Hazel McHaffie

Victorian times

Mr Dickens and his Carol

You may well have seen reviews of a new book just published under the title, Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain. It tells the story of publisher Edward Lloyd, (1815-1890) who ‘helped shape Victorian popular culture in ways that have left a legacy that lasts right up to today. He was a major pioneer of both popular fiction and journalism but has never received extended scholarly investigation until now.’ But the book will most likely catch your attention because of its references to Charles Dickens. For he was one of the victims of the opportunist publishers, playwrights, journalists, who cashed in on other people’s success by producing parodies of their novels. Dickens himself was outraged by these plagiarists but powerless to prevent them – this being the age before the Copyright Act of 1842.

It nicely resonated with me because I’ve just finished reading a lovely book on the same subject and era: Mr Dickens and his Carol by Samantha Silva, which might not be ‘scholarly’ but the basic premises are all there. Dickens losing popularity … his impotent rage at the charlatans who steal his ideas … his publishers needing a success .. money problems … a feckless father … a growing brood of children … Messrs Chapman and Hall suggesting a short Christmas story … ‘hardly a book at all‘ … mayhap including a ghost or two? So, though her story is a work of fiction, Silva has built upon the work of Dickens’ biographers as well as his own words, to create a playful but plausible and enjoyable re-imagining of how one of the best loved classics came into being. She herself recognises that Dickens aficiandos and scholars might well bristle at the liberties she takes, but she writes from a position of both admiration and affection for the man, keenly aware that a ‘good biography tells us the truth about a person; a good story, the truth about ourselves.’ Well said!

Silva’s physical book has a beautiful look and feel – velvety smooth cover (hardback), the kind of volume you hold with reverential gentle hands and stroke with sensual pleasure. It’s her debut work, published in 2017, but her writing is assured and the story beautifully realised, capturing the evergreen heart and style of Dickens’ own tales.

It’s described as a ‘fan letter‘, even a ‘love letter‘, to the ‘Inimitable Boz‘, that says ‘I know you were a flawed man who had a heart as big as the world. That you saw Christmas as a time to reconnect with our humanity and revel in even our smallest blessings. And that you lived with so much darkness, inside and out, but leant – urgently and frantically – always towards the light.’

As we know, Dickens’ Christmas novel was heralded as a ‘national benefit‘, a ‘personal kindness’ to everyone who reads it. Indeed Dickens is revered for his capacity to portray understanding and empathy for one’s fellow-man, and to highlight the human capacity to rise above adversity and sorrow. ‘Despite what is cold and dark in the world, perhaps it is a loving place after all.’ Not only was he writing at a time and in a place where squalor, poverty, injustice, inhumanity, and disease prevailed, but he personally knew abandonment, poverty, disloyalty and hardship. As a small boy, when his father and the rest of the family were admitted to the debtors’ prison, Charles was left to fend for himself. His father was feckless all his life and a perpetual drain on Charles’ resources. We so often glean a romanticised view of the period in films and dramatic reconstructions, but the written word reminds us of the horrors and humiliations of his time.

And so in Mr Dickens and his Carol we follow Dickens as he tramps the gritty fog-filled streets in search of inspiration; as he rails against the constant racket of a busy household with six children and an extravagant wife and an endless stream of people demanding money. How he managed to write at all in such conditions escapes me! But here he is, filled with foreboding lest he be unable to afford toys for each of his children at Christmas, give his usual contributions to worthy charities, and stay out of the poorhouse. Nor is his fame assured and protected. Martin Chuzzlewit has flopped; acting troupes are plagiarising his work; his relatives trading his possessions for cash, his publishers tightening the screws.

Under intolerable pressure, temper, patience and good humour desert him. His wife leaves him just before Christmas taking the children to Scotland until he can be more reasonable. He takes refuge under a pseudonym in lowly accommodation, sleep and appetite and mental clarity all forfeit. Melancholy swallows him up.

‘Like any man, he’d known a good share of knocks in his thirty-some years. Hard knocks at lesser doors, insistent rap-rap-raps on wind-bitten, rain-battered doors whose nails had lost all hope of holding. And with fame came gentler taps at better doors, pompous, pillared, and crowned thresholds in glazed indigo paint, like his own door two floors below, where the now-polite pounding was having no effect at all.
Because there are times in a man’s life when no knock on any door will divert him from doing the thing at hand, in particular when that thing is a goose-feather pen flying across the page, spitting ink.’

So, there he is, finally, sleep deprived and physically drained, but re-energised, as he pours all his disappointment and anger and resentment and agony into his writing, creating and fleshing out Scrooge and Fezziwig and Cratchit and Marley. Haunted in his own mind, he revels in the introduction of fictitious ghosts as he reviews life, past, present and future, his own personal hauntress encouraging him to capitalise on experience: ‘Let the spectre of your memory be the spark of your imagination.’ And gradually, gradually, the all-consuming power of writing cures him of his jaded perspective, and he discovers that his mental museum is still ‘where he left it, the corridors stacked high, shelves overflowing.’

Having recently finished writing my own latest novel I very much related to Dickens’ relief when The Christmas Carol was finished.
Dickens laid down his pen. There was a frisson in finishing, a great rush of feeling for the life of his characters, all the Crachits and Fezziwigs, Fred and his wife, and Scrooge most of all. He didn’t want to say goodbye; he wanted to keep them close, where he might watch over them. But he knew that the end of his book was a beginning of their life without him, and he must let them be born into the world, and welcomed, as he felt sure they would be. Still how grateful he was to have known them at all.’

It’s a heart-warming story, well told. And I can’t resist sharing a few gems of Silva’s writing:
John Dickens:  ‘his whole face was a ruin’
Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison: ‘a prison of perpetuity, a forever place of no release’
Dickens’ mood: ‘melancholy is the mother of invention’

Highly recommended.

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Aurora Floyd

Back in the 1800s there were no sniffy graduates of two-bit creative writing courses to sneer at broken literary rules and anachronisms, to look down their noses at irregular writing styles or suspect accents and idioms. So Mary Elizabeth Braddon could dot between points of view with wild abandon, even interject her personal comments in the middle of a passage of the story, and get away with it! I’m in awe. I find her sheer audacity breath taking.

Yep, I’m back to one of the authors I find compulsive reading. Serialised in 1862-1863, Aurora Floyd appeared in book form in January 1863 – 155 years ago. It’s one of Braddon’s two most popular novels – the other one being Lady Audley’s Secret, which I’ve already reviewed – quintessentially an example of a new-at-the-time genre of writing, the ‘sensation novel’. Back then, there was a real fear such novels might lead to a growing acceptance of crime and vice in real life, so Braddon was viewed with both interest and considerable reservation. How times have changed! By today’s standards her writing is truly genteel and prudish. She even substitutes ‘- inadmissible adjective -‘ for a common swear word!

We often lament the problems of juggling domestic responsibilities with writing, but here again Braddon wasn’t hamstrung by convention or public expectation. She managed to care for no less than eleven children (five those of her publisher John Maxwell with whom she lived; six more she bore him herself) and still produce upwards of 85 books! Busy lady on all counts.

Confession time! I sent for Aurora Floyd online and somehow managed to order a copy in French – immediately passed on to my fluent-in-the-language daughter! No mean task for her given it’s almost 500 pages long. But it’s a most enjoyable read – even when the big secret is revealed in the blurb of the back cover. I’ll attempt to give you a flavour without spoilers, if I can.

The august name of the banking dynasty, Floyd, Floyd and Floyd, of Lombard Street in the great city of London, is without spot or wrinkle and must remain that way, the current Mr Floyd tells incomers. Reputation, honesty and virtue are everything.

Senior partner, and self-confessed eternal bachelor, Archibald Floyd (aged 47) sets the entire neighbourhood by the ears when he precipitately weds a provincial actress, Eliza Percival alias Prodder, (aged but 29) about whom nothing is known, and who has little to commend her beyond exceptionally fine eyes and a deep melodious voice. Rumours abound: she’s a factory girl, a penniless itinerant actress, an equestrian, an adventurist, or something much much worse. Supplying no explanation to scotch the rumours, the wealthy banker, the richest man in Kent, instals his enigmatic bride as mistress of Felden Woods. Her detractors find any excuse to ridicule and demean her, but Eliza herself takes malicious delight in keeping up a jolly manner, and the actress in her revels in treating the second-rate county families with insolent ease and well-bred audacity.

‘How badly they must have wanted you for a husband, Archy, when they hate me so ferociously! Poor portionless old maids, to think that I should snatch their prey from them! I know they think it a hard thing that they can’t have me hanged, for marrying a rich man.’

However, their happy marriage is destined not to last; it’s but one year before the light slowly fades out of those glorious eyes and a bereft Archibald Floyd, is left, a ‘shipwrecked soul’,  with a new baby daughter in his widowed arms. Aurora – the heroine of our story –  becomes his obsession and sole focus, and in consequence grows up abominably spoilt and uncontrolled … and stunningly beautiful, frank, fearless, generous, affectionate, obsessed with horses and riding. She spends hours and hours riding with no other company than her personal groom, chosen by Mr Floyd for his uncommon good looks for Aurora’s exclusive service.

Then everything changes. Archibald Floyd has a terrible row with his daughter, her governess and her personal groom are dismissed, and she is sent away to Paris to a very expensive and exclusive finishing school. By the time she returns, a year and two months later, her father, now 65, has aged dramatically. Aurora too is much changed, haggard of cheek, hollow of eye, low in spirits, nervous, sleeping badly, with no appetite. Both are equally appalled by the change in the other, but they resolve to say nothing of what has transpired beyond Archibald asking one question: Is a certain man dead. He is, she tells him.

Back in Kent, Aurora recovers her vivacity and gaiety of temper – at least in public – and on her 19th birthday her father throws a ball to show off his beautiful daughter, restored to the bosom of the family. It soon becomes clear that she holds a certain powerful fascination over men, and two in particular vie for her hand.

A proud and handsome Cornishman, Talbot Bulstrode, Captain of Her Majesty’s 11th Hussars and only son of a rich baronet, is a rather forbidding 33-year-old, with rigidly impossible standards of morality and dignity, for whom pride and pedigree are all important. Hitherto unloved – even by his mother – Bulstrode wants nothing more than to be adored by some good and pure soul, someone accomplished, virginal and lady-like, with charming propriety and perfect manners. Aurora is the antithesis of his ideal. Wealthy in her own right, she’s not remotely interested in his money, pays him scant attention and seems distracted much of the time. She displays a vulgarly inappropriate and unapologetic interest in horse racing. And yet … her beauty extinguishes all others; ‘an empress’, ‘a goddess’, who reigns by divine right simply by virtue of her royal presence, her wonderful black eyes and her massive diadem of black hair plaited on her low forehead. In spite of his resistance, in spite of the greater suitability of her gentle and pretty cousin Lucy, Bulstrode falls deeply in love with Aurora.

His rival, John Mellish of Mellish Park, 30, is a bluff Yorkshire man, fourteen stone and given to draping his shoulders in a heavy Scottish plaid. Pampered and privileged, he is a keen horseman and hunter, with an easy familiarity and rugged charm that endears him to all. He soon falls under Aurora’s spell and lets his childhood friend, Bulstrode, know of his intentions.

After one refusal, Aurora eventually accepts Bulstrode’s offer of marriage, on the very day the racing papers report a frightful accident in Germany in which an English jockey called Conyers is killed. But she is in a constant ferment as one after another assorted encounters threaten to expose her secret and wreck her father’s peace of mind.  When Aurora refuses to tell Talbot what happened during that fateful fourteen months in France, he says she can never be his: ‘the past life of my wife must be a white unblemished page, which all the world may be free to read.’ John Mellish on the other hand, has no such arbitrary standards; he more generously accepts Aurora just as she is, and he returns to quietly bide his time, until she eventually agrees to marry him. John might be trusting, but Aurora has unwittingly made two enemies – one ‘nursing discontent and hatred within the holy circle of the domestic hearth’; the other ‘plotting ruin and vengeance without the walls of the citadel.’

And then the supposedly-dead James Conyers, appears at Mellish Park as the new groom/jockey/trainer, and John is at a complete loss as to why his name sends Aurora into a state of hysteria. His foreboding mounts as incident after incident tells him his wife is harbouring a terrible secret, and this uncouth servant knows more about it than he does. It feels both cruel and degrading, but such is his obsessive love that he does all he can to suppress the doubts.

We are almost three quarters of the way through the book when, during a dinner party at Mellish Park, there is a murder in the woods. Aurora’s maternal uncle, a merchant captain completely unknown to her, has just been refused admission to the house, and he is the one to find the body and to announce the nefarious happenings to the assembled diners. He is totally bemused. He has come to make his niece’s acquaintance and instead has become embroiled in ‘a tragedy; a horrible mystery of hatred, and secrecy, and murder‘. Death by frustrated poachers, is the immediate verdict; but in his heart John Mellish knows otherwise … the constable finds a wad of documents sewn inside the dead man’s waistcoat … the mentally challenged servant reviews overheard information and notes he has carried between Aurora and the trainer … Aurora’s female companion drops veiled hints of complicity and intrigue … and now the mysterious seafaring stranger who found the body has vanished. The question on everyone’s lips is: ‘Had anyone a motive for killing this man?’

Within the great house, alone together, Mr and Mrs Mellish are left ‘to hug those ugly skeletons which are put away in the presence of company.’ Wracked with suspicion and doubt, faithful John initially sinks into ‘utter desolation of heart,’ but then determines as soon as the inquest is over, to go away to the south of France and start a new life with Aurora, putting all the horrors behind them. Against the mounting evidence, he refuses to think ill of his wife, clinging with a desperate tenacity to her remaining perfect and untouchable; rather he prefers to think she must be nobly bearing the burden of some failing on the part of her beloved father. And yet … he knows that, for ever, there will hang between them the haunting knowledge of this ‘nameless and formless horror’ which Aurora has concealed from him.

The inquest a couple of days later (eat your heart out modern detectives!) seems to put the matter safely to bed. Aurora, agonising for the sake of her husband and her father, dares to hope again. But no. A ‘hideous avalanche of trouble’ slowly but inexorably descends on the hapless John Mellish. The paper found hidden in the murdered man’s waistcoat is washed of its blood and spells out the terrible secret, and he is apprised of its contents. There can be no doubt of the devastating fact Aurora has kept from him. And it’s now that John Mellish’s love is shown in its true light. Or is it? First the murder weapon, John’s own pistol, is discovered … damaging facts as to who was where when are revealed … anonymous letters are sent to the police … the gentlemen of the press are circling … mounting evidence points John in one horrific direction. And as rumour and speculation spreads ‘a hundred perils menaced them on every side.’

Braddon shows a real understanding of human psychology; she sets great store by noble motives and generosity of spirit; she challenges the standards and proprieties of her day; but these agendas are lightly included and add to, rather than detract from, the pace and pull of the story. I was riveted but her writing even though I already knew the plot and story-line!

 

 

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Xanadu

Phew! That’s it over for another year.

Thinking up a viable storyline, writing it (11,000 words plus), that’s the easy bit of the annual McHaffie Christmas story/play. Putting it into dramatic effect is a far harder task, and this year involved more hours pouring over the detail than ever before. Several weeks went into hand-drawing scenery representing Victorian streets to cover the walls of the hallway, stairs and landing alone!

With no single theatre stage to work with, no stagehands, furniture had to be moved around in six rooms to create Victorian shops, a banqueting hall and a rambling attic in a mansion house.

But the dim light of rows of lanterns and a liberal helping of ivy, saved the day, successfully muting imperfections sufficiently to achieve the desired atmosphere. (Photos have been lightened for this blog.)

The storyline itself involved three youngsters from vastly different backgrounds learning from each other and the experiences they encountered, how to value and respect difference.

Weird gadgets, special boxes, changes of costume, cryptic messages, all added challenge and laughter to the mix.

The three friends discovered a remarkable doll in the attic of the local mansion house, a doll that took them to a magical place called Xanadu,

and underwent a dramatic transformation when danger threatened.

There, with the help of four colourful characters loosely based on Mr Pickwick,

Rumpelstiltskin,

Little Dorrit,

and Rafiki from The Lion King,

they learned about transforming their own and others’ well-being by their attitudes and approach to life.

The four very different candle-lit shops offered paper/wood; gems and gold;

buttons and ribbons; and chocolates.

The names of the characters and their shops had to be worked out.

Only then were the premises thrown open to the time-travellers, allowing them to create ornaments of varying kinds,

with which they decorated all the trees in the town, bringing sparkle and joy to its dark streets.

I rather think it might take a few weeks for dodgy backs and creaking joints to recover from the contortions they’ve undergone, but it’s well worth all the effort to see – and hear! – the family’s enjoyment.

And this year I had the added delight of my eldest granddaughter helping with the behind-the-scenes production of the event to mark her milestone birthday as an adult.

It only remains for me to wish you all peace, joy and health for 2019. Thanks for visiting my blog!

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