Wednesday 26 May 2021

Mrs Jordan's Profession at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

Have you ever heard the one about the actress and the king-to-be? 

On Tuesday 18th May, Dr Johnson Reading Circle meet to talk about Mrs Jordan’s Profession, Claire Tomalin’s biography of the actress Dora Jordan who managed to juggle a hugely successful career as an actress with being the twenty-year partner of the future King William IV. 

She took to the stage a young age after her father left their fledgling family and she became the main source of income. It’s impressive how quickly she developed a coherent stage persona, not a glamorous figure, but a ‘girl-next-door’ with an appearance of naturalness that she maintained her whole career. She specialised in ‘pert’ roles: confident, tomboyish women with an active role to play in the story.

We reflected how hard it is to describe a live performance. Even with today’s ability to film an event, good stage acting is such an ephemeral and delicate thing, depending on the atmosphere in the auditorium and tiny details in body and face. Those writing about Dora throughout her career were remarkably consistent: she made it seem like learnt lines were occurring to her at the moment, she moved energetically around the stage seemingly on impulse and she had an incredibly natural and infectious stage laugh. While she certainly seems to have been born for the stage, it’s clear that one of her talents was being able to hide the hard work that went into making her performance seem effortless. 

After appearances in Ireland, she moved to the northern circuit with a babe in arms and conspicuously, no husband. While this threatened to derail her career, her likability on stage, her dependability as a performer and her quiet life outside the theatre allowed her to weather any scandal and make a name for herself. In our reading around the eighteenth century, it’s very easy to assume that everything cultural happened in London but the existence of Tate Williamson and his northern circuit reminded us of the energy and activity all around the country, in thriving cities like Hull and Grimsby, up-and-comers like Leeds and Manchester, providing knowledgeable audiences with strong opinions of what they wanted in a performer.

Dora was spotted by the London theatres and ensured that her debut performance was in The Country Girl, a role she had been preparing for herself during her time in the northern theatres.  She became a fixture in Drury Lane and it was there that she was seen by William, the third son of George III and his wife Charlotte. He’d had a restricted upbringing in a famously dull court and had been sent off as a child to be a midshipman in the navy where he’d had middling success. He began to show attention to Dora and gossip started to flow, not helped by the fact that as well as a daughter by an unscrupulous Irish producer, she now had two children with her partner Ford. With the pragmatism she had used in her career thus-far, she used the prince’s attentions to force Ford to make his mind up about marrying her. When he failed to do so, she set up house with William.

They moved to Bushy and set about making it a cosy home for the next twenty years. Naturally the press were spiteful, writing lampoons upon them and using them as the subject of many satirical portraits - many of them using the ‘jordan’ or chamberpot to represent Dora. What marks this early period is William’s desires to protect his partner and her own decisive and effective handling of the press. Able to take as many aspersions on her private life as were thrown at her, she would not take any on her professionalism as an actress, writing a letter in a journal and speaking from the Drury Lane stage. 

William and Dora proved to be a very successful couple, having ten surviving children, even whilst Dora maintained her acting and touring schedule. This is where Tomalin introduces Dora’s letters, domestic epistles from various dressing rooms where she discusses the little things that happen to her (like her dress catching fire during a performance) and little details of the children. It’s hard to escape the impression that they were a close, comfortable couple, dedicated to family - and far from the scandal that could be expected from such an arrangement.

This was not to last though, and the death of the heir, Princess Charlotte seemed to put a panic in the royal family which spread to William. He deserted Dora, leaving the details to his ministers and lawyers who put barriers between them, and started to chase more eligible women before marrying a German Princess. To make matters worse, Dora gave her son-in-laws access to her finances, which they proceeded to ruin. She ran to France to escape her creditors and stripped of the two main pillars of her life, family and work, she quickly declined and died.

Claire Tomalin steps slightly outside of her position of neutral biographer at this point, revealing her own sense of tragedy at a family ripped apart and her disgust at the way Dora, who had kept her family together, was left alone to die. Yet, she’s not unsympathetic to William. While she clearly lambasts him for his actions to Dora, he remains a sympathetic figure. In this book he comes across as a lost man, happiest playing with his children and altering his house but pulled by the feeling that he ought to do and be more.

There are times when a book causes disagreement within the Reading Circle, whether it’s that some love it and others don’t, or we have different views on the character and motivations of the people in it - but Mrs Jordan’s Profession was not one of those books. As a result of its skill, its clarity of telling and mustering of detail, we all found ourselves agreeing. It’s impossible to read this book and come away without being impressed by Dora’s strength, her dedication as an actress and mother and to feel a mixture of anger and sorrow about what happened to her. It’s a fascinating story and very well told.

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Review: The Female Tatler by 'Mrs Crackenthorpe' and others

The Female Tatler was released to the world two-hundred and seventy-six years before I was born (minus one day). It was published a few weeks after the first Tatler as a feminine response and ran for just under a year. 

It purported to be written by a Mrs Crackenthorpe, ‘the woman who knows all’, for the first 51 editions before being transferred to ‘a society of ladies’ who took it over for the following 58. Interestingly, the original Mrs Crackenthorpe seemed to have had an argument with B Bragg, the original publisher and moved to A Baldwin. Bragg tried to run their own rival Female Tatler which ran for a short while. The copy I had, published by Everyman and edited by Fidelis Morgan has all of these variations of the magazine and a selection of the kinds of adverts the magazines ran.

The magazine came out thrice-weekly, on the days The Tatler didn’t, and purposely established itself as a supplement to the other magazine. In general it features a longer piece that reminded me of a stand-up’s eight minute set, and a couple of one-liner, little jokes after. Often these longer pieces had references to known people under jokey names like ‘Arabella Ticklepulse’ or ‘Mrs Manlove’ with enough contextual details for someone with a little social information to determine the subject of the piece. London may have been one of the larger cities in the world but it was a small place compared to today. 

There’s a little characterisation of Mrs Crackenthorpe, of her friends and relations and particularly her footman Francis. He’s set up as a pampered, feminine figure who is doted on by her employer. I’d have liked more Francis, he was fun. The paper doesn’t build up a society or range of characters the way The Spectator does but Mrs Crackenthorpe does have some character for as long as she presides over the magazine.

Fun gags included a laughing master, hired to instruct women in how to make their laughter more musical; dances masters for dogs, a woman advertising for a dashing highwayman to rob her and a book on the ‘Art of Lisping Agreeably’. There was a very odd little part about the prevalence of the surname Smith and some pokes at Colley Cibber’s less successful plays. Possibly my favourite of the Crackenthorpe entries was about the public dissection of a hanged man which focussed primarily on the reactions of the assorted curious Londoners who went to see it, particularly butchers, who scoffed that they could slit open many more carcasses in the time it took the surgeon to cut open one. I also liked the conclusions of the surgeon who said that the hanged man had probably died of suffocation and may have been in a state of fear when he did it.

Aside from this, the general subject of humour was the fluidity of class, particularly between the gentry and the richer London citizens where the cits tried to ape the gentry and the gentry tried to impress the moneyed cits. Interspersed with this were call-outs which were obviously hints at genuine scandals. As the months went on, these call-outs became more stridently vicious and the longer, general pieces more haranguing until it began to get quite tiresome.

At this point The Female Tatler changes to being run by a ‘society of ladies’ who take a day each. At first, I was glad that the oppressive attitude of the Crackenthorpe articles but it became clear that the society’s papers were duller and more generic. Rather than the pointed names and specific details, the characters have generic ‘georgic’ names and the articles read more like typical romantic stories. A few of the articles stand-out, tI particularly liked one about why women have been written out of history but in general, I began to miss Mrs Crackenthorpe.

Included in my copy were the 25 editions of The Female Tatler written for the original publisher when Mrs Crackenthorpe moved to another publisher. Although they were the cheap knock-off, I have to say I preferred the ‘false’ Tatlers. They developed the character of Mrs Crackenthorpe and Francis more fully than the originals, they had more fun trying to pick fights with the original Crackenthorpe and claimed she was an impostor. I also found the articles to be clearer with more action, more insults and more direct speech in general. There is also a mention of a cucumber, which is something I look out for.

The last part of the book contains examples of adverts that were included and it’s a bit like US TV, they’re all for quack medical stuff. 

In general, I found The Female Tatler to be a difficult book to read, three-hundred year old chatty-gossipy writing is harder to read then literary language of a similar age but it was worth it to see what people did gossip about and the language they used to do it. What was the joke about the colour cherry red though?

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Drafts from the Past

An aspect of this website I’ve partially left behind is the one that dealt with my own writing. True, I sometimes flutter a few hints about my current writing projects here and there, but on the whole I’ve stopped including regular updates or lengthy excerpts.

I was reminded recently of my first full novel, a work I finished in 2006 when I was 20 and was eventually titled Me, Myself and Colin. It was finishing the first draft of this work that made me realise I wanted to be an author, coming to that last full-stop with a satisfaction I shall never forget. Full of piss, vinegar and end-of-adolescent cockiness I sent my manuscript into the student paper and received the following review;

When Hedingly Smith sees the girl of his dreams on a Saturday morning at his local ice rink, he falls helplessly in love and also stops breathing for about half a minute. He has to learn how to deal with the real world as quickly as possible and everything growing up brings with it.

Hedingly speaks with the naive tone of any 16 year old but in fact has a vast amount of knowledge that would impress were he not so socially inept and spent so long in his own imaginary world that he finds the real one a little confusing. He has an imaginary friend called Farnborough and an unimaginary-friend called Colin, who is actually a girl called Colleen. This is the eccentric trio who are trying to navigate themselves around a world that is almost too surreal to be genuine.

The story is roughly divided up into Sundays, which is often how romantic obsession goes when you are 16, where weeks of school are punctuated with trips into town and general lolling about on the weekends. The central characters have rather unfortunate names that they wear like ill-fitting clothes. Hedingly is named after a horse, the girl of his dreams has an ageing rockstar for a namesake, and Farnborough sounds like a lackey butler.

Written in a sparse style reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s spectacularly successful ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’, Stevenson has an eye for the more interesting details of everyday life, scenes that often pass ordinary people by in a story where the characters are far from ordinary. The dialogue crackles with the energy of desire, with impatience to grow up of for events to take place, and the needy insistence that affects every teenager finding their place in the world. The teenagers carry the shame of their boring existence with an endearing moroseness, straddling the line between innocence and knowledge with all the uneasy familiarity of growing up.

Whilst Stevenson does exceptionally well to catch the mindset of the teenager, there are often portions of dialogue that upset the well paced narrative. Also the images described are too surreal to be recognisable, but then again, perhaps this is the effect of living in so strange a world as Hedingly’s. (Ben Matthews)

It wasn’t the ticker-tape parade I had been hoping for but there was enough positive to fill me with hope. I’d also performed sections from the novel as a sort of storytime, stand-up performance and had got lots of laughter and a description of my ‘shuffling, self-contained confidence’. 

What’s more, I had started to get responses from publishers and agents and many of them were positive. I’ve lost my database with those responses in it (the review was from clipping in a physical book) but I remember them declining the book but praising the characters and style. 

And that was it for Me, Myself and Colin. I ran out of places to send it, had new projects I wanted to work on and was preparing to move to London to pursue my Masters in writing and a whole new world of literary success. I popped the latest draft of the book online, proud of the personal achievement, knowing I’d created some memorable characters but happy to let it go and not think about it again.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that ten years after I had written, someone had scored big with a novel that is remarkably similar. The book is Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, written by Gail Honeyman. I have absolutely no claim on the book, I don’t think there’s any plagiarism or something silly like that. It’s simply that we had a similar story in mind and adopted similar methods to tell it. I’d even grudgingly say that Gail Honeyman did a better job.

So - the similarities, both novels tell the story of a socially isolated, awkward person who finds themself with a crush on someone. Driven by romantic desire, the character finds themselves being drawn further into society, self-consciously planning ways to fit in better. There are social mishaps and moments of warmth. They become friends with an old man. They become very close friends with a young person with an old-person’s name who is found kissing a representative of someone the main character shall never be able to be at a party. The crush-based quest will ultimately fail but the main character will have discovered something about themselves, ditched an imaginary projection that was unhelpful to their progress and be in a better position the next time they meet someone they love. The end is tinged with hope and melancholy.

Both books are also written in the first person, the style being very much how the main character thinks and talks, often using fragmentary sentences to recreate the sparks of thought. On many occasions the humour will come from the reader taking a very biased account of an incident from the point of view of the main character and using enough clues and imagination to reconstruct how the event must have really appeared. There’s also a lot of use of an ‘alien’ perspective, the social withdrawal of the main character giving them an unusual perspective on normal things. 

There are two main differences between the main characters in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Me, Myself and Colin is that Eleanor is 30 years old and Hedingly is 16. As such, I didn’t need too much reason to explain his social difficulties. His Father had died and his Mum had rather pulled into herself, leaving him much to his own devices and inside his own world. Eleanor, being older, needs more of a reason to be as she is. This reason comes in the form of a tragic back-story

The tragic back-story is the second main difference. It gives Gail Honeyman’s novel something mine didn’t have, something to tie it together and motor it along. The increasing understanding of Eleanor’s tragic back-story gives extra weight to her social mistakes and the mystery behind her is a reason to keep going. My own novel has none of that. It’s a number of tight, well-told set pieces put together at a meandering pace, meaning the novel is not a page-turner but a fun yet inconsequential romp. 

Although personally, I think the weight of Eleanor's back-story has the potential to topple the book.

I'm not saying my book's the best thing ever, I'd probably be embarrassed to read it again and cringe at the arrogant late-teenage me of the world but if anyone fancies giving it a go, download it here

Monday 10 May 2021

Happy Tenth Birthday to the Grub Street Lodger!


10 years

425 posts

328,000 words

I celebrated with a cake, an article about my favourite pieces and the following blooper-reel of my videos.

I hope for ten more years of eighteenth century fun.

Wednesday 5 May 2021

My Top Ten Favourite Posts (from the first decade of this site)

10th May is the ten year anniversary of grubstlodger and I felt that I needed to mark a decade of blogging in some way…

After all, it’s been;

10 years

425 posts

328,000 words

So I thought I’d use the opportunity to make a countdown of my top ten favourite pieces I’ve written for this blog and explain why.

 (Number 11 would be my two part gush about Tom Jones, part one and two)

10: Lydia the Locksmith’s Widow

Not my best piece of writing in any way, this is a short excerpt of my 18th Century pastiche novel, ‘Odes to the Big City’. I originally posted it in the nano-wri-mo forums because I thought it was a funny little snippet that put across the tone of the narrator. I later found out that I’d been sampled on a tumblr compiling ‘shit nano work’ and lightly mocked. They took great objection to my cheap three-cornered hat.

However, the reason I include it is because this is the most commented piece on this website. Not that the comments are genuine ones, they are almost all bots advertising locksmiths in various places. It’s not a place for scintillating comments but it’s a wonderful place to find a locksmith.

9: Dear Mr Spectator

I’ve included this piece as a representative of the various performances I’ve reviewed on the blog. This is one of the stranger things I’ve visited (and I’ve seen a one-man show of Tristram Shandy), a dinner-performance inspired by the Spectator magazines. I dragged along my sister because no-one else would come. I think I represent the shaky start, the unusual food combinations and the way the night fell into place as it continued. The tale of the dodgy pirate night is true though…

8: Behind the Scenes at the Museum of London

Since 2015, I have been attending, and writing-up, the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle in Gough Square. I've only missed one for the stupid reason that I forgot what day I was in. Rather than including a write-up of one of the events, I thought I’d include one of our trips out. 

The Museum of London is one of my favourite museums and there was a real thrill of being allowed backstage. Combine that with the utter pleasure I had listening to an expert talk engagingly about a topic I don’t know much about and I was a very happy bunny. I think the joy of the evening radiates in the writing and I love the photo of me peering up a potentially deadly dress.

7: Under the Glass...Three - Castles in the Air

The series ‘under the glass’ is probably my most favourite. I love how a quote can be detached from context and used as a way to look at life. By accident, these pieces have probably become the most personal on the blog as using a quote to look at my life reveals something about it.

I had difficulty choosing which particular ‘under the glass’ to choose. While ‘we never are abandoned, quite’, is probably my favourite quote, I’ve picked this piece because it’s probably the most personal. I am still constructing my castle in the air and I still hope it is hanging together as a piece.

I’m pleased to say that over the ten years I have been writing grubstlodger, my personal situation has become far more comfortable and secure. I’ve even picked up little successes for my writing, occasionally receiving nice little comments for my write-ups and having written things I’m proud of. I still hope for more of course.. but who doesn’t?

6: A Visit to Bath (Part one and two)

I’ve visited a number of wonderful places with eighteenth century links but I’m probably proudest of my two entries on Bath. (Cheating I know).

I’m particularly fond of the flow of these pieces, the way the ideas develop and the way they successfully put across my experience of the city. I don’t know how these come across to a reader, but for me, they evoke a wonderful couple of days very successfully.

5: The Canting Crew

This entry started out as a tangent on my review of ‘The Fatal Tree’ and spun itself out into it’s own piece. It came at a time where I happened to read a number of works that had employed ‘flash’ slang into the texts with various degrees of success. I was puzzling over how to turn a spirited and interesting tangent into it’s own piece when I overheard bravura explosions of modern slang whilst on a train to Staines. I wish I’d written down more of what they’d said, as the control and skill of the language was something I could never replicate. 

It was also in writing this piece that I properly understood what it was that had worked or not about the slang in the books which gave me pointers on how to handle slang in the future and helped me to remember how great properly expressed slang is. It’s a t’riffic piece.

4: Rasselas

I needed some Sammy Johnson talk in here somewhere, and my initial review of Rasselas is one of my more favourite ones. Looking back, I’m surprised how definite my conception of the novel is and how it doesn’t completely match other people’s view of it. I still maintain there’s a lot of laughs in Rasselas if you look at it right. What’s more, this is the piece that lead to one of my strangest ‘real world’ experiences connected with the eighteenth century. 

I distinctly remember attending a Gresham lecture, being a little early and sitting on the floor of a corridor with a book as the other attendees started to gather. They were of retirement age, with fluting ‘well-schooled’ voices and each looked at me with surprise and distrust. I was not welcome at this lecture. What’s more the lecture itself started with an assertion about Johnson I simply do not agree with (that he was a misanthrope) and then proceeded to give the most surface-level readings of him and his work I could imagine. Most talks on Samuel Johnson have a few laughs, this did not. Then came Rasselas and I started to warm to the talk. The lecturer was far more positive about it, finding little moments of fun and jokes in it much as I had. Indeed, many were the exact same ones I had found. Then this image of a pyramid came up.

I recognised that, the mis-centred text, that’s clearly one of my shoddy works. What’s more, the whole Rasselas part of the lecture seemed to agree with me and be rather out of place with the rest of the talk. 

When I left, I was viewed with as many side-eyes as before but I left smug in the knowledge that the best part of the lecture had come from me. (Though it may have been a coincidence and the lecturer may have just found and used my image from google).

3: The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne

Like many people, 2020 wasn’t exactly my most productive year. I’d started it full of high hopes of finishing the first draft of a novel by Easter, and as Easter 2021 has just passed, I am nowhere near this goal.

Yet I did tackle this beast. It pretty much took me the year, dealing with it in three main chunks. I’d taken a lot from it, filling page after page with notes and quotes but how was I going to organise this most digressive of works into a sane and readable piece?

 I think I succeeded, not only that, but I think I get across the feeling of progression that comes from reading the whole book. If anything, this piece is here to remind me of how I have developed as a writer, being able to organise my notes and ideas and express them clearly. This piece reflects my greater skill and also the greater confidence I have in being able to wrestle a beast down and re-present it fairly. 

I also love how the review builds to the same beautiful conclusion that Montaigne came to, that ‘life is its own objective’. It’s a message that I think is important in general, but in the strange non-year that was 2020, I feel it was more important still. 

I’m also childishly amused at the penis tally.

2: Bethlem Museum of the Mind

This is the review where I first managed to understand, for myself, what I want from an exhibition and first started to be able to talk about them in a way that goes beyond listing the interesting ‘stuff’. It’s when I first realised the (probably obvious) point that an exhibition has a throughline, almost a story.

I was struck with how the museum didn’t present itself chronologically but thematically and how this choice meant it argued the rather disturbing point that although we know more of how the brain works, we haven’t really progressed very far in the field of mental health at all. We may not chain people up but we put them under chemical restraint, we may have a vast lexicon of medical-sounding words but they are no more specific than old playground taunts, we still don’t know how to make people happy. It’s a sobering thought and persuasively argued and I’ve found more chronological exhibitions to be a little insipid since.

And my favourite piece I’ve written for this site in the last ten years is…

1: Keep Trudging On

When I agreed to take an overnight bus to Scotland to clamber up Ben Nevis on a whim, I knew it would provide some material. Yet, when it came to write it, I was blocked. Though the piece itself took an evening to write, it took a month for it to shuffle together properly in my mind. As a placeholder, I even had a request to send trepanning tools because there was something worthwhile lodged in my head and I couldn’t get it out.

I’m glad I did.

If all my grubstlodger writings were wiped off the face of the earth with only one piece allowed to survive, this is that piece. It does what I’ve always wanted this blog to do, to unite my reading in (and of) the eighteenth century with experiences of my own modern life. 

In comparing my long, tedious struggle up the mountain, overtaken by all members of the ‘going up community’ with Samuel Johnson's views of life, I think I have ended up with a piece that touches on something universal. Like my walking up the path, sometimes we live each day simply because that is the thing we are doing. The experience of reaching the summit and feeling absolutely nothing but a kind of watery disappointment and the knowledge that it’s just more trudging to get down, is one that is embarrassingly common when we reach our goals - as Samuel Johnson said, we move ‘from hope to hope’. It’s a dour piece but probably my most thoughtful and fully realised.

I like it anyway.