“The river – with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory – is a golden fairy stream.”
Having delved into some of the worst excesses of the era, I was slightly wary of the light upper-middle-class whimsy of Three Men In A Boat. Who were these jolly toffs larking around on the river when the masses were living in such misery? and so on. But of course I warmed to it right away, the whimsy being undercut by passages of palpable awe at the natural world, and the jokes still funny (or if not actually ROFL, their humour was at least not lost in the mists of time.)
Not sure I would actually rate it as great literature, but it’s at least a good read.
Chekhov’s early farces were written as simple money-spinners, and have been held in fairly low regard by critics. Even Chekov himself called A Marriage Proposal a “wretched, boring, vulgar little skit.” and advised its director to “roll cigarettes out of it for all I care.” So I’m probably going to be on my own in rhapsodizing about it, but here we go anyway.
‘A Marriage Proposal’ is something like the platonic ideal of a farce. From concept to individual lines, every part of it is built with the detail of a pocket watch. Everything is in place perfectly, without a line wasted on building characters or providing context. It’s a wonderful, intricate thing, and what’s more it’s still hilarious, 128 years after it was written, and in translation.
Some artists grow in stature after their death, and some others go the other way. George Gissing is one of the heavyweight names of late Victorian literature, and I have to confess that I’d never heard of him before I began this project.
The Nether World is a grim look at the slums of London. The characters, their motivations and their fates are less important than the painting of a vividly glum scene. That’s fine, I’ve been very keen on some very depressing books through the years, but Gissing refuses to either empathise or offer lessons from this suffering – people are on downward spirals and even those trying to help are nothing more than misguided fools whose efforts will come to nothing. It’s one big shrug of a book – these things will just be like this, so why bother? But within sixty years these slums were cleared, so his Eeyore-ish pessimism was simply incorrect, useful only as an excuse to do nothing.
Here is an essay from someone who actually liked the book – it was a much more interesting read than the novel was.
The middle Victorian era saw a surge in popularity for romantic tales of chivalry, and pseudo-historical romances of the Sir Walter Scott variety were almost universally read. Mark Twain had no time for this nostalgia for a time that never was – in fact he held it partially responsible for the civil war;
It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. […] Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.
A Connecticut Yankee… is a satire of these attitudes, disguised as a time travel narrative. The first half shows our adventurer easily impressing the locals with his knowledge of science and technology and using his advantage to become a virtual king. The second half moves into much darker territory, the superstition mixing with the darker aspects of mechanization to produce (essentially) the first world war.
I have to confess at this point that this is my first Mark Twain, but found it a fascinating read. It’s a deeply strange book, at once understandable on multiple levels (and absolutely awash with ideas) but at the same time working as a light farce, that is, before it gets really fucking dark.
1889 was a year of new stuff. Among other debuts we have;
* The Coca-Cola Company (incorporated as the Pemberton Medicine Company)
* Columbia Phonograph (though we will have to wait to get some of their discs)
* The Eiffel Tower (much to the dissaproval of Parisians)
* The first long distance electric power transmission line, in Portland, Oregon.
* The first Pizza Margherita, made by Neapolitan baker Raffaele Esposito.
* The first issue of The Wall Street Journal.
* New York Military Academy
* Nintendo. Yes, that Nintendo. They manufactured playing cards at the time.
* The Moulin Rouge cabaret opened in Paris.
* The first jukebox, at the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco.
* The Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack published its first Wisden Cricketers of the Year.
* The Savoy Hotel in London.
And a few other things were going on too;
* The Meiji Constitution of Japan was adopted
* President Grover Cleveland signed a bill admitting North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington as U.S. states.
* The South Fork Dam collapsed, killing more than 2,200 people in and around Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
* Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
* The last official bare-knuckle boxing title fight ever was held – John L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strong Boy”, defeated Jake Kilrain in a world championship bout lasting 75 rounds in Mississippi.
* Field Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca deposed Emperor Pedro II of Brazil and abolished the Brazilian monarchy.
Some famous people were born;
Charlie Chaplin, English actor and film director (d. 1977)
Jean Cocteau, French writer (d. 1963)
Victor Fleming, American motion picture director, (d. 1949)
Otto Frank, German publisher, businessman, father of Anne Frank (d. 1980)
Martin Heidegger, German philosopher (d. 1976)
Adolf Hitler, Austrian-born dictator of Nazi Germany (d. 1945)
Edwin Hubble, American astronomer (d. 1953)
Nick LaRocca, American musician (d. 1961)
Jawaharlal Nehru, 1st Prime Minister of India (d. 1964)
Kermit Roosevelt, American explorer and author (d. 1943)
Igor Sikorsky, Russian developer of the helicopter (d. 1972)
Arnold J. Toynbee, British historian (d. 1975)
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian-born philosopher (d. 1951)
And some famous people died;
Robert Browning, English poet (b. 1812)
Wilkie Collins, British novelist (b. 1824)
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America (b. 1808)
Gerard Manley Hopkins, English poet (b. 1844)
Belle Starr, American outlaw (b. 1848)
Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria (b. 1858), and his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera (b. 1871) commited a double suicide (or was it a murder suicide?) in the Mayerling hunting lodge.
Yohannes IV, Emperor of Ethiopia (b. 1837), was killed in the Battle of Metemma – Yohannes is probably the world’s last ruler ever to die in battle.
1889 is by no stretch of the imagination a golden year for recorded music. A blip on the otherwise upwards trajectory in terms of both sound quality and things being recorded, it is, frankly, the worst possible starting point for anyone dipping in. With little in the way of technical improvements, it’s notable only for the presence of a handful of famous names (probably more than for any year until the 1910s) and the inclusion of a Berliner disc recording.
1. Effie Stewart & Theo Wangemann – The Pattison Waltz
2. Benjamin Harrison – Speech Excerpt
3. Issler’s Orchestra – The Fifth Regiment March
4. Otto von Bismarck – Spoken Words, October 7, 1889
5. Ludwig Karl Koch – Birdsong of Indian Sharma
6. Johannes Brahms – Hungarian Dance No. 1 (Excerpt)
7. Robert Browning – Passage from How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix
8. Peter Schram – Leporello Aria Excerpts
9. Emile Berliner – Zahen, a, b, c
After a fluffed introduction, the mix begins with Effie Stewart, a soprano soloist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, accompanied by Edison technician Theo Wangemann on the piano. This is followed by the first recording of a US president, the often forgotten Benjamin Harrison. Then a return from Edison house band Issler’s Orchestra, this time playing something with a name, and a speech from another world leader, Otto von Bismarck, who would remain as the German chancellor (a role and a country that he created) until the following year. Another German is responsible for the following clip, the first recording of birdsong, recorded by 8-year-old Ludwig Karl Koch, already a pioneer in nature recording. Then a few words from Johannes Brahms and a frankly unbearable (but mercifully short) excerpt of his piano playing. Then another world-renowned artist, the apparently drunk 77-year-old Robert Browning, who is unable to remember the words to one of his most famous poems. He died later in the year, and the playing of this cylinder represented the first speech from beyond the grave. Then we have 70-year-old basso cantante Peter Shram running through some of his greatest hits, and finally a reconstruction of Emile Berliner reading the alphabet.
None of this is hugely exciting, and not much of it is listenable, but at this stage there’s little choice.
It wasn’t a nice life working as a matchgirl at the Bryant & May factory in Bow – work-days were fourteen-hours long, pay was poor, infractions resulted in fines and there were severe health complications of working with white phosphorus, such as phossy jaw. But all that was to change after social reformer, socialist and theosophist Annie Besant led the girls out on one of the most comprehensively successful strikes of the era.
Listen to an excellent In Our Time discussion about Annie Besant here.
An even larger figure in British crime lore comes out of 1887 – Sherlock Holmes, who made his debut in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first novel, ‘A Study In Scarlet’.
As far as Victorian popular novels go, it stands up very well indeed, even more so as it manages to act as an introduction to Sherlock as well as a well-plotted mystery story, an accomplished bit of writing and an enjoyable read. My favourite bit has to be the way the middle third of the book appears to be a different, entirely unrelated novel, set on a different continent with different characters and of an apparently unrelated genre, until the two ends finally tie together in the final third.