Sunday, 11 May 2014

Theorizing Sartorial Fantasy in the Long Nineteenth Century

One day, I was walking past my local Oxfam Bookshop and I saw a beautifully illustrated cover in the window. The title was even more entrancing: English Costume (1906), by Dion Clayton Calthrop. Ever since I volunteered during high school as an educational interpreter at Westfield Heritage Village Museum in Rockton, Ontario, Canada, I have been fascinated by fashion history: we interpreters chose our costumes from a wardrobe of entrancing outfits spanning the entire nineteenth century. So, naturally, I bought this book. I was delighted to discover that Calthrop’s book is not simply a history of English Costume, but a history of the English imagined through fashion. He travels from William the Conquerer to the beginning of the nineteenth century, ending on the evocative figure of Beau Brummell. His watercolour plates dramatize the cumulative effect of each era’s styles and his smaller line drawings provide the tiny sartorial details which create this effect. But Calthrop also provides more than this: his book enacts a ‘gossip across the centuries’ theory of history and the role of fashion within history. Calthrop uses fashion to explore lived experience from history:
A knowledge of history is essential to the study of mankind, and a knowledge of history is never perfect without a knowledge of the clothes with which to dress it. A man, in a sense, belongs to his clothes; they are so much a part of him that, to take him seriously, one must know how he walked about, in what habit, with what air. (vii)

‘Her very full cloak is kept in place by the cord which passes through loops. A large buckle holds the neck of the gown well together. The gown is ornamented with a simple diaper pattern; the hem and neck are deeply embroidered.’ (Calthrop, p.60)

His sartorial investigations are supported by an energetic imagination. He invites the reader to fantasize him or herself within each era, contrasting his fantasist approach (‘I pluck the lady from the old print, hold her by the Dutch waist, and twirl her round until the Catherine-wheel fardingale is a blurred circle, and the pickadell a mist of white linen’ ) with those of academic historians (‘There are many excellent people with the true historical mind who would pick up my lady and strip her in so passionless a way as to leave her but a mass of Latin names—so many bones, tissues, and nerves’). (334) (He is careful to provide various bibliographical lists to ‘appease the appetites which are always hungry for skeletons’.) Calthrop creates fashion scenes as peopled stories, and so gives us Queen Elizabeth I ‘strut[ting] down to posterity, a wonderful woman in ridiculous clothes’. But his fashion stories have a wide cast and an eye for interesting historical anecdote. Queen Elizabeth struts because her maid has presented her with a brand new lace ruff ‘shaped like a Catherine wheel’, informing her that it is a picadillie and sold by ‘Mr Higgins, the tailor near to St. James’s’. Mr. Higgins, of course, instituted Piccadilly Circus by selling these picadillie lace ruffs to the Queen, who popularized them and through them, his shop and its location. (313-317)

Calthrop’s sartorial journey ends in 1830, but this does not prevent him from commenting on life in the long nineteenth century (intriguingly, Calthrop also illustrated a 1906 edition of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ ). He positions his book as complementing nineteenth-century texts, particularly on the subject of female headdresses in the time of Henry VI (1422-1461):
One is almost disappointed to find nothing upon the curious subject of horns in ‘Sartor Resartus.’ Such a flaunting, Jovian spirit, and poetry of abuse as might have been expected from the illustrious and iconoclastic author would have suited me, at this present date, most admirably. I feel the need of [ . . .] some fantastic and wholly arresting piece of sensationalism by which to convey to you that you have now stepped into the same world as the Duchess out of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ (188-189)

‘Her very full cloak is kept in place by the cord which passes through loops. A large buckle holds the neck of the gown well together. The gown is ornamented with a simple diaper pattern; the hem and neck are deeply embroidered.’ (Calthrop, p. 192)

Calthrop proceeds to bear the reader into an sartorial enchantment with a character of fashion:
Look out of your window and see upon the flower-enamelled turf a hundred bundles of vanity taking the air [ . . .] a dream of delicious faces surmounted by minarets, towers, horns, excrescences of every shape [ . . .] Oh, my lady, my lady! how did you ever hear the soft speeches of gallantry? How did the gentle whispers of love ever penetrate those bosses of millinery? (189)

This narrative enchantment serves a practical purpose, as Calthrop envisions his text as assisting theatrical and amateur costumers alike and reassures potential fashion consultants that, ‘the garments are perfectly easy to cut out and make. In order to prove this I have had them made from the bare outlines given here, without any trouble.’ By engaging with the spirit and personality of those who originally breathed life into these styles, Calthrop’s texts suggests, costumers will create new sartorial tales. And not a bit too soon -- Calthrop is distinctly unimpressed with the state of 1906 fashion:

The question of modern clothes is one of great perplexity. It seems that what is beauty one year may be the abomination of desolation the next, because the trick of that beauty has become common property [ . . .] To-day there is no more monotonous sight that the pavements of Piccadilly crowded with people in dingy, sad clothes, with silk tubes on their heads, their black and gray suits being splached by the mud from black hansoms, or by the scatterings of motor-cars driven by aristocratic-looking mechanics, in which mechanical-looking aristocrats lounge, darkly clad. (441-462)

Well, Calthrop’s sartorial fantasy has outlasted the long nineteenth century to find a home in the internet era; whether he would find our world of online fashion and celebrity fashion personality 'one of great perplexity'  is less easy to determine. Anyway, as well as reading the complete text here, you can find selections from Calthrop’s history at popular costume history website, where he has a fervent welcome.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Tolkien and Victorian Spiders

Earlier this year, I re-read George MacDonald’s ‘The Giant’s Heart’ [first published in 1864], in preparation for my viva. Something about the description of the giant spiders struck me: their laconic objectivity, and the contrast with Tolkien’s Mirkwood spiders in The Hobbit. The Mirkwood spiders are well known: gratuitously violent (even accepting that giant spiders need to eat, they really don’t need all thirteen dwarves and one hobbit) and spinners of dark webs. Readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion will know that they are the offspring of Shelob, herself the daughter of a primordial spider-monster – Ungoliant, a demonic being who chose spider form in order to weave webs of darkness against the angelic Valar. (Apparently Ungoliant and Shelob mated with ordinary spiders – which they later consumed -- to produce [smaller] monstrous offspring; this sent me down a tangent of wondering whether such matings would be physically possible – and, considering that the male spider puts his sperm on a special web for deposit in the female’s genital opening, it is less of a stretch than one might think.) We are now accustomed to spider/giant spider = evil monster (see J.K.Rowling’s Aragog & Co, Stephen King’s It, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).
'The Other Mother' revealed in monstrous spider form from Neil Gaiman's Coraline

But MacDonald’s spiders, though monstrous in size, are not monstrous in personality. Their webs create beauty, not darkness: ‘At last they came to the foot of Mount Skycrack [ . . .] The whole face of it, from top to bottom, was covered with a network of spiders' webs, with threads of various sizes, from that of silk to that of whipcord. The webs shook and quivered, and waved in the sun, glittering like silver.’ Compare these webs to the ones in The Hobbit: ‘[Bilbo] had picked his way stealthily 'for some distance, when he noticed a place of dense black shadow ahead of him black even for that forest, like a patch of midnight that had never been cleared away. As he drew nearer, he saw that it was made by spider-webs one behind and over and tangled with another.’ MacDonald’s giant spiders have a quality of beauty which Tolkien’s spiders do not. Though MacDonald’s spiders are ‘huge’ and ‘greedy’, they catch giant flies, not humans. When the child-heroes of ‘The Giant’s Heart’ encounter them in their quest to destroy a wicked giant, the spiders first ignore them, then assist them after one of the children helps a spider who has fallen over: "My dear child," answered the spider, in a tone of injured dignity, "I eat nothing but what is mischievous or useless. You have helped me, and now I will help you." This statement does suggest a certain amount of didacticism – do unto me as you would have me do unto you – but it’s intriguingly human as well, what with the spider’s tones of ‘injured dignity’. All this made me wonder: what did the Victorians think of spiders? Did they have the same evil resonance that spiders have today? Was Tolkien inspired by MacDonald’s spiders?  After all, as his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ shows, he was familiar with MacDonald’s work.
Frontispiece to The Poor Artist, by R.H.Horne

 I posed some of these questions to the Reading the Fantastic reading group I’m co-organizing, in the form of another text: R.H.Horne’s The Poor Artist. (Our reflections on this and other text opened our eyes to the beauty inherent in spider-tradition, as well as the monstrosity.) In Horne’s science-fable, the spider is one of various creatures who lend their eyesight to an artist in search of inspiration, evoking Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s animal-fables. ‘Mrs. Spinster’s ‘[f]ive hundred and eleven different visions, without including all the powers of my diphthong eyes’, are able to present the artist with an arachnid experience of wonder: A monumental slab of dull gold was the central object of the picture. It was encircled with ancient letters and numerals [ . . .] worn by time into rough breaks and honey-combs and the surface in some places presenting a heap of straggling lines and ridges, like broken insect-legs, and which the narrator herself compared to spider-limbs after a battle between two females against thirteen males. The predatory nature of the spider is not ignored; an Ant, Captain Mandible, argues with Mrs. Spinster about how ‘[s]he has strangled many of my comrades [ . . .] I have found their empty suits of armour on the ground underneath her web.’ But Mrs. Spinster points out that ants have stolen her webs, as well, and the two descend into something resembling a children’s quarrel. Paradoxically, it is through anthropomorphism that we are able to view spiders beyond the monstrous, and as part of biological nature – albeit red in fang and spinneret. As to what the Victorians thought of spiders, and whether MacDonald’s monstrous spiders have any connection to Tolkien’s, I still don’t know, but my opinion of spiders is a least a little improved. However, my favourite spiders are in one of Don Marquis’s ‘Archy and Mehitabel’ poems – ‘Pity the Poor Spiders’. ‘Yours for less justice and more charity’ is a sentiment I can get behind.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Serial Killers and Dickens: Carrying the Force of Story

I've recently, along with a couple of other postgraduates who are interested in fantasy literature, begun a reading group which brings together fantastic texts from around the world, in which we each contribute a tale from our respective disciplines around a certain theme (more information here). For our session on 'Fantastic Journeys', I chose 'The Tale of Mr Fox', a tale which, though similar to the Bluebeard/'Maiden-Killer' type (321/312a) told by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, differs in that the heroine both investigates and resists the murderer (this tale is actually part of 'The Robber Bridegroom' type 955). The heroine works out her own escape by telling of her journey to visit her suitor in stages which are punctuated by the mysterious refrain of 'Be Bold, Be Bold' she sees on gates and doors throughout this investigative journey; this refrain cumulates in the phrase 'Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest That Your Life's Blood Run Cold'. At each point of punctuations, her suitor counters her tale by saying 'It is not so, nor was is not so, and God forbid it should be so!'. But the heroine, Lady Mary, continues her tale despite these counters to her narrative.  (Reading the name Lady Mary in this context has a certain amusing resonance for Downton Abbey fans: watch your suitors, Lady Mary Crawley, lest your life's blood run cold.) Gradually, her audience is caught up in her narrative spell and turns on her suitor at the point of climax, when she reveals the blood-stained hand she has found in his house.
The version we read was published by Joseph Jacobs in his English Fairy Tales collection,and so has a particular context of community behind it. Jacobs was fascinated by collections of indigenous folk and fairy tales (he published a collection of Indian Fairy Tales and of European Folk and Fairy Tales,  for example). He was keen to discover indigenous English fairy tales (as opposed to tales from Perrault and the Grimms - of course, it's difficult to tell how particular fairy tales have developed across geographical and chronological miles, and fairy tale scholarship reveals that such tales do not respect national boundaries). The 'indigenous'quality of these tales, to Jacobs, had cross-class resonances which he discusses in the 'Introduction' to English Fairy Tales: he wanted to give 'a common fund of nursery literature to all classes of the English people', and he deplores the 'lamentable gap between the governing and recording classes and the dumb working classes of this country —dumb to others but eloquent among themselves'. Jacobs adds annotations to the tales in his collection, perhaps seeking to legitimize these 'indigenous tales' by evoking the annotated versions of the Arabian Nights, published by Edward Lane ( various formats between 1838-1859) and Richard Burton (1885), which assisted in the gradual academization of fairy tale collecting. Lane's and Burton's annotations have since been questioned, and there are some references which Jacobs would have done well to include, but didn't. Jacobs's annotations to 'The Tale of Mr Fox' identify it as being part of 'The Robber Bridegroom' type (linking it to 'The Oxford Student'), but strangely he doesn't mention another version of the 'Robber Bridegroom' tale which is a)written by an Englishman and b) features an English working class storyteller. This version is 'Captain Murderer'(1860) by Charles Dickens, and it contains fascinating parallels to 'The Tale of Mr Fox', particularly regarding the agency of female narrators.

 'Captain Murderer' also features a serial killer and a bride who investigates and defeats the killer. References to Dickens's childhood nurse place 'Captain Murderer' in a social context, and a reference to 'Bluebeard' ('This wretch must have been an offshoot of the Blue Beard family') place it in both a literary (Perrault) and (apparently) oral tradition (Grimms). However, the agency of the investigative bride in this tale is somewhat compromised by the fact that she dies, though she dies willingly and uses her death to defeat the serial killer.

 '[M]uch suspecting Captain Murderer, she stole out and climbed his garden wall, and looked in at his window through a chink in the shutter, and saw him having his teeth filed sharp [ . . .]Next day they went to church in the coach and twelve, and were married. And that day month, she rolled the pie-crust out, and Captain Murderer cut her head off, and chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones. But before she began to roll out the paste she had taken a deadly poison of a most awful character, distilled from toads' eyes and spiders' knees; and Captain Murderer had hardly picked her last bone, when he began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots, and to scream. And he went on swelling and turning bluer and being more all over spots and screaming, until he reached from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall; and then, at one o'clock in the morning, he blew up with a loud explosion.' 

 Dickens's tale extends the audience into a cross-class community, as Caroline Sumpter has observed in discussing Dickens's 'attempts to capture the immediacy and the thrill of oral culture' which 'claim links to a storytelling tradition that will outlast the commercial moment' in her monograph The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale (2008). (25) While his tale dramatizes the power of an oral working class storytelling over a middle-class child, Sumpter points out that his tale represents a written working class origin as well:

 [A]s Dickens told John Foster, such haunting tales came from print as well as oral contexts: from his regular childhood purchase of the ‘penny blood’ the Terrific Register. In fact, the tale of cannibalism recalled in ‘Nurse’s Stories’ bears more than a passing resemblance to an urban myth that originated in a more recent penny magazine: the tale of the barber Sweeney Todd, which appeared in 1846 in Edward Lloyd’s The People’s Periodical.' (25-26)

 Dickens's tale overtly recognizes working class orality, but not working class literature. However, comparing Dickens's 'Captain Murderer' to 'The Tale of Mr Fox' highlights the issue of who is able to tell tales, and how they tell these tales. It's interesting that the working class heroine in Dickens's tale is unable to share her experience with her community, but Lady Mary has the freedom to escape death by telling her community the tale of her adventures. By introducing his working class nurse and including dramatic descriptions of her narrative power over him, Dickens complicates this class dynamic. The description of the nurse telling the tale represents skills of narrative agency which Lady Mary demonstrates, though the nurse's skills are even more vivid:

 'The young woman who brought me acquainted with Captain Murderer, had a fiendish enjoyment of my terrors, and used to begin, I remember as a sort of introductory overture by clawing the air with both hands, and uttering a long low hollow groan. So acutely did I suffer from this ceremony in combination with this infernal Captain, that I sometimes used to plead I thought I was hardly strong enough and old enough to hear the story again just yet But she never spared me one word of it.'

 The powerful voice of the female nurse contrasts with the voiceless heroine; to this dynamic, Dickens observes his own voicelessness -- as a child. By narrating the tale in his own publication context as owner and editor of All the Year Round (the tale appeared in this periodical on September 8th, 1860), the fact that this tangle of silence and narrative captivation has, of course, increased his professional voice is clear, both to Victorian and subsequent readers. Consequently, Dickens's text depicts both the working-class nurse and the middle-class author as capturing audiences through re-telling the chilling story of the brave, intelligent, yet voiceless heroine of 'Captain Murderer'. Our reading group discussion raised the question of whether Lady Mary, in 'The Tale of Mr Fox', would have gained the support of her community had she not built it through dramatic narration (the upper class heroine in this version does not end well, for example): does her storytelling ability give her a social voice which she might not otherwise have? Reading Dickens's tale in the light of such questions highlights how 'Captain Murderer' dramatizes the ambiguities, not just of cross-class agency, but around the perceptions of such agency. Dickens's text extends this ambivalence into asking what creates these ambiguous perceptions and what propels the storyteller's voice, while providing dating advice at the same time: if you meet a guy whose last name is 'Murderer', please do a background check first, AT LEAST.