Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Passing of Alfred

Public grief.  It is such a tricky subject that I have started and restarted this post about seven times now. I think I find it most tricky as I don't really understand it. Until recently I thought it was a modern phenomenon to weep in public for strangers, save for monarchs, or those who could have been monarchs...

For example, this lady will be forever know as 'Woman grieving the death of Princess Diana'. Now I might be wrong but I'm guessing she didn't personally know Princess Diana, and was just one of thousands, possibly millions worldwide who felt personally devastated by the death of the Princess.  I'm not sure what it was like everywhere else in the world (and I would be fascinated to hear) but in Britain in the week following 31st August 1997 the media and the country seemed to plunge into a state ably modelled by the lady above. I have to admit I found it puzzling and I didn't understand it.  I think that is why I found the following so interesting...

From the Burnley Express and Advertiser, 8 October 1892
Today marks the anniversary of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's death in 1892.  By that point he had been laureate for over 40 years and was 83 years old.  Since 1869 he had split his time between Farringford on the Isle of Wight and Aldworth in West Sussex.  Aldworth had been built as his escape from the tourists who pestered him in Freshwater, but he returned to the Wight in the winter.  He was Queen Victoria's poet, he was revered by the nation and he was an old man.  When he passed away in the early hours of 6th October 1892 I imagined that the reporting of his passing would be dignified and restrained.  How wrong I was.

Alfred Tennyson, crossing the bar, rather literally...
I have studied the newspapers of October 1892 for the last few weeks, both national and local, in preparation for this post.  I didn't set out to delve in so deep but as you will see, the subject just kept giving.  On Wednesday 28th September Tennyson had complained of feeling unwell after being out for a drive on Black Down, near his home in West Sussex. On the Thursday he remained indoors and there were a few mentions of this in the papers but not really anything like what was to follow.  Sir Andrew Clark, President of the Clinical Society of London and Fellow of the Royal Society, was summoned, along with Dr George Roqué Dabbs, Tennyson's doctor from the Isle of Wight.  Dr Dabbs arrived on the Thursday and remained with the family.  Sir Andrew visited on the Friday but left again, returning the following week. A velvet rope was put across the drive to Aldworth to keep away visitors, with a basket left for messages.

The doctors, from the Graphic memorial supplement
Over the weekend, the poet existed on a strict diet of beef tea, brandy and milk as any solid food was deemed to be detrimental to his recovery and indeed, Tennyson seemed to rally on the Monday, but then his health began to fail.  He requested a copy of Shakespeare which he held in his hand even after he lost the strength to read from it.  Sir Andrew returned on the Tuesday and by Wednesday morning all hope was lost.  Shortly after midnight on Thursday morning, Tennyson gain enough strength to say goodbye to his wife, Emily before passing away at 1.30am.

The Death of Lord Tennyson (1892) Samuel Begg
How do I know so much detail about the death of a Victorian poet?  Because once the man died every tiny detail was spun into a legend complete with illustration and poetry.  The death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson became as great and epic as the Passing of Arthur and the newspapers could not dedicate enough column inches to every single detail.  Both of the physicians attending Tennyson gave their accounts to the press. Sir Andrew proclaimed the poet's passing as 'a gloriously beautiful death.  In all my experience I have never witnessed anything more glorious.'  Dr Dabbs was hardly more restrained in his language: 'Nothing could have been more stirring than the scene during the last few hours.  On the bed a figure of breathing marble, flooded and bathed in the light of the full moon...'  Much was made of the moonlight that streamed in through the window, leading to such illustrations as Samuel Begg's which was reproduced in  supplements to publications like Black and White and The Graphic.  Beside the great man, with his copy of Shakespeare in his hand, weeps Hallam and his wife Audrey (Emily is absent, interestingly) and the young Dr Dabbs looking stoically resigned.  The media drew a picture of a great man who just stopped like an unwound clock, drawing to a dignified and peaceful end.  The public death of Tennyson was not one of gout, bronchial and stomachic trouble exacerbated by influenza and old age, it was glorious end of a poem.

Memorial Requiem (1892) written by Hamilton Galt
As soon as his death was announced, speculation began on what sort of funeral would happen.  By 8th October, the papers were full of news that he would be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey in a grave adjoining that of Robert Browning who had died in 1889.  The media coverage of Browning's funeral had been quite restrained, reporting that Tennyson had attended but keeping the details quite sparse. There was no hope of that for Tennyson: there was speculation on the coffin, which had both an inner shell for the body made of elm and an outer oak case.  Tennyson had expressly requested that his body should be laid to rest in a heart of oak coffin, which held a plate inscribed with his name and birth and death dates.  His copy of Cymbeline that had been in his hand at death was buried with him, enclosed in a tin box, and on his head was his silk skull cap.

'Conveying the Remains from Aldworth to Haslemere Station on the way to London.'
from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892
It was reported that the velvet rope that had sealed the family away from the outside world was finally removed and the gates to Aldworth were opened once more to well-wishers, although the papers stated that the family were only seeing intimate friends.  Tennyson remained in Aldworth until Tuesday 11th when he began his progress to Westminster Abbey, ready for interment on Wednesday 12th.  It may as well have said that he was placed in a boat with handmaidens, floating off to Avalon.

Other than intimate friends and family, one thousand tickets were made available to gentlemen (note ladies not admitted!) to be guaranteed a seat at the funeral of Lord Tennyson.  Eleven thousand people applied.  The papers knew that this would be no ordinary funeral, despite the respectable reporting of such matters as the music and George Granville Bradley, Dean of Westminster, who would lead the service.  This rapidly became not a funeral about the establishment, but about the people who all, it seemed, loved Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The Coffin in St Faith's Chapel, from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892
Reading the descriptions of the funeral now I am struck by the uneasy balance I always feel in any reporting by the media of such public events.  There is a palpable tension in the press reporting on the grief of ordinary people and wanting to sneer at the lack of dignity afforded them in certain situations.  If 10,000 men had been disappointed in their application to attend Tennyson's funeral, then it can only be imagined how many of them, plus women, came to the Abbey on 12th October in order to claim one of the unticketed places.  Along with perfunctory descriptions of the Queen's floral tribute (laurel leaves tied with a white silk ribbon) or what dignitaries were in attendance, a lot of column inches was dedicated to the attempts to find a place in the Abbey.  Crowds, who had been waiting since 9am were finally allowed admittance around noon and poured in like a 'great human wave' (as the London Daily News reported it), streaming into the nave, aisle and transept, then up to the Triforium gallery to fill the seats not reserved for ticket holders.  Women in fashionable mourning clothes took to their heels and ran or else were swept along with the masses. Many hundreds more waited outside, straining to hear the organ music and the singing.  The papers reported that many of the people had brought flowers from the waysides to lay at the grave of their poet.  It was stated that if the intellect of the nation was not more strongly represented in the Abbey than at Browning's funeral, 'then the heart of the nation certainly was'.

'A Nation's Homage to the Late Laureate: The Wreaths in the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster Abbey'
from the Graphic memorial supplement, October 1892
It was noted that although it was an event of the establishment, the death of the Queen's poet being akin to a politician in many ways, there was not the show of uniform or presence of officialdom that other 'state' funerals had.  There was a small assemblage of soldiers from the home nations but most notably in terms of pathos was one old gentleman who was a corporal from the 10th Hussars, a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Wedgewood Commemorative Jug, c.1900
You would think that would be an end to the coverage, but the following day's papers reported how still more crowds of people 'most of them of the simpler class' (as charmingly reported by the Liverpool Mercury) flocked in to view the last resting place of the poet.  All of the many floral tributes covered the floor of Poets' Corner and a beautiful pall, worked in Keswick, had been laid over the stone. Not slow to take advantage of the commercial opportunity, commemorative issues of his poetry were released: by 14th October Macmillan and Co were already advertising a new miniature edition of Poetical and Dramatic Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, together with Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Records of Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning (available to download free here, should you fancy a copy). 
G F Watts working on the Tennyson memorial, begun in 1898

Unveiling of finished memorial outside Lincoln cathedral, 1905
Public acts of memorial continued with the unveiling of the giant statue of Tennyson outside Lincoln cathedral, together with other memorial busts and portraits. However, reflecting the mood of personal connection, many small items could be purchased, such as the Wedgewood jug and calendars emblazoned with the poet's likeness and verses.
In a memorial sermon, preached to his congregation in North Shields, the Reverend Vian-Williams was reported as saying that Tennyson was loved because he wore the 'white flower of a blameless life', exactly what Tennyson himself had said of the Prince Consort.  In the Reverend's own words Tennyson was 'white in thought, feeling and deed, white in lip and word' which is the feeling you get from the quite extraordinary news reporting of the time.  Looking at the moon-drenched image of the dying Tennyson, it is akin to a saint and from the reports in the papers you would think that they would hardly have been surprised had he risen again three days later.  The reporting of the 'simple' people who had gathered from all corners of the country with their wild flowers and unruly manners, seemed on some sort of pilgrimage of love and it is obvious that the media enjoyed the spectacle whilst not quite understanding what was happening even while they participated.  It all comes down to Tennyson himself.

My favourite portrait of Alfred Tennyson (1861) by James Mudd
What was it about Tennyson that made them fight to get into his memorial, to queue to see his tomb, travelling to just be at the Abbey on the day of his funeral?  Would having a blameless life be enough to bring you to him?  Possibly for some, but I think that the answer is deeper than that for most people and equally as opaque.  Why do we love certain celebrities as if they are family, because that is what it amounts to?  Why do certain people that we do not know beyond their work attach themselves to our souls?  I would offer that what we mourn when such a person dies is not the person themselves but the construct we build around their work.  Poets and writers create stories for us and we feel we know them through the act of storytelling.  Poetry has an immediacy and often, especially in the case of Tennyson, tells us about very visceral things - love, lust, death, war, betrayal.  He may have allegedly been white in word and deed in life, but in writing he was the corners of human experience, the deeper layers of what it is to feel alive.  Take a poem such as 'O Beauty, Passing Beauty', one of my favourites, and it is a description of the frustration in wanting another person so badly that you can barely think of the word 'kiss' in context of them without dissolving into a puddle of lust.  Tennyson understood and put it much better than that, and that is why he was, and still is, loved.
It is a mark of the strength of Tennyson's work that his death, and with it the silence of his work, could inspire such a tremendous swell of feeling.  The very heart of Britain filled Westminster Abbey at his passing and I am surprised yet again to see how very much the Victorian response resembles that of modern day. The past may be a different country but it seems when it comes to those we treasure, we appear to speak the same language.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Time Makes Tragedy Of Us All

This is likely to be a ramble-y post, so bear with me as I return to the thorny issue of aging.  You might remember we talked about this a couple of years ago with my post about depictions of older women in art.  Well, this week I started thinking about getting old again for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, this happened...

That's me. I was taking a few selfies for my author postcards and when I made this one my profile picture in a couple of places I got a very interesting response.  Normally I look more bright and curly and more to the point less wrinkly around the eyes. This time I was sat in a darker room and, as one friend kindly said, I looked like the Woman in Black. When I pointed out that I was over 40 now I was told that I looked it.  Ouch.

Cara Delevigne and Kate Moss
Then Kate Moss had the bad manners to look over 40 (at the age of 41) and was told by one newspaper that she performed an act of extreme bravery by standing next to Miss Delevigne who was half her age.  Dear God, the horror! Look at Kate Moss!  It's like Dorian Gray's portrait has escaped the attic and is walking around!  Or something. Anyway, there should have been a black border around the piece as it was generally about the sadness that Kate Moss no longer looks like she did twenty years ago. Which leads me to this conversation I had recently with an older friend...

Sylvia Syms, then
Sylvia Syms, now

Apparently it is impossible to watch the lovely Sylvia Syms in any film or tv programme without being overcome with utter misery that she does not look the same as she did in Ice Cold in Alex.  Whilst I agree she looks pretty ace shoving the ambulance (was it an ambulance?  Why do I think it was an ice cream van?) up the hill in Alex, she looks marvellous now too and is ace in The Queen.  It's the same thinking that was expressed to me at a family funeral once where I was trapped in a room with all the other Mrs Walkers of the family and one told me that it would be kinder for women to be shot at 30 as we all look horrible after that. Lawks, I said.

Jane Morris (1898) Emery Walker
All this pop culture, self-obsessed rambling brings me to Pre-Raphaelite stunners.  Jane Morris was, until recently, the one stunner who we could see in old age.  After Rossetti's death we ceased to see her through the eyes of someone who loved her and saw her through the lens of various cameras.  It's not that her photographers didn't like her, but the camera is unable to lie. She poses, she sits, she waits and her stoic expression is recorded.  She is almost 60 years old here and her expression is unreadable (as it always is).  However, I often hear people express how unhappy Jane looks in her later life.

The Hourglass (1905) Evelyn de Morgan

Jane Morris (1904) Evelyn de Morgan
Undoubtedly, Jane Morris does look unhappy in the final painting of her modelling career.  When Evelyn de Morgan wanted someone to play the woman who has everything but the ability to stop aging she chose Jane, the aging Stunner.  It seems a common assumption, possibly correct, that we read the picture biographically.  We ascribe that sadness at a loss of beauty to Jane rather than the character and carry it over to all other images of her.  In the photographs of her in old age, sitting in her garden, out and about with her daughters, surrounded by friends: all appear sad to us.  Do we have any reason to believe that Jane was so shallow as to allow her changing appearance to overshadow all the blessings she had? From what little I know of Jane I do not believe her to be that shallow, so is it therefore a sadness we impose as viewers upon the faded stunner?  Her hair is grey, her face is lined, how unhappy she must be.

Lizzie, died at 32
Alexa, died at 37
To use that very unpleasant phrase, we seem to like our Pre-Raphaelite women better if they die young and leave a pretty corpse.  The subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelite artists encourages us in this mind-set what with the Ophelias, Elaines and Lady of Shalotts all popping off before they have to use night cream or resort to a box of Nice 'n' Easy.  Both Lizzie and Alexa had the good grace not to get old, conveniently dying while still young and pretty.  How good of them not to bother us with those inconvenient images of them looking older.  We can't cope when people get older.  Actually, in our visually orientated, youth obsessed culture we can't cope when we get older and everyone else is collateral damage.
Fanny Cornforth, 1863
Why do we react so badly when people we admire get older?  Returning to Sylvia Syms, she was the height of glamour for my older friend, the epitome of what it meant to be attractive when they were both young.  Now Sylvia is old that means my friend is old, that she is no longer up to pushing an ambulance or jeep or whatever it was up a hill.  Our society says that you might 'look good for your age', but on the whole that's just a nice way of saying 'well done on not looking horrific now that you are over 35. That must help with the sadness, but remember, you are no longer being sexually attractive. Only one woman over 35 is allowed to be sexy and Helen Mirren is doing that.'  It's a self fulfilling prophesy - society says women over 35/40/50 aren't sexy so we don't feel sexy so we are declared not sexy and so on. It's such a cycle of sadness and shame and denial that it's impossible to untangle.  Woman over a certain age cannot be happy and sexy, so if their fame is based on their attractiveness to the opposite sex then age must render them bereft.  All fame now for women is based to some degree or other on our looks so the moment a woman in the public eye starts looking a bit wrinkly, chunky or grey then they must be miserable. We feel miserable for them because through them we vicariously taste glamour, we have a role model for the sexual perfection we can aspire to.  All that makes what I am about to do unforgiveable...

Fanny Cornforth 1907
 Many people did not want me to show this picture but now it is in the public domain it is only a matter of time before you see it.  The people who have seen this image have told me that they find it devastating, mainly due to the context.  This is the photograph taken when Fanny was admitted to Graylingwell Asylum.  She looks - I don't know.  Well, she doesn't look happy but then she is a Victorian woman posing for a camera.  Look at Jane Morris.  Smiling wasn't really an option.  She looks concerned, her eyebrow on the right is furrowing down.  We know she was confused and angry when she was brought to the asylum because she thought she was being arrested.  However, we also know that she settled in to life at Graylingwell and it was a comfortable hospital dedicated to caring for and rehabilitating the mentally ill. Was she any happier in 1863, living with her depressed lover, traumatised by the death of his wife whose image haunted their home? She had been ditched by him, forced to marry a drunk, picked back up by her unreliable lover and surrounded by his circle of his friends who did not like her. Yet we don't read sadness into the image of her by the mirror.  In 1907 she was approaching the end of her life and everyone she loved was dead, so do we see that?  Jane Morris still had her children, a circle of admirers, so why do we read sadness in her image as well.  It would be understandable to see Fanny as unhappy in the vulnerability of age, but Jane?  Her life was a velvet cushion in comparison.

I think the answer lies in the way we see old age and youth.  There is little doubt that we are visually obsessed and our focus is on youth, especially for women. I'm sure my gentleman readers (both of you) will correct me if I am wrong but only age for women is seen as a battle we cannot afford to lose. We have so many products for sale that will smooth us, plump us (only our faces sadly, plumpness anywhere else is another source of sadness), recolour what goes grey and generally regenerate us like the Countess Dracula bathing in the blood of virgins.  Any opt-out of this unwinnable fight is seen as failure, a tragedy, such terrible sadness.  Look at brave Kate Moss stood next to her replacement, no doubt shortly before they take her out the back of the building and put her out of her misery.  It would be the kindest thing to do as those tiny wrinkles are making us all very sad.

Don't feel sad for the old stunners.  Don't feel sad for Jane, surrounded by comfort, surrounded by those that care.  Don't feel sad for Fanny even, cared for finally by people who didn't want anything from her. She lived her life as she chose, in a way that was open to her and considering the options her ancestors gave her, she made a considerable mark on the world.  Fanny Cornforth got old, of course she did, and she ended up in a home which is likely to be the fate of many of us reading this.  Her home was sympathetic.  She lived a long and memorable life to the point that some random woman wrote a book about her a century after she died.  That is pretty impressive for a blacksmith's daughter from the back end of nowhere.  Don't feel sorry for Fanny, it would do her no good and to be honest I think she would prefer that you thought of her and cheer. Maybe then we wouldn't feel so sad about our own wrinkles and grey hairs.

If you have to feel sorry for anyone, feel sorry for Helen Mirren, she's the only woman over 50 who's allowed to be sexy.  The responsibility must be exhausting...

Monday, 21 September 2015

Ophelia's Muse: Q&A with Rita Cameron

As many of you will know there is a new book out to add to the growing shelf of Pre-Raphaelite Fiction.  Ophelia's Muse follows the story of Elizabeth Siddal from her life in the hat shop where she was discovered by Walter Deverell, through her burgeoning career as an artist, her struggles with her health and, of course, her tumultuous love life with a certain D G Rossetti.  I caught up with the author Rita Cameron to find out how she discovered Pre-Raphaelite art and what it was about Elizabeth Siddal that intrigued her so much...

Q. What brought you to the Pre-Raphaelites?
I always loved Pre-Raphaelite painting – I have very fond memories of visiting the Tate and other galleries with my parents when I went to London as a child.  The pictures are so lush and evocative. I made up stories to go with the paintings, and imagined what it would be like to be one of those sad, gorgeous women.  But oddly enough, I never delved into their actual stories until I started flipping through an art book on the Pre-Raphaelites in a bookstore display (on my way to buy textbooks for law school!). I chanced upon the story of how Lizzie Siddal sat in the cold tub while modelling for Millais, and I was instantly hooked. I had to know everything about her, and by extension, the Pre-Raphaelite circle. 

Elizabeth Siddal D G Rossetti
Q. Why do you feel that Millias' Ophelia remains so iconic?
First of all, it’s an incredibly beautiful painting, despite the tragic subject. The level of detail in the dress and the flowers, in each leaf, is exquisite. And then, in this lovely, peaceful setting, there is the shock of seeing Ophelia, breaking the surface of the water, breaking through the canvas almost. It’s such a private moment, and yet it’s hard to look away. I can almost feel the pull of that heavy gown, the inevitability of sinking. She really appears to be right on the cusp of death – not quite there and not quite gone, and the immediacy of that is very compelling.

Q. How did you come up with the title of your book?

Lizzie is often thought of as Rossetti’s muse, and she certainly was a source of inspiration to Rossetti and the other artists who painted her.  But I liked the idea of linking her more closely to the painting for which she is most famous, Ophelia, and leaving the painters, for the moment, in the background. I hope that the title hints at how perfectly suited she was to inspire such a transcendent painting, and suggests that she lived a life that echoed that rivalled Ophelia’s in its tragedy.

Elizabeth Siddal D G Rossetti
Q. Your sympathies obviously lie with Lizzie yet we get Rossetti's point of view too - how difficult was it to balance that?

It was a struggle.  In my first drafts, I think that I was too hard on Rossetti - he came across as too much of a villain. And the fact is that I really do have a lot of sympathy for him, and I wanted the reader to see the person that Lizzie fell in love with -  the mad, romantic painter and poet who put art first and followed his passions. I like to imagine that in this day and age, they might have met, had a wild fling, and then both moved on to other pursuits and relationships.  But in their era they were trapped, to a certain extent, and that was a large part of the tragedy.

Q.The debate as to whether or not Lizzie intended to kill herself continues even after all these years - how difficult was planning that scene?

I’m learning that in writing historical fiction, it’s often necessary to take a side where there is a debate about what may have happened in the past, in order to move the plot along or flesh out a character. But in this instance, I felt that there was room for ambiguity.  I imagined Lizzie at this point as lonely, distraught over the stillbirth, ill and addicted to laudanum.  In this confused and desperate state of mind, I thought that she might have been trying to bring an end to her pain and depression, without making a definitive choice to end her life.    

Elizabeth Siddal D G Rossetti
Q. You feature Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth in your book but not Jane Morris - how tricky was it balancing all Rossetti's women?

I’m afraid that Rossetti’s other women got short shrift in the book, and in a way Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth stand in for all of his other romantic affairs.  Jane Morris could have been included, but I was trying to keep the book focused on the relationship between Lizzie and Rossetti, and at a certain point I felt that it made sense to pare down some of the characters. I tried to see Rossetti’s other women as Lizzie might have seen them, as a threat and an indictment of her own perceived failures, more than as individuals in their own right.

Q. What's your favourite Pre-Raphaelite picture?

Mariana (1851) J E Millais
It’s so hard to pick just one, but at the moment I’m really loving Mariana and The Bridesmaid, both by Millais.  He has such a knack for capturing women in private moments of reflection.

Q. What are you writing next?
I hate to talk about what I’m writing before it’s almost done, but I have certainly been looking at a lot of Millais’ paintings recently.

Regina Cordium (1860) D G Rossetti
In Ophelia's Muse Rita brings us Lizzie Siddal, a Victorian girl torn between her art and the man she loves but is destroying her.  The emotional rollercoaster of her life gets equal billing with the art that surrounded her, often painfully echoing the love and tragedy in Lizzie's life.  As I said at the end of A Curl of Copper and Pearl, you should never mistake fiction for fact, and Rita weaves a story around the paintings we know so well and the woman who was the first, and for many the most important, Pre-Raphaelite supermodel. It is certainly a worthy addition to the Pre-Raphaelite fiction genre, and perfect for those long winter evenings.

Many thanks to Rita for her answers and for the review copy of her novel.
Buy Ophelia's Muse here (UK) or here (USA) or at a bookshop near you!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Desperation to Transformation

Next month will mark the five year anniversary of when I underwent a massive transformation.  On the face of it I didn't look that different and many close friends didn't notice what I had done but in terms of how it affected my life it was cataclysmic.  I had a four hour operation, which for reasons of icky-ness I'll spare you the details, which relieved substantial quantities of pain I was suffering.  That was the primary reason I did it.  Secondary, but not inconsequential, it meant that since that day I have never had abuse from complete strangers.  Before then I was regularly shouted at, pointed at and generally discussed by random people in the street, in shops, pretty much anywhere.  Once in HMV a man brought his girlfriend over to look at me because he couldn't believe it.  Once in a pub, a man crawled underneath tables in order to take photographs of me.  I was out one evening with friends and a woman told me to my face that she didn't like me because of how I looked. One autumn morning in a private clinic in Winchester I transformed and have not heard a peep out of anyone since.

Apollo and Daphne (1908) John William Waterhouse
I was very lucky.  Money could make me vanish from sight, but thinking about the anniversary I considered how many stories there are about women changing themselves in order to escape the interest of others.  Daphne comes immediately to mind, transforming herself into a tree in order to escape the over-amorous Apollo.  Fuelled by a spiteful arrow from Eros, Apollo is unable to control his lust.  I gather the same is true of large quantities of alcohol. 

Daphne (1898) Arthur Hacker
Daphne pleads to the Gods to save her from her attacker and they change her into a tree.  This always seemed a little harsh to me as it seems a punishment on her for attracting attention rather than punishing Apollo for his unwanted advances.  That's not to say she didn't have a long and very happy life as a tree.  The birds perching on your branches, the squirrels frolicking up your trunk.  Actually it sounds quite nice.

Clytie Evelyn de Morgan
There are other women who transform in myths, but rarely does it seem to be for a positive reason.  Take Clytie, for example.  Her beloved, Helios (the sun), cheated on her and so she got her rival buried alive thinking this would make Helios remember why he loved her.  Yes, I know, looking back on it she could have handled that better.  Anyway, she went out to a rock and sat there, stark naked staring up at the sun and waiting for him to return to her, which he never did. After nine days she transformed herself into a heliotrope (or sunflower/tournesol in French) whose flowers track the movement of the sun each day.

Clytie (1895) Frederic Leighton
Again it is a tale of a woman turned into flora, benign and harmless. Clytie's active attempts to attract Helios are replaced by a passive watch, whilst Daphne finds safety from sexual attack in the form of a tree.  Is it the nullifying of sexual attraction and desire that these transformations result in, or something more specific to women?  Is it the troubling matter of women's choice?

Clytie (1880s) G F Watts

Clytie (1865-9) G F Watts
I have always loved Watts view of Clytie, especially the sculptures where you can see the muscles and sinew stretch and twist as she attempts to follow the path of her lover, even as she is transforming.  She is so possessed by her monomania that she is unaware that such a change is upon her.  I would argue that if she was male, Helios would be the one transformed (although he is already the sun which is quite unattainable, as lovers go).  The thing she has in common with Daphne is the presence of all-consuming desire which causes the woman in the situation to be 'made safe', made as sexless as a plant.

Echo G F Watts
Clytie wasn't the only transforming woman that Watts painted.  Echo transformed twice in her myth.  Firstly, possibly reflected in Watts' picture, she loses the ability to speak more than the last few words said to her which she is cursed to repeat.  The myth tells that the goddess Hera, sick and tired of Zeus' many dalliances with nymphs, sought to catch him.  Echo, a nymph who loved Zeus, tried to distract Hera with long conversations but when Hera worked out what she was doing took away her speech but for the last few words said to her. 

Echo (1874) Alexandre Cabanel
Usually Echo just looks sad and resigned to her fate so it was interesting to find Cabanel's image of her realising what has been done to her and fighting pointlessly against the change.  Echo's first transformation is again because of the dirty business of sex, whether she was the one who was rolling with Zeus or just covering up for his shenanigans. The removal of her voice was a punishment for being an accessory to extra-marital sex.  Terrible in itself but worse was yet to come...

Echo and Narcissus (1903) John William Waterhouse
When Echo finally fell in love, she picked the sort of chap we all know so well.  Narcissus was so beautiful that he only had eyes for himself and Echo could do nothing to woo him or tell him how she felt so her physical form faded away and she remained only a sound.  He transformed into a flower that gazes forever into the water, although it seems a punishment for his folly rather than desire.

These are in no way the only woman who are transformed in mythology, as metamorphoses are rife, be it the Heliades into poplar trees, Carya into a walnut tree, and Philyra into a linden tree (trees were popular, apparently).  That leads me to the final transformation...

The Tree of Forgiveness (1881-2) Edward Burne-Jones
Phyllis loved her husband Demophon, but he was forced to ride away and help his father.  When Phyllis gave up all hope of his return, she hanged herself from the branch of an almond tree.  An almond tree sprang from her grave and when Demophon returned and embraced it in grief, Phyllis suddenly emerged from inside it, the passion she felt transforming her back into a woman.  This is not a common ending to the story, usually only the tree merely blossoms or he never returns at all, but in Burne-Jones' dramatic painting the woman's transformation is one of empowerment, that her love sets her free and she can finally claim what she desires.  He doesn't look so sure but then his dead wife has just exploded out of a tree and that does tend to take you back a bit. Through Burne-Jones we have transformation as victory rather than finale, a win rather than just an end, and more importantly the woman choose the time and form of her transformation.

As for me, post-transformation, I am different but very much the same.  My transformation gave me the confidence and peace to become me, blogger, writer, general chatterbox and good-for-nothing saucepot. It was undoubtedly one of the best things I ever did, although there may well be moments when Mr Walker would prefer to be married to a tree...

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Review: Red: A Natural History of the Redhead

You cannot be a fan of Pre-Raphaelite art without, at some point, noticing that one hair colour seems rather prevalent.  Whether you say 'russet' or 'Titian' or just plain 'ginger', the one hair colour that seems to be forever linked to Pre-Raphaelite art, rightly or wrongly, is red...

The 'natural history' of red hair is the subject of a brand spanking new book by Jacky Colliss Harvey, which I was sent as a jolly review pressie.  The front, as you can see is emblazoned with La Ghirlandata, reflecting the thread of the book that explores the cultural significance of red hair, but that is not all.  Starting 50,000 years ago, Harvey traces the origins and spread of russet tresses across the globe with the origins of man and the migration of the first tribes from Africa.  The recessive gene and its behaviour is the subject for the first fascinating chapters, showing how the characteristic can appear full strength, or in part, or in freckles, and predominantly in northern Europe.  Early on Harvey mentions albinism (which again I have an interest in) and there are links in the physical development and issues due to photosensitivity which I found very relevant to the Walker Household (which numbers one albino, one redhead and one chestnut glaze).  It's not only that which Harvey touches on; she also mentions things believed about redheads in history, from witchcraft, mind-reading and all manner of other magical powers.  I have informed Mr Walker that with his magical powers and Lily's mind-reading, we should go on the road...

The heavenly Joan Holloway from Mad Men
The cultural side of the book runs from Jesus to Joan Holloway covering all points in between.  The allure of a red-headed woman (and the conversant repel of a red-headed man) seems heavily linked with sin, temptation and temper.  One splendid quote runs 'God gives a woman red hair for the same reason he gives a wasp stripes.' Lovely.

...the 'redde-headed' queen
Elizabeth I...
The description of 'red' hair comes from Elizabethan time, according to Harvey, when the term 'redde-headed' was coined in Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae.  The bright tresses of the queen gave way to a fashion for the colour, but stories of her temper and caprice were wide-spread and enduring.  Her independence, stubbornly holding out against attacks from abroad and at home, not to mention her unmarried status all added to the Virgin Queen's reputation and her red hair was just a part of that character.

The Biblical redheads, Judas and Mary Magdalene, find their full expression in art, as covered in the chapters on red hair in art.  This is obviously where we all come in, as the Pre-Raphaelites get a thorough going over as well as Whistler and Courbet.  Rather than concentrating on that well known ginger, Elizabeth Siddal, Harvey follows the life and career of Alexa Wilding...

La Bella Mano (1875) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Harvey states Alexa's hair was somewhere between copper and marigold, which is an interesting claim.  On the whole I feel that Rossetti had a mono-mania about hair colour and everyone got rouged up, even poor brunette Jane on occasions. Anyway, along with Alexa, Harvey looks at Jo Hiffernan...

Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl James McNeill Whistler
Jo, the beautiful Irish girl, was mistress to Whistler, and then model and mistress to Gustav Courbet, notoriously sitting (or should that be reclining) for L'Origine du Monde...

Look, I'm not posting a picture of The Origins of the World on here.
If you are of stout moral persuasion, google it
and then have a stiff drink and remember you're English.
Here instead is a lovely picture of a pussy
 and not the sort that will get you an adults-only rating.
Anyway, there is a very interesting discussion of the lady-garden in The Origins of the World, which is very determinedly not red, and is very, very dark.  If Jo was a natural redhead that is not her lower levels, and in fact the woman's head portrait that was recently matched to The Origins seems to bear this out.  Sorry Miss Hiffernan, that's not your bits and pieces.

Detail of Beethoven Frieze (1901) Gustav Klimt
In Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze he characterizes the blonde woman as Debauchery, the brunette as Intemperance and the redhead as Lust.  This connection of red hair with sex is arguably what linked Jo Hiffernan with such an explicit image, and lingers still in figures such as Jessica Rabbit, referencing back to the ever-russet-y Mary Magdalene.  By contrast Harvey brings us up to date with heroines full of grit and determination, such as The X-Files' Agent Scully and Disney's Merida from Brave.  The duality of the redhead, both horribly fallen and steadfastly upright will rage on, no doubt.

Beata Beatrix (1864-70) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
To conclude, if you want a book about the meaning of red hair in Pre-Raphaelite art, then this probably isn't the book for you as that is only one part of what is on offer here.  However if you are after a full and fascinating account of the origins and cultural meanings of being a bit of a ginger, then you will be both impressed and entertained.  The subject spans ethnography, geography and science, all the way to art and pop cultural and is always understandable and thoughtful. 

For the record, I always found red haired men very attractive.  As Mr Walker knows well.

To buy Red: A Natural History of the Redhead visit Amazon UK (here) or US (here) or visit your local bookshop...