James McNeill Whistler is mainly known these days as a painter, albeit one sometimes found in books of witty quotations reprimanding Oscar Wilde for plagiarism, but at the time of his death he was arguably better known for this scandalous book in which he recounts in biting, sarcastic detail his libel case against John Ruskin for describing the above painting ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket’ as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
With 117 years distance, it’s clear that Whistler has history on his side here – but while this is of some benefit to the paintings, it makes the book into a painful slog. We know that figurative painting is a perfectly valid artform, and reading through hundreds of pages of newspaper letters and court transcripts is unlikely to either sway or entertain even the most ardent fan.
1890 is very much a landmark year in the psychological development of fictional characters.
So specious is the dramatist, so subtle is his skill in misrepresentations, so fatal is his power of persuasion that for a moment we believe Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine, and not a fiend, and that Lovborg is deserving of our pity and not our condemnation. (Clement Scott – The Daily Telegraph, 1891)
Ibsen’s greatest play and the most interesting woman that he has created – she is compact with all the vices, she is instinct with all the virtues of womanhood. (Justin Huntly McCarthy, London Black and White, April 25, 1891)
What a hopeless specimen of degeneracy is Hedda Gabler! A vicious, heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen. (The Ledger, Philadelphia, February 13, 1904)
What a marvel of stupidity and nonsense the author did produce in this play! It is incredible to think that only a score of years ago the audience sat seriously before its precious dullness. (G.B. Shaw)
Ibsen created a masterpiece in Hedda Gabler, a crystal example of a maladjusted woman. She has sisters in every city, for she belongs to the widely dispersed sorority of moderately comfortable women whose restlessness and envy arise from their false standards of happiness, as well as from their egotism and uselessness. No doubt she existed in the past but her specific type is undeniably modern. Unlike the women of the older middle class who had their noses to the grindstone of the hearth, who reared children and ran their home, the Heddas described by Ibsen are rootless… (John Gassner – Masters of the Drama)
I first read The Picture of Dorian Gray aged 18 and found it to be life-changing. Not for the witticisms which Wilde is so famous for, but for the philosophy of art and morality which it expressed. When I got to university I enlarged the preface and put it up on the wall of my room in halls. Pretentious twat? Yeah, quite possibly. But this all still rings true to me.
The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
Better known these days for his artistic contributions to the Arts & Crafts movement, William Morris was also a prolific author and prominent socialist thinker. News From Nowhere is a glimpse at a utopian future – or rather it is a novel-length thesis on how things should be, presented in novel format, with the convenient exposition and lengthy explanations that naturally go with this micro-genre. Surprisingly, though, it’s pretty readable, and Morris’s utopian ideas are very well-developed and feasible – so a success overall, not at all as a prediction, but as a vision for people to aim for.
I expect Morris would have been horrified by the first half of the 20th century. But wouldn’t everybody?
“”The Great God Pan” is, I have no hesitation in saying, a perfectly abominable story”… …Why should he be allowed, for the sake of a few miserable pounds, to cast into our midst these monstrous creations of his diseased brain?” – Harry Quilter
“No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds… …the sensitive reader reaches the end with an appreciative shudder.” – H. P. Lovecraft
“It’s a riff on Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan,” which is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language. Mine isn’t anywhere near that good, but I loved the chance to put neurotic behavior—obsessive/compulsive disorder—together with the idea of a monster-filled macroverse. That was a good combination. As for Machen vs. Lovecraft: sure, Lovecraft was ultimately better, because he did more with those concepts, but “The Great God Pan” is more reader-friendly. And Machen was there first. He wrote “Pan” in 1895, when HPL was five years old.” – Stephen King
“Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawn sigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl’s cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor.” – from Part 1
Hunger is a novel about a man, not fully in charge of his faculties or decisions, attempting to survive on the most basic of levels in a city that has nothing but contempt for his entire existence. With a psychologically complex and highly unreliable protagonist, a proto-Kafkaesque city full of unknown unknowns and a complete refusal to follow a redemptive storyline, it’s exactly the sort of book I am hoping to find. A shame that Knut Hamsun later apparently decided to be a Nazi.
The second Sherlock Holmes novel, and one of the most well-known stories now, The Sign of Four was still only moderately successful in its day, the more well-known short stories yet to be written, but it still holds an important place in Holmes folklore as it introduces Dr Watson’s wife and frames his later, more distant relationship to Holmes.
I’m not a huge fan of The Sign Of Four – for me it’s the weakest Sherlock Holmes novel. Firstly as it has a plot which may have been original at the time, but which now consists of little more than a series of mystery story cliches. This is probably not Conan Doyle’s fault, but what absolutely is his fault is the fairly shocking racism in the descriptions of a man from the Andaman Islands – he is depicted as nothing more than a hideous non-human savage. Interestingly this is not mentioned at all on the page’s wikipedia entry, while the page on A Study In Scarlet has an entire section on its controversial “Depiction of Mormonism.” The only conclusion I can draw from this is that we haven’t changed since 1890, or at least not as much as we would like to think.