A Portrait-Painter’s Story – a ghostly encounter unveiled to Dickens in 1861

HeaphyLast year I randomly downloaded an American podcast doing a Halloween special about the history of ghosts and supernatural writings in the nineteenth century. The hosts came across a ghost story which was published in a journal edited by Dickens, All the Year Round, in September 1861, entitled A Portrait-Painter’s Story.  I was intrigued by that time while I listened to the podcast and today I dug out some information regarding the curious anecdote of Dickens.

The story set against the backdrop during autumnal time in 1858. A portrait painter occasioned to get acquainted with a beautiful young lady who got in the carriage at the Doncaster stop and sat down opposite to him while he was travelling on a morning train from York to London.

The next few minutes were occupied in locating herself. There was the cloak to be spread under her, the skirts of the dress to be arranged, the gloves to be tightened, and such other trifling arrangements of plumage as ladies are wont to make before sitting themselves comfortably at church or elsewhere, the last and most important being the placing back over her hat the veil that concealed her features. I could then see that the lady was young, certainly pot more than two or three and twenty; but being moderately tall, rather robust in make and decided in expression, she might have been two or three years younger.

The protagonist was supposed to leave the lady to get on with his journey and interchanged at Retford Junction so as to meet up a Kirkbeck family in Lincolnshire. However, as soon as he arrived at the host’s house he against bumped into the mysterious young lady who stood near the chimney-place and warmed her feet. Since then several times did the mysterious young woman appear to him inadvertently and besought him to make some sketches of her with his own recollection. To ease the painter’s burden to his work, she also produced from her belongings an engraving of a woman  whom her family considered to be very much like her.

“Do you think you could paint my portrait?” the lady inquired.

“Yes, 1 think I could, if I had the opportunity.”

“Now, look at my face well; do you think you should recollect my features?”

“Yes, I am sure I should never forget your features.”

“Of course I might have expected you to say that; but do you think you could do me from recollection?”

“Well, if it be necessary, I will try; but can’t you give me any sittings?”

“No, quite impossible; it could not be. It is said that the print I showed you before dinner is like me; do you think so?”

“Not much.” I replied; “it has not your expression. If you can give me one sitting, it would be better than none.”

“No; I don’t see how it could be.”

Weeks later the portrait painter unexpectedly stayed with a family called Lute, which the story is brought to the climax in that the young lady, who actually named Caroline, “died near four months previously; that her father had never yet recovered from the shock of her death”. Through violent paroxysms, the father saw images of the deceased daughter engaging with the protagonist; and being taken care by the circumstance of fate and the portrait painter’s sketches, the once indisposed yet convalescing father could finally reunite with his beloved Caroline through the memories they shared with each other. “The portrait now hangs in his bedroom, with the print and the two sketches by the side, and written beneath is: “C. L., 13th September, 1858, aged twenty-two.”

Victorians those days were all obsessed with spiritual encounters, mesmerism, prophecies, premonitions, inexplicable fate and coincidences that befell upon them in life, just the same as we are today, which made supernatural and Gothic tales irresistible to the reading public (One example was that a young girl aged fifteen was suffered from fits and died horribly as she was much worried by Mother Shipton’s prophecy that the world would end in 1881). The publication of A Portrait-Painter’s Story soon aroused an incredulous response, especially from a miniature painter, Thomas Frank Heaphy (1813 – 1873). Heaphy wrote in a letter to Dickens attached with his own copy of the story  claiming that the incident, who Heaphy thought “originated” by Dickens, was more or less true – but he himself was the actually none other than the real “protagonist” who encountered this seemingly young and beautiful apparition. Dickens was much amazed and shocked by the coincidence displayed through the series of correspondence he had with Heaphy, especially as to the date that he himself inserted while revising the proof for the publication – “Why that date should have come into my head rather than any other I am profoundly unable to say.” The Story, according to Dickens’s account, was second handed to Sir Edward Lytton from a young writer named Edward Ward, and timely Mr Layard, a friend of his, also heard Sir Edward Lytton retold it in a gathering party.

Dickens thought the version of Heaphy’s was far more striking as well as superior and requested to procure Heaphy’s manuscript upon his approval to be published in the October issue of  All the Year Round. After Heaphy’s death several years later, his wife republished the later husband’s supernatural account enriched by the long-kept correspondences between Heaphy and Dickens.

As a side-note, we might not know what Dickens first reaction was while reading Heaphy’s letter. Enraged? Annoyed? Surprised? Shocked? He might be irritated that his dear fellows implicated him to his being accused of “stealing people’s ideas” again as he was not only once beset by these similar cases before. And never did he know that around four years later, he would incur a railway incident yet again, this time, which was actually a matter of life and death.

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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton (1)

51zzcEgaQLL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I have delved into the first few chapters of The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton by Diane Atkinson. The Sheridan family shared some kind of erratic flight of passion in the aspect of love. Or in other cases, this was the misfortunes that many stage players shared in marriage lives, including Fanny Kemble, Mrs. Siddons.

At young age, both father and son (Richard Brinsley (“Sherry”) and Tom) eloped with singer Eliza Liney and budding novelist Caroline Henrietta Callander respectively, also declared man and life at Gretna Green. However both cases ended in all a muddle. Sherry, although fought two duels with Charles Mathews over Eliza Liney before marriage, he had a fling with notable women of the contemporary in spite of his nuptial status – poet Frances Anne Crewe and Henrietta Ponsonby. His wife Eliza Liney on the other hand had an affair with Duke of Clarence (afterwards William IV). Incidentally, before his succession as the King, William also had an actress lover Mrs. Jordan who had borne him more than ten children before the separation.

Elza Liney

Elza Liney

As of the son, Thomas Sheridan, he was sued for “criminal conversation” in 1807 after he was appointment as manager Drury Lane Theatre by his father, which his daughter Caroline later on incurred. This scandalous affair with Mrs. Elizabeth Campbell, the wife of a Jamaican plantation owner, that happened before his marriage with Caroline Norton’s mother, punished him off with the unpayable fifteen hundred pounds and thus sent him off to the Fleet prison.

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The Crim. Con. Gazette, flourished in the 1830s.

I still haven’t sailed in the nuptial life of Caroline and George Norton, up to the point where they married at St George’s, Hanover Square in 1827 and set off to Edinburgh at galleried “Bull and Mouth” Coaching Inn. But I like the description of Caroline compared with the unpleasant George Norton.

“Her self-esteem was higher than considered seemly for young ladies and she could be ‘stormy-tempered with a reckless and specious tongue’. A combination of her mother’s gentle beauty and quiet literary prowess, and her father’s dramatic impulsive and love of showing-off, had given her a reputation as bossy, high-handed and an outrageous flirt…Caroline could also be magnanimous and generous in defeat, and was ‘uninterested in paying back old scores’ when the ‘ungovernable outburst of resentment against them had subsided’.” (p.43)

Sad Girls by Lang Leav

9781449487768When I read first few pages of this book, it does not start off convincing to me, because Audrey, the heroine of this novel, blurted out a lie because she only wanted to “create some kind of commotion, something to break the monotony”. It does not remind me of anything like it in the reality, and it does not quite catch on. But when I continue reading the plot, this novel turns out surprisingly attractive;  it resonates some books I had read in the past, for example, Paulo Coelho Eleven Minutes.

In Audrey case, she found Rad as her inseparable half, the one that “created the link that was lacking in the universe” (from Eleven Minutes) because of the passion in life they both indulged in – the love of writing and life. But most importantly, they connected because of the lie and sins, the pain they both evaded to feel in themselves but both shared. Love is conscious when souls are present, when coincidences hit hard. However in the beginning, Audrey’s dark secret of the lie she told could not unveiled to Rad because of its ugliness. That night she revealed it, one being too engulfed with sin she had committed and one being reluctant to accept the truth, both exiled themselves and embarked on a journey to reclusive places unbeknownst to one another. On Audrey’s part, she found a mentor who taught her to seek, enrich, and empty the soul; Rad, on the other hand, incurred failure during Audrey’s absence. Through this journey that dealt with self-doubts and desperation of sadness, souls were cleansed and emptied in order to prepare for a  more overflowing love.

  • “I followed his gaze upward, and we thought our individual thoughts, sending them out into the universe like parallel lines. At that moment, I felt a sense of something that was bigger than us, an inexplicable force that willfully drew Rad and me to this convergence, to this particular alignment with the stars. We were always meant for each other.”
  • “A deep realization reverberated through my body, like the ringing of a church bell. All at once, I understood why the pain of separation, that carving out of the insides, had to happen. I used to have this sense that I felt too much for Rad, that the feelings inside me would start spilling over and I wouldn’t be able to contain them. Now I knew why I had been hollowed out, why my insides were chipped away with a chisel and mallet. It was to make room for this new feeling, this love that was so vast, so expansive it could not have fit into the vessel I once was.”

Actually, on the point Audrey was homecoming and reached to a point of self-realization of what the definition of love was, I thought this was the time that the “ultima” finally achieved, that the novel about depression and suicide could finally turned out to be something more healthy. Unexpectedly, out of a bang! there is a shocking twist to the plot that novel ends up unwholesome and dangerous again,  similar to a relationship like Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. That I begin questioning whether Sad Girls has a good ending or not, and I do not know whether the Author intentionally has this ending in mind as she writes it along.

The novel ends with the paragraph “If you know what it’s like to want someone so much you would kill for them. If you know what it’s like to feel someone so deep under your skin you would sacrifice everything to protect them even if it screws up your own moral compass. That’s what love is”. Perhaps with these lines as well as the twist, the book becomes a more memorable read. But I am not really keen on this. On the other hand, I appreciate this novel for the fact that it reminds me of something I had read in the past. Some quotes from the conversations frequently breathes in and out and might make one jot down on a piece of paper. Some are beautiful, some related to a reader’s own experiences, some are insightful. I especially like the ones on writing, and I feel that the author is really treating this novel as part of her biography and put a lot of effort in it.

  • “An author’s first novel is always, at least in part, an autobiography.”
  • “I learned that writing is the consolation prize you are given when you don’t get the thing you want the most.” 
  • “I don’t think all writers are sad. I think it’s the other way around – all sad people write. It’s a form of catharsis, a way of working through things that feel unresolved, like undoing a knot. People who are prone to sadness are more likely to pick up a pen.”
  • “You can never relive a moment through writing. You can only retell it.”

Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

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41mGXz+lVxL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Suddenly, there is a brutal siren which wakes and lures one back into reality, a situation which instantly forces one to face and overcome his fear. Tidal Zone is a book full of emotions and sensitiveness and that is what it thrills me.

One such household waited for the arrival of two elderly sisters living next door who, believing that anything white was visible to the enemy pilot above, went out at night with colanders on their grey heads… [I] read of other instances of this belief; one woman, living in a village outside Coventry, responded to every siren by running outside to take white laundry off the line, as if the Luftwaffe had crossed the channel to bomb clean sheets, In the same village, an elderly man went around with shears chopping white blossom off fruit trees. I found these acts of superstition in some way reassuring. Not everyone, then, gathered with Spam sandwiches and a stiff upper-lip for a sing-song until the All Clear.

There is a historical story-line which works abreast with the main plot – the airraids, bombing and rebuilding of Coventry. Adam, the “anti-patriarchal” protagonist of the novel, “breaks down into pieces” while his daughter was admitted to the hospital in a loss of consciousness after two counts of incidents some years ago that Adam and his wife were in ignorance about his daughter’s uncertain but devastating illness. On one hand, while researching the cataclysmic bombing of Coventry, he failed to find the fear and brokenness in the residents. Instead, what he could dig out were their orderly manners, the ordinariness, with a bit of “fun” to live in the fear of mortality. “Normality” is the keyword that keeps popping up throughout the novel. He thought “living every day as if your last” – a phrase that is found ubiquitously in fridge magnets – is not in congruence with everyday intellects (this is the bit I find hard to understand); it is a roundabout way to say that we fear death.

  • OK, all right, phrases to which we cling, the comfort blankets or blindfolds of our time and place. There is no pre-twentieth century version of ‘OK’, which may or may not tell us that is a modern delusion that normality is not frightening, that it is normal not to be frightened. I personally don’t like depressing subjects, people say, as if mortality is a lifestyle choice, disease and violence and sorrow a matter of taste. 

“It’s the idea, Rosie-pose, that if you give people pleasure they won’t go looking for truth. You’d rather have a story about shiny apples and long dresses than listen to Dad talking about monarchy and power. Most people’d rather watch posh girls twiddling around with pastry than learn about what the food industry’s doing to our generation. There’s no point in history if it’s all just fantasy and self-congratulation.”  – Miriam

Adam is a character in the novel who craves for ideas relating to the past. There is the mental struggle and clash we could feel as Adam tries to confront, define, adapt and overcome the past with the present – Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds compared with its negative change towards modernity, the death of his mother, surrealistic, but there is the probability of it being connected with the health of his daughters. There is Adam’s Jewish ancestry, the inherent family values between the sexes and career slump he has to confront as a result of his pursuit of academic passion in his youth…the beautiful / poignant Past is always romanticised, crystallised and sanctified by the Present.

On the other hand, when it comes to the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral – the inspirations of West Screen, the baptistry window, the roof, and the tapestry that Basil Spence came about – of it being illustrated, healed and reconciled with history and remembrance work along with Adam’s healing of his heart really well. Although we could not deny the Past – that it is what shape us, that we and our emotions should accept its beauty, the evil; at the same time, we should not forget and lose the hopefulness for the present.

  • How could I wish anything other than what we had, since the slightest variation of the past, the slightest indulgence in fictional time-travel, would tamper with our extraordinary luck?

I wanted my daughter at home, her presence our benediction. As if I could no longer distinguish between an absent child and a lost one, as if I had lost what in babies is called object constancy, meaning the knowledge that something absent continues to exist out of sight and hearing. The acquisition of object constancy is said to be an important developmental stage. Mummy is not gone but elsewhere. Teddy is under the cot. The problem, it seemed to me in those days, is that object constancy is one of those lies we tell ourselves to make it possible to live. Important things may cease to exist when you look away.

The relationship and intimacy between Adam and his family is interesting. Adam’s family is challenging the patriarchal worldview, and Miriam is the reflection of the Family’s values. She is willing to differentiate herself. While Adam, although he might be forced to differentiate himself under forced circumstances; as a full-time staying home dad, he is devoted to his family wholeheartedly. Adam creeps over and opens his daughters’ door at night just to make sure he could hear them breathing. He is experiencing Miriam and Rose’s growth through their concerned health and letting it go. The conversations between Miriam and Adam are one of the humourous elements in the novel apart from the descriptions of the meetings held in the hierarchical academic institution.

I really like this novel. I like the cover portrait. I really like the heading of each chapter. The novel is relevant to a person with sensitive feelings who also like reminiscing the past and how one deals with it. Written in first-person narrative, it is full of emotions. The author spends a great deal of writing historical accounts of places about Coventry Cathedral, the Cotswolds, Cornwall and other places like Black Bear ranch, which are interesting as well as deep and insightful regarding Adam’s feelings and circumstances. The book deserves to be read again just so I can dig out something new and important.

I was of a roving adventurous temperament

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(A Rogue’s Life, Wilkie Collins)

  • I was of a roving adventurous temperament, and I should have liked to go into the army. But where was the money to come from, to pay for my commission? As to enlisting in the ranks, and working my way up, the social institutions of my country obliged the grandson of Lady Malkinshaw to begin military life as an officer and gentleman, or not to begin it at all. The army, therefore, was out of the question. The Church? Equally out of the question: since I could not pay for admission to the prepared place of accommodation for distinguished people, and could not accept a charitable free pass, in consequence of my high connections. The Bar? I should be five years getting to it, and should have to spend two hundred a year in going circuit before I had earned a farthing. Physic? This really seemed the only gentlemanly refuge left; and yet, with the knowledge of my father’s experience before me, I was ungrateful enough to feel a secret dislike for it. It is a degrading confession to make; but I remember wishing I was not so highly connected, and absolutely thinking that the life of a commercial traveler would have suited me exactly, if I had not been a poor gentleman. Driving about from place to place, living jovially at inns, seeing fresh faces constantly, and getting money by all this enjoyment, instead of spending it – what a life for me, if I had been the son of a haberdasher and the grandson of a groom’s widow!
  • Whatever may be said about it in books, no emotion in this world ever did, or ever will, last for long together. The strong feeling may return over and over again; but it must have its constant intervals of change or repose. In real life the bitterest grief doggedly takes its rest and dries its eyes; the heaviest despair sinks to a certain level, and stops there to give hope a chance of rising, in spite of us. Even the joy of an unexpected meeting is always an imperfect sensation, for it never lasts long enough to justify our secret anticipations – our happiness dwindles to mere every-day contentment before we have half done with it.
  • Not knowing the name of it, and not daring to excite surprise by asking, I found the place full of vague yet mysterious interest. Here I was, somewhere in central England, just as ignorant of localities as if I had been suddenly deposited in Central Africa. My lively fancy revelled in the new sensation. I invented a name for the town, a code of laws for the inhabitants, productions, antiquities, chalybeate springs, population, statistics of crime, and so on, while I walked about the streets, looked in at the shop-windows, and attentively examined the Market-place and Town-hall. Experienced travelers, who have exhausted all novelties, would do well to follow my example; they may be certain, for one day at least, of getting some fresh ideas, and feeling a new sensation.

Heart and Science (1883) by Wilkie Collins

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Mouchy, Emile Edouard, 1802-1870; A Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog

Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog, by Émile Édouard Mouchy (1802–1870). (ArtUK.org)

“A Christian can’t be expected to care about beasts—but right is right all the world over. Because a monkey is a nasty creature (as I have heard, not even good to eat when he’s dead), that’s no reason for taking him out of his own country and putting him into a cage. If we are to see creatures in prison, let’s see creatures who have deserved it—men and women, rogues and sluts. The monkeys haven’t deserved it. Go in—I’ll wait for you at the door.”

A young person, possessed of no more than ordinary knowledge, might have left the old woman to enjoy the privilege of saying the last word. Miss Minerva’s pupil, exuding information as it were at every pore in her skin, had been rudely dried up at a moment’s notice. Even earthly perfection has its weak places within reach. Maria lost her temper.

“You will allow me to remind you,” she said, “that intelligent curiosity leads us to study the habits of animals that are new to us. We place them in a cage…”

Since the publication of Woman in White (1859), the master of sensation fiction examines moral issues and human weaknesses of the contemporary societies across Europe and the Atlantic. This time, Heart and Science, which has a subtitle named “A Story of the Present Time”, reflects Wilkie Collins’s doubts, or even inflicts severe reprimand regarding animal experiments and vivisection. Just as he quotes words of Walter Scott in the preface, “I am no great believer in the extreme degree of improvement to be derived from the advancement of Science; for every study of that nature tends, when pushed to a certain extent, to harden the heart.”

Knowledge for its own sake, is the one god I worship. Knowledge is its own justification and its own reward. The roaring mob follows us with its cry of Cruelty. We pity their ignorance. Knowledge sanctifies cruelty. The old anatomist stole dead bodies for Knowledge. In that sacred cause, if I could steal a living man without being found out, I would tie him on my table, and grasp my grand discovery in days, instead of months.

This novel might be drawing upon lots of arguments suggested by National Anti-Vivisection Society found by Frances Power Cobbe in the 1870s. “[W]hat proof there is that the effect of a poison on an animal may be trusted to inform us, with certainty, of the effect of the same poison on a man….a pigeon will swallow opium enough to kill a man, and will not be in the least affected by it; and parsley, which is an innocent herb in the stomach of a human being, is deadly poison to a parrot.” The Cruelty to Animals Act (1876) stipulates that a vivisection being licensed and made legal should be based upon the circumstances that objects were anesthetized throughout the test and used only once in the same experiments for purposes which are helped towards medical and scientific researches of human goods; however, the book confronts the law which reflects how society defines and visionalises the position of species that are categorised as inferiors  to humans (which is also resonant to the deplorable and voiceless state and treatment of fairer sex in relation to, e.g., Married Women’s Property Acts in Wilkie Collins’s previous novels), and questions our truest pursuits of knowledge – whether we could attribute this tendency of stocking and application of information to our inbred altruistic virtue of inquisitiveness and humility as a whole, or conversely, degeneration that is owing to avarice in egoism and reputation, which, again, could be alluded to concerns of human relationships between masses and individuals of the Victorian age as well, for instance, regarding the irony of telescopic philanthropy (self-congratulatory egocentrism) at the expense of households prevailing in literature.

after-the-ball-afred-stevens“‘Teresa, my well-beloved friend, – I have considered the anxieties that trouble you, with this result: that I can do my best, conscientiously, to quiet your mind. I have had the experience of forty years in the duties of the priesthood. In that long time, the innermost secrets of thousands of men and women have been confided to me. From such means of observation, I have drawn many useful conclusions; and some of them may be also useful to you. I will put what I have to say, in the plainest and fewest words: consider them carefully, on your side. The growth of the better nature, in women, is perfected by one influence – and that influence is Love. Are you surprised that a priest should write in this way? Did you expect me to say, Religion? Love, my sister, is Religion, in women. It opens their hearts to all that is good for them; and it acts independently of the conditions of human happiness. A miserable woman, tormented by hopeless love, is still the better and the nobler for that love; and a time will surely come when she will show it. You have fears for Carmina – cast away, poor soul, among strangers with hard hearts! I tell you to have no fears. She may suffer under trials; she may sink under trials. But the strength to rise again is in her – and that strength is Love.’”

Wilkie Collins emphasize the importance of Heart over Science, that is to say, the importance of Characters. Throughout his many novels, Wilkie Collins examines egoistic disposition of characters through their reactions towards the confrontation of circumstances. In Man and Wife (1870), Geoffrey Delamyn’s degeneration owning to the extremity of athleticism is shown through by the circumstances. This is also the case in Heart and Science regarding his pleasant didactic approach. Just as his preface says, to the readers in general, “from first to last, you are purposely left in ignorance of the hideous secrets of Vivisection. The outside of the laboratory is a necessary object in my landscape – but I never once open the door and invite you to look in. I trace, in one of my characters, the result of the habitual practice of cruelty (no matter under what pretence) in fatally deteriorating the nature of man – and I leave the picture to speak for itself, and that is Doctor Benjulia, a competitive specialist ambitious in rising to fame but being ignorant of human emotions and kindness, as well as Mrs. Gallilee, a “chatelaine” whose devotion to scientific discussions made her end up being a woman who sticks to nothing by all means. Last but not least, Mr. Le Frank, a gentlemanly looking but a nasty-in-heart and retributive piano master whose vanity and vindictive nature sets a trap on himself in the end. All these characters show that avid passion on one thing does not necessarily improve a person on his/her moral grounds. On the other hand, we have characters such as Mr. Gallilee, Teresa the Italian nursemaid, and Frances Minerva the governess, who implies that there exists universal affections among God’s creations. And among all, Miss Minerva, who resembles Marian in the Woman in White, is the most enigmatic and interesting character in the Novel who is the “goddess” exemplary figure in an unrequited love, with an echo to tragic Rosanna Spearman in the Moonstone. Provided with this hostile dichotomy, this is a duel of survival reality show between humans of avaricious quest of knowledge and humans whose hearts exist a selfless love.

Last but not least, I think Wilkie Collins could be deemed as one of the pioneers who discovers the connectivity of sexism and speciesism of his day. Many ideas, such as animal experiments, regarding the use of cosmetic products, is also relevant today. Heart and Science, to me, is a thought-provoking novel which deserves readers to delve deeply into. It is humourous and nonetheless a moralistic Victorian classic of how a criticism of a big idea could lead to and reflects many social perspectives and human relationships of the contemporaries.

Underground Airport (Excerpt of Yuki Chan in Brontë Country by Mick Jackson)

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“The fundamental mistake in airport design, Yuki believes, is that everything is so goddamned white. There is altogether too much light, both natural and artificial. The notion persists for some reason, that, since the passengers are about the head skyward, a sense of space and whiteness is what’s required, to get everyone in the mood. But Yuki considers this to be a grave, grave error. In truth, the airport customer is preparing for a period of confinement, in what is essentially a fast moving tunnel. One’s pre-flight, airport-bound hours are a process of surrender. We grow quiet. We withdraw to ourselves. And no wonder. We are about to pass through a portal. What’s required, Yuki feels, is warm, dark spaces. Something womb-like. Airports should, in fact, be underground.

“Another of Yuki’s bugbears regarding modern-day airports – and one of the first things she will set about remedying once appointed – is having to travel the thirty or forty miles out to where the planes arrive/depart from the city after which the airport is named. Such a ridiculous waste of time. Yuki’s plan is to create a new generation of airports situated directly below the world’s major cities. Once the air traveller arrives at his/her destination and passes through immigration he/she will simply step into an elevator and, moments later, stride out into: the Champs-Élysées, Times Square, Sydney Harbour, or the lobby of whatever hotel they happen to be staying in.

“Sure, this will entail a good deal of digging, but Yuki believes that people are willing to rise to a challenge, particularly one with such evident benefits. She’s equally confident that there already exist large and noisy machine capable of doing the necessary earth-removal. If not, she is prepared to invent such a machine in any spare time she can conjure up between her regular job as a Leading Fashion House Designer and her weekend post creating a new generation of subterranean urban airports. She has already completed two or three rough sketches.

“Most of the Excavation will be spent creating the vast cavern necessary to house the airport. The tunnels/corridors down which the aeroplanes will fly need not necessarily be that wide. Just big enough to accommodate a plane’s typical wingspan, plus an extra metre or two. But oh, yes – quite, quite long. At the point of entry Yuki envisages a sort of slash in the earth, somewhere just beyond the city’s perimeter, As the plane approaches its destination there is bound to be a little nervousness among the passengers. But the people enjoy a tiny bit of nervousness now and again, don’t you think? The captain’s voice will come over the speakers: ‘Ladies and gentleman, we are now approaching London Scar. Please fasten your seat belts, super-tight.’ Then – just imagine – dropping, dropping. Peering out of the little windows to see the ground rising up to meet you. Children standing over their bicycles, open-mouthed. Then suddenly – POW! – the sky is gone, and the whole plane is swallowed up by Planet Earth and all you see are rocks and soil through the windows. And you are flying underground!”

Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, Mick Jackson

Ten Sorry Tales by Mick Jackson

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Ten sorry tales.jpgThis book would be one of the points that browsing randomly at bookshops or libraries would constantly give you a surprise. I picked up this book by Mick Jackson for its intriguing illustrations and cover, and when I got to the first page, it comes near to the top of my list. Each tale is impressive and unforgettable. They are quirky, eccentric; and I really agree with the back cover which says “the stories are nevertheless rooted in our own, all too recognisable world”. Irs story opens with certain characters and issues in bad conditions which all of us actually had, would have, or will come across at certain points of lives; and as the plot goes on, it unexpectedly swirls into bizarre tale.

Take “Lepidoctor” for example (I was so unimaginative and gullible at one time that I thought this term was real and existed in the nineteenth century). Doesn’t that installation art at the gallery described in the tale remind me of Damien Hirst’s Butterfly? (when I first heard of this art piece some years ago I was literally flabbergasted by it, in which case I think the author unlocks every human of this latent phobia. Butterflies are so beautiful aren’t they? Not! They are evil creatures in disguise!)

Vivid blues, emerald greens and luminous turquoises all shimmered together in the two huge wings of a single vast butterfly which was so big it practically filled the whole of  one wall…The creature somehow managed to be both beautiful and monstrous at the same time. It was only as he walked towards it that he saw how that massive butterfly was actually made up of several hundred real butterflies which had been carefully arranged into something like a huge mosaic.

From then on the catastrophic and terrifying image of the butterflies which was once deep within readers’ mind transforms into a shocking and “handsclapping” scene in the end imparting the moral and Nature’s revenge. It is not a whirlwind plot yet so destructive, dark and impressive, I feel like playing an interactive role instilling some emotions whilst reading the story.

In another tale “Alien Abduction“, it challenges my regular mindset about this concept, and it implies my lack of imagination. The story again starts with a familiar circumstance – children sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher’s “tirade”. Within short intervals a student’s imagination and creativity comes into play. The plot sounds far-fetched; some proses are heartwrenching at times and somewhat cuts slightly open into readers’ heart as well as in other rales.

This book has such a personality – funny, eccentric, but dark. Illustrating ironies of the rich, limning the plights of the isolated, retired, bereaved, and the mournful lot; but their sorry conditions actually foretell satisfying and illuminating culminations concluding each of their self-seeking journey (and probably for the readers). In this case, I am sure readers with active and busy minds would certainly be entertained and kept occupied with this book; not without mentioning that deserves a re-read. A remarkable reading experience indeed and I am hopefully to read more books by this author!

Death and Mr. Pickwick

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“Suddenly he sat up. He opened a notebook and wrote down: ‘What if the gullible man not only believed the preposterous stories to be factual – but he travelled in search of similar stories, believing himself to be on a scientific expedition? Suppose he sought such nonsense because he thirsted for “useful knowledge”!’ (p. 204)

515vomDjgdL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDeath and Mr. Pickwick is a faction endeavouring to bring up the justice which once has been dismissed in the case of Robert Seymour (1798 -1836), who was the illustrator for the first two serial installments of The Pickwick Papers and also believed to be the originator / mastermind of the Novel rather than Boz himself. Regarding my familiarity with Pickwick Papers, I read that around three years ago and left with very vague memories except the court case of Mrs. Bardell against Pickwick, tales of the Convict’s Return, the Talking Chair, and the hallucination of the drunken clown. However I was intrigued by Death and Mr. Pickwick mostly because it is set in the nineteenth century and has 800-page long which is intended to resemble the ramblings of Dickens’ work. Apart from that, I am always especially interested in books which concern the personal and lesser-known life of Dickens; for example, A Girl in Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold – a novel which focuses on the lamented love and marriage between Catherine Hogarth and Dickens with Catherine’s perspective. Not without mentioning The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin, which is a brilliant biography imparting the life of Ellen Ternan, a gaslight fairy and much-concealed mistress of Dickens.

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Night and Morning. Robert Seymour

“The caricature of Seymour is in itself an article and Seymour has shown how insignificant are dashes of our pen compared with the superhuman digs of his iron-veined pencil.” (p. 245) – Gilbert à Beckett

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Darnley Mausoleum near Cobham Hall (picture from National Trust)

The author of Death and Mr. Pickwick is a great raconteur. This book is a cornucopia of tales leaning in the Georgian era,  which offers brilliant Pickwickian backdrops. There are special mentions of wonderful eccentrics such as Anne Siggs, Bristol Riots, sensational penny-dreadfuls such as the Red Barn Murder and Burke and Hare, the tale of immoral and monstrous killing of Chunee the elephant, and so forth.

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engraving – Pray remember the poor debtors having no allowance

As well as that, there are stories of how certain pubs and inns originated across England (e.g. George and Vulture), fascinating accounts of sundry locations among London and other counties: the legend of Prince Bladud, White Hart Inn (Bath), the Golden Cross Inn (London), printing houses operated by Hannah Humprey; last but not least, with Seymour’s eyes, we happened to meet Moses Pickwick, a proprietor of a coaching business operating between Bath and London, who is the modern muse behind the Pickwick Papers. Many are animated into sets of whimsical drawings by Seymour under days’ toil. Not without mentioning Ely Stott, Caroline Norton, Joseph Grimaldi and notable lot of the nineteenth century who incessantly inspired Dickens continuing to write Pickwick. I was very voracious and was indulged in these interesting historical accounts and details while reading the book.

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Walking by Steam

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Shaving by Steam

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“Browne saw that one short-sighted old engraver, who had the decency to return the nod, was at work on the muscles of an arm, meticulously giving it depth by a succession of close lines – the engraver himself may have looked undernourished, but the biceps on the steel was surely fashioned in the gymnasium. Another engraver, a cloth specialist, used the alternation of closely and widely dispersed lines to indicate the way a cloak hung, while yet another specialised in sky, and was just passing the plate to a specialist in trees…whatever their pictorial concern, all held the burin steady, turning the plate this way and that on a small leather cushion, making their hard-won furrows, building up a picture detail by painstaking detail…” (p. 556)

“There was no short cut to mastery of etching, only the long road of practice: the acid ate his cuffs, his throat was sore from fumes, his eyes smarted and his fingertips turned a shade of yellow…During the day, he pinned tissue paper over his window to soften the light and see the lines better in the wax. After sundown, he filled a bowl with water and placed it before his oil lamp to diffuse the illumination. Eventually he would lie down, and close his eyelids. By that time, he could barely see from the strain of concentration and the soreness of his eyes.” (p. 178)

What Death and Mr. Pickwick overwhelms and touches me in between the pages are the steam-driven power and restlessness of those talented bodies with their stubbornness and lifelong attachment to their arduous tasks –  James Gillray, Joseph Grimaldi, Robert Seymour, Robert William Buss, as well as Mr. N., who appeared in the later story. To me, “Passion” and “Mission” are the spiritual essence which encompasses the book. It is filled with pleasant and atmospheric aura for readers in experiencing historical figures being inspired and haunted by missions in a lifetime. Some work hard and see the accomplishment and adulation of the day; some toil but only get the disappointment and be incessantly stumbled by the failure and amateur criticisms for the remaining of their lives. Still, their hearts stay on in the work they love, which, in this case, echoes very much with the author of Death and Mr. Pickwick who in his effort spending twelve years’ time researching and gathering materials to compose this book, as well as having found the long-neglected tombstone of Seymour in Islington and let that be restored at the Dickens’s Museum, that to me is an incredible achievement.

“I sometimes think, Mr Seymour,” said Boz, “that artists turn to caricature because in the distraction of laughter views will not notice so readily the weaknesses and deficiencies in draughtsmanship.” (p. 529)

One of the most gripping plots is the disputes between Seymour and Boz. From the drawing of portmanteau to the not-so-much authorised tale approved by Seymour of the clown’s hallucinations retold by Dismal Jemmy, Seymour is triggered by Boz of the bitter argument with Gilbert à Beckett earlier on the subject of the appointed illustrations for Figaro in London hence leading to his fatal suicide which he once attempted twice before. But Death and Mr. Pickwick does not end here. It continues to pick up important dates and events related to people who once connected with Pickwick Papers and how this 19th century masterpiece keeps influencing the twentieth century Britain since the day it was introduced to the world. Yes, some changes go on, old ways and things could be eliminated, but hopefully Pickwickian spirit stays on.

To most characters in Death and Mr. Pickwick, Death is a speechless protest. It is depressing, it is tragic. Perhaps it is also the way to reminisce the soul and the excited mind (some see this mad) each had awaken to pursuit their passions once upon a time in the mortal life.

The Evil Genius (1886) by Wilkie Collins

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9781551110172“Is there something wrong in human nature? or something wrong in human laws? All that is best and noblest in us feels the influence of love – and the rules of society declare that an accident of position shall decide whether love is a virtue or a crime.” – Mr. Sarrazin

Wilkie Collins possesses every nuance of insights into human nature, relationships, and societal system of his day. Beginning with Man and Wife (1870), Wilkie Collins boldly emphasizes the missions which encompasses his sensation novels. For example, in Man and Wife (1870), he deals with a series of distinctive and disputable court cases of irregular marriages in Victorian Ireland and Scotland mingled with the issues of Athleticism prevailing in contemporary society. Through the Law and the Lady (1875), he looks into the loopholes of Scots law concerning the court verdict of “not proven” instead of “guilty” and “not guilty”. Tracing the influences of circumstances upon characters, Wilkie Collins dexterously contrives one sensational plot after another with such delicacy that each novel richly dissects how characters of his contemporaries apply their inherent vices/virtue to make themselves compatible with/struggle to get free of the traps of fields such as medicine and health which constantly shape the peerless Victorian Britain.

“It cannot be supposed that a woman who enjoyed even a comparative, chequered, and uncertain happiness at home, would change her social position as a respected wife; her daily and hourly communion with her children; for the chance of obtaining a legal order occasionally to visit her children in the custody of others! – It is monstrous to represent that as a temptation, which can at best be but a slight mitigation of misery.” (Caroline Norton – The Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of Custody of Infants Considered)

In the Evil Genius (1886), a novel dedicated to William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Wilkie Collins uses the distinctive marriage acts in Scotland as a backdrop of the story. Going through the substantial legal reform of ecclesiastical to civil marriages in Victorian England in 1836, custody act in 1839 and divorce act in 1857, the petition of divorce alone was applied by the wife only when her husband committed adultery with combinations of “cruelty, bigamy, incest, or bestiality”. On the other hand in Scotland, adultery alone was sufficient enough to be granted a divorce on the feme covert‘s side, added to this, the wife also anatomically gained access and custody to her legitimate child. With this knowledge, we are introduced to a middle-class family in Scotland. Saddened with the marital fault committed by the husband- Herbert Liney – with the governess, Sydney Westfield; Catherine, wife of Liney, separates from Herbert and later makes a resolution to divorce him with the help of the lawyer, Mr. Sarrazin.”When I was left in the solitude of the night, my heart turned to Kitty; I felt that any sacrifice of myself might be endured for her sake. It’s the remembrance of my marriage, Mr. Sarrazin, that is the terrible trial to me…Those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Is there nothing to terrify me in setting that solemn command at defiance?…My child is my one treasure left. What must I do next? What must I sign? What must I sacrifice? Tell me – and it shall be done. I submit! I submit!” 

“The stealthy influence of distrust fastens its hold on the mind by slow degrees. Little by little it reaches its fatal end, and disguises delusion successfully under the garb of truth.”

The novel portrays the secular reaction from society, the circumstances of the exposure and “social suicide” that the wife has to endure and commits are reflected by other characters including her neighbours, the mother (the evil genius Mrs. Presty), brother-in-law (Randal Liney) and the suitor and philanthropist, Captain Bennydeck. Though granted to untie the knot, Catherine is reprimanded and unfairly disadvantaged by the Lord President at the court of not fulfilling the conjugal duties to help her husband prevent against the temptation of the governess; Mrs. Presty contrives to allude to the others that Catherine is a widow by protecting her daughter’s reputation from a second marriage. Interestingly, Mrs Presty is like the view of Wilkie Collins’s reading our minds- that we consider ourselves the “evil genius” and stickler of righteousness in asserting opinions of people’s characters and behaviour around us. It is to be noted that isolation and hostility could be found in the divorced wife other than the sinful couple. On the other hand, Wilkie Collins delineates the poignant life and distrust shared by Sydney Westfield and Herbert Liney, that readers are admitted to the guilt and penitence of the sinful husband after the separation with his wife. It is to be believed that a series of misunderstanding and a flight of passion and a need for paternal love from Sydney contribute to this affair.

“…Clap-trap, you innocent creature, to catch foolish readers! When do these consistently good people appear in the life around us, the life that we all see? Never! Are the best mortals that ever lived above the reach of temptation to do ill, and are they always too good to yield to it? How does the Lord’s Prayer instruct humanity? It commands us all, without exception, to pray that we may not be led into temptation. You have been led into temptation. In other words, you are a human being. All that a human being could do you have done – you have repented and confessed. Don’t I know how you have suffered and how you have been tried! Why, what a mean Pharisee I should be if I presumed to despise you!” 

What makes the Evil Genius delectable is that this story is  a morality tale with a bit of reflection of the importance of a nuclear family at the time, and place an emphasis on mortal creatures. Although society is set with a standard of moral rightousness, it’s not merely a dichotomy of what is good and evil, but it is fulfilled with a message that individuals are able to be concerned as an entities that are able to forgive and be forgiven. The definitions that Bennydeck gives in his philanthropic institution of “the Home” could actually be applied to the domestic sphere.