper Christian burial. As I got older, however, seeing the anthropomorphic work of Walter Potter and taking an interest in human mortuary customs and anatomy as a science, I began to develop a fascination. Plus, an exceptionally large pigeon once dropped dead out of a tree and into my garden, and as I shooed the dog away I found myself thinking, “I should really do something with this…”

So we booked our places at one of The Last Tuesday Society‘s anthropomorphic taxidermy classes. If you’re at all Fortean in nature, you must get down to Hackney and see this place. I felt like I’d found my tribe.

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It probably helped that I’d never had a pet hamster.

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All our hamsters were the unsold snake food variety, destined to otherwise go in the bin. It’s important to most modern taxidermists that their animals are not killed especially for stuffing, and instead rely on roadkill, stillborns, and the like. There are surprisingly numerous vegetarian taxidermists, our instructor Michelle included. The omnivorous variety often consume the more edible animals, and Michelle feeds her leftover meat to her pet axolotl.

I’ll admit, I felt some trepidation as I wielded the scalpel for the first time. It didn’t help that my instrument was blunt, so, when given a sharper blade, I punctured the inner cavity and learnt a sudden exciting lesson about intestines.

If, unlike me, you’re a natural skinner of rodents, you should never see the inner cavity. There’s very little risk of flying gore. You more or less de-glove the hamster, taking care around the eyes, clip the feet, clean the skin, pop a cotton wool mould inside, and sew it up. Ours took about five hours while the room gradually began to smell like an upmarket charcuterie.

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Downstairs, in Viktor Wind’s Little Shop of Horrors, we saw how the professionals do it.

It will sound strange to anyone naturally repulsed by taxidermy, but being so hands on with a dead creature actually increases your feelings of respect. You get a fantastic sense of the wonder of anatomy; milky little hamster ribs perfectly encased in tight, pink flesh. And then you get to put a hat on it!

My effort:

Bertie

Burlington Bertie, he’ll rise at ten-thirty, and saunter along like a toff
He walks down the Strand with his gloves on his hands
And saunters back down with ’em off.

And Gabriel’s:

PhantomHe’s here! The hamster of the opera.

mousebook2I think I was always destined to become that odd woman with a bin bag, scouring roadsides. At least now I’ll have a purpose.

For more anthropomorphic taxidermy, see Margot Magpie’s Of Corpse Taxidermy (or indeed her Taxidermy Workshop Manual, which we bought for future adventures), and Amanda’s Autopsies. For some crappy taxidermy, head to…Crappy Taxidermy.

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

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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.

Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (mild spoilers)

We’re in The Dickens Tavern in Paddington with a pre-theatre gin. A gaggle of men in Hawaiian shirts pile in and start raising a ruckus, thumping on tables and hooting as the stragglers struggle to drain their beers.

“We’re doing the great Circle Line pub crawl. One drink at every station. What are you guys doing later?”

Er…


Contains flashing images.

It’s difficult to describe the Punchdrunk experience to a sober person, let alone someone six drinks into the great Circle Line pub crawl.

Take one enormous warehouse, dozens of frighteningly intricate sets, and a cast somewhere between Cirque du Soleil and Mulholland Drive. Add darkness, masks, the scent of a bordello dressing room after the ritual murder of an old roué, and you have something approaching the peculiar menacing dream-state Punchdrunk manage to conjure up in the centre of London.

We’d been to The Masque of The Red Death – Punchdrunk’s Poe endeavour – a few years ago, and haven’t stopped talking about it since. So when we heard the company were doing a paranoid Hollywood themed production at an undisclosed location, we snatched up tickets.

Inside The Halloween Hoedown

Ejected from a silver bullet elevator in our carnival masks, we lost our friends in the darkness of a dusty trailer park where a chapel offered devotions at a dripping bathtub altar. Then things got weird.

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We peered inside rotting trailers festooned with fairy lights, witnessed stabbings, barroom brawls, the dustbowl search for work in a town with nothing to offer. Voodoo veves scrawled on napkins in an empty diner. Straw-stuffed mourners at a scarecrow funeral. Fuseli’s The Nightmare on abandoned motel walls. The Blue Velvet sinister Americana of floral perfume and burned typewriters. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

Other rooms were bafflingly ambitious – sand dunes studded with bottlecaps and what looked like someone’s discarded knickers. An arid forest where men sparred up trees in their stained vests and braces.

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Punchdrunk create an unnerving reality. Add to that the audience’s enforced silence and covered faces, and the normal codes of interaction are quickly broken down.

I had an encounter with a security guard taking a bribe from a harried man in diamond earrings. I followed the guard back to his office and spent a long moment alone with him, watching over his shoulder as he sketched a graveyard. “Alright, how long can you pretend I’m not here?” I thought, and after a while his body language had me convinced he hadn’t noticed I was inches from his head. Turns out he remembered me – during the finale, he grabbed me by the waist and whisked me off down some stairs.

No Two Experiences The Same

hoedownSweating and dusty, we staggered outside into the rain.

“Did you see -?”
“How did they -?”

Towards the end, I’d been alone for quite some time, sitting on a front porch swing until a naked man came streaking past me. I chased him to his trailer where he frantically dressed in front of several other budding voyeurs, and went flying off again, trailing dust. Somehow, I ended up kneeling on a dancehall floor for the finale. I still don’t know how.

To understand the genius of Punchdrunk, just go. I won’t give narrative spoilers, but The Drowned Man blurs the line between cinema fantasy and dustbowl reality so seamlessly, you’ll believe you’ve just been to darkest LA. The production will thrill most people, especially anyone into that studio-era paranoia. The Masque of The Red Death will always be my favourite, though. Good old Edgar.


The Drowned Man continues until the end of December.
Word of warning: It was demandingly hot. About an hour in, I had to lie down on one of the beds and nearly killed some poor woman by abruptly sitting up when she thought she was alone. Wear cool clothes and be well-hydrated before you go in.

David Bowie is… really rather good

The V&A have done it again.

‘David Bowie is’ was always going to be an immense undertaking, being a study of the evolution of earnest Davie Jones of The Society For The Prevention of Cruelty To Long Haired Men into…whatever this is…

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But they pull it off. Beautifully.

Bowie has always been like a distantly freakish but much-loved uncle to me. I first got into his music by raiding other people’s parents’ record collections in the ’90s, and although I didn’t understand most of it, it stuck with me and shaped my tastes. I can’t claim to know much about him – I just enjoy the spectacle.

bowievandasignAnd spectacle is what the V&A provides, introducing you to the sensibly-suited Bromley boy who “just wanted to be known” all the way through to a cavern of screens displaying a gigantic gyrating Bowie flanked by mannequins displaying a career’s worth of costumes. The effect is like entering the temple of a strange, glamorous god, compounded by signs reading “David Bowie is watching you”. (We liked the less-worrying Warholian “David Bowie is thirsty – head to the cafe for orange juice or coffee!”) Would museum-goers accept such a gargantuan display from anyone else?

Laid out like the relics of saints, it’s thrilling to get within arm’s length of the tiny-waisted suits of The Thin White Duke and the dusty Regency pirate chic of Screaming Lord Byron. This collection of characters, each with a unique wardrobe, sound, and method of movement gives the impression of all the Bowies being present at once – a cast of personas that make you wonder who and where the actual David is. Or if he exists at all.

David Bowie Is Leaving Clues Everywhere

It was interesting to see evidence of Bowie’s consciousness that no art is fixed to its author’s intentions. Once it’s out there, it becomes a link in a chain of reactions, visualised in ‘The Periodic Table of Bowie’ by Paul Robertson  at the exhibition’s end, filing high-profile fans like Morrissey under “fly my pretties fly”.

We get tantalising scraps of Bowie’s multimedia consumption, of bits and pieces ransacked from culture modern and antique. He remarks he may well have ended up as a novelist, and you see the mingling of the musical/literary/cinematic in the storyboarding for Hunger City with its echoes of A Clockwork Orange and Todd Browning’s Freaks. The wordplay in Future Legend is decidedly Mervyn Peake:

Of course, my favourite was always going to be the frock-shot on The Man Who Sold The World. “Funnily enough, and you’ll never believe me, it was a parody of Gabriel Rossetti. Slightly askew, obviously.” Dinah Roe has written about the amusing homage here.

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Highlights

I usually hate tinny museum headphones, but the sound here was high-quality with a clever ‘spotlighting’ system sensing where you were standing. You could stand three feet away from someone having a totally different experience.

DAVID BOWIEThis knitted catsuit was apparently available in pattern form for early fans to copy. Sadly no photos of valiant DIY efforts.

Small children leaping about, playing air guitar – the chain reaction at work.

The Goblin King’s crystal alongside a handwritten letter from Jim Henson telling Bowie how perfect he’d be for the role.

GO.


The exhibition continues until August 11th 2013. All online tickets are currently sold out, but if you turn up the the V&A’s main desk when they open at 10am, you’re likely to get a ticket for later in the day.

Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno: “Let’s go stunner-hunting!”

After casting Sean Bean in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I can forgive Ken Russell of almost any sin. Even Dante’s Inferno. Most of it.

Through a psychedelic ’60s lens, with the Pre-Raphaelite circle portrayed as drink-mad, cemetery-defiling pyromaniacs on top of all the usual Russell weirdness, Dante’s Inferno the only film I’ve ever awoken at dawn for, snarling over the final seconds of the auction: “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s the only DVD copy I’ve ever seen anywhere, and it’s mine…”

Now, someone thoughtful has uploaded the whole wacky display to YouTube, so you can enjoy it as much as I did all those years ago, alone in my flat, wondering what on Earth I’d allowed into my life.

Don’t expect a history lesson. Do expect drunken bicycle jousting, zombie Lizzie Siddal, and Oliver Reed playing himself. No, it isn’t sensitive. But if you’ve ever seen the schlocky ’70s horror Burnt Offerings, you can’t really dislike Reed. My late Auntie Ann used to drink with him, and maintained he was a gentleman. He’s not a bad likeness of Rossetti, physically; dark and languid in layer upon layer of shabby Victorian tailoring. Jan Marsh has a chapter on the film in her excellent book The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal. She calls Reed ‘solid but smouldering’.

Leave me alone - I'm brooding.

Leave me alone – I’m smouldering, solidly.

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Topsy and Janey, experiencing an approximation of married bliss.

Judith Paris as Lizzie Siddal. Again, quite a good likeness.

Judith Paris as Lizzie Siddal. Again, quite a good likeness.

Swinburne, getting overly-friendly with the Oxford dead. You cannot take him anywhere.

…and Swinburne, getting overly-friendly with the Oxford dead. You cannot take him anywhere.

“A great Italian tormented in the Inferno of London”

Ruskin, there, being a bit over-the-top.

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As it’s Mr Rossetti’s 185th birthday, I celebrated with poems and pie in the park. It’s what the tormented old rhinoceros would have wanted.

So, news. It’s been a productive spring. After being longlisted for the Pageturner Prize, I sent my novel to The Literary Consultancy, who I can’t recommend highly enough. If you’re lost in your one-hundred-thousand-word forest, unable to find your way home, an honest critique, plus no-nonsense business advice, is invaluable. Having slogged through the rewrites and given it a good trimming, I’m about to pass it on to some friends to read. It’s a vertiginous feeling, but I remain optimistic.

In other writing news, I’m in the next edition of The Pre-Raphaelite Society Review, talking about A Pre-Raphaelite Journey: The Art of Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale. If you’ve ever wondered what a Pre-Raphaelite tackling early 20th century airborne warfare looks like, Eleanor’s your woman.

Happy birthday, DGR. Pie?

Fall into the house of Severs – still life drama at 18 Folgate St

severs1The first rule of Dennis Severs’ house is that you do not talk in Dennis Severs’ house.

Not that you’re given a chance to say anything. As we rounded the corner into Spitalfield’s Folgate Street and rang the bell on number 18, the door immediately opened to reveal a composed gentleman in warm winter clothes.

“Is this your first visit to my friend Dennis’ house? Entry is ten pounds. I warn you, there is a mad cat.”

What were we in for? The Californian Dennis Severs moved into Folgate Street in 1979, when the run-down area was attracting colourful types like Gilbert & George. Bypassing frivolities like electricity and modern plumbing, he decorated each of the house’s eleven rooms in the style of a different era, from 1724 to 1914. The aim, or ‘game’ as he put it, was to give the impression the original occupants of the house – the Jervises, a family of Huguenot silk weavers – had just left the room.

Ring the bell, hand over your tenner, and slide into the past.

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

Photograph by Roelof Bakker

The motto of the house, Aut Visum Aut Non (‘you either see it or you don’t’), hints at the ghostly quality of the place. Severs died in 1999. In his Will, he asked the house be kept as it was during his lifetime, still admitting the curious, silent public.

Inside the tall, dimly lit house, you see no ghosts. But you hear them, oh yes. The atmosphere is an entity in itself, following you, touching you. You learn to minimise your movements to avoid the naked flames. You tune into the language of the nibbled scone, the glistening yolk of a cooling boiled egg, the afternoon sherry guiltily abandoned. Upstairs, in the paupers’ room, the collapsing ceiling admits sighs of freezing London air.

“Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.”

Performance art of this kind offers strange intimacy. I was reminded of Punchdrunk’s incredible 2007 production of The Masque of The Red Death in which the audience were given masks and let loose in the industrial cavern that is Battersea Arts Centre. You could rifle through tattered paperwork, watch contortionists getting violently busy on a four-poster bed, or enter a mad puppet show…but you had to remain silent.

moretta

In my mask, I laid eyes on a boy (man? It was so dark, I couldn’t tell), taller than me – rare, as I’m over six foot – lurking in a chamber of piled silks and wools. He beckoned; I unthinkingly obeyed. Without permission, he laid a velvet cloak around my shoulders and slowly fastened the clasp. Was he gorgeous? I don’t know; I never saw more than his eyes, which I stared into with inebriated fascination for far longer than was polite until he laid his hand on my back – a touch! – and moved me on.

That, I think, is the trick of performance art. Like a parasite, it knows your boundaries and wheedles inside. Think of Venetian prostitutes with their Servetta Muta masks held by a bit between the teeth. Anonymity is intimacy.

“Those in the past were also dizzy and dumbstruck”

Severs left a note for us in Mrs Jervis’ pink confection of a rococo dayroom. To experience the house without sensing the long-gone occupants would be “like celebrating the Millennium as a number, without Christ.” It’s safe to say he took his still life drama seriously. But that heavy statement was interesting…

dickensroom“You must forgive the shallow who must chatter,” says another note. We have the Internet, 24 hour news, the telephone with the police on the end waiting for our call. The Severs house recreates the cut-offedness we’ve learned to forget. If you love history, you spend eons inside books offering first person accounts of a moment 100 years old or more, but when you enter the closed atmosphere of 18 Folgate Street, with its strange sounds, strong smells, and unreliable light, you at once feel vulnerable.

But the house is merely a pretty illusion if you aren’t willing to let down your barriers –  a fact brought home by the frequent smacks on the wrist in the form of signs saying, “STOP LOOKING AT INDIVIDUAL OBJECTS/ARE YOU STILL LOOKING AT THE OBJECTS/WELL STOP IT”. The spirit of the age was what Severs wanted to capture, not a cabinet of curiosities. These signs are more off-putting than the small anachronisms such as supermarket labels on the claret bottles. Besides, I like to think they were all part of the game. Where would Hogarth’s revelers get their cheap plonk if they were around today? Sainsbury’s, like the rest of us.

It takes an experience like 18 Folgate Street to illustrate how different we are to our ancestors – and how viscerally similar.

As Severs said:

“You are 100 years old; you are wise.”