Monthly Archives: February 2016

Victor Hugo’s macabre tribute to Sarah Bernhardt

Victor Hugo by Étienne Carjat 1876 - full.jpg

Victor Hugo

French novelist, poet, dramatist and accomplished artist Victor Hugo was born on 26 February 1802. He shares a birthday with my brother, John Fitzsimons, who is also a very accomplished artist. We know Hugo best for his novel Les Misérables (1862), which has been adapted for stage and screen. You can read it here. Most of us (me included) probably assume that the iconic image of “Cosette“, which adorns a million T-shirts is a modern one. In fact it was drawn by French artist Émile Bayard for the original edition of Les Misérables.

Portrait of Cosette by Emile Bayard (1862)

Yesterday (25 February) was the anniversary of the première of Hugo’s historical drama Hernani, ou l’Honneur Castillan, an event that sparked riots between Romantics, drafted in by Hugo, and Classicists, who felt that their values were under attack.

The audience fights during a performance

The audience riots at the premiere of Hernani

Decades later, in 1877, when French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), one of Wilde’s Women, triumphed as Doña Sol,  the woman central to the plot,  Hugo presented her with a human skull. On it, he inscribed the words:

Squelette, qu’as tu fait de l’âme?

Lampe, qu’as tu fait de la flamme?

Cage déserte, qu’as-tu fait

De ton bel oiseau qui chantait?

Volcan, qu’as-tu fait de la lave?

Qu’as-tu fait de ton maître, esclave?*


Skull presented to Bernhardt by Hugo, which is in the V&A Collection, London

Bernhardt adored his macabre tribute, and used it as Yorick’s skull in the grave scene in Hamlet when she played the eponymous prince.

*Skeleton, what have you done with your soul?
Lamp, what have you done with your flame?
Empty cage, what have you done with
The beautiful bird that used to sing?
Volcano, what have you done with your lava?
Slave, what have you done with your master?

Sarah Bernhardt is one of the stars of my book Wilde’s Women



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When Nellie Melba met Oscar Wilde


Dame Nellie Melba by Henry Walter Barnett

Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861. As a young woman she was introduced to Oscar Wilde by their mutual friend Gladys, Countess de Gray, to whom he dedicated his play A Woman of No Importance. Although they never became close friends, and Nellie admitted that Oscar made her feel uneasy, she confessed to admiring his ‘brilliant fiery-coloured chain of words’. She qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.


Nellie and Oscar met on several occasions and her description of his insatiable desire for cigarettes – she claimed that she knew he had called by the quantity of cigarette ends in her fireplace – suggests some intimacy. On one occasion, Nellie recalled Oscar producing six cigarette cases from about his person, although he may have intended to gift them to his disciples.

Certainly, she knew something of his lifestyle. In her memoir, Melodies and Memories, she relates an anecdote about Oscar speaking to his sons ‘of little boys who were naughty and made their mothers cry’; one wondered aloud ‘what punishment could be reserved for naughty papas who did not come home till the early morning and made mothers cry far more’.

In Melodies and Memories, Nellie also writes of walking through Paris one day when Oscar lurched around a corner with a ‘hunted look in his eyes’. Her account describes how she was about to walk past when he stopped her: ‘Madame Melba – you don’t know who I am? I’m Oscar Wilde’, he said, perhaps assuming she did not recognise him, before continuing ‘I am going to do a terrible thing. I’m going to ask you for money’. Hardly able to look at him, she emptied her purse and in response, she says, he almost snatched the money, muttered his thanks and was gone.

As jdellevsen of points out below, Wilde’s circumstances were desperate by then. It must have taken great courage to ask for help and he did so graciously. How unsettling it is to read this account of a great man brought so low.

Dame Nellie Melba (1861 -1931) celebrated operatic soprano and yet another fascinating example of one of Wilde’s Women.

My source for this article is: Nellie Melba. 1925. Melodies and Memories. Cambridge University Press


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Dion Boucicault: pioneering playwright

Irish actor, theatre manager and playwright Dionysius (Dion) Boucicault  was born on 26 December) 1822 and died on 18 September 1890.

Dion Boucicault

While not immediately apparent from his exotic Huguenot name, Boucicault was born and brought up in Dublin. A contemporary of William and Jane Wilde, he was almost certainly the son of pioneering science writer and lecturer Dr. Dionysius Lardner, the lodger who had become his mother’s lover while her unwitting husband remained in the family home. As well as providing his forename, Larder supported Boucicault financially for the first years of his life and funded the completion of his education in England.

Aged seventeen and using the pseudonym Lee Moreton in order to thwart his mother’s opposition, young Dion embarked on a career in the theatre and enjoyed early success in London. Although his plays were profitable, he was an extravagant man and soon ran up insurmountable debts. In July 1845, when he was in his mid-twenties, Boucicault married Anne Guiot, a wealthy and considerable older French widow. He inherited her fortune after she died in an apparent mountaineering accident while she and Boucicault were holidaying in Switzerland a short time into their marriage. He was the only witness.

Before long, Boucicault was back in the debtors’ court and he was obliged to borrow money in order to pay for passage to New York for himself and Scottish actress Agnes Robertson, who would become the second of his three wives. There, he found success and wrote his most enduring play, The Colleen Bawn. For decades, Boucicault divided his time between London and New York, delighting audiences with his repertoire of original plays and adaptations of the work of others. He improved the lot of fellow playwrights by leading a campaign for the introduction of American copyright laws for original drama; he may have been the first playwright to receive a royalty rather than a fixed payment for his output.


Boucicault took a keen and solicitous interest in the welfare of his compatriot Oscar Wilde. On reading his first play, Vera, the older man counselled: ‘You have dramatic powers but have not shaped your subject perfectly before beginning it’. He urged Oscar to convert his stilted dialogue into ‘action’ rather than ‘discussion’. In a letter to mutual friend Elizabeth Lewis, written while Oscar was touring America in 1882, Boucicault expressed alarm, writing: ‘He [Oscar] has been much distressed; and came here last night looking worn and thin’. In an amusing postscript, he suggested that, as well as securing better management, Oscar needed to ‘reduce his hair and take his legs out of the last century’ in order to find success.

Boucicault with Josephine Louise Thorndyke

While touring Australia in 1885, Boucicault, insisting that his marriage to Agnes, with whom he had six children, was not valid, married a young American actress named Josephine Louise Thorndyke. His reputation suffered as a result. Five years later, aged sixty-nine, he died in the arms of his new wife in New York city. In addition to leaving us his plays, he secured passage of the Copyright Law of 1856, developed fire-proof scenery, secured a profit-sharing system for playwrights, and established a foundation for actor-training. He also puts in an appearance in Wilde’s Women.


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The Nihilist, the Czar & the cancellation of Wilde’s First Play

On 17 February 1880, Czar Alexander II of Russia survived an assassination attempt when the late arrival of Prince Alexander of Battenburg, guest of honour at a royal banquet, delayed dinner and ensured that the dining room was empty when a cache of dynamite concealed beneath it was ignited. This was the latest of several attempts on the Czar’s life, including one near-successful attempt in Kiev on 4 April 1866. On 13 March 1881, the rebels succeeded. Czar Alexander II was fatally wounded while travelling under heavy guard in a closed carriage.

Image result for Tsar Alexander II

Czar Alexander II

One unexpected outcome may have been the cancellation of a performance of Oscar Wilde’s first play, Vera, or The Nihilists, scheduled for the Adelphi Theatre on Saturday 17 December 1881. ‘I suppose everyone will be Russian to see it,’ a witty commentator had declared in the magazine Fun. He never got the chance to find out.

On 30 November 1881, a notice, possibly written by Oscar’s journalist brother, Willie, appeared in The World. It read:

‘Considering the present state of political feeling in England, Mr. Oscar Wilde has decided on postponing, for a time, the production of his drama Vera’.

Three days later, Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle provided the following information:

Mr. Wilde has admitted his play to a committee of literary persons, who have advised him to keep it from the stage. The work, composed about four years ago abounds in revolutionary sentiments, which it is thought might stand in the way of its success with loyal British audiences.

The plot of Vera centres on an insurgent cell led by the beautiful and principled Vera Sabouroff. In true melodramatic fashion, she falls desperately in love with her comrade Alexis, a sympathetic medical student, only to discover that he is the reforming son of the despotic Czar. Rather than assassinate Alexis, Vera plunges her dagger into her own breast to obtain the bloody proof demanded by her comrades. She insists that she is dying, not for love, but to save Russia.

Although Oscar changed the year to 1800 and relocated the action to Moscow, it is widely believed that Vera was inspired by twenty-two-year-old Vera Zasulich, who had attempted to assassinate General Fyodor Fyodorovich Trepov, Governor of St. Petersburg on 24 January 1878. Zasulich had much in common with Oscar’s Mother, Jane, who, in her youth,had agitated, albeit peacefully, for Irish independence. The educated daughter of a minor nobleman who died when she was three-years-old, Zasulich joined a group of insurgents in her late teens and her keen intelligence, combined with the Nihilist commitment to gender equality, propelled her to a position of leadership.

Vera Zasulich

On that January day, she joined a queue of petitioners seeking an audience with Trepov, before producing a pistol from under her cloak and shooting him with the intention of killing him. Although he survived, he was seriously wounded. Afterwards, Vera waited calmly to be arrested. She admitted her guilt without hesitation, but a sympathetic jury acquitted her. The international press, generally hostile to Nihilists, condemned her actions and her acquittal. An editorial in The Times declared: ‘We could have understood the trial if it had happened in Dublin’.

In contrast, the Dublin University Magazine, which counted Jane and Oscar among its contributors, carried a long and enthusiastic article praising her patriotic actions and condemning her mistreatment. Zasulich fled into exile, and turned her back on terrorism in order to pursue a socialist agenda.

The New York Times suggested that the cancellation of Vera was prompted by diplomatic communications from the Russian Government to Lord Granville, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.It was even rumoured that the Prince of Wales had intervened; the assassination of Czar Alexander II on 13 March 1881 made a Czarina of his Danish sister-in-law, Maria Feodorovna, Dagar of Denmark, who was married to the new Czar Alexander III.

Maria Feodorovna

Although Vera opened in New York in August 1883, the run was an unmitigated disaster – but that’s another story, one you can read here.

Read the full story of Wilde’s life and his interactions with women in Wilde’s Women.



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The Great Famine: Speranza Responds

Speranza, Lady Jane Wilde

Jane Wilde

When she decided to send poetry to The Nation newspaper in response to a call for contributors, Jane Elgee, who would become Jane Wilde on marriage, chose the pseudonym Speranza, the Italian word for hope, which she described as her, ‘nom de guerre, or rather nom de vers,’ and which formed part of her motto ‘Fidanza, SperanzaCostanza’ (Faith, Hope, Constancy).

The first poem from the pen of ‘Speranza’ was ‘The Holy War’, translated from a German original and published The Nation on 21 February 1846. Jane signed the accompanying letter ‘John Fanshaw Ellis’, a pseudonym adopted to conceal her activities from her unsympathetic family; she may also have assumed, with good reason, that a male contributor would be looked upon more favourably.

In February 1847, the Great Famine in Ireland reached it’s height. The horror of this tragedy radicalised poet Jane Elgee, in her mid-twenties by then, prompting her to adopt the name ‘Speranza’ and write inflammatory poetry  in response. Later, she would marry William Wilde and become the mother of Oscar. Here’s an excerpt from Wilde’s Women describing her response to the famine:

In 1847, Jane found a catastrophe to write about: Ireland’s rich soil yielded an abundance of high quality grain, meat and dairy products, and landowners sold the bulk of their produce overseas. When the price of grain became artificially inflated during the campaigns against the French, it was designated a cash crop for export. At the same time, the Irish population was growing inexorably, from five million in 1800 to in excess of eight million by 1841. The teeming families that farmed thousands of sub-divided smallholdings, half of them covering less than five acres, were required to survive on the potato crop alone. When the blight that ravaged America in 1842, crossed the Atlantic in the years that followed, the subsistence farmers of Ireland were hardest hit. Harsh governance and the laissez-faire trading policies adopted in Westminster exacerbated the problem, leading to famine in one of the most fertile countries in the world.

Jane’s words had a galvanizing effect: ‘a nation is arising from her long and ghastly swoon’, she declared.* In ‘The Lament’, she gave voice to the Young Irelanders’ criticism of the increasingly ineffectual Daniel O’Connell: ‘gone from us…dead to us…he whom we worshipped’, she wrote. In ‘The Voice of the Poor’, she railed against the horrors of famine, writing, ‘before us die our brothers of starvation’; ‘The Famine Year’ condemned the arrival of, ‘stately ships to bear our food away’; ‘The Exodus’ lamented the ‘million a decade’ forced to flee their homeland. The most popular of Jane’s compositions was ‘The Brothers’, a rousing ballad eulogising Henry and John Sheares, one a lawyer, the other a barrister, both United Irishmen hanged for their part in the rising of 1798. In tone and theme it shares much with her son’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and it was taken up by the street balladeers of Dublin.

Snow lay deep when the famine reached its height in February 1847, and a typhus epidemic raged uncontrollably. The non-interventionist policies adopted by the newly installed Whig government were proving disastrous, and the soup kitchens and relief works set up to help the starving population were woefully inadequate. As the country headed inexorably towards insurrection, Jane’s contributions became increasingly provocative. Her poem, ‘The Enigma’ described how the living envied the dead as Ireland’s abundance was, ‘taken to pander a foreigner’s pride’. She lamented the loss of, ‘the young men, and strong men,’ who, ‘starve and die, for want of bread in their own rich land’.

When the offices of the Nation newspaper were raided in July 1848, editor, Charles Gavan Duffy was arrested and charged under the new Treason-Felony Act for publishing a newspaper article advocating the repeal of the Act of Union, a crime that carried the penalty of transportation. While he was in prison awaiting trial, he entrusted editorship of the Nation to his sister-in-law, Margaret Callan, aided by Jane. On 22 July the Nation carried Jane’s inflammatory poem, ‘The Challenge to Ireland’. The following week, she wrote an unattributed leader titled ‘Jacta Alea Est’(the die is cast); it was an unmistakable call-to-arms:

‘O! for a hundred thousand muskets, glittering brightly in the light of Heaven, and the monumental barricades stretching across each of our noble streets made desolate by England…’

As if this were not sufficiently treasonous, she beseeched:

‘Is there one man that thinks that Ireland has not been sufficiently insulted, has not been sufficiently degraded in her honour and her rights, to justify her now in fiercely turning on her oppressor?’

* From ‘Forward!’ by Jane Wilde, originally titled ‘To My Brothers’ in Poems by Speranza (Dublin, James Duffy, 1864), p.35

Source: Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons


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Elizabeth Bishop on Oscar Wilde

Today also marks the anniversary of the birth of poet, prose writer and translator Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and served as Poet Laureate of the United States.

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

Of Oscar Wilde, she wrote:

‘One of my students lent me Oscar Wilde’s letters – a huge book. I just meant to glance at it but found myself still reading it at 4 A M today.’

Her verdict on the letters?

‘It gets sadder & sadder – but he [Wilde] was so funny – his US trip is marvelous – he drank all the miners in Colorado under the table (he was 25 or so) and they respected him very much in spite of his velvet knee-britches.’

I’m certain she would have been one of Wilde’s Women had she been born half a century earlier.

Source: Letter to Loren Frankenberg, January 8, 1972 referenced in Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed By George Monteiro

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When Lillie Langtry Met John Ruskin

John Ruskin (1819-1900), Victorian art critic and social thinker, was a man who had a profound influence on art and life. Among his many admirers was Oscar Wilde, who met him at Oxford University and whose work and ideas were influenced by Ruskin’s thinking.

After he went down from Oxford University with a double first, Wilde headed for London where he somewhat reinvented himself as a socialite and took up with ‘professional beauty’ Lillie Langtry. Although his preoccupations often appeared trivial, from time to time he allowed Langtry to observe his true nature.

Lillie langtry.JPG

Portrait of Lillie Langtry by Frank Miles

When Wilde brought John Ruskin, then Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, to call on Langtry at her home (some time around 1877-8), she noted that her normally convivial friend:

‘assumed an attitude of such extreme reverence and humility towards the “master” that he could scarcely find breath to introduce him to me’.

According to Langtry, this ‘unusually meek demeanor’ in her friend, ‘aggravated my natural shyness and filled me with exaggerated awe’. She was relieved to report that:

‘Ruskin’s winning voice and charm of manner reassured me, and, taking courage to look at him, I noted that his blue-grey eyes were smiling at me under bushy eyebrows.’

Langtry describes Ruskin further, noticing:

‘that his forehead was large and intellectual, that his nose was aquiline, and that the side-whiskers, made familiar by his earlier portraits, had become supplementary to a grey leonine beard’.

She goes on:

‘His hair was rather long, and floppy over his ears; indeed he was a shaggy-looking individual’.

As to Ruskin’s conversation, Langtry reports:

‘He held forth on his pet topic – Greek art – in a fervently enthusiastic manner, and as vehemently denounced the Japanese style, then at the beginning of its vogue, describing it as the “glorification of ugliness and artificiality,” and contrasting the unbalanced form of Japanese art with the fine composition and colour of Chinese art, of which he declared it to be a caricature’.

My source for Langtry’s fascinating reaction to Ruskin is her autobiography, The days I knew, p.140.

For more on Langtry’s relationship with Oscar Wilde, why not read my Wilde’s Women.


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The American Women Who Championed Charles Dickens

On 8 June 1870, Charles Dickens suffered the last in a series of strokes. He never regained consciousness, and died the following day at his home, Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He was just fifty-eight years old.

During a hugely successful career Dickens had toured America several times, although his first tour, in 1842, ended badly when he insisted on the need for copyright legislation to protect his rights to his work. That his return tours of 1867 and 1868 were far more successful was due in no small part to the efforts of a number of influential literary women who championed him and later championed Oscar Wilde. Yet their efforts were not always rewarded.

Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow

The first of these was the exuberant Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow, an important figure in the New York literary scene and a woman who made it her business to cultivate the leading writers of the day. Bigelow’s correspondence with Wilkie Collins spanned two decades, and she had developed an interest in Dickens that bordered on an obsession. It was reported that when Dickens was staying at the Westminster Hotel near Union Square in New York, an elderly widow called Mrs. Hertz prevailed upon the hotel manager, a friend of hers, to introduce her to him. As Mrs. Hertz was leaving the great writer’s room, Jane Bigelow allegedly accosted her and knocked her out.

When Jane’s diplomat husband, John Bigelow, co-editor and co-owner of the New York Evening Post served as Ambassador to Paris, newspapers described him as ‘a power in Parisian life … [who] enjoyed the attention and esteem of a woman, vivacious, witty, and intellectually vigorous’. When Bigelow was posted to Berlin, it was reported that Jane’s staunch insistence on the superior quality of American pork, led Bismarck to describe her as one of the brightest women he had ever met, and ‘eight Royal auditors’ to admit that American pork was ‘good enough for anybody’.* However, she was sometimes considered a liability, particularly when she allowed her servants to sit in the German imperial box at the opera.

In Florence, Bigelow called to pay her respects to novelist Ouida, only to hear her shout: ‘Tell Mrs. John Bigelow, of New York, that I don’t want to see her or any other American; I don’t like them’. Undaunted, as ever, Jane replied: ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself. We’re the only fools that read your nasty books anyway’. So thoroughly charmed was Ouida by her audacity that she invited Bigelow to stay for a month.

Back in New York in 1882, Jane Bigelow proved to be a loyal and useful ally to Oscar Wilde during his lecture tour of North America.

Two other women who feature in Wilde’s Women and had connections to both Dickens and Wilde are English-born Jane Cunningham Croly, better known by her pen-name ‘Jennie June’, and Kate Field, journalist, actress and campaigner for women’s rights.

Croly was an exceptionally useful supporter to cultivate. Credited with pioneering and syndicating the ‘woman’s column’, she ran the women’s department at the New York World for ten years and was chief staff writer at Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, later renamed Demorest’s Monthly Magazine. As ‘Jennie June’, she wrote ‘Gossip with and for Women’ for the New York Dispatch and ‘Parlour and Sidewalk Gossip’ for Noah’s Sunday Times. The sole breadwinner in her family, she juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and journalism by spending mornings at home before heading into the office at noon and working steadily until after midnight. Sunday nights were reserved for entertaining New York’s intellectual and artistic elite.

A passionate believer in networking for women, Croly founded the Women’s Parliament in 1856. She also established the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the New York Women’s Press Club. The elite members of her own New York Women’s Club campaigned for education, improved working conditions and better healthcare for women. She responded to the exclusion of women journalists, herself included, from an honorary dinner organised for Charles Dickens by the New York Press Club by founding Sorosis, America’s first professional woman’s club.

Kate Field

Kate Field was nothing short of legendary; the New York Tribune described her as ‘one of the best known women in America’, while the Chicago Tribune called her ‘the most unique woman the present century has produced’. A popular lecturer and prolific travel writer, she wrote for several prestigious newspapers including the Chicago Times-Herald, the New York Tribune and the Boston Post. She was the inspiration for Henrietta Stackpole, Henry James’s crusading feminist journalist in The Portrait of a Lady. Extraordinarily well connected, she had hosted such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Mark Twain. Although she knew Dickens well and had covered his final American tour for the New York Tribune, Field too was barred from the Press Club dinner that honoured him, a snub that prompted her to assist Jane Croly in founding Sorosis.

* Reported in the Daily Inter Ocean, Illinois, 11 Feb 1889, page 5

Read More in Wilde’s Women:



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BARS Blog – On This Day in 1816: Introducing ‘The Year Without a Summer’ Part II

Below is part II of my blog post for the brilliant and very highly regarded British Association for Romantic Studies. Part one of ‘The Year Without a Summer’, which kicked off their commemoration of the events of 1816, appeared here. Part II can also be found here. Do please visit the blog and comment if you have anything to add.


We are very pleased to welcome Eleanor Fitzsimons (winner of the 2013 Keats-Shelley Prize and author of Wilde’s Women) to the BARS blog. This post, part of the ‘On This Day’ series, presents Part II of her essay ‘Every Cloud: How Art and Literature Benefited from a Year Without Summer’. Eleanor’s essay looks at 1816 as the year of no summer and examines the impact that catastrophic weather patterns had on the work of writers and painters such as Turner, Austen and the Shelleys. Part II is to follow.

We think you’ll all agree that this is a great way to introduce 1816 in 2016, a year in which we will be celebrating the bicentenaries of many important Romantic events. If you want to contribute to the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer ( 


Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810. National Portrait Gallery

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen (c) 1810, National Portrait Gallery

The English novelist Jane Austen spent the summer of 1816 in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, where she shared a cottage with her sister Cassandra, her chronically ill mother and an assortment of nieces and nephews. In a letter to her niece Anna, written on June 23, 1816, Austen described how their neighbor Mrs. Digweed had been soaked to the skin by a rain shower she characterized as ‘beyond everything’. The appalling weather kept the author indoors: ‘Oh! It rains again; it beats against the window’, she told her nephew Edward, adding, ‘such weather gives one little temptation to be out. It is really too bad, and it has been for a long time, much worse that anybody can bear and I begin to think it will never be fine again’. On July 9, Austen, accompanied by her niece Mary Jane, attempted a jaunt to nearby Farringdon in the family’s donkey cart: ‘we were obliged to turn back before we got there’, she told Edward, ‘but not soon enough to avoid a Pelter all the way home’.

At the time, Austen was working on The Elliots, which she later renamed Persuasion. Although she had thought the book finished in July, as she sat indoors watching rain cascade down her windowpanes, she decided that she was dissatisfied with its ending and spent a further three weeks rewriting the final two chapters. By autumn, Austen’s health had deteriorated dramatically. Her back ached continuously and she felt unable to walk even a short distance. Although she blamed her wretchedness on rheumatism brought on by the unusually damp weather, her symptoms were indicative of something far more serious, possibly Addison’s disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys. By winter she was housebound, but she remained stoic: ‘Air and exercise is what I want’ she assured her family. In May 1817, Jane Austen was taken by carriage in the pouring rain to Winchester Hospital where she died in the arms of her sister Cassandra on July 18, 1817.

The world had been forecast to end precisely twelve months earlier, on July 18, 1816. Seeking an explanation for the bizarre weather, a superstitious populace had concluded that such weird portents could only indicate an impending apocalypse. This supernatural thinking was forgivable. News of the eruption of Mount Tambora did not reach Europe for many months and, even if it had, the link between volcanic eruptions and unseasonal weather was not recognized until 1913, when William Jackson Humphreys, an American physicist and atmospheric researcher with the U. S. Weather Bureau, presented evidence to the Cleveland meeting of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America. However, in the absence of a sound scientific explanation, news of the planet’s imminent demise was widely accepted. Such fear mongering prompted opium-addled poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to remark ‘this end of the World Weather is sadly against me by preventing all exercise’. At the time, Coleridge had left his home in the Lake District and was living in London as a patient and houseguest of Dr. James Gillman, who had prescribed daily walks as an integral part of his treatment regime.

Attempts were made to calm the situation. While newspapers carried soothing editorials, clerics held public prayer services and recommended mass demonstrations of piety, but apocalyptic fear was fuelled by a series of sunspots, visible to the naked eye, which were interpreted as proof of the disintegration of the sun. Keen to strike a lighter note in the face of mass hysteria, English satirist William Hone published ‘Napoleon and the Spots on the Sun or the Regents Waltz’, a satirical ditty in which he claimed that Napoleon had escaped from the Island of St. Helena and invaded the sun in revenge for his defeat at Waterloo. The solution proposed by Hone involved catapulting the Prince of Wales, then Prince Regent, into space where he would engage in hand-to-hand combat with Britain’s nemesis.

The citizens of Europe had every reason to feel aggrieved with their rulers. During the early years of the nineteenth century, the entire continent had been ravaged by a serious of ruinous wars that left its populace ill-equipped to withstand the destruction wrought by devastating weather patterns. Bands of unemployed veterans recently returned from the grueling Napoleonic campaign now faced rocketing food prices, destitution and disease. They had surely had their fill of wet weather too. It had poured with rain on June 18, 1815, the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, turning the battlefield into a quagmire and compounding the horror of the occasion. By 1816, these battle-weary men were back in Britain, feeling abandoned by their rulers. In response to the lack of gratitude for the loyalty they had shown to the Crown, these men took to rioting in the streets, looting everything they could get their hands on and considering it no more than their due.

Widespread unrest culminated in the ‘Bread or Blood’ riots that erupted in East Anglia, home to painter John Constable who lived in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt. Constable, a committed Tory who had lost two cousins at Waterloo, had little patience with the band of armed veterans and laborers that marched on the cathedral town of Ely in protest at food shortages, holding the town’s magistrates hostage and fighting a running battle against the militia. Rather than incorporate the inclement weather into his work, as Turner had, Constable did precisely the opposite, painting idyllic representations of bucolic Albion as a reaction to this social and climactic upheaval; The Wheatfield and Flatford Mill, both painted in 1816, are examples of this.

As ever, enterprising folk found opportunity in a crisis. When the German oat crop failed, leaving people unable to feed their horses, the entrepreneurial Baron Karl Christian Ludwig von Drais de Sauerbrun enjoyed a sudden upsurge of interest in his latest invention, the bicycle. There were cultural benefits too: the spectacular sunsets and ominous sulphurous skies that lit the skies with bilious yellow and orange tints, found their way into the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and recent scientific analysis demonstrates that the works he completed in the years immediately following major volcanic eruptions contain significantly higher levels of red pigmentation in his extravagant sunsets. His Chichester Canal, which is included in the Tate Britain collection, captures the distinctive sepia hue so characteristic of refracted sunlight.

Turner paid a high price for accessing such beauty. He was dogged by bad weather all summer long and left Yorkshire to travel throughout continental Europe where conditions were, if anything, even worse than those he had endured at home. This caused him to exclaim:

Rain, Rain, Rain, day after day. Italy deluged, Switzerland a wash-pot, Neufchatel, Bienne and Morat Lakes all in one. All chance of getting over the Simplon or any of the passes now vanished like the morning mist.

Switzerland in particular was battered. Prodigious rainfall filled Lake Geneva, adding two meters to the water level and flooding low-lying districts for miles around. Homes were destroyed, livelihoods lost and livestock drowned, their bloated corpses found floating across the brimming lake. Turner arrived just in time to witness the disastrous wheat harvest that resulted in a serious flour shortage and inflated the price of a loaf of bread to the extent that Swiss dinner guests were asked, politely, to bring their own.

Eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who called herself Mary Shelley by then, had been in Switzerland since June 1816. Along with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Claremont, she was renting the modest Maison Chapuis on the southern shore of Lake Geneva, close to the opulent Villa Diodati that was occupied by Lord Byron and his entourage. Unremitting rain put paid to any plans for alpine walks, boating trips and sightseeing excursions. In her journal, Mary recorded: ‘it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’. When Byron and Shelley embarked on a sailing trip to the medieval fortress of Château de Chillon, torrential rain delayed their return, obliging them to take refuge for two days in the Hôtel de L’Ancre in the lakeside resort of Ouchy. It was during this enforced hiatus that Byron wrote his narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon.

Confined to Byron’s rented villa, the party huddled by the fireside, recounting chilling tales of the supernatural as lightning cleft the skies above and thunder reverberated off the mountains that surrounded them. Byron found the weather frustrating and complained of the ‘stupid mists, fogs and perpetual density’, but enforced confinement allowed him to complete several works including his autobiographical ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, which includes a vivid description of the storms that raged across the lake as the ‘big rain comes dancing to the earth’. His apocalyptic poem ‘Darkness’, which describes an ‘icy Earth’ presided over by an ‘extinguished sun’, was written, by his own account, on ‘a celebrated dark day, on which fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight’. It contains the line: Morn came and went, and came, and brought no day’.

In late July, in defiance of the weather, the Shelleys set out to visit Mer de Glace, a vast glacier that nestled in the Chamonix Valley at the base of Mont Blanc, but a dense white mist descended and Mary recorded that ‘the rain continued in torrents’. Shelley incorporated the rain-swollen torrent of the River Arve into his poem ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’, and he used that image to denote great power. Although the weather curtailed their activities, all were enthralled by the frequent and frenetic thunderstorms that reverberated off the mountains, imbuing the landscape with a supernatural light. Mary described these tempests as ‘grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before’, and described in her journal how, as each discharge of lightning rent the clouds, the landscape was: ‘illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness’.

Safe indoors, they would read aloud from Fantasmagoriana, a collection of ghost stories. In Shelley’s preface to Frankenstein, he described how hearing these stories ‘excited in us a playful desire of imitation’. Byron issued a challenge to those present that they should write a story ‘founded on some supernatural occurrence’; he started immediately on ‘A Fragment’, which is recognized as one of the first stories to feature a vampire and hailed as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819. National Portrait Gallery

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curren 1819, National Portrait Gallery

Lord Byron by Richard Westall, oil on canvas, 1813. National Portrait Gallery

Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813, National Portrait Gallery

Although Mary struggled to settle on a theme, she found inspiration in a conversation between Byron and Shelley concerning the reanimation of a corpse. In her preface to the third edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, she described how her gothic tale of rejection and revenge was informed by a ‘waking dream’ that she experienced later that night, when the ‘bright and shining moon’ hanging over Lake Geneva shone through the shutters into the bedroom she shared with Shelley. This preface also mentions the ‘incessant rain’ that beat against the windows of the Villa Diodati, keeping them all indoors. Percussive rain accompanied the creation of Frankenstein and found its way into her story; ‘rain pattered dismally against the panes’ as the eponymous scientist gave life to his monster.

Mary punctuated her narrative with the thunderstorms that raged above. In one instance, Victor Frankenstein describes a storm that ‘advanced from behind the mountains of Jura’:

The thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbands of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

Later, he is described watching a terrifying storm from the same lakeside spot where Mary herself stood. His words echo almost exactly the entry Mary made in her journal on June 1, 1816:

…the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head. It was echoed from Saleve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant everything seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash. The storm, as is often the case in Switzerland, appeared at once in various parts of the heavens.

Weather is inescapable in the works of the Romantics, and never before had they experienced the conditions that characterized the ‘year without summer’. Yet, had a benign Swiss summer encouraged Byron and the Shelleys to abandon their fireside tales and embark on Alpine walks instead, we might not have Frankenstein, or at a stretch, Dracula. Had clement weather permitted Jane Austen to leave her cottage in Chawton, her wonderful Persuasion might have a different, less satisfying ending. The incessant downpour that prevented J.M.W. Turner from entering Weathercote Cave swelled the Ure, the Washburn and the Wharfe, and filled the high glacial Malham Tarn, providing him with dramatic subjects at every turn. At Malham Cove, Turner painted the arc of a rainbow. He sketched children as they gazed down on the raging torrent at Cotter Force and he captured the torrential descent of the Aysgarth waterfalls. He even hired a guide to take him underground so that he could sketch Dow Cave by candlelight, keeping one ear to the roar of the swollen river. The old adage reminds us that every cloud has a silver lining. Certainly, there was no shortage of clouds during the bleak summer of 1816 and the dramatic weather that prevailed permeates some of our best loved art and literature.

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Me on Joyce & Wilde & At It Again

To tie in with my earlier post, here is my heartfelt speech from this evening’s launch of Romping Through Dubliners:

‘I first encountered At It Again, in the form of Maite and Niall, at the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway in September 2015, and I was struck by the energy and joy they injected into Romping Through Dorian Gray, their witty guide to Wilde’s lush novel; a dynamism and irreverence that was very much in keeping with the approach taken by Oscar himself. I was also struck at that time by the great enthusiasm with which they – and happily I – were welcomed into the inner circle of those who keep Wilde’s work fresh in the public mind, a generosity of spirit that is common to all true lovers of literature in my experience.

Since the task of finding new angles on Wilde, one of the most closely examined men in the world, second only to Joyce perhaps, was thought to be next to impossible, I realised that I, with my focus on Wilde’s Women, and they, with their delightful romp through Dorian Gray, were kindred spirits who shared a belief that there is always something new to say. Their enticing approach to Wilde, Stoker and Joyce has ensured that I’ve taken a huge interest in their activities ever since.

Irish people can be justifiably proud of the wealth of great literature that our tiny island has produced, yet, sometimes, we make the mistake of being a little too reverential about the whole affair. It’s not uncommon for us to feel intimidated by the towering reputation of a writer as magnificently talented as James Joyce. As a result we may feel that his work is not for the likes of us when, in fact, it was written with precisely us in mind!

Decades, ago, when I was in my twenties and working in London, an English colleague, on learning that I was a Dubliner, rushed to my desk to talk about Ulysses, his favourite book: ‘What  bit had I enjoyed most,’ he wondered? ‘Exactly which of the Martello Towers that punctuate our eastern shoreline featured in the opening chapter?’ On and on he gushed until, finally, I had to stop him and admit that I had never read Ulysses. He turned on his heel in disgust, leaving me wondering why I, a Dubliner through and through, somehow believed that Ulysses was not for me, a book to be endured rather than enjoyed. It was the beginning of a lasting curiosity.

Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories, provides the perfect entry point for anyone keen to read his work. Although published in 1914, Joyce had written the interlinked stories between the years 1904 and 1907. Publishers were wary of the forthright language and fretted about bringing out a book in which so many of Joyce’s contemporaries were immediately recognisable and might take umbrage; Dubliners, of course, were far more likely to take umbrage at being omitted rather than included. The fact that Dubliners was rejected by numerous publishing houses, including London-based Grant Richards, its eventual publisher, provides a lesson in perseverance for us all.

In writing Dubliners, Joyce held up a mirror to Dublin society with the intention of provoking a citywide epiphany. A proponent of individualism, like Wilde before him, he hoped that, once confronted with reality, his compatriots might question their circumstances and crawl out from beneath the twin yoke of church and state. Like everything Joyce wrote, Dubliners was radical and challenging; it was neither pompous nor staid. It was aimed at ordinary, decent, and not so decent, Dubliners as much as it was at scholars and academics, who were welcome to read it too.

By insisting that Dubliners is for everyone and by prompting us to engage with this wonderful city, Romping Through Dubliners, a manual, is a truly fitting companion piece to Joyce’s original. It gives ownership back to the people it was written for. It is very telling that the word ‘fun’ is included on the very first page, a word that some people, although no one present in this room I suspect, forget to apply to Joyce.

With their intriguing maps and tips for dressing up, or ‘cosplay’ as my teenage son would say, Romping Through Dubliners recaptures the immediacy that was always present in Joyce’s work. Its interactivity calls to mind the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books that so captivated children of the 1970s and 1980s, myself included, who were invited to determine the outcome of their own quest; an acknowledged source of inspiration for the At It Again manuals. By suggesting tie-in activities such as ‘sip sherry & talk politely about death’ Romping Through Dubliners pokes gentle fun at the quirky customs and habits of Dubliners that were so brilliantly exposed in the original

The playful illustrations add vitality and capture the essence of the original. The whole ethos of At It Again, and of Joyce too, is exemplified in a quote from ‘An Encounter’ highlighted on page 14:

 ‘Real adventures do not happen to people who remain at home. They must be sought abroad’.

‘Abroad’ in the ‘here, there and everywhere’ sense of the word that is. The scope of the At It Again’ team’s ambition is illuminated by their suggestion on page 31: WHY DON’T YOU: ‘Pursue your dreams’. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Maite, Niall, Jessica and James of At It Again, a dynamic bunch who describe themselves with great accuracy as ‘cultural treasure hunters who bring Irish literature to life’. Long may they continue to do so!’

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