Wednesday 30 June 2021

The Belle's Stratagem at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 Play reading at Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle is always a slightly unknown quality. O’Keefe’s Wild Oats had been a surprising delight, whereas Fielding’s A Modern Marriage had been far more cynical than we were prepared for. Thanks to Angela, who gave us a brief introduction to the playwright Hannah Cowley, we were not flying completely blind when it came to her comedy The Belle’s Stratagem 

Born in Tiverton, Hannah was the wife of an occasional reviewer who got a job with the East India Company which promptly killed him. At first supported by Garrick, Hannah wrote a range of scripts including an oriental musical comedy. Although Sheridan, the next owner of Drury Lane was not as supportive, she still built up her career and became part of the Whig set with the Duchess of Devonshire. The Belle’s Stratagem was her most successful play, dedicated to Queen Charlotte and with the part of Letitia becoming one of the favourite roles played by Dora Jordan, subject of our last book. The play has been performed a couple of times this century, most intriguingly in 2011 to a soundtrack that included the Spice Girls. 

In our first session we read halfway into the second act and, unlike some of the other plays we’ve read, the plot can be easily described. It primarily features two couples, one who need to intensify their relationship and one who need to cool things down a little. 

The first couple are Doricourt and Letitia. He’s recently returned from a Grand Tour and is filled with continental fancies. He’s dressed in all the finest new fashions, has the swankiest new coach and has hired only foreign servants. He claims this not because he’s foppish at all but that English men are too independent to make great servants, especially when there are those naturally servile Frenchmen all about. To illustrate this, we meet once of his servants who speaks in an outrageous accent in fluent Franglais. The trouble is, he has also formed some opinions about English women. While they may be naturally beautiful, intelligent and kind, compared to the mysteries of the French and Italians, they simply aren’t all that exciting. 

This is a problem for Letitia, the woman Doricourt has returned to England to marry. While the marriage was settled years ago and is still going ahead, she’s fallen head over heels for him and is none-too-pleased that he seems merely content to settle for her. 

‘He should have looked as if a ray had suddenly pierced him,’ she complains and so comes up with a scheme to spice up their relationship. She plans to be so odious that Doricourt learns to hate her. Having read a fair few romantic comedies, she feels that a passionate hate will be easiest to transform into passionate love. Surprisingly her aunt and father support this risky plan.

The other couple are Sir George and Lady Frances. George has surprised all his friends, forsaking all the fine ladies of Paris to marry Frances in a whirlwind marriage. He is besotted with her, rumoured to be so in love that he let her little bullfinch go because he was jealous of the love she gave it (though there are also rumours that he killed it, or that she let it go… primarily because our head rumour-monger, Flutter, is a little sloppy when it comes to detail). He wants to spend time with his new wife and is cross that the whole of London keeps coming round to visit her. When Doricourt comes to meet her, he tries as many pathetic excuses as he can, but it gets him nowhere. 

Lady Frances herself has led a sheltered upbringing and is content to live a quiet life with George. He has old fashioned views, longing for a time in the past when people lived quietly and everyone filled their station properly: young women were young and old women were old, dowdy and judgmental. Frances is tempted when Miss Ogle and Mrs Racket come round offering her a day of pleasure and a night on the town. George is dismayed, worried they mean to turn his new wife into one of these ‘fine ladies’, a licentious, materialistic, money-grubbing drain who is never at home. Mrs Racket makes a spirited response, describing the ‘fine lady’ as benefit on society, polite to all she meets and bringing joy and pleasure wherever she goes. Frances is won over, especially when she finds out George did free her Bullfinch. She decides to go and sample some pleasure.

The real joy of this play is the dialogue, there are no flat characters and everyone has their own little bit of business or point of view. Particularly fun were some of the more incidental characters, such as Crowquill, the grubby hack, ready to pay money to servants for gossip, or Courtall, trying to hide from his inconvenient bevvy of country cousins. There’s also the character of Flutter, a gossip who loves a good story so much that he finds it impossible to keep them straight in his mind. From him comes a story (later proved false) about the man who bought a distressingly life-like depiction of people dying of the plague for his nursery wall, his reason being it was the same size as the Dick Whittington picture already there and so they match.

In performing it, the liveliness of the writing really came to the fore, with the conversation galloping along nicely, not snarled up in an overcomplicated plot. It was also pleasant to be among nice characters who will deserve their matchings and pairings despite the bumps they may experience on the way.

In out next reading, we’ll hopefully see Letitia’s stratagem begin to play out and see her try and make Doricourt hate her, we’ll also see if Frances enjoys her day of pleasure and what reaction George will have to it. Will Courtall keep escaping his cousins? Will Crowquill get a scoop? Will Flutter finally get a story straight? We’ll see.

Wednesday 23 June 2021

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Virginia Woolf

I must admit, I was afraid of Virginia Woolf. I’m a little wary of modernism in general, partly from lack of exposure but mainly because the exposure I’ve had was off-putting. While there is a lot of experimenting in modernist texts, it feels to me that it comes from either deep ideological reasons I don’t feel or a sense of showing off. I’m happy with a confusing, experimental text like Tristram Shandy because it seems to come from a joy of playing. I never got much sense of joy from modernist stuff.

Then I read Ulysses. True, I didn’t follow all of it and I really disliked any time hanging with Stephen Dedalus but I love Leopold Bloom and began to see a very traditional novel buried in all the argy-bargy. When I read Middlemarch shortly afterwards, it seemed the more experimental novel in the way it positively encouraged the reader not to engage with the characters.

Having tackled that big beast, I was still nervous of Virginia Woolf’s shorter works. The little I knew of her life, with multiple suicide attempts that culminated in a successful one implied that they were going to be truly joyless pieces. What’s more, I’d heard she was significantly more intellectual and controlled than Joyce, denser and harder to follow. I had these images of impenetrable blocks of miserable text, cold and aloof. I found I was very wrong.

I took the plunge with To the Lighthouse and found myself enjoying it so much I quickly read The Waves and Mrs Dalloway with only a book in between them. As it stands, I’ve read all the Woolf in my own collection and may have to seek out more. Rather than cold and impersonal, I found these books to be rich in character, in specific, telling detail and full of humanity. I even found a few good jokes.

At first, I found reading To the Lighthouse a little like swimming through it, things can be a little murky and it does feel that we are too close to the characters and things around them, there isn’t the clear ‘top-down’ approach of other novels and it takes a little getting used to. That said, I didn’t get lost in the book. What I had anticipated as vague musings were actually very concrete feelings and thoughts that were directly relevant to the characters and the things they held dear or feared. This meant that those musings built up character but also that it was very easy to tell which character you were lingering in at that moment. The same was true of The Waves, which was very careful to orientate you in which character you were spending time with, and the characters were so clearly drawn that it would have been possible without this care. Mrs Dalloway was a breeze.

While I feel her technique is not a very accurate rendering of a momentary stream-of-consciousness, her way of reporting the characters shifting thoughts seemed to accurately convey how we think about thinking. The experience of life as Virginia Woolf paints it, is that we flick between all these different selves and it’s only to other people that we have consistent selves. There’s a lot about how people fail to connect, how little of those around them they actually see, even those they love. Yet, these works show moments of connection and communication - they are are imperfect but possible and worth so much for that. Though I do find her characters tend to worry about the lack of connection far more than most people do, they also think far too much about death (and a number of characters long for it.. and find it).

My biggest surprise was how much I loved her characters. Whether it was Bernard in The Waves, who feels his best self is when he’s mixed with others, a true extrovert; or whether it was Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, keeping her world together through almost imperceptible moments of empathy and connection. I felt for Mrs Dalloway, analysing her past and the possible missed opportunities or poor Rezia, watching her lover disappear in front of her. Where I was expecting novels of ideas, and to a degree found them, I was not expecting novels filled with realistic people.

As for jokes, I’m sure To the Lighthouse starts with one, The first two sentences are short ones where Mrs Ramsay declares that the next day’s trip to the lighthouse shall go ahead. We then have a page long sentence of her son James delighting in that news, how his happiness colours all the objects around him and how strong his emotions flow in him. The next is a very short sentence of his Mr Ramsay saying the weather won’t be good enough to go. It’s a short puncture to the long sentence and a comic reverse. There’s also the part in Mrs Dalloway where all the characters watch a royal car moving its way up The Mall, filled with patriotic sentiment before being distracted by a skywriter advertising toffee - it’s not a knee-slapper, but I thought a good comic moment.  

I found a depth and richness to these books that I haven’t found many other places, a real summation of life, a real evocation of those private moments in private mythology. They really capture a sense of being, a sense of friendship and the eternal struggle to make life count. I’m surprised to say it, but I found Virginia Woolf a life-affirming experience.

Wednesday 16 June 2021

Video: Princess Caraboo - the biography, the biopic and the novel.

 I took my Caraboo reading to their natural conclusion, a look at the film and a comparison with them to the book versions. I also give a little outline of how I'd tell the story.

Wednesday 9 June 2021

Review: The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson


The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo is a young-adult novel by Catherine Johnson that takes as its base the historical story of Princess Caraboo, and in a note at the back pays particular notice of John Wells’s biography Princess Caraboo. Having just read the biography itself, I was intrigued to see how an author could work a novel from it.

The inventions start immediately and brutally, with a harrowing depiction of a roadside rape, as two farmers force themselves on the poor Mary Wilcox. As she endures the experience her memory goes back to an also invented dead baby and the horrors of losing him. When it’s all over, she picks herself up and declares that she is no longer Mary Wilcox but Princess Caraboo and she will no longer have to live with the pain and indignities she has suffered.

It’s certainly a striking beginning and provides an interesting impetus for the creation of Caraboo, as a way of coping with trauma and shielding herself from her pain. Throughout the book, when we view the world from her perspective, it’s clear that being Caraboo helps her reclaim her agency and power. It’s an interesting take on the fascinating story of Caraboo, of why a cobbler’s daughter from Devon would decide to convince people that she’s the princess of a far-eastern spice isle. It also means that the book declares her fraud from the beginning, the story isn’t going to tease an ‘is-she, isn’t-she?’ but explore the fraud itself and her motivations behind it. 

The book then goes to another point-of-view, the invented daughter of Mrs Worrell, Cassandra. Again, I was a little unsure of why invent a daughter for Mrs Worrell when her lack (and desire) for a daughter, after her own had died, seemed to be a big reason for her falling for Caraboo so quickly. Anyway, in this book there is a daughter and she wants more from life. Particularly, she wants the pleasure of being the wife of Edmund Gresham, her brother’s rich friend. Her role in the book is to serve as a friend of Caraboo and to have a sub-plot about her choosing the hot-hunky but poor son of the inn, or the cold-dashing and rich Gresham. I suppose all YA must have a love-triangle. It’s through hunky that she meets Caraboo and takes her back to Knole House.

The (real) Worrell son is currently in London being absolutely foul to a prostitute who’s been led to believe he loves her, as he leaves she shouts that he can’t even understand real love as he’s only ever paid for it. Will the selfish son learn love? Will it be with the strange and mysterious Caraboo? Will there be a peculiarly a-historical and not particularly realistic in-universe happy ending?

While at Knole House, Caraboo is tested on by a quack intellectual who is not Wilkinson. He even uses electro-shock on her, burning her in the process. I can’t really understand why that scene existed, except to add another bit of drama and nastiness. There is also Captain Palmer, who claims he has been to Caraboo’s fictional island of Javasu and can speak the language. He was a real figure, a very minor figure in the biography but he becomes the villain in this, blackmailing her into possibly going off with him round fairs and threatening her with rape.

And here’s my problem with the book - while it’s an engaging novel in itself, the ways the author deviates from the historical truth hint at something ugly. She’s aged down to 17, she now has mixed race parentage and skin (so other characters can comment on it) she is at constant threat of rape as well as being found out. The book started with an invented rape and a fictional dead baby.

 If anything, it didn’t feel that the true events were being shaped to fit a narrative better, but that the elements added were done so to manipulate the reader. I don’t like to read a rape scene, nor did I need a scene of her hair burning because of a faulty electro-shock machine, nor did I need memories of dead babies.. like the the invention of Cassandra and her love-triangle, or the happy ending, these all seemed like they existed to pull at my emotions and force me to remain engaged with a story that I feel could stand on its own.

Wednesday 2 June 2021

Review: Princess Caraboo by John Wells

Princess Caraboo is an unusual book. Rather than the film being made of the book, this book stems from the same body of research that created the film, rather like The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon. The book is structured in three parts, the first being a telling of the Lady Caraboo legend, the next being an in-depth look at the person behind it and the third being a fascinating, if somewhat meandering look at the process of assembling the research and writing the film.

The book chooses to begin in a village just outside Bristol, where a strange woman is found wandering. She wears a simple black dress, a black turban and appears to speak no English. She is, technically, in breach of the law and could find herself imprisoned, or at the very least forced back to her home parish - yet which parish is her home one? Is she even English? After some to-ing and fro-ing, she finds herself being looked after by Mrs Worrell, an intelligent American married to a local bigwig. She convinces him that the woman is something special, from a great distance and possibly even royalty. She even finds a name, Princess Caraboo.

The house becomes a beacon for any local intellectuals, all wishing to discover more about the elusive woman, they discover she comes from Javasu, that she is the daughter of Jesse Mandu and that she is mixed race of Chinese and Malay origins, which explains the unusual fact that she looks like a dark-haired European. The woman has a number of strange accomplishments and habits; whether it is washing her cup after each drink, only eating meat she’s captured herself or praying to the God Alla-talla from the roof. What’s more she’s skilled in climbing trees, shooting self-made arrows, or swimming naked in the pond.

While here Javasu script was declared ‘humbug’ by Oxford scholars, a local renaissance-man, Dr Wilkinson declares her genuine and publicises her around the country. This is Caraboo’s downfall, a previous employer recognises the description and confirms that she’s actually Mary Baker/Wilcox, a cobbler’s daughter from Devon. To avoid embarrassment, she’s shipped off to America.

In some ways, her story was much like George Psamanazar, a man from the beginning of the eighteenth century claiming to be from Thailand. The impostures worked in similar ways, both kept their invented languages consistent, both were also consistent in their habits and backstory. Caraboo’s deception also worked because of her prettiness, her dignity in bearing and her skill in listening to people who think she can’t understand them and enacting their prejudices and expectations.

If anything, the second part of the book is more interesting, detailing Mary’s life before she was Caraboo. Much of the part is taken from a journalist called John Gutch, a keen collector of hoaxes, he bought what he thought were the papers of famous fake Chatterton. Amusingly the papers he had were false ones. One of the fascinating tensions in this part of the book is that although Mary is not playing Caraboo, she still has an instinct for drama and story that makes her testimony suspicious - more amazingly, much of what she claimed about her early life can be backed up by documentary evidence.

The daughter of a cobbler, she worked in Exeter for a while before running to London. Prone to fevers, she collapsed at Hyde Park and was taken to St Giles poorhouse where she was cupped on the back of the head to cure her. She worked for families in London, before deciding to join the Magdalen Hospital, a charity for reformed prostitutes. She said she did it because she liked the uniforms and her entry papers detail her story, which reads like an eighteenth century amorous tale. While she may have been paid for sex at some point, it’s not even clear she ever was a prostitute. When she got tired of the place and left, she worked for a few more London families, went back to Devon and then back to London. By this time she had a new surname and a child. The exact nature of her marriage, or the father of her child was never confirmed, Mary having any number of stories depending on who asked her. The baby was left at the Foundling Hospital where he was raised and given a new name. This completes Mary’s tour of some of the most prestigious London charities of the early nineteenth century.

She claims she hiked back to Devon dressed as a man, where she was accosted by highwaymen and nearly forced to join them on a job.. probably not true, but with Mary it’s hard to say. She started begging, first as a French woman, then an Italian and then as the mysterious Caraboo - bringing us back to the beginning of the book.

The third section of the book details how John Wells was commissioned to write a script about Caraboo as a ‘ridicule against pseudo-intellectuals’ and how he worked it up, adding in a love story with Gutch and adding a bit more pizzazz, the real hoax only lasting a few months. He also talks of how he tracked down the details of her earlier life and of his meeting with Mary’s descendants, discovering that she ended her life in England as a rather successful leech-merchant. Although this section was a little unfocussed, I’d like more biographies to have a little part detailing the process of putting it together, as the relationship between a biographer and subject is on that really interests me.

John Wells’s own relationship with Caraboo/Mary has a slightly unseemly focus on her prettiness. He feels that people’s attraction to Mary, whether sexual or not, aided her greatly in winning people onto her side and while his may have been the truth but for the writer of her biography to linger over her ‘sensual lips’ and ‘firm breasts’ seems more than a little distasteful. It’s also a little strange how he ‘sees’ the face of Mary in her descendants, despite him never having seen her face in any more than portraits. I was also notable how John Wells peppered the biography with loosely connected oddities like the election of a Mr Bastard, or of a publican putting frogs in his beer to flavour it.

Despite that, this is a really peculiar and interesting biography, as interesting for its relationship to a rather fluffy film as it is for the story of Mary herself and the effort put into finding evidence of her real backstory really pays off.