Thursday 30 June 2011

Fuller Thought on Evelina, the Final Letters

The final fuller thoughts on Evelina as the bookgroup comes to an end.

Rather than jump the shark, Evelina throws in the dressed monkey...what a strange way to end what has been a brilliant book. Some fairly minor comedy character is savaged by a dressed up monkey. It was nice to have the good Captain back, I liked his continued ribbing of Lord Lovell for the stupid comment the Lord made all those months ago. Loves the way he builds it up, winding him up about paying serious money to show friends that he is alive.
However, Lovell is so easy to take the piss out of (I mean, his fake modesty is so incredibly fake, even when he is surrounded by fake people) and we have Mrs Selwyn doing a terrific job of taking the piss without Captain Mirven’s tender ministrations. Another wonderful line from her, “Don’t be angry with the gentleman for thinking, whatever be the cause for I assure you he makes no common practice in offending that way.” - No wonder the Thrale set convinced Fanny to write a play, though I think it odd when none of them particularly like Mrs Selwyn, when I would have liked her in the book much earlier on.
As for the bulk of the section - well, the man to man chat was interesting. Firstly, it must be only time we hear characters talk frankly about their intentions and about Evelina - I still don’t hate poor ol’ Clement Willoughby, it is obvious that he does love Evelina and it is his fecklessness and stupid money that stops him being the sort of fun loving but serious lover that I’d have wanted for Evelina.   However, he is a rotter - writing that letter ‘from’ Orville, and his final letter, anyone else’s heart melt, or just me? 
As for Orville, I learnt to like him. I even learnt to like him and I am sure he and Evelina will be very happy. Nah, I’m being to harsh on him, as he got more passionate, I loved him more. He became a good match for her - he will love and respect her and treat her good.
As for the whole Lord Belmont/Fake Lady Belmont/McCartney stuff - I understood what was happening, but it’s pretty stupid. Poor ol’ Fake Lady Belmont, losing her identity in one go, and what a stupid man Lord Belmont is, bringing up a kid who looks nothing like him or wife and then all the snivelling and crying...and what happened to the Branghtons? And Madam Duvall? 
In total, I found the whole last chunk rather disappointing, though not at the time, it’s only thinking about it after then time that has brought the disappointment.
Still, in summary I think that Evelina is a very enjoyable and gripping book and that Fanny Burney has an eye for character details that raises her as a writer, and a sly viscousness that gives her a dash of interest and danger. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
I’d love to do another one of these soonish, maybe August (I got the month off) - I’d like to do ‘The Female Quixote’ by Charlotte Lennox.

All yours

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Conversations With History (A Manifesto of Sorts)

One of the common pitfalls a person interested in history finds themselves in is the mistaken belief that they can ever fully understand or recreate history. 
I’ve done it lots of times, walking down Fleet Street, picturing the hustle and bustle of eighteenth century London; the noise, the smell, the people pushing you out the way so they can ‘take the wall’ and stay clean…Or is that modern London? 
Sometimes I kid myself that when I am reading an eighteenth century novel, I am entering the world of the original reader, especially when I’ve read a few in a row. I read the afternotes with a knowing smugness, pre-empting the information and adding other titbits the editor has not mentioned.
Another thing I see other people doing, is to pick apart something (a film, a book, a costume) and focus on the little details that are anachronistic, or chosen for aesthetic rather than strictly historical reasons.
But it’s all nonsense – a person today can have no more than a conversation with history, even last year was experienced in a completely different set of expectations and references and mental links.
This becomes even more pronounced when reading old fiction – it’s hard not to link characters to ones we as a reader have experienced first, and feel to be an original despite the fact that they may have been written before and actually be a template for the character we have encountered before.
Even harder to appreciate is the literary/popular and cultural references in a book. We may have read Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy or Horace’s Epistles – but there is no way we read it as our forbears would have. We can’t have made the intellectual links that they would have, because our intellectual culture is completely different and the  ways of thinking have changed.
It becomes clearer to me as I go on, that an interest in history is not a strict religion of authentic orthodoxy, but a living engagement between the past and the present. A chat. A lark. A giggle.
An interest in the past is just one of many tools that can colour and add variety to a person’s thinking, but it opens up a whole palette of textures and techniques that many people have ignored/not been made aware of.
Nobody can live in the past, no matter how much they may want to, but we can bring that past into the present and make both sing with possibility.


Thursday 23 June 2011

My Full(er) Thoughts on Evelina, Letters 54-71

Hehe, I love the Branghtons, they have magnificent cheek, using Evelina’s name to borrow his coach, and that divvy young Mr Branghton sticking his head through the window and then using it as a business opportunity. I can see why Evelina finds them so toe-curlingly embarrassing but I think they are wonderful characters. I was also impressed that her actions worked and that Mr Smith is no longer bothering her.
Indeed, I was loving the Branghtons so much, that I was a little upset to let Evelina back to Berry Hill for some peace and quiet with the worthy Mr Villars. So I was thrilled when Lord Orville’s letter came along, and I thought it a rather lovely letter indeed, but Evelina obviously didn’t. I wrote in my notebook, ‘this part, absolutely fantastic, the way the letter’s change as mood does’ - which is on the things I most love about Fanny Burney’s writing, her ability to find the true moment in the situation. (I also wrote down, but did not cite this little snippet, ‘...a violent burst of tears, which indeed proved a happy release’. Of course it did, such a real little moment.) I also do not believe Orville wrote the letter, my money is on Smith.
After some dull moping, we get to go to Bristol with the very entertaining Mrs Selwyn, where we meet some old friends and some new ones. In this whole section, Lord Orville finally comes to life, Fanny gives him his human moments to give him a real personality, he gets to to have moments like this, ‘...hardly spoke a word, and his grave and thoughtful: yet, whenever I raised my eyes, his, I perceived were directed towards me, though instantly,upon meeting mine, he looked another way.’  I think it is this, that he finally gets to become himself is what warms Orville to us, rather than his jealousy over McCartney and Willoughby. 
Other old friends are the Lord’s Merton and Lovell. Where, in the city they seemed harmless and irritating fops, in Bristol, they’ve become driven half mad by boredom. They race light chariots against each other, thank goodness Mrs Selwyn is there to prick their pomposity and tell them how stupid they were. This absurdly led to the old lady race - one of the strangest and cruelest things I have ever read. I found the idea of the young Lords training the women very funny, but the race where the poor women were falling over painfully, it was horrid and no longer funny.
As for new characters, Mrs Larpent - what a cow. As Mr Smith was faux-gallant, she was faux-feminine. Pretending to be weak and easily scared, when it is clear that in her air-headed way she is as firm and cold and steely as something firm and cold and steely. I hate the way she ignores Evelina as well, though that means that Evelina gets to spend time with the increasingly warm Lord Orville and I don’t think she’d have much to do with Lydia anyway.
And as for Mrs Selwyn, I love ‘er, she’s incredibly good fun and to her I’ll give her the last word, when asked how Evelina enjoys her time she responds;
 "In a manner that your Lordship will think very extraordinary.... For the young Lady reads.” Good on the young lady, good on Mrs Selwyn.


Wednesday 22 June 2011

Visit from the Past

I usually have to go and seek out the eighteenth century, but today it turned up at work.
I work at a school and normal service was interrupted by a visit by the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust. So, instead of an afternoon of maths I got to see minuets played (and danced) by people on recreation eighteenth century instruments. I hadn’t considered how instruments have changed; the cello didn’t have a spike, the violin and viola didn’t have chinrests and strings made of guts, while the flute was made of wood - I’m sure I heard a different tone to the instruments, but I may be imagining things.
-Still, was better than work... :)

Coming up soon...

More At Home With Samuel Johnson (He discovers television, goes to a roller disco and ponders fame)

More Eighteenth Century Book Reviews - including Evelina
and soon a review of The Beggar's Opera at The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre.

Maybe a giveaway and some other stuffs.


Thursday 16 June 2011

My Full(er) Thoughts on Evelina, Letters 38-53

Usual stuff, Evelina bookgroup - see the discussion here

Mr Smith, yuck. I may have a soft spot for Willoughby but no-one will ever get me to like Smith. Incidentally Smith was Samuel Johnson’s favourite character and he used to do impressions of him, which I can completely imagine. All that creepy crawling ‘I don’t care about me, whatever the ladies want’ stuff. All that mock concern when it is obvious that he couldn’t care less for anyone but himself.
And the Branghtons, I found them rather sweet at first, they bicker and moan amongst each other and have all those very real tiffs and in-jokes but then they started to grate. Young master Branghton needs to grow up, he is so incredibly immature and the idea of Evelina getting together with him is nearly as icky as her getting together with Mr Smith. (I don’t mind the prospect of her and M Du Bois, he seems a sweety, and his poor little moping when she turns him down.)
The Vauxhall scene is my favourite in the book so far. The day I read it, I went to the Museum of London and they replay parts of it in the Vauxhall Gardens Experience they have there. There is the bit with the dumb Mr Brown looking ‘half the garden’ for her and the bit with her on in the Dark Lanes being saved by my old mucker Willoughby. Again, she is in his debt - but I still reckon they are as honourable as his intentions can get.
I like the bit where they make Smith look silly talking about the paintings, ‘I think a pretty picture is a-a very-is really a very - is something very pretty.-’ Now if that isn’t one of the most perfectly captured little piece of embarrassment. If you notice, Madame Duval’s reaction is not to laugh, but to agree. I think the mystery of her closeness to the Branghtons is simply that although she is rich and can buy rich clothes, she has not taste.
Next comes another fantastic scene, the one where Mr Smith takes Evelina and Madame Duvall to the Hampstead Assembly where she learns from her first assembly that she can’t dance with him after being offered by others and so essentially stands him up. I love how his mask melts at the thought of having to dance with the older lady, who is far more up for it then he hoped. 
This is followed shortly by McCartney’s letter. McCartney was another one Johnson had a soft spot for but he hasn’t really set my soul on fire. I’ve read a lot of eighteenth century novels the last few years and it is pretty common for any novel after the 1750s to have a weepy subplot that doesn’t contribute all that much to the main plot as some token nod to the cult of sensibility. I predict that McCartney will be Evelina’s. Not that I dislike the cult of sensibility, Tristram Shandy and Vicar of Wakefield are two of my faves, and I even enjoyed The Man of Feeling, but I don’t feel such a subplot is needed in Evelina.
Finally, the Marybone Gardens scene, which is too close to the Vauxhall one, except she gets saved by Lord Orwell instead. Again I am struck how every bit of the representation of Orville’s character is about how he makes Evelina feel - we still haven’t discovered him through Fanny Burney’s exquisite use of little character moments and so, although he is a perfectly nice person, he is still not a vivd character. 

All yours

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Midnight Mirage - Karen Harper

Don't know why it's called Midnight Mirage

I found this book in a box by a bus stop with a bunch of other generic looking romance novels. Now, I always love a free book or more and I’ve never read a proper romance book despite being more softhearted than my rugged exterior would suggest. I would have taken a bunch but I only had room in my back for one, so I picked ‘Midnight Mirage’ (Tagline: Just one man could satisfy her dreams!) Why that book? Because it has a doody holgram on the cover.

My rugged exterior.

Now, a quick look at the cover again. The man has a short-back-and-sides haircut, a tanned ripped top and a pair of brown jeans held up by a brown belt. He is groping a woman with long flowing blonde hair threaded with lose flowers and wearing a strappy 1970s(?)-esque gown. The background is a swirly thing, evoking sunsets and tropical climes, there is a rainbow and storks are flying. So of course, the book is set in eighteenth century London. 
Susannah Arne/Cibber

Not only that, but it’s a vaguely true story. First, the characters: Our heroine is Susannah Arne, a great tragic actress and the sister of Thomas Arne, the  composer of ‘Rule Brittannia’. Susannah is married to Theophilus Cibber, spoilt son of the much ridiculed actor/manager Colley Cibber. (Colley Cibber will be featured a lot in this blog, he was defined as the emperor of Grub Street, a figure of fun, heavily ridiculed in the works of Fielding. I also have his biography to review at some point.) Theophilus also has a sister, Charlotte, a liberated crossdresser who has much fun, incidentally another true character. Finally, there is the hero, Tenn Sloper - I could find out less about him, but he really did exist.

Theophilus Cibber

And that is the point - this is a wonderfully researched book. A great deal of the novel takes place in and around the theatrical world of Eighteenth Century London. It brings to full and vivid life the tensions and the feuds of that life; including the historically accurate tension between Susannah and Kitty Clive. There is the drama around Charles Macklin, the Irish actor who was tried for manslaughter after jabbing his cane is someone’s eye. There is also the fascinating character of Charlotte, who’s free ways and crossdressing tendencies get her in trouble.

Colley Cibber

The love story is a good one as well. Theophilus Cibber is pictured as a selfish, vindictive, tosser who spends his wife’s money on gambling and has no theatrical knowhow. He dominates the infinitely more talented wife Susannah, who finds peace and joy in her own Lord Orville, Tenn Sloper. Indeed, we know that there were legal accusations of forced menage a trois and Theophilus and Susannah ran off with Tenn. The love story has definite roots in truth and is extremely excitingly written.

Charlotte (in pink)

But this is where the book becomes the romantic novel it is advertised as. The constant cycling of fling-hide-fling-hide-kidnapped-fling-hide-kidnapped etc... is rather repetitive. Also, the writing is adjective heavy, in order to make sure we have everything clear, which gets both confusing and irritating. I find a book that describes the big, large, shining, illuminating orb of the sun a bit wearying. We have to be reminded of Tenn’s hair (brown) and Susannah’s beauty (very) every few seconds, which can be a bit dull at moments but I enjoyed the book a fair amount.
I am very glad the book had a hologram on the front cover, because instead of getting some ol‘ tosh I managed to get myself a pretty interesting historical novel. Now, I find you can usually judge a book by it’s cover - I know a black book with a white band will be an Oxford Classic or a pink book with a cartoon woman with a glass of wine will be some kind of chick-lit. But for once I found that I couldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. 



Thursday 9 June 2011

My Full(er) Thoughts on Evelina, Letters 21-37

I'm reading Evelina by Fanny Burney as part of a reading group for The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide to the C18th, this is my expanded thoughts.

Poor Ol’ Willoughby; so maligned, disliked and distrusted and all he wants is to have a good time. I have quite a few mates like Clement; funny, charming, the centre of the party and rather shallow. Great for a drink but awful as a confidant. I am drawn to people like this, I like their energy, their sense of fun and their lust for life, but people like this do not think about the their actions and what may seem like an enjoyable and amusing game of courtship to him could seriously and permanently injure Evelina’s reputation. It’s not that he means any harm, I think he’d be quite shocked if he thought his actions could be read in a malicious way, which is exactly what makes him so unpredictable and dangerous. Flattering and adoring is nothing more than banter, turning the carriage around, a bit of sport and pretending to mug an innocent, if odious, old lady something to tell the lads in the pub later on.

Am I picky in saying the prank does not actually contain a real robbery – as the women were convinced to leave their cash and valuables at a pub before setting out and had them returned. I think this little instance shows that Captain Mirvan does have some limits, that he will not rob a lady but he will scare here half to death and truss her up like a goose for his own amusement…and what about Evelina? Knowing what is really happening the whole time and not saying anything about it? This reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s comment on courage, "Unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other." And also makes me think of the completely unenviable position a woman was in then.

As for Evelina, I think her actions at the opera reflected badly on her. Yes the Branghtons are vulgar and rude and embarrassing, but her problems and scares with getting in a coach with a lone man, stem from her trying to get away from them. However, (and maybe this because I feel I am more a Branghton than a Lord Orville) I found their objections to opera (it’s silly, stilted and they don’t even sing in English) to be rather sound and I find their honesty and directness far more pleasing. For Evelina to be so utterly mortified about them seems more like prissiness to me, snobbish prissiness at that. As the orphaned, unmonied ward of a country clergyman, it seems a bit of a surprise that only earls, lords and dukes are cultivated enough for her. I have embarrassing relatives, but they are my family and I can enjoy their company – why can’t Evelina? (My opinion of both Evelina and the Branghtons changes as we go on however.)

Poor Evelina has had a bit of a time of it, and we know it’s only going to get worse…


Wednesday 8 June 2011


I borrowed a camera for some of my recent jaunts so I could provide my own photos but had no wire to put them on my computer and so integrate them with the main articles, so I'll plonk 'em all in one place...enjoy.
My get-up for the pirate night.

Which was rather subdued compared to the other guests.

The pub in the Sailortown part of the museum was packed with drinkers.

All yours.

Oh, thought I had more photos than that.

Monday 6 June 2011

Living with Samuel Johnson (Part Two - Dressing the Man)

Part Two: Dressing the Man
In which we try to make Samuel Johnson look like a twenty-first century man.

It was a struggle getting Samuel Johnson out of his wig. Even with his rational intellect, he could not conceive that wearing a wig might make him stick out. 
“I wish to remain wearing it, thank you very much.”
“Come on Samuel, you’ll look silly.”
“Come over by the stairs, I want to see you in the light.”
  We manoeuvred him to the stairs and while Gwyddien. chatted with him, I snuck up the stairs and pulled the wig from his head. I thought he was going to punch me, which would have been particularly nasty because he has some meaty fists and some pretty hefty guns on him..
There’s a Peacocks just around the corner and my mum was sent to fetch clothes in his size that would look appropriate for his age and physical condition.
     “I feel wrong with a bald head,” he said, slowly. 
     “Fetch him a hat as well,” I said.
Mum did us proud, bought a load of bright polo t-shirts, pairs of black jeans and a beany hat. Although it was not his usual brown, Samuel was entranced by the scarlet t-shirt, and with beany on head, started to strut and preen a little like a cockerel. 

We also calmed him down with tea. Lots of tea. He warned us that he was an inveterate tea-drinker but I was shocked by the gallons of the stuff he poured down his throat, at each point praising the large size of the cups and the invention of handles. Now, in his modern clothes and with plenty of the murky brown stuff guzzled down his gullet, Samuel seemed a little more prepared to cope with the world he’d been plonked in.

We continue...

Saturday 4 June 2011

(Brighton Jolly)


I had a great time, lots of drinks, games, crazy golf and sunburn....

And when I got back I went to the British Library and saw...

Which was very entertaining, lots of first drafts, big models, a Tardis and a steampunk K9 - and a first English edition of Cyrano de Bergerac's 'Journeys to the Sun and Moon'


A whole bunch of alternative reality stuff written by the Brontes. They invented islands and peopled them and wrote stories about them until they were in their mid twenties. Most of the writing was lost but some notebooks and maps remain.

One of the maps

(Incidentally, until I was sixteen I drew maps and wrote about an island called Igren)

Also, of course the British library is wonderful to look round, there are Johnson, Austen, Bronte, Milton manuscripts and all sorts.

And then, on the way home, I wandered into a bookshop and found an anthlogy of C18th chapbooks - the sort of thing a good Grub street hack could toss off in fifteen minutes  - rather like this post I'm afraid.


Friday 3 June 2011

My Full thoughts on Evelina, letters 1-20

I'm involved in a discussion in the book 'Evelina' by Fanny Burney here but did not want to overload the board with all my thoughts, so they are as follow....

The first two letters had me dismayed at agreeing to pick up and read this book. The reader is plunged into whole swathes of intricate backstory, with only a little chance to note the names and relations of the characters and what they all wanted. Indeed, it was some of the clumsiest handling of exposition I have ever read.
But the next seven letters, where Mrs Howard convinces Villars to send Evelina to her house and then to London were effective at building up tension and import before Evelina is launched onto London life.
From here the book begins to hit its marks, the first touristy letter gives a realistic portrayal of the salubrious ends of town as well as giving us Evelina’s surprise that it is not as grand as she expected. The trip to the theatre gave the author a chance to rhapsodise about David Garrick (who she also rhapsodised about in her diaries when he would come round and the girls would shuffle for his attention). Then there are the descriptions of going ‘a-shopping’. These were not merely boring lists of pretty things bought but included lots of lovely comic details - such as the men so knowledgable in women’s things that she wanted to know ‘how long they had left off wearing them’; or the fact that Mrs Mirven’s hair had been dressed so high she couldn’t wear her new hat. 
There is also the detail about how the sales-assistants were so courteous and so persuasive that she wanted to buy everything, much the same thing happened in Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World where the chinese philosopher, Lien Altangi goes into a shop and ends up buying several yards of silk that he didn’t really want due to the immense flattery he received. This would then seem to be a common stereotype of Londoners at the time, that their sales-assistants could sell you anything and make you feel like royalty in the process.
Next we come to our first great set-piece, the private ball. What struck me about the ball was not it’s propriety or distance from the present, but how closely the experience of the ball is to a night club today. Evelina, who has never been to anything like it, is fearful of her dancing skills, steps into the room, which seems to be full of hundreds of strangers. Again and again we are drawn back to the fact that she doesn’t recognise anyone and her self-consciousness and overwhelming lack of confidence make the whole experience quite hostile - who, has not felt this when walking into a nightclub, especially one where they were obviously not a regular? I’ve wandered into a few clubs that were not my natural domain, a hip-hop club, a roller-disco, even an s&m dungeon and this feeling of intense self awareness is true and wonderfully expressed by the author, (who, if her diary is anything to go by, often felt out of place and awkward and was very shy).
The next part that feels completely realistic is Evelina’s being asked out by an ugly man almost as soon as she walks in. She feels that slight twinge of ‘am I going to do any better than this?’ but turns him down in the hope that she will. This shows her inner strength in waiting for the next day but also her good grace in the polite manner in which she does it. I have heard much harsher rebuttals than hers. Though he doesn’t take it well, and we know that he’ll be back at some point.
Then, here comes Lord Orville in a soft focus of adjectives but no actual concrete details. Indeed, most of Lord Orville’s scenes are very dimly reported as to actual detail, and this is by an author who I am realising has a very pleasing eye for the telling detail. This is because it is not what Lord Orville does or says as much as how he makes Evelina feel. His descriptions are barely descriptions of him but descriptions of Evelina’s emotions towards him - principally awkwardness and embarrassment. His first attempts with Evelina are painful in her self-consciousness, her feeling of not being good enough for this paragon, which ironically ensure that she isn’t - though he sees through all this of course. That painful consciousness (that I certainly get) when you meet someone you are instantly attracted to and so turn into a lemon are wonderfully described.
Things get worse at the Ridotto, where trying to avoid the attentions of a very forward young men, she claims she already has a partner. The forward young man presses and teases the whole time - I think I’ve gone for a drink with this guy - the way he prods and wangles until Lord Orville comes over and everything gets too embarrassing. Then, the way he clings onto the Mirven party throughout - inveigling himself with the newly arrived, cantankerous Captain Mirven - is really well observed. The reader can find him too pushy and irritating but at the same time admire his persistence and good humour, this is a funny guy - especially when he plays tag teams with the Captain. (The fact that Evelina notices his strategies so acutely make me wonder if she isn’t so innocent of the ways of the world as she pretends).
Then we get our next main character the (rather too) coincidental introduction of Madame Duval, Evelina’s estranged French grandmother - who, at the moment, is mainly there for a spot of French baiting.  Although Captain Mirven’s French baiting could become too much of a good thing, I have enjoyed his glee at seeing Madame Duval clumped in mud and the suggestion that it may have been him in the dark that caused the accident. I also liked the scene at the toy museum, which does very well exemplify in the difference between the English and the French. He sees the toys and asks in that empirical English way, ‘what is it for?’ ‘what does it do?’ ‘why is it?” - he sees the toy pineapple with the singing birds and declares in his loud voice (btw, which embarrassing uncle does he remind you of?) that he would prefer a real pineapple because it is more satisfying. I then like him taking the mic out of Madam Duval’s musical raptures - and then the bit where he shoves the smelling salts under her nose because he is pretending that she is having a fit - all very realistic for a certain kind of Englishman even now.
As for the Brangtons - I know they will become something important, but at the moment they seem sweet - and rather rudely spurned by Evelina.