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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Progress For Progress's Sake

Why do I suddenly feel like Dolores Umbridge? I suppose I bear a passing resemblance to her at the moment as I turn bright red and begin to implode with my strength of emotion. I'm also beginning to sound as deranged as her so I'd better explain.

At lunchtime I signed onto the British Periodicals website to locate reviews of a particularly bad novel I'd just finished reading. Part of my ritual; part of my PhD. I read the reviews and left. Then I tried to sign on a few hours later to help me with details of novels by some other novelists - Mrs Hungerford and Mrs Alexander to name but two - however, the site seemed to be taking an age to load. And that's saying something. The site has always been slow but this hit exceptional levels. Then, as the page appeared, I realised why. ProQuest had overhauled the site (along with their entire range of sites) and had given it a brand new gloss and feel.

I know, I know. I can almost hear you rolling your eyes. The fact is, though, that this upgrade has done nothing to the accessibility of the site. It is more difficult to search and find the results you were actually looking for. It takes longer to load (and, boy, is that saying something), the display may be shinier but IT DID NOT NEED TO BE SHINY. It was a functional site before and that was why, although it annoyed me frequently, I enjoyed using it overall. I don't go into it for an 'experience'. I go there to find information that is unavailable elsewhere on the web. I go there because I can't spend day after day in Boston Spa.

It actually reduced me to tears as I sat mumbling incoherently to myself about not being able to find the information I wanted. So, well done, ProQuest. You've made the lives of some researchers that little bit more difficult. And next time you do a drastic and ridiculous overhaul - tell us first. That way we can rescue the lists of saved articles we wanted to read and which we can't now log into because the site's being idiotic.

So what has this progress achieved? Well, it's progress, isn't it? Therefore it must be fine. Excuse me while I find a quiet corner to sob in.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Book Review: South Riding by Winifred Holtby

I decided to buy this book after watching the BBC adaptation staring Anna Maxwell Martin. Although I loved the adaptation, I had hopes that the book would be better. I was right.

In his introduction to my copy, Andrew Davies compares Winifred Holtby to George Eliot in terms of her scope. This was something that couldn't come across in the television series because of time restrictions. However, the sheer number of characters Holtby manages to portray in her novel is impressive. She shows all sides of humanity from the lower rungs of the Holly family up to Robert Carne of Maythorpe and everything in between. The catalyst for the novel South Riding is Sarah Burton, a young and somewhat idealistic yet firm headteacher, taking over the local girls high school. She encounters problems in the school itself and with the wider community, including Robert Carne himself. Carne is completely at odds with Sarah's view of the world, yet she finds herself falling in love with him as he faces financial ruin.

Going to the book with pictures in my head of the characters from the adaptation certainly made reading this an enjoyable experience. However, the book also added plausibility to the characters. Sarah's turmoil in relation to Carne is raw in the novel and something little more than hinted at in the adaptation. Carne himself came across as a very worthy and honest man, if a little inarticulate and stern. Mrs Beddows was by far my favourite character in both book and adaptation. This probably has something to do with her excellent portrayal by Penelope Wilton but it also has a lot to do with the layers of the character. She loves Carne deeply, she's dissatisfied with her family, she wants to do what she can for the community. She is a female face on the county council and by far the most energetic of the council members portrayed. Councillor Huggins, merely a hypocrite and a fool in the adaptation, has more to him than that and the belief in God and himself he extols throughout make his actions believable. There is one beautiful scene in the book which I don't think was covered in the series (please correct me if I'm wrong): Huggins labouring to the top of a cliff to see Carne at Maythorpe. If it was shown on screen then the image in my head conjured by Holtby's excellent description has surpassed it.

All of her characters are well-sketched and events follow a logical pattern. One thing I found tiresome was the rather long epilogue and the sections prior to that which seemed long-winded. I did appreciate the different ending to the adaptation as it was much less melodramatic and suited the characters. However, I feel as though the ending lingered a little too long, as though Holtby had difficulty letting go of the characters - as I myself did, to be fair.

Holtby wrote three other novels before her death at the age of 37. I certainly plan to read more of her work.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

When Real Life Is Farcical

I spent yesterday with my sister, two small nieces and my brother's one year-old. It was a pretty enjoyable, if exhausting, day but one little incident sticks out. It's the one where I made a complete idiot of myself - which tends to happen on a regular basis. This, however, was You've Been Framed hilarious.

Picture it: we're waving off my nephew and sister-in-law when a wasp begins prowling around the little girls. I waft it away, try and get the girls away from it. Then it lands on my nose. I panicked. I mean, who wouldn't panic?! I jumped backwards but hadn't considered my proximity to the large family car behind me. To cut a humiliating story short, I hopped back and went flying onto the floor after bouncing from the bonnet. Did hurt a bit. But the more painful aspect was the enjoyment my delightful sister got out of it! I wouldn't have laughed in a similar situation... Ahem.

Anyway, if I wrote that into a novel or - more likely, as it's a very visual scene - a script, I'd probably get accused of farce, of describing something that would happen to no normal person. I blogged last year about the coincidence of chance encounters and how the audience would probably sigh at the contrivance. This is a similar thing: how do you do little more than document a real life occurrence without sounding like you're reaching into the depths of farce for your inspiration?

The only solution I can think of at the moment is this: make it feel real. Logical solutions spring from logical occurrences. I was fighting with that damn wasp because we were five feet away from a bin. Now I seem like less of a maniac and the plausibility of falling backwards over a car escaping from a wasp is increased.

Am I going to write this into a story? Possibly, but only after the hand I landed on stops hurting.

Friday, 19 August 2011


I was listening to a short interview with Doris Day on BBC Radio 4 yesterday. She's doing a little promotion for her new collection of songs which will be released in September. I'm looking forward to it immensely and I'm loving the renewed attention Doris is getting as a result of this release. Beautiful voice, wonderful actress, altogether adorable woman. Watch her performance in Love Me Or Leave Me if you think she's only a singing star. Anyway, that isn't the point of this post.

In the interview, Doris said something that I think relates to me. She was asked whether her reputation for being a recluse was all it seemed. This was her response: "The town is so crowded now, you know, we have so many people. And I don't really like to get in crowds, that's just not for me." That sums up my feelings almost entirely.

I don't hate socialisation; I just dislike the pressures of it. I like people; I just have a hard time communicating with them face to face. I think a lot of writers have this in them. It happens that I'm a more articulate writer than speaker and my strength lies in my ability to put words on a page - possibly with the intention of then having them spoken by someone else. Other people may get fed up with my reticence to meet (and I get fed up with my own reticence) but I battle down my insecurities and do it more than I'm comfortable with. While I accept that life is not supposed to be easy, I don't accept that I constantly have to put myself in situations which increase my stress levels in order to 'prove' I'm normal. Sometimes, you know, you're allowed to be selfish to the point that if you want to stay in and hide behind a computer screen, you're perfectly within your rights to.

Of course, I do get out of the house. I have a select few friends who command my attention every now and then (and I love them for it). I have a boyfriend who insists on 'taking me out of my comfort zone'. I have a family who drag me to smelly monkey houses in order to give the kids a day out. I like all that. Perhaps what I don't like are the stressful meetings with my PhD supervisors, or the interactions in the doctor's surgery, or the prospect of going to see my little play performed in a few weeks.

How I'll cope with that one is yet to be seen. But at least Doris has made me feel a little better about myself this week. I'm allowed to want to stay away from crowds of people. I'm allowed to put it into practice. However, due to my own exacting standards, I'm not allowed to hide from people indefinitely.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Some Rather Exciting News

Well, I found this out a week ago but only told a select few people because I was convinced I'd get an email saying they'd re-read the submission and actually they hadn't meant to send anything but a curt 'thanks but no thanks' to little me. You know what? That didn't happen. Therefore I feel secure enough to be able to squeak this to you all: I'm having a short (ten minute) play performed on the 15th September.

I'm very excited. I first found about the NSC Theatre Awards 2011 four days before the deadline. Luckily, I had a short play all prepared but it was touch and go as to whether I could get an entry form emailed over and get the thing posted before the deadline. Fortunately, all worked out! Nothing for a few weeks. Then an email popped into my inbox last weekend and I prepared myself for another rejection to top off an altogether-unpleasant week. Amazingly, though, it wasn't a rejection.

As a finalist I get to have my play performed in front of a panel of judges and any members of the public who want to come along and see what I'd imagine is going to be a diverse selection of pieces. The awards are being held at the Northern Ballet in Leeds on 15th September (as I think I mentioned before!) and you can find out more about them on the NSC site.

Meanwhile, this about suits my mood. Substitute the pillow Audrey hugs at the end for an Eeyore and I swear it's me!

Book Review: Girl Reading by Katie Ward

One of the first things you'd notice if you picked this book up in a shop and flicked through it is that it has a distinct lack of speech marks. It could be a bit perturbing but I'd advise you to roll with it for a little while. The disappearance of those markers allows a fluidity of prose without diluting the effect of the words themselves. Actually, I thought the book as a whole was outstanding.

Ward takes seven portraits of women reading as her starting point. In seven chapters she goes inside each of them, delving into the life of the sitter and imagining the story around the portrait. For me, the best part of reading this book was the delightful surprise of, having declared the previous chapter my favourite, discovering it was matched in quality by the next one. The years of the portraits are wide-ranging: 1333, 1668, 1775, 1864, 1916, 2008 and 2060. The differing periods inevitably requires a different tone, a different style. Ward manages this without trouble. At no point was I jolted out of the period I was supposed to be in.

Looking back after I've let the book simmer in my memory for a while, I can probably discern a couple of chapters I liked a tiny bit more than the others. 1668 takes "Woman Reading" by Pieter Janssens Elinga as its starting point. It revolves around a deaf girl, Esther, following her to her position as a maid and the voyeuristic way the idea for the painting is obtained. Part of the reason I found this chapter so attractive were the descriptions of Amsterdam close to the beginning. Very evocative, even though they only take up a short space. Other than that, Esther is wonderfully developed and she is one of the characters who sticks in my mind most.

Another is the bereaved Maria in 1775, stemming from "Portrait of a Lady" by Angelica Kauffman. She has lost her lover, Frances, and Kauffman is finishing the portrait she started while Frances was alive. I think the beauty of this chapter in particular is the interaction between the characters, all drawn impeccably. Even Frances makes her appearance in one form. The conversations between Maria and the artist are exquisite.

I could easily talk about each of the chapters and what I loved about them. It probably comes as no surprise that I'm wholeheartedly recommending this book but just to reiterate - in my opinion, it's excellent. One of my favourite books of the year thus far.

Visit Katie Ward's website for more information about her and Girl Reading.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Venturing Into Victorian Tone

There's a huge difference between reading Victorian fiction religiously (or methodically, as my PhD has dictacted I do) and attempting to write fiction set in the period. For numerous reasons, I have avoided it. Historical fiction scares me. I'm something of a perfectionist. I would want to get as little as possible inaccurate and my usual sore point about "getting it wrong" would probably be turned into a gaping wound. That explains why I haven't attempted it in the past. So what explains my sudden enthusiasm for a project I started months ago, worked at for a day, then discarded to rest with the dozens of "bad" ideas your average writer has?

I've read many enjoyable pieces of authentic Victorian fiction in recent years. I'm referring to Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily Bronte and Edmund Yates. I've also come across less well-written but equally enjoyable novels by other authors such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood and Charlotte Riddell. However, I'm now venturing into the depths of Victorian sensation literature. I'm learning precisely why posterity has not treated James Payn or Charles Gibbon with much kindness. I know what it's like to read a "bad" novel so, it stands to reason, I should know what areas need to be avoided.

Well, perhaps. What was "good" about the novel in the Victorian period cannot wholly be replicated in contemporary fiction. I think our readers are impatient: they want the illusion of Victorianism without the boring bits. I think the extended boat trip in Payn's A Woman's Vengeance would have to be cut out of any novel written today. It is clever in places, yes, but it's dreary and fails to further the plot as much as it could. In a rapidly-moving world we want our fiction to move as well: whatever era it's set in.

When I think of historical fiction set in the Victorian era, the first name that springs to mind is Sarah Waters. Perhaps because she was the first I read - and is still my favourite after all this time. What comes across in her work is a sense of knowledge: she isn't blagging, she's done the research and it shows. For potential writers this seems to be the biggest problem. You don't have to get everything right but you need to be right a lot more than you're wrong. Some readers might not care about historical inaccuracy but some will. Here's the more important point: if I was the author of such a work then I'd care.

Developing a voice that's Victorian enough to pass the test but still appealing to a modern reader is possibly the scariest part. I reread the 1500 words I'd written during my enthusiastic spurt and realised that, actually, they weren't that bad. I could definitely picture them in one of the musty books I'm currently perusing for my PhD. Individual words will need to be checked for authenticity later on, but my extensive Victorian reading has already given me a headstart in that department.

There is so much research to be done but, if I am to continue with these scribblings, I know it's important not to get too bogged down with it all before I start. If I did that I'd hate the thing before I even started writing. As long as my over-arching plot is plausibly Victorian (which I hope it is) then I know that everything else can be fixed in the redrafting stage. That gives me hope.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Book Review: Wilde's Last Stand by Philip Hoare

I was lucky enough to win this book as part of the LGBT Book Challenge 2011, courtesy of Duckworth Publishers and Book After Book. Since I probably wouldn't have found this book on my own I'm extremely grateful to them for an enjoyable and informative read.

Wilde's Last Stand documents a trial in 1918 which, although taking place eighteen years after his death, was intrinsically linked with the decadence and so-called deviance inspired by Oscar Wilde in the late 19th century. In short, the situation was this: a newspaper claimed that the German Secret Service had a list of 47,000 names of the British Establishment who were sexual deviants and were compromising the war effort because they were being blackmailed. The paper was then sued for libel. Hoare covers the events leading up to the trial and gives biographies of the main players where necessary. The result is a story that resonates with a modern reader, not least because we can be proud of the progress made in the last ninety years.

A key thing to remember when reading this book is the clash between decadence and the ordinary citizen; how much of a chasm there was between the two sides. Although Edwardian society doesn't feel altogether far away, the differences between now and then are truly huge. Hoare doesn't shy away from depicting the underground aspects of London and there are numerous titbits in this book that serve as eye-openers about parts of Edwardian Britain that perhaps were unknown to the reader.

The tone of the book is just right I feel. While it is obviously easy for the modern reader (and author) to look back at the events with a disbelieving and somewhat condescending attitude, Hoare does a good job of illuminating the characters of the people on the 'wrong' side of the argument. I would advise anybody to read the short introduction though. While some introductions fail to help you read the book, this one certainly assists.

If I had a few criticisms I can easily explain why the 'problems' occurred. It felt as though it took quite a long time to get to the trial portion of the book. However, the build-up was necessary and served to explain the themes and reasons behind the libel trial. Also, sometimes the potted biographies of major players seemed to be slotted into the middle of the narrative, jarring on the reader a little. However, they were introduced when they were needed and certainly a list of biographies at the beginning would've made for boring reading. So, with all that said, I think the choices Hoare made for the layout and organisation of his book were justifiable.

Hoare's fluid narrative style go a long way to making this book readable; his subject matter does the rest. It's spurred me on to investigate and read more around this period of which I know very little and to read more of Hoare's work. All in all, I'm exceptionally grateful for having the opportunity to read this book.

I read this as part of the LGBT Book Challenge 2011 (see sidebar for details).

Monday, 8 August 2011

An Eccentric Burial Request

I'm on a nineteenth-century journal splurge at the moment as part of my PhD. I came across this and thought it warranted a little post. The article is entitled "Burial Vagaries" and covers a multitude of odd burial requests. This was both my favourite and the most absurd. I can't guarantee the truth of it but I've found several references to it dating back to the 1820s.

"The Rev. Langton Freeman, rector of Bilton, Northamptonshire, was eccentric in so many ways, that none who knew the man were surprised at his leaving peculiar directions for his burial. He ordained that his corpse should be left undisturbed until it grew offensive; when that came about, it was to be carried, bed and all, decently and privately, to the summer-house in his garden at Whilton; laid therein upon the bed, wrapped in a strong double winding-sheet, and in all respects, the description given in the Holy Scriptures of our Saviour's burial to be followed as nearly as might be. The doors and windows of the summer-house were then to be secured, and the building planted round with evergreens, and fenced with dark-blue palings of oak or iron. These instructions were carried out to the letter; and there the reverent eccentric lies still, although fence and trees have disappeared, and the summer-house itself is in ruins. A few years back, an entrance was effected through a hole in the roof, and the curious intruders beheld a dried-up figure, a veritable mummy without any wrappers, lying with one arm across the chest, and the other hanging down the body."

"Burial Vagaries", Chambers Journal, 26th October 1872

"So confident was he of animation returning, after an apparent death, that he directed himself to be laid in a bed [in the summer-house], as though merely reposing in ordinary sleep. His wearing apparel he requested might be hung up in the room, and his hat and even walking-stick placed ready for use. He anticipated rising so refreshed from his slumber, that he should be able, on the instant, to quit the place, and walk out, as it had been his custom to do."

"Tales, Romances, &c", Kaleidoscope, 23rd June 1829

I fear the reverend's hopes of resurrection never came to pass...

Friday, 5 August 2011

Hospital Visiting

Back in January I wrote a post about going to the shiny new Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield to pick up my grandmother's prescription. It was interesting to observe people in that atmosphere. My grandmother's currently hospitalised and the opportunities for people-study have been numerous in the last week. While it's easy to see humanity sometimes as an inconsiderate mass intent on getting in your way, something like sitting in a four-bed hospital room reminds you of the personal stories behind the mass.

I'm fortunate that my grandmother's a bit of a gossip. However, she's also rather deaf, meaning that her attempts to repeat things in a whisper usually end up being louder than she anticipated. Nevertheless, she has imparted some interesting things. The woman in the bed across seems friendly enough to me; always has a load of visitors around her, more than she's probably supposed to have. However, earlier this week she was apparently in tears during afternoon visiting because nobody turned up to see her. My grandmother comforted her and relayed all this to me in a loud whisper when I went to see her. I don't know if a phone call had been made from the patient but, by the time evening visiting rolled around, she was surrounded with half the extended family. Maybe the woman was insecure and lonely on her own, maybe she was afraid of abandonment. Maybe she's a cow that the rest of the family want shut away in the hospital for a while. Who knows? I want to - but I won't get to.

There are a couple of other notable stories I've picked up on. The woman in the bed diagonal to my grandmother has a neurotic son who concedes to her every selfish whim. The woman in the final bed is a chatterbox who tries to monopolise everyone else's visitors because she doesn't seem to get any of her own. Last night a man tried to go to the toilet behind the nurse's station. On Wednesday night I witnessed a nurse leading another elderly man back into the lobby and making him empty his pockets. It looked like he was making a break for it.

Hopefully, my grandmother won't be in for much longer. However, I have to admit, I'll miss the intriguing aspects of visiting her. There are hundreds of stories waiting for discovery around that hospital.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A Little About Edmund Yates

I've been mentioning him in passing for months now. Yates is one of the authors I'm looking at for my thesis, although you can be forgiven for not knowing his fiction. Posterity - if it has remembered him at all - has placed him (justifiably) in the category of journalist. He is better known as a friend of Dickens and enemy of Thackeray than as a writer. Yet he wrote around nineteen novels between 1864 and 1875, serialising them in prominent journals of the day, such as Temple Bar, All the Year Round and Tinsley's Magazine. His first novel, Broken to Harness (1864), was described by Mary Elizabeth Braddon as a domestic novel but from Black Sheep (1867) onwards he was firmly a sensation writer.

His literary connections with people like Dickens were formed partly because of his parents. He was the son of Frederick and Elizabeth Yates, successful and very popular actors. They were on tour in Scotland when he was born. However, his parents were eager that he should not follow them into the theatre life and tried to prevent him getting too involved in that life. Consequently, he started work at the Post Office before his sixteenth birthday. This work would bring him into contact with Trollope, who became a bitter enemy later in life. Yates was also admitted to the Garrick Club aged only seventeen as a mark of respect for his parents. This ended badly when he offended (probably deliberately) Thackeray in a journal and was excluded from the prestigious club. It was likely that the publication of this unflattering article was deliberately timed to coincide with Dickens's announcement of his divorce - as a great friend of Dickens, Yates was probably trying to dilute the public gossip on that day. Thackeray, like Trollope, became a lifelong enemy, all the more upsetting for Yates because he had particularly admired Thackeray in his youth. Yates may have cultivated friendships with many literary powerhouses of the period but he was also prone to arguments with them. This led to a rumour after his death, perpetuated by Trollope and William Tinsley, that Yates was not responsible for writing some of his best novels. Yates's bibliographer, P.D. Edwards, has investigated this to the best of his ability, concluding that, while nothing can be confirmed, it is unlikely that the allegations are true.

The list of journals Yates contributed to - and, in some cases, edited - is almost never-ending. To name a few: Court Journal, Leader, Daily News, Illustrated Times, Morning Star, Comic Times (editor), Temple Bar (editor) and Tinsley's Magazine. He was a prolific journalist but it's also interesting to note that he continued working at the Post Office for twenty-five years. Where he found the time to write his articles and novels is difficult to comprehend. His first completed novel, Broken to Harness, was written out of desperation to fill a hole within Temple Bar after another contributor let him down. It would be followed by popular novels such as Black Sheep, Land at Last (1866) and Wrecked in Port (1869). As was usual with the period, anything remotely sensational was panned by the critics and gobbled up by the public.

To date I've read six of Yates's novel: Broken to Harness, Black Sheep, The Rock Ahead (1868), A Righted Wrong (1870), The Impending Sword (1874) and The Silent Witness (1875). His plots are sometimes flimsy and rely on coincidence and suspension of disbelief. But, then again, so did Wilkie Collins's sensation novels and they have been defined as classics. Yates utilises his journalistic tendency of observation in character sketches and humorous asides and, generally, I find him to be an enjoyable read. What has struck me most in his works is the treatment of so-called 'villains' in a way that inverts the expected conventions. Although allowing the reader to 'live dangerously' by enjoying the exploits of villains was a staple of sensation fiction, Yates took it further by making these villains sympathetic. One character who has stayed with me is that of Harriet Routh from Black Sheep. Her devotion to her husband is the heart of the plot and Yates effectively portrays her as a 'good' woman because of this devotion.

I'd recommend Yates's novels to anyone interested in sensation fiction. Unlike some writers I've come across, I was rarely bored reading his novels. Some are rushed, of course, and some were written in response to publisher demands. But, on the whole, he was very enjoyable to read and his journalistic endeavours are as interesting as his novels. There are plenty of little anecdotes out there about him for anyone willing to look. I'll leave you with a quote from a review of A Righted Wrong, written in the Saturday Review in 1870. Criticisms like this usually mean the novel lacks taste and literary merit but is a decent read nonetheless:

"We cannot honestly congratulate Mr. Yates on the appropriateness of his title, for novels like this are wrongs which there is no righting. The reader slips down in blank boredom between a couple of stools. There is nothing to interest, and there is just as little to amuse... It is simply colourless, and totally devoid of all marked characteristics. It reminds us of nothing so much as an excursion train of badly-coupled carriages, jolting among, without any apparent object, by badly-made loop-lines. The train has a destination certainly, known, we may presume, to the persons who despatch it; and you turn up somehow at the journey's end. But in the meantime the slowness of the pace, the frequent stoppages, and the general uncertainty make the travel martyrdom. Readers of course get tired of it, and get out as they please; but the conscientious critic must yawn and resign himself."

Well... I liked it!