'Becoming Manfred': Tchaikovsky and Byron

Page 1

by David Perkins
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s festival overture, The Year 1812, (popularly known as the 1812 Overture), is probably one of his most famous works. Tchaikovsky didn’t think much of it as it was a commission piece to open the All-Russian Arts and Industry Exhibition. “It is impossible to set about without repugnance music that is destined for the glorification of something that delights me not at all,” he grumbled. To his patron he wrote, “The Overture will be very loud and noisy…I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and consequently it will probably be lacking in artistic merit.” The Year 1812, much to Tchaikovsky’s chagrin, was a great success—and continues to be. But it also demonstrates his uncanny facility as a musical craftsman, able to create music that stirs human emotions, even if his heart was not in it.

Tchaikovsky in 1884

Tchaikovsky in 1884


His letters and his diaries reveal that the works he was most proud of were those pieces that deeply engaged his emotions, which evoked those “warm and loving feelings.” This was true when it came to literature as well. He was a voracious reader: philosophy, poetry, novels, and plays. Fluent in many languages, he adored Pushkin, Dickens, Schiller, Dante, and Shakespeare; and even once considered writing an opera based on George Eliot’s Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story. In literature and in music it was imperative that something should stir his soul.
It is by the symphony, however, that composers are often measured, and Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies place him among the world’s greatest. His first symphony, Winter Daydreams (or Winter Reveries), and his sixth symphony, the Pathétique, have made their way into being ranked among the 50 Greatest Symphonies  according to Tom Service, music critic for The Guardian. No one has ever claimed that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are devoid of emotion. His first symphony was a brave act for a young composer in Russia. It wreaked havoc on his health, as he attempted to reconcile his unique Russian vision to the form while yet striving to be true to his academic conservatory training. His second and third symphonies developed his skills and expanded that vision. His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are regarded as masterpieces of the Romantic genre.
 
Manfred
There is an outlier among those numbered symphonies, however. His bewitching and magnificent Manfred Symphony, based on Lord Byron’s poem, was created between his Symphony No. 4, which arguably propelled him into the pantheon of great symphonists, and his Symphony No. 5, which confirmed that standing.
The idea for a symphony based on Byron’s poem was initially proposed to him in 1882 by his friend and fellow composer Mily Balakirev. Tchaikovsky was not inspired by the detailed outline Balakirev proposed, saying it left him “cold,” and furthermore “when the heart and imagination are not warmed, it is hardly worth setting about composing.” He also admitted that the shadow of Schumann’s Manfred, which he admired greatly, might be an undue influence. The matter rested for two years until they met again in Saint Petersburg. Balakirev had been of tremendous inspiration, help, and influence to Tchaikovsky in the composition and revision of the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, and Tchaikovsky trusted his musical judgment. It would seem, up until this point, that Tchaikovsky had not actually read Byron’s poem and had only encountered the idea of it through Schumann and through Balakirev’s outlines but he was at last convinced to reconsider it, and promised to purchase a copy to read as “I will soon be in the Alpine mountains, where the conditions for successfully portraying Manfred in music will be very good, were it not for the fact that I am going to visit a friend who is gravely ill.”
Bierstadt Albert Staubbach Falls Switzerland 1865

Bierstadt Albert Staubbach Falls, Switzerland 1865


 
The “friend” was actually more than a friend; he was an important pivotal person in Tchaikovsky’s emotional life, the talented young violinist, Iosef (Joseph) Kotek. Kotek had studied music theory and composition under Tchaikovsky, and following graduation had become resident violinist in the household of the extremely wealthy widow, the now famous Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who ultimately became Tchaikovsky’s patron. Kotek, who also adored Tchaikovsky’s music, was instrumental in acquainting her to Tchaikovsky’s music. Beyond that, Tchaikovsky consulted Kotek’s expertise on the violin and they worked together often on various works (Tchaikovsky dedicated his Valse-Scherzo, Op.34 for violin and orchestra to him). Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s famous violin concerto was brought into being at the suggestion of and collaboration with Kotek. Tchaikovsky considered dedicating the concerto to him—but demurred, as he was afraid it would stir up gossip. Gossip, because their noticeably very close relationship might have been interpreted as not entirely professional—which it wasn’t. For a time, he was deeply infatuated, and as he confessed only to his brothers, “I am in love, as I haven’t been for a long time…I love him endlessly…” and “I love him very, very much. He is kind and has a tender heart.” This love it seems was never physical, their age differences making the idea disgusting to Tchaikovsky, but the emotion was deep and genuine—and Tchaikovsky, with the text of Manfred in hand, went to Davos, Switzerland among the snow-capped Alpine peaks to see Kotek, who was dying from tuberculosis.
Iosef Kotek and Tchaikovsky, 1877

Iosef Kotek and Tchaikovsky, 1877


 
In the third volume of David Brown’s massive biographical Tchaikovsky tetralogy, he somewhat coyly remarks, “Something occurred to revive the Manfred project. Exactly what we will probably never know, though we may guess.” It would seem simple, however. Tchaikovsky took “great pleasure in the wild landscape” during this visit, as he reported, and it was at Davos in the company of Kotek where he read Manfred in full. This encounter with his hopelessly ill and cherished friend; the eerie, harsh magnificence of the scenery; and the rueful torment of Byron’s Manfred over the death of Astarte, all moved Tchaikovsky to begin to shape the symphony in his mind. The idea of a tortured hero, longing for oblivion and consumed by lost love and an unnamable sin, had taken hold and flowered in the thin air of Davos, and in the rich soil of Tchaikovsky’s emotional imagination.
Davos Platz 1880

Davos Platz 1880


 
On his return to Russia and in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, he said, “In April I began to make sketches for a program symphony on the theme of Byron’s Manfred…I am so captivated… [It] requires tremendous effort and labour from me as it is a most complicated and serious assignment.” And later on in the process, Manfred “happens to have such a tragic character that occasionally I become somewhat of a Manfred myself…I am having to squeeze every last drop of effort from myself…[I] am using up all my strength and as a result, I am absolutely exhausted. Never before have I expended such labour and exertion as on the symphony I am now writing.”

“And loved each other as we should not love…”

Manfred, Act I, Scene 2

Two other earlier programmatic works by Tchaikovsky influenced by literature should be noted here—along with the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet, there is his other famous orchestral fantasia, Francesca da Rimini, based on Canto V of the Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Both of these works, along with Manfred, are intensely emotional—is there any other love theme in music more famous than that found in Romeo and Juliet? And love is the subject of all three, but it is, more to the point, forbidden love, proscribed love, that intensifies the anguish, that magnifies the tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet were separated by the warring families, Francesca and Paolo’s love forbidden by Francesca’s marriage to Paolo’s brother. It is also notable that Romeo and Juliet was composed around the time that another former love of Tchaikovsky, Eduard Zak (Sach), a former student, committed suicide. It is plain that the incestuous love hinted at in Manfred, paralleled by Byron’s own similar shocking scandal, is yet another form of that “forbidden” love, “as we should not love.” These elements all sound not only notes of pain and sorrow, but notes of great soaring beauty as well.
Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini are shorter works, fantasies in one movement, but Manfred is a full-fledged symphony—and not only that, but Tchaikovsky’s largest purely orchestral work, calling for a prodigious and virtuosic orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is epic in scope, exploring the heights and the depths of the theme of tragic love—and yet another form of love that in society, “dare not speak its name.”
Although it was Balakirev’s persistence and his detailed outlines that drew Tchaikovsky to the work, it was Byron’s poem itself and the circumstances under which it was read that propelled Tchaikovsky into undertaking the symphony, and Tchaikovsky developed his own scheme for the work (later apologizing to Balakirev for taking his own path). He followed his heart into the work, and wrote to his friend, the Russian soprano Emiliya Pavlovskaya, “I had been for a long time planning to write a symphony on the subject of Manfred…and became so carried away, as often happens, that I could not stop. The symphony has come out enormous, serious, and difficult; it is absorbing all my time and sometimes wearying in the extreme, but an inner voice tells me that I am not labouring in vain and that this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.”

John Martin Manfred and the Witch of the Alps. 1837. The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

John Martin Manfred and the Witch of the Alps. 1837. The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester


 
Manfred’s three acts are divided into four movements, and Tchaikovsky interpreted the poem not in a strict incident-by-incident fashion, but as an emotional landscape as he also did with Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini. Some have indeed called it more of a tone poem in four movements rather than a symphony, although all the characteristic building blocks of a symphony are in full force, filtered through Tchaikovsky’s own unique compositional skills. The critic John Warrack called it “one of the great programme symphonies of the nineteenth century.” One can see Tchaikovsky’s translation of Byron’s poem in the four prefaces he wrote for each movement:

I. Lento lugubure:
Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fatal questions of existence, tormented by hopeless longings and the memory of past crimes, he suffers terrible spiritual yearnings. He has delved into the occult sciences and commands the mighty powers of darkness, but neither they nor anything in this world can give him the forgetfulness to which alone he vainly aspires. The memory of the lost Astarte, once passionately loved by him, gnaws at his heart, and there is neither limit nor end to Manfred’s despair.

II. Vivace con spirito:
The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of a waterfall.

III. Andante con moto:
Pastorale. A picture of the simple, free and peaceful life of the mountain folk.

IV. Allegro con fuoco:
The subterranean palace of Arimanes. An infernal orgy. Appearance of Manfred in the midst of a bacchanal. Evocation and appearance of the spirit of Astarte, who pardons him. Death of Manfred.

One need not have read Manfred to enjoy the symphony—musically the symphony stands on its own—however, knowledge of the poem enhances it immeasurably. The listener enters the landscape of despair at the very first notes of the first movement, the initial melody of the bass clarinet and three bassoons are joined by sorrowful, descending viola and cello. Immediately, the heart is engaged in Manfred’s anguish. It is a movement haunted by gloom and portrays not only Manfred’s travail, but his strength as well as he struggles onward with the burden of his pain, visited by the recurring, spectral, and lovely memory of Astarte.
 
Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake ballet precedes Manfred by a decade; his ballets, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are in the future, but the second movement of the symphony is in the best tradition of all three, full of all the magical touches endemic to his ballet skills, lightening the mood with its charming, eldritch sorcery as the Alpine Fairy (Byron’s “Witch”) makes her kaleidoscope appearance beneath the rainbow of a waterfall—and unable to relieve Manfred’s agony, disappears finally in a high skittering flurry of violins and harp.
The Alpine scenery is the setting for the third movement, as Manfred seeks respite in the beauty of his surroundings and from the free and simple life of the environment’s habitants, “My soul would drink those echoes,” and

Oh, that I were
The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony
A bodiless enjoyment—born and dying
With the blest tone which made me!

His desire is in vain, as once again, the memory of Astarte returns along with the ferocity of his tortured passion, and discovering he will find no solace here, the initially pleasant pastoral themes fade as an echo into a melancholy retreat.
Many critics, including Tchaikovsky himself, have erroneously stated that the last movement is the weakest. Multiple hearings in the light of Byron’s poem belie that assessment. The longest of the four movements—as long as Romeo and Juliet, almost as long as Francesca da Rimini—it covers many elements and has much to say as it conjures up not only an orgiastic bacchanal in the palace of Arimanes, it directs itself to the universal themes of forgiveness, transfiguration, mortality, and death. And here, again, Tchaikovsky devotes himself not to the letter of the poem, but its spirit, the landscape of Manfred’s soul. Tchaikovsky portrays the evil palace of Arimanes in a dark, feverishly driving and ultimately raucous (but delicious) fugue. Manfred appears and appeals again to Astarte, her achingly sweet theme finally promises him deliverance from the agony of his tortured mortality in soaring strings and double harp.

Tis over—my dull eyes can fix thee not;
But all things swim around me, and the earth
Heaves as it were beneath me. Fare thee well—

Manfred’s dying moments are signified by announcing tympani, the full orchestra rising beneath him, lifting and delivering his battered spirit toward transcendence and transfiguration—and release, the moment of Manfred’s death, proclaimed with immense and powerful, towering chords in the organ, followed by a solemn orchestral postlude, a dying fall into peace.
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The Manfred Symphony is a sublime tribute to Byron’s hero—filled with passion and insight and emotional daring, indeed one of the greatest program symphonies of the nineteenth, or any other century. Tchaikovsky was initially very satisfied, and then, as was all too often his wont, it fell out of his favour, and he declared that he would destroy it all save the first movement. Tchaikovsky was always his own harshest critic and all too often wrong in his severe self-assessments—but the symphony has thankfully survived. For many long years the Manfred Symphony was rarely performed—part of those reasons being its length and difficulty. In the last few decades however, it has been rediscovered by conductors and orchestras to the delight of audiences worldwide. Enjoy it if you have the opportunity—but to fully savour this resplendent musical achievement, begin by rereading Manfred and follow the footsteps of Byron’s tragic hero as he wanders the Alps in search of the lovely, lost Astarte.
Iosef Kotek died, alone, in Davos shortly after Tchaikovsky finished composing Manfred. A year and a half later, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, “Kotek’s letters. Tears.”

Tuberculosis sanitarium in Davos, 1890s

Tuberculosis sanitarium in Davos, 1890s


 
Sources
“Tchaikovsky Research.” Edited by Brett Langston, Tchaikovsky Research, www.tchaikovsky-research.net/.
Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer Books/Macmillan, 1991).
Warrack, John. Tchaikovsky (London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973).
Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999).
Kearney, Leslie. Tchaikovsky and His World (Princeton, New Jersey; Princeton University Press, 1998).
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Years of Wandering, 1878-1885, Volume III (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1986).
 
David M. Perkins is an amateur Tchaikovsky scholar, and a retired book David M. Perkinspublishing executive, formerly with Oxford University Press (USA), the University of Illinois Press, and Georgetown University Press. He has had many hundreds of book reviews, some various articles, essays, and poetry published hither and yon; and he is owned by a blue-point Siamese cat named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (“Mr. Petes”).

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14.06.2018

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'The Albatross': From Rime to opera

Page 1

by Sinéad O’Neill
Melville was right when he wrote, of the Albatross, ‘that white phantom sails in all imaginations.’ It sailed then, and it sails still. Coleridge’s poem on the same subject also haunts the collective imagination. It has certainly caught my fancy, enough to make me want to create an opera. Even people unfamiliar with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner get a certain sort of chill down the spine when it’s mentioned, along with a feeling that it somehow deals with fate, wildness, the merciless emptiness of wide seas, and the terrible, haunting burden of one’s former actions. This eerie atmosphere that coalesces around the poem makes it perfect for operatic treatment. Like Poe’s The Raven (which I also made into an opera) the Rime has a life of its own. We don’t need to bring the poem to our audience; we can play (and sing!) into the place it already occupies in the audience’s imagination.
The albatross
For a start, we don’t have to begin by trying to set the whole text to music. To my mind, that would miss the point: the Rime already has a textual life. A stage, though, is made out of space, not words. An opera is made out of music, singing, and movement; yes, there might be words too (there usually are!), but an essential feature of live opera – and what differentiates the form from an audio recording, a radio performance, a book, a film, a photograph – is that it uses movement through space as an expressive tool.
 
To make an opera out of Coleridge’s poem, then, I started by thinking about spatial imagery. The poem is full of it. The masts dropping down and down; the direction of sunrise and sunset; relentless southward progression; the impersonal, driving winds; ice dwarfing the ship; the vastness of the lonely oceans; the individual imprisoned on his tiny vessel; sea-going creatures swarming in savage freedom. Distance and closeness, changing perspectives, speed and stillness all imbue the poem with a constant feeling of movement. The mariner is at the mercy of the forces that move him, right up until the moment he grabs the oars of the pilot’s boat and rows like the devil for land.
The albatross, of course, is completely free and at home in this shifting landscape of sea and air. The winds that coldly command the mariner’s course are freely ridden by the albatross, which can come and go as it chooses. The ocean-treading wanderer is as thoroughly at home in this wilderness as the sailor is at sea.
Movement, then, is the first kernel at the heart of this new opera. How does the sea move? How does the ship ride the sea? How does the bird use the air?
Wanderer Angus Wilson
Artists, scientists and seafarers throughout the ages have found their souls struck by the shocking strangeness and beauty of these great birds striding free in their element: ‘I now belong to that higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross’ wrote Robert Cushman Murphy, in Logbook for Grace. Thus, I imagine, the mariner. The moment of encounter is surely key in his journey, as much as it was for ‘Ishmael’ in Moby Dick: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw… Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets that took hold of God.’
Here is the second kernel: the moment of encounter. Imagine that first eye-contact between the strange, black eyes of the albatross and those keen, glittering eyes that so entranced the Wedding Guest. It’s the stuff of dreams, which makes it the stuff of opera. The encounter will furnish a ‘memory’ aria: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw…’ It’s a memory that haunts the mariner; part of what compels him to tell and retell his tale.
Albatross photo
I’m about to delve into these ideas during two days of workshops and exploration with composer Kim Ashton, countertenor Christopher Ainslie, actor Jofre Carabén van der Meer, and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki. We will also have the following: some sheets of paper, some fine wooden batons, and some wire. Our task during the two days is to develop stage images that will use movement and music to evoke my ‘kernels’ in the minds of the audience.
Alb music
On 11 August, at RADA Studios in Central London, we’ll show these images to the public as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival. That is the first step; then we move on to the meat of the writing and composition process, building up to a finished opera in about a year’s time. I’ll keep you posted…!
There will be a work-in-progress performance on 11 August 2017 at RADA Studios, London, as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival.
 
Sinéad O’Neill is Founder and Director of Cambridge City Opera, which she created to commission and produce new opera. As well as The Albatross, she is currently developing The Barrington Hippo (Kate Whitley) a piece for children about a fossilised hippo from the Cambridgeshire countryside. Cambridge City Opera’s first work was On the Axis of this World (Matt Rogers) a meditation on Antarctic Sineadexploration developed with the Scott Polar Research Institute. In 2016, Sinéad directed And London Burned (Matt Rogers), a new opera about the Great Fire of London commissioned by the Temple Music Foundation. In Autumn 2017, Sinéad will direct the revival of Il Barbiere di Siviglia for Glyndebourne Tour.
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

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15.07.2018

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by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

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28.06.2018

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14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

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04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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Wordsworth in Leicestershire

Page 1

by Jeanne Rae
Coleorton is an unremarkable village in North West Leicestershire, where the landscape was defined for almost 500 years by a coal industry that’s long since gone. The old colliery site has been planted over by the National Forest and Coleorton Hall, a Grade II listed building that once hosted a buzzing hive of Coal Board offices, is now an apartment complex. Rewind a couple of centuries, however, and Coleorton had a very different story to tell.

Coleorton Hall by John Constable, c 1823

Coleorton Hall by John Constable, c 1823


 
In 1804, Sir George Beaumont was busy building a new hall in grounds that had been owned by his family since the 1400s. Beaumont was an important patron of the arts and many of the creative celebrities of the day visited Coleorton Hall, such as Southey, Reynolds, Mrs Siddons and Lord Byron. Scott began Ivanhoe there, and Constable drew in the grounds. Although opposed to new trends in art, Beaumont’s delight in poetry was forward looking. He was a friend to the Lake Poets, especially William Wordsworth, whom he saw as a kindred spirit. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also a visitor but Beaumont didn’t establish the same rapport with him. Wordsworth, however, remained a lifelong friend.
 
Sir George Beaumont by Thomas Lawrence

Sir George Beaumont by Thomas Lawrence


 
In1806, when their home at Dove Cottage proved too crowded, Beaumont invited Wordsworth, his wife Mary, sister Dorothy, and their family, to stay at Hall Farm, part of his estate. Creating the new gardens at Coleorton Hall, Beaumont felt that the large number of mine works in the area spoiled his view of Charnwood. Therefore he had his gardener plant trees in strategic places in order to hide the mines. Lady Beaumont invited Wordsworth to help with the planning of a winter garden within the grounds, and William wrote poetry inspired by it. In a letter to Lady Beaumont he set out extensive plans for the new garden, which incorporated an old quarry, recently used as a builder’s dump. Features included a grotto with shell work by Dorothy Wordsworth and an early 19th-century pedimented ashlar monument incorporating a verse by Wordsworth.
 
Wordsworth’s brother John, a ship’s captain, had recently drowned after his ship ran aground and sank off Weymouth Sands, and the family was still deeply affected by his loss. On Christmas Eve, Samuel Taylor Coleridge joined them in Coleorton, bringing with him his own demons, most of them caused by his addiction to opium.
 
Writer and Director of Mantle Arts, Matthew Pegg, was drawn to this fascinating period in Leicestershire history.

What interested me was the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were friends for much of their lives but in many ways very dissimilar characters. Wordsworth led a very domestic life, supported by family: his wife, her sister, his children and Dorothy. Coleridge had an unhappy marriage, from which he tried to escape, and was prone to addiction, relying heavily on drink and opium. My radio play focussed on the two men, their friendship, and the tensions between them. Coleridge envied Wordsworth’s family and fell in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sarah Hutchinson. Paul Conneally, a Leicestershire poet, told us a scurrilous story about a vision of Sarah that Coleridge had in a pub at Thringstone. That incident also found its way into the play. The other theme in the script was the way Wordsworth reacted to the death of his brother, and the idea that, in creating the winter garden at Coleorton, he was working through his grief. In the script he calls it ‘a place to walk in winter,’ and Coleridge says ‘A walk for melancholy times. Yet when we emerge, it will be spring.’ By the end of the play he is able to say goodbye to his brother, though the experience has changed his poetry forever. We were very lucky to get project funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to make this forgotten piece of North West Leicestershire history more widely known.

 
Using Matthew’s script, Mantle Arts created a community audio drama with a cast drawn from Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the nearest town to Coleorton Hall, and the surrounding areas of Leicestershire. Ashby Museum supported the project offering access to books and material from their archives as well as donating crucial rehearsal space. The play was directed by East Midlands-based director Julian Hanby. After a public rehearsed reading at the Venture Theatre in Ashby, accompanied by an illustrated talk on the background to the play from local poet and Wordsworth expert, Paul Conneally, it was recorded over two weekends at Aspect Studios in Loughborough, with the recording process directed by Martin Berry. The final recording is available on CD from Ashby Museum and can be streamed or downloaded from http://www.red-lighthouse.org.uk/events-and-projects/wordsworth-in-leicestershire/
If you would like a copy of the CD please visit http://www.ashbymuseum.org.uk/shop. You can also read more about the play and listen to some clips here
 

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

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28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

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14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

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04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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Fictionalising 1816: The death of Harriet Shelley

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by Lynn Shepherd
The Shelleys and their circle have inspired hundreds of books, plays and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences, where the biographers can offer us only speculation. My third novel, A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US), was an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect and explain those silences.
Turning  fact into fiction is a labour of love for any novelist, but one that comes with its own challenges, whether technical, literary,  or indeed, moral.  This is the second of two posts in which I discuss this question in relation to two particular episodes in 1816 –  the death in October of Mary Godwin’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, and less than three months later, the discovery of the body of Harriet Shelley, the wife he had abandoned for Mary Godwin more than two years earlier. She is pictured on the right by @AmandaWhiteArt – no portrait of her was ever painted.

Harriet Shelley: The facts
On 15th December 1816, Shelley received a letter in Bath from his old friend and publisher, Thomas Hookham. The Shelley party was  still coming to terms with the sudden death of Fanny Imlay, but another tragedy was about to overwhelm them.  The body of Shelley’s wife, Harriet, had been found floating in the Serpentine. It appeared that she, too, had killed herself.
serpentine
Harriet had been living at her father John Westbrook’s house in Chapel Street, Mayfair, ever since Shelley abandoned her, pregnant, in the summer of 1814. But Shelley now learned that she has suddenly left that house in September 1816, leaving her two children behind. She went first to lodgings in Hans Place, Knightsbridge, telling the landlady her name was ‘Harriet Smith’, that she was married, and that her husband was abroad (which was not so very far from the truth, as far as it went). Though the main purpose of such a cover story was no doubt to account for her increasingly obvious pregnancy. Indeed it was probably the impossibility of concealing this from her family any longer that had forced her to flee .
And then, on November 9th, she disappeared a second time, and we still don’t know where she spent the weeks before December 10th, when her body was discovered in the Serpentine by one John Levesley, a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital. He told the authorities that he thought she had been in the lake for some days, but there were no obvious signs of violence, and the natural conclusion was that she had taken her own life. As was customary in such cases, the remains were taken to the nearby Fox and Bull inn, where a hastily-convened inquest passed a verdict of ‘found dead’.
Within days the body had been buried under its assumed name, and the briefest of notices had appeared in The Times, which made no mention of Harriet’s name – real or otherwise – and ended with the words, “a want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe”, in a veiled reference to her pregnancy.
hs-times
Even now, we do not know who was the father of Harriet’s baby, though some biographers have suggested Shelley himself, as the two of them could have met in London about the time her unborn child must have been conceived. More likely candidates include a certain ‘Major Ryan’, perhaps stationed at the Knightsbridge barracks; sixty years later Claire Clairmont claimed it had been ‘a Captain in the Indian or Wellington Army, I forget which’, who had gone abroad. At the time, Mary’s father William Godwin passed on a frankly scurrilous rumour that Harriet had been unfaithful to Shelley even before he abandoned her, and Godwin may also have been the source behind a claim Shelley himself later made that Harriet had “descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith”. In the same letter Shelley wrote that “beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret”. Not his finest hour.
harriet-smith-shelley-st-marys-paddington

So how did Harriet Shelley die? Some of her more passionate advocates have gone so far as to suggest that Godwin could have killed her, or had her killed, the theory being that she was standing in the way of Shelley marrying his daughter (and the stridently anti-marriage Godwin did indeed insist on a wedding less than a month after Harriet’s death). But by far the likeliest explanation is that she did indeed take her own life. Even before she was married she had been strangely obsessed with suicide, talking calmly of killing herself even before people she scarcely knew. And the letter she left behind leaves little room for doubt that she met her death by her own hand.
One thing we do know, unquestionably, is that the whole thing was hushed up. Hushed up so effectively, in fact, that one cannot but conclude that it was done deliberately, and by someone with the skills and connections to do so. And here I turn, again, from fact to fiction.

Harriet Shelley: The fiction
The account of Harriet’s death in the novel is part of a long flash-back narrated by Charles Maddox senior, a former Bow Street Runner turned expensive private investigator. Having been employed by Godwin to track Shelley’s movements (because Godwin feared losing an important source of loans ), Maddox is one of the first to realise that Harriet has disappeared, and he has both the men and the means to discover where she went:

In the week that followed Miss Imlay’s death I received, almost daily, supplications from Godwin to augment the account I had sent him from Swansea with whatever further information I had now at my disposal; supplications I steadfastly refused to gratify with even the briefest of replies. I cared not for his feelings, judging he possessed very few; I did care, and very much, about Mrs Shelley, where she might be, and what circumstances had driven her to such a reckless course of action. I feared the worst, and those fears were brought to a greater and more painful intensity when my assistant Fraser brought me word that the Westbrooks had hired a young man, one William Alder by name, to drag the ponds in the area of Hyde-park nearest the house. My distress on hearing of this was extreme, but Fraser soon established that nothing had been found. It was some time before I was to receive further news, and I attempted to engross my mind with other pressing cases recently neglected, until, one morning in November I was woken by Fraser pounding on my door an hour before breakfast and calling to me, hot-faced and out of breath, that Miss Eliza Westbrook had dressed the children herself before the rest of the household was awake, and taken them to an address near Hans-place, Brompton.

Less than half an hour later the coachman set us down outside the lodging-house, where I made myself known to the lady proprietor of the establishment and asked if I might go up to Mrs Shelley’s rooms.

‘Mrs Shelley, sir?’ she said, looking – or feigning – ignorance. ‘We have no lady by that name here.’

‘A lady of below middle height,’ intervened Fraser. ‘Rather plump than trim as far as her figure goes. Quite a beauty once, I should say.’

‘Ah,’ said the landlady, with a look I could not at once decipher, ‘you must mean Mrs Smith. Do you bring word from her husband? She is hoping to see him every day.’

‘I am, as you so cleverly surmised, a fr―’ But my tongue stumbled against the word, and I could not utter it. ‘A business connection of her husband’s. It has but recently come to my knowledge that his wife has been reduced to the painful circumstances in which she now finds herself, and I wish to do all in my power to assist her.’

That last, in any event, was the absolute truth.

‘Well,’ sniffed the woman, folding her arms, and looking up and down at my fine marcella waistcoat. ‘You can begin by assisting me with the money. A month’s rent she owes me, and that’s a fact.’

I smiled in what I hoped was a gracious manner, and proceeded to take my pocket-book from my coat and count out the coins, one by one. Her acquiescence, if not her confidence, thus purchased, she informed me that the young lady’s room was ‘at the top – the last you get to,’ and left me to find my own way up.

When I reached the last landing I knocked sharply and heard a few moments later the sound of a bolt drawing back and a light but weary female voice saying, ‘If it’s about the rent’ – as the door swung open. ‘Oh,’ she said then, drawing back and frowning, ‘I took you for Mrs Thomas.’

I had wondered at Fraser’s remark that Mrs Shelley must ‘once’ have been a beauty, for I could not believe she was much more than twenty, but now I understood his observation. The woman who stood before me looked at least a dozen years more, with none of the freshness and bloom of youth the calendar surely owed her. Her brown hair was lank, her eyes lustreless, and if her figure did indeed incline to enbonpoint, her face was gaunt and her skin dull.

‘Who are you?’ she said, holding the door close, and pulling her shawl about her. ‘What do you want?’

‘It is, indeed, about the rent, or at least in one respect,’ I replied, as I proceeded to inform her that I had just had the honour to assist her with that particular obligation.

The smile that greeted this information was enough to show me how lovely she must once have been. It illuminated her whole face, lifting the lines from her eyes, and setting the ghost of a flush on her thin cheeks.

‘Do you come from Shelley?’ she said, with a gasp. ‘Is he well – does he want to see the children?’

How I cursed the man then, in my soul; to have abandoned this young woman so callously, depriving her of the protection she had every right to expect, and leaving her suspended in a pitiable state that was neither marriage nor widowhood. ‘I regret,’ I began, ‘that I have no commission from him. But what I may do for you, you may rely upon.’

And then, as the shawl slipped a moment from her grasp, I saw. I saw her secret, and I knew what it was that had driven her from her father’s house.

‘You are with child?’ I asked gently.

She flashed me a look then, though whether of anger, fear, or shame, I could not tell. ‘Please go now. I do not wish you to be here when my sister returns.’

‘But surely there is more I can to do assist you – does your husband even know of your condition?’

‘No!’ she cried, her eyes wild. ‘And he must not be told of it! Never!’

‘But he must discharge his duty!’ I exclaimed, my mind in fury. ‘Not merely towards your existing children, but towards this one. To have behaved so despicably – to have continued to exercise all the rights of a husband while presenting himself in that character to another woman – another woman who has already borne him two children―’

‘You do not understand,’ she wept. ‘He is not to blame – I have not seen him – not since – not since long before―’

At that point the door flew open and a woman strode into the room. From a distance she might well have been deemed handsome, with her abundant black hair and pale complexion, but standing as I was, within a few feet of her, I could see that her skin was seamed with the smallpox and of a dead white, and her hair, of which she was evidently very proud, coarse and wiry.

‘Who are you, sir?’ she demanded. ‘My sister is not nearly well enough to receive casual visitors.’

‘Please, Eliza,’ whispered Mrs Shelley, going at once to her side. ‘Mr Maddox was offering to help me. Perhaps he might be able, if he knew―’

‘I can give you all the assistance you need,’ replied Miss Westbrook, firmly, leading her resolutely to the bed. ‘You need no one but me, Harriet,’ she said, as she settled her gently against the pillows. ‘You have never needed anyone but me, and now that that villain has gone, we may be together once more, and for ever.’

Miss Westbrook then marched swiftly to the door and held it open. There was no mistaking the gesture, just as there was no mistaking the look that flickered across Mrs Shelley’s face as I stepped briefly towards her and made my bow. ‘You know where you may find me, Mrs Shelley,’ I said gravely, contriving to leave a fold of banknotes on the table by the bed. ‘I am at your service, and will remain so.’

‘Mr Maddox?’ said Miss Westbrook as I drew level with her in the doorway. ‘Do not call again. We need no interference from strangers. However seemingly benevolent.’

Some readers will no doubt recognise the description of Harriet’s sister Eliza Westbrook, which I have borrowed from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s memoir of Shelley, published long after his death. This is just one among many examples of how I used contemporary texts and observations to bring my characters to life (in the extract below, Harriet’s heart-breaking last letter is a transcription of her actual words). William Alder is another historical figure, whom I discovered in the fourth volume of Kenneth Neill Cameron’s series, Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822. The section on ‘The Last Days of Harriet Shelley’ collects together all the known information about Harriet’s death, including an account of the inquest held by the coroner, John Gell, at the Fox and Bull, on 11th December.
fox-and-bull
William Alder apparently knew Harriet from working for her father, and went with her when she took a second-floor room in Hans Place in September, in the house of a Mrs Jane Thomas. In the novel, Maddox and Fraser question Adler after Harriet’s second disappearance –none too gently, either – and he becomes thereafter Maddox’s informant, with instructions to contact him if he sees Harriet again:

November had passed and December commenced before I received any word of her. I was at dinner in Downing-street, whence I had been invited to offer my advice as to the apprehension of the miscreants responsible for the late disturbances in Spa-fields, when the waiter slipped me a message in Fraser’s hand: Alder has seen her – Chapel-street. I made my excuses immediately and hurried down to the waiting carriage. The night was dark and the fog so heavy we could not move at any pace through the crowded streets, and I half despaired of arriving in time, but the carriage eventually drew to a halt a few yards from the Westbrook residence, and Alder stepped forward to open the door.

‘Saw ’er by chance, guv. I were in two minds whether to try to talk to ’er but thought it best to send for you instead.’
I glanced at him; there was still the ghost of a bruise along his jaw and I could well understand that he wished to run no risk of further intimacy with George Fraser.
‘She’s been ’ere ’alf an hour and more. Just walkin’ up and down. Cryin’ I think she is, and talkin’ to ’erself. Once or twice I saw ’er approach the door but then seem to think better of it.’
‘And you have not informed Miss Westbrook, or anyone else in the house?’
He shook his head. ‘No, guv. I judged as I’d leave that to you.’

I nodded, and turned to look down the street. A little distance ahead of me, I could see a figure walking away from me slowly in the mist; even at that distance I knew from her gait that it was a woman, and one much advanced in pregnancy. I could, as I intimated to Alder, have gone quietly to the door and summoned Miss Westbrook, but I did not see a way of doing so without alerting the whole household, and I judged likewise that had Mrs Shelley wished to see her sister she had had ample time already to do so. By that judgement I stand, but I cannot acquit myself of not perceiving the degree of alarm my own appearance would engender. I knew she feared Godwin, but I did not comprehend the full extent of that fear, or the terror she might conceive at the merest glimpse of a man she believed to be hounding her at his behest. I should have deduced this, but I did not; I should have sent Alder in my place, knowing that she had deemed him her friend, but to my everlasting regret, I did not.

Ordering Alder instead to remain by the carriage, I started down the pavement towards her. The fog thickened suddenly and I hastened my step, but the heavy air so absorbed all sound that I was almost upon her before she heard my approach. She turned then and I saw her face – a face at once stricken with panic.
‘You – you,’ she stammered, clutching her shawl tighter about her.
‘Do not distress yourself,’ I said. ‘I wish only to assist you.’
‘You said that before,’ she whispered, taking a pace backwards, ‘and then I discovered you are working for him – for them.’
‘I work for no one, I give you my word.’
‘I do not believe you – why else would you―’
‘Because I have had dealings with your husband in the past, and I know the cruelty – the wanton, careless cruelty – of which he is capable.’
‘No, no – you misjudge him – it is her – if it were not for her he might return to me – we might be happy again.’
I stepped forward then and gripped her hand. ‘Do not think it – do not wish it. The last time I saw your husband it was in the same inn where a young woman had destroyed herself – destroyed herself out of love of him, a love he allowed, even encouraged, but had no more thought of returning than he does of returning to you.’

I spoke it out of a desire to free her – I spoke it because my greatest fear was that he might indeed seek to return to her, and I wished her to have the strength to refuse him. I knew my intentions to be honourable, but I did not allow sufficiently for the effect such words must have had upon a woman – upon a spirit so distraught, a heart so sorely wounded. I had accused him – and justly ‒ of cruelty, but I stand accused in my own mind of no less a crime.

‘No, no,’ she cried again, wrenching her fingers from my grasp. ‘It is all a lie, all a wicked, wicked lie.’

And she turned from me and ran, stumbling, blinded by the tears that were streaming from her eyes. I hesitated a moment – a cursed moment – then set off after her, calling her name, but we were hard by the entrance to Hyde-park, and by the time I reached it she had disappeared into the darkness. I remained there for some moments more, then spent more precious minutes retracing my steps to the carriage, where I ordered Alder, somewhat breathlessly, to muster as many men as we had and conduct a search of both the park and the streets around.

They found nothing – then. I was still awake at three the following morning when Fraser returned to say there was no sight or trace of her. My relief at these words was profound, but all too short-lived. This was Saturday; it was Tuesday morning that I received the note from Alder that destroyed all my hopes.

He begged my presence without delay at the sign of the Fox and Bull in Knights-bridge. They had brought a woman’s remains to the inn, he said, through the old gate leading into the park whence all those found drowned were always conveyed. He said no more, but I knew; knew he would not have summoned me so unless he was certain beyond all possibility of doubt.

And so it was for the second time in as many months I stood before the body of a young woman ruined by love of that man, confronting the piteous waste of a death that could have been prevented – a death, in this case, that I seemed only to have hastened. I blamed Shelley – blamed him bitterly ‒ but I knew I merited my own share of censure.

The water had been cruel. Her body was bloated, the rank cloth clinging to the swollen form of her dead child, and her sweet face mottled with the taint of rottenness. These are not, I know, the words of a practitioner of my art, but my feelings were not the feelings of a professional man. Indeed, had one of my subordinates displayed such a weakness in the face of death I should have cashiered him at once and without reprieve. And knowing that, I strove to regain command of my passions and assess the corpse not as a man who had known her, but with the dispassionate and appraising eye of the detective, scrutinizing the cadaver for signs of violence, and seeking to determine how long it had been immersed. But grim indeed was that examination. I could see no obvious wound, and I was forced to conclude, with infinite sorrow, that she had indeed ended her own existence.

I had protected one young woman from public scandal and ignominy; I now faced the same distasteful task once more. It was harder, in the gossip of the metropolis, to achieve my end, but I knew the coroner, John Gell, and the editor of The Times was in my debt. I likewise persuaded Sir Nathaniel Conant, the chief magistrate at Bow-street, to allow me free rein, though not without profound misgivings, knowing he trusted me, and I had never before abused that trust. I then instructed William Alder to take up residence at the Fox and Bull, so as to be on hand to give witness at the inquest, and ensure that Mrs Thomas’ servant gave the name of the deceased as Harriet Smith, and provided only such further evidence as was strictly necessary. The jury sat barely a quarter of an hour before returning, as I had ensured, a verdict of ‘Found Dead in the Serpentine River’. The body I then caused to be taken to the Paddington cemetery and buried there under her assumed alias.

A second pauper’s grave, a second desolate and windswept interment, the only persons present the minister, myself and Miss Westbrook, her face heavily veiled, scarce able to support herself in the wretchedness of her grief.

‘We will have our revenge, my love,’ she whispered hoarsely, falling to her knees in the mud as the body was lowered into the grave. ‘Papa will institute a process in Chancery for custody of the children, and expose that man to the world as a profligate and an atheist. All who know him will abhor and shun him for the murderer he is.’
‘I must, I fear, bear some responsibility myself,’ I began, assisting her to her feet as the sexton turned the first soil upon the pit. ‘I am very much afraid that our last meeting only served to distress your sister further, and that had I acted differently – ’
But she was already shaking her head. ‘If you are to blame, then so am I. I was away from the house on Saturday and did not receive this until I returned.’

She put her hand into her reticule and drew from it a letter. ‘She must have left it at the door and waited in the street, hoping – expecting – that I would come out to her. And I did not. I can hardly bear to think what must have passed through her mind. She must have thought I no longer loved her – that I did not care -’
I had no great regard for Miss Westbrook, but I did pity her then. I pressed her hand. ‘She would not have believed so.’
She shook her head once more and put her handkerchief to her eyes as she watched me read her sister’s last words. A letter she copied for me later, at my request, and sent to me at Buckingham-street. A letter that tore my heart; a letter no man could peruse without seeing ‒ in the tears that stained it, in the very orthography – the most afflicting proof of the depths of her despair.

Sat. Eve.
When you read this letr. I shall be no more an inhabitant of this miserable world. do not regret the loss of one who could never be anything but a source of vexation & misery to you all belonging to me. Too wretched to exert myself lowered in the opinion of everyone why should I drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections & not one ray of hope to rest on for the future. The remembrance of all your kindness which I have so unworthily repaid has often made my heart ache. I know that you will forgive me because it is not in your nature to be unkind or severe to any. dear amiable woman that I have never left you oh! that I had always taken your advice. I might have lived long & happy but weak & unsteady have rushed on my own destruction I have not written to Bysshe. oh no what would it avail my wishes or my prayers would not be attended to by him & yet I should he see this perhaps he might grant my last request to let Ianthe remain with you always dear lovely child, with you she will enjoy much happiness with him none My dear Bysshe let me conjure you by the remembrance of our days of happiness to grant my last wish – do not take your innocent child from Eliza who has been more than I have, who has watched over her with such unceasing care. – Do not refuse my last request – I never could refuse you & if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of. There is your beautiful boy. oh! be careful of him & his love may prove one day a rich reward. As you form his infant mind so you will reap the fruits hereafter Now comes the sad task of saying farewell – oh I must be quick. God bless & watch over you all. You dear Bysshe. & you dear Eliza. May all happiness attend ye both is the last wish of her who loved ye more than all others. My children I dare not trust myself there. They are too young to regret me & ye will be kind to them for their own sakes more than for mine. My parents do not regret me. I was unworthy your love & care. Be happy all of you. so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness. God bless you all is the last prayer of the unfortunate Harriet S–––

harriet-shelley

Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted a reference here to a meeting between Shelley and Maddox at Swansea, after Fanny’s death, and to other – clearly disastrous – earlier dealings between the two. In devising a fictional narrative that might make sense of all the ‘known unknowns’ of the Shelleys’ history, I involved the elder Charles Maddox not only in the suicides of 1816, but much earlier in their lives, and his first encounter with the poet is in late 1814, after his elopement with Mary Godwin. And it is Mary, in fact, who is the first member of the Godwin family to hire Maddox’s services. But what she commissions Maddox to do, and what fateful consequences that task then had, you will have to read the novel to discover….

Lynn Shepherd is the author of four novels, the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s (The Solitary House in the US), A Treacherous Likeness, and The Pierced Heart. She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

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28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

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14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

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04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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Fictionalising 1816: The suicide of Fanny Imlay

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by Lynn Shepherd
I write literary mysteries. Taking the classic literature of the 19th century as the inspiration for new stories that inhabit the same world. I’ve worked with novels like Mansfield Park, Bleak House, and Dracula, and in my third book, I did the same with two of the century’s most remarkable literary figures: Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

The lives of the Shelleys are incredibly rich material for a novelist. There’s so much we simply don’t know. From what Richard Holmes calls the “two great biographical mysteries” of the assassination attempt in Tremadoc in 1813 and the adoption and abandonment of baby Elena in 1819, to the relationship between Shelley and Claire Clairmont, and even the authorship of Frankenstein – all are to a greater or lesser extent unresolved, and all leave us with unanswered questions. Even the established facts sometimes stagger belief (so much so that one of my readers was convinced I’d made my whole novel up, when in fact less than a tenth of it is outright invention). To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we’re in the territory of both ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’ here, not least because so much of the evidence is either missing or deliberately destroyed, whether by the Shelleys themselves, or by that fearsome self-appointed rehabilitator, their daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley.
Faced with such pregnant silences (perhaps literally, in Claire’s case), fiction can be an extraordinarily fruitful vehicle for speculation. It allows you to fill those gaps, and explore possible explanations. Not just what might have happened, but – even more intriguingly – why.

And so we come to A Treacherous Likeness (A Fatal Likeness in the US) . The novel encompasses all the mysterious episodes I’ve referred to, and attempts to create a story that can make sense of them. It’s structured as two parallel narratives, one set in late 1850, just before Mary Shelley’s death, and one 30 years earlier, which includes that infamous interlude at the Villa Diodati in 1816.

This is the first of two posts in which I will look at how I turned fact into fiction in the case of the ‘Shelley suicides’ – the twin tragedies that confronted the Shelley party on their return from Geneva in late 1816. The first of these is the death of Fanny Imlay, Mary Godwin’s half-sister (pictured above by @AmandaWhiteArt – as far as we know, no portrait of her was ever painted).

Fanny Imlay: The facts
Let’s start with a brief resumé. The Shelley party landed in Portsmouth on 8th September 1816, and took up residence at 5 Abbey Churchyard, Bath.
Abbeychurchyard

Shelley travelled regularly to London in the next few weeks, both on his own business and Byron’s (he had brought the manuscript of Childe Harold back with him for John Murray), but it was in most other respects a period of comparative calm in their turbulent and peripatetic lives. As Shelley wrote to Byron on 29th September:

We are all now at Bath, well and content. Claire is writing to you at this instant. Mary is reading over the fire; our cat and kitten are sleeping under the sofa; and little Willy is just gone to sleep. We are looking out for a house in some lone place; and one chief pleasure which we shall expect then, will be a visit from you.

That visit never happened, of course; Byron had ‘shaken the dust of England from his shoes’ for what proved to be the last time. The Shelley party’s domestic bliss was not to last long either. On 9th October a letter arrived from Mary Godwin’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, which suggested such a disturbed state of mind that Shelley travelled immediately to Bristol, where it had been posted, but failed to find her. It later emerged that Fanny had already travelled on to Swansea, where she checked into the Mackworth Arms inn, and later that same night, killed herself with an overdose of laudanum.

Mackworth Arms Swansea
She had with her a watch that had been Mary’s gift, and the stays she was wearing bore her mother’s initials. She left a note, but a strip of paper had been torn off the bottom, and thus when The Cambrian reported the news, Fanny was not identified by name. We can only conclude that someone who was actually there, at the inn, must have intervened to prevent Fanny’s identity being made public. Meanwhile her step-father, William Godwin, was doing all in his power to achieve the same end, albeit at a safe distance. He had started for Bristol after Fanny went missing on October 7th, but he turned back to London as soon as he got the news of her death, and explicitly forbade either Mary or Shelley from going to Swansea or attending the funeral.

My advice, & earnest prayer is, that you would avoid any thing that leads to publicity. Go not to Swansea. Disturb not the silent dead. Do nothing to destroy the obscurity she so much desired… We are at this moment in doubt whether during the first shock we shall not say that she is gone to Ireland to her aunt, a thing that had been in contemplation. Do not take from us the power to exercise our own discretion… What I have most of all in horror is the public papers; & I thank you for your caution as it might act on this. We have so conducted ourselves that not one person in our house has the smallest apprehension of the truth.

Godwin’s desire for secrecy was almost pathological: the real cause of his step-daughter’s death was not divulged even to her family, and almost a year later, Fanny’s step-brother Charles still hadn’t been told she had died.

Why did Fanny Imlay kill herself? The documentary evidence offers no one simple cause. Part of the answer may have been physiological: she seems to have suffered from the same periods of depression that afflicted her mother, and which Mary also endured. And Fanny’s life at Skinner Street had never been easy. In a household where none of the five children had the same mother and father, she was the only one living with neither of her biological parents, and in that intensely competitive environment she clearly cut a rather sad figure. Godwin went on the record saying that his own daughter Mary was “considerably superior in capacity to the one her mother had before”, and Mary herself obviously agreed – in a painful letter sent to Geneva that summer Fanny wrote that she knew she was the “laughing stock” of Mary and Shelley, and the butt of their “satire”. There is some evidence that Fanny may have nursed an unrequited attachment to Shelley, (all three girls at Skinner Street had been in love with him, according to Godwin). Shelley’s poem ‘Her voice did quiver as we parted’ certainly suggests a deep personal remorse. In the weeks before she died, Fanny had also made the distressing discovery that she herself was illegitimate (something everyone else in the family must have known long before). Moreover, she had been disappointed in a long-held ambition to take up a teaching position at her mother’s sisters’ school in Dublin. Emotional fulfilment, social acceptance, personal independence: it must have seemed like they had all been denied her.

Godwin, Mary and Shelley
Fanny Imlay: The fiction
In A Treacherous Likeness, the account of Fanny’s death is narrated by the elder Charles Maddox, a former Bow Street Runner who has set up a lucrative private practice finding missing persons, and solving crimes. This, of course, is long before the establishment of an official police force in England. In the novel, Maddox is hired by William Godwin to investigate Shelley on his return from Switzerland. Godwin’s always fragile finances are by now reliant on handouts from Shelley, and there are rumours that Shelley intends to abandon Mary Godwin and return to his lawful wife, which would inevitably cut off all further funds. Hence the Godwins’ concern:

As I made my way to Skinner-street that morning I was anticipating, with some degree of apprehension I confess, an introduction to a distinguished philosopher, a fine thinker, an exacting intelligence. What I encountered in his stead was a short, balding, solid little man, with a long, thin nose, and a very disagreeable wife. And even had I not my own sources of information as to the perilous state of the gentleman’s finances, I should have seen at once that the bookshop of which he had become the proprietor was a failing concern: ill managed, ill situated, and the shelves half empty.

 Godwin's bookshop

I wondered at first, and for a moment, that any man of business could employ such a timid and self-effacing assistant behind his counter, only to find that the young woman in question was none other than the elder daughter of Mr Godwin’s first wife, a Miss Fanny Imlay. A modest, gentle, well-meaning creature, to judge of first impressions, though it was evident, from words Godwin let drop later, and – may I say – in the young woman’s presence, that he adjudged Miss Imlay considerably inferior in capacity to his own daughter by that same lady. That he considered the latter to be singularly bold and active of mind, and almost invincible in everything she undertook, while the former, though sober and observing, was too much given to indolence; that he thought his own daughter very pretty, while Fanny could at best be termed ‘not unprepossessing’. I glanced more than once at the aforementioned young woman during this exposition, and it was evident to me that she was only too accustomed to hearing her own talents thus denigrated in comparison with her younger sister’s. I say this, not only in condemnation, however well deserved, but in anticipation of what is to come, for I believe such behaviour on Godwin’s part – such arrant thoughtlessness – played its own part in the tragedy that was so soon to unfold. For my own part, and from such limited observations as I was able to make, I considered the young lady to be virtuous, gentle and kind; qualities, in my opinion, to be both admired and fostered in woman, even if they were neither valued nor encouraged by her celebrated mother, with her infamous concern only for the rights and freedoms of her sex. That Miss Fanny resembled that lady as little in looks as she did in temperament I could see for myself, by reference to a very fine portrait of Mrs Wollstonecraft Godwin which hung over the fireplace. Such a fine portrait, and so centrally displayed, that any subsequent wife might have found it irksome; that the second Mrs Godwin did so, and profoundly, was obvious to me at once, as was the fact that her husband seemed not in the slightest aware of it.

 

The said Mrs Godwin busied herself, firstly, in providing refreshment, or rather in instructing Miss Imlay to do so; she then took a seat beside her husband, and proposed to lay before me the facts of the case. I was, I admit, disconcerted. I have, on occasion, encountered women of insight and intelligence in the course of my profession – women able to follow the principles of logic and observation that I have always expounded – but I did not expect to find one in Mrs Godwin. Appearances were decidedly against her, but I gradually divined that her coarse features, prominent bosom and rather extraordinary green-tinted spectacles concealed a mind of considerable cunning, even if she could boast neither education nor understanding, in the strict meaning of those terms.

 

I asked then, if either Mr or Mrs Godwin had spoken in person to Shelley as to his plans in relation to his wife. A look passed between them at this, and Mrs Godwin answered, somewhat pink about the cheeks, that all direct communication had ceased the day the poet first left London in company with the two young women, some two years previously. ‘Mr Godwin has forbade him the house,’ she said, ‘and quite right too, after such a scandalous and disgraceful betrayal. He swore he would stop seeing Mary, you know. He stood there, on exactly the spot where you’re standing now and swore the affair was over and there would be no more clandestine meetings and midnight assignations and secret messages going to and fro. And the next we hear he’s upped and gone with her, and tricked my Clairy into going with them.’

 

I observed with mounting irritation Mr Godwin’s rather supercilious expression throughout his wife’s narration, and I was very much tempted to enquire how he reconciled his public condemnations of the institution of marriage with his continued ostracism of a man who appeared to have followed those precepts only too assiduously. Nor did I venture my own opinion as to the justice – moral or indeed political – of importuning such an individual for money while refusing to afford him even the time of day. Mrs Godwin, meanwhile, had become increasingly testy, saying that the current state of affairs was most trying and unsatisfactory, and had rendered it difficult, nay, almost impossible, to obtain the information they required as to Shelley’s wider intentions.

 

That, in short, was to be my undertaking.

You can see here, how I have attempted to translate fact into fiction. The preparatory work for the novel required almost the same degree of research as a biography, and in my case, letters, journals, and other papers were invaluable not just for what they said, but how they said it. I wanted to be able to speak in my characters’ voices, absorbing their own words, where appropriate, and drawing on contemporary descriptions. The suicide note Fanny left is reproduced in her own words, for example. And Charles Lamb was no great admirer of the second Mrs Godwin, and thus a particularly lively source. And even for a fictional character like Maddox, I wanted to create a strong sense of the period through an appropriate and convincing prose style.

To continue the story. Godwin later summons Maddox a second time, on the morning they discover Fanny has disappeared. It is entirely natural, within the world of the novel, that Maddox should offer to follow Fanny, and thus find himself at the Mackworth Arms on the day she died. History tells us someone intervened that day; in my novel that person is Charles Maddox:

I found Skinner Street in uproar – maids dispatched hither and thither in random and ineffectual enquiries, and the youngest Godwin child, a rather fearful-looking boy of some thirteen years, crying aloud for his sister and trailing about the house, unregarded, it seemed, by anyone in it. Godwin himself I found hunched over his writing-desk, taciturn and morose. As well he might be. What does it say of any father that all three of the young women consigned to his care had now gone to such extraordinary lengths to escape from it? But if Godwin had become silent in the face of such a calamity, his wife appeared even more strident, if such a thing were possible. Poor silly Fanny, she repeated incessantly, was always falling into such fits of dejection at the slightest provocation, and without the slightest cause. ‘You mark my words, William,’ she said to her husband. ‘It will just be another attempt to put herself forward and have people notice her. That girl never did know how to conduct herself properly – but what do you expect with an adventurer like Imlay for a father? It will all be just another billow in a ladle, just you see. I’ll wager even now she is thinking better of it, and is on her way home with her tail between her legs. And she’ll have a piece of my mind when she gets here, make no mistake about that.’

 

This vulgar tirade seemed at length to rouse the philosopher from his broodings, and he reminded his wife, with a certain terseness, that she might have done better to keep the secret of Fanny’s parentage from her, or at the very least informed her of it in a rather more delicate manner. I was forced to conclude from this that even if the circumstances of the young woman’s birth were widely known outside the family, Fanny herself had not known until recently of her own illegitimacy. I could see how sorely this might have affected her, and began to feel a degree of concern far in excess of what Mrs Godwin clearly believed either necessary or appropriate. And this concern was only augmented when Godwin took me aside to inform me that Fanny had, only a few days previously, been sadly disappointed in a long-held ambition to join her mother’s maiden sisters at their school in Dublin, and assume a career there as a teacher. Mrs Godwin then interjected loudly that that was all Mary’s fault, not Fanny’s, and how could you blame them? However reluctant I was to find myself in agreement with Mrs Godwin on any point of note, I had to concur that it was in all likelihood the public scandal occasioned by Miss Godwin’s elopement that had caused the ladies in question to decide against offering such a position to a young woman living in the same household, albeit their own niece. But the fact that Fanny was in no way to blame for this change in her prospects cannot have afforded her much consolation in the loss of them, left, as she must have believed, without any possibility of making a life for herself independent of her family. Godwin begged me then for my counsel, and I gave it as my opinion that there seemed only two places that the young woman might have fled: to her half-sister and step-sister in Bath, or to the aforementioned aunts in Dublin, and I thought it likely that Dublin would be her preference of the two. My advice, therefore, was that I should send one of my most trusted men to Bath, but I would go myself to Swansea, that being by far her likeliest port of departure for Ireland. I wrote out a description of Miss Imlay, and asked Mrs Godwin to ascertain the likely contents of her travelling case. How much more grave my concerns became when that lady returned downstairs to report Fanny had taken with her only a small reticule, and the clothes she was wearing. ‘And that watch that Mary bought for her in Swisserland,’ she said. ‘Make sure to mention that. Expensive, that was.’

 

I arrived eventually late in the afternoon of October 9th. A hard wind was blowing off the sea, and I wanted nothing more than a hot bath and an honest dinner, but disdaining both I made at once for the house of an acquaintance, a man in the employ of the port authorities. There had been but one crossing that day, he informed me, the wind being so foul, and there had been no young lady answering Miss Imlay’s description aboard. Having extracted a promise for vigilance and dispatch I repaired to a small ill-favoured inn, where I ordered such a repast as the sour and slatternly landlady could offer, and retired as soon as I might to my bed, exhausted, dispirited and uneasy.

 

I did not know – and it will haunt me to my dying day – that scarcely an hour after I had left the noisy and stinking tap-room there came a knock at the outer door and an enquiry, in low and trembling tones, whether there might be a room available for a respectable lady travelling unaccompanied. A small room only was required, and for that night alone. She would be gone, she said, by morning.

 

I wonder now, with pain, how she spent those last hours. How many times she put the bottle of laudanum to her lips before she had the courage to take the fatal dose. How sadly her thoughts must have returned to the mother she barely knew, who had tried, she too, to put an end to a life that had become to her unbearable. I wonder likewise if any circumstance might have prevented it. A kind word unlooked-for; a knock of concern at the door; a letter in a much-loved hand. But no help came. By the time a thin sun was rising over the bleak iron sea, I awoke to commotion and alarm in the corridor outside and arose in a terrified haste, my heart misgiving me and a terrible certainty weighing upon my heart like lead

 

The maid it was who found her. The maid who needed only one glance at the young woman on the bed to know that something was dreadfully amiss. She was lying, fully clothed, above the counterpane, in one hand her sister’s last gift, and in the other a single sheet of crumpled paper. I know all this, because I saw it. Before the doctor came, and the constable, and the idly and offensively curious, I thrust the maid from the room and slammed the door behind her. Then I went to the bedside and placed my hand against the pale forehead, and saw with a heart that faltered that on her eyelashes there still lingered tears. And then I took the paper from her cold and rigid fingers and read the words she had left for us to find.

I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as

Fanny Imlay

 

My duty – my professional duty – was clear. This note must remain, and the constable must see it. But I had a higher duty, or so I thought then. Not to her family, who, I feared, would be only too ready to commence their forgetting, but to the young woman herself. I knew what scandal and gossip would be whipped up by the very mention of her name, and what vile speculation would dog her to her grave, if it were bruited abroad that one connected so closely with the Godwin family had died here by her own hand, desolate and alone. Hearing footsteps on the stair I knew I had no time, and I made a decision I have never since regretted, not for one moment: I took the letter and tore the name away, then stepped quickly to the hearth and consigned the scrap of paper to the fire.

 

It was little enough, by way of a service, and not as decisive as I had hoped, for I discovered later that she had her mother’s initials sewn into her stays, and I fear that the prying of a callous posterity will uncover the secret I was striving so desperately to keep. But for then, and I hope for some little time yet, it was enough – enough to keep her poor wounded name from the speculations of the newspapers, and cast the kindness of concealment about her last hours. And even if I had failed her living, I had the power to protect her dead. Swansea is a small town, and word of such an untoward incident promulgates only too quickly, but I was relentless. No effort was spared, no payment unmade, and by nightfall on the third day I had ensured that the inquest verdict was given merely as an unexplained death, and there would be none of those references to insanity or self-destruction as would have seen her corpse treated with indignity and disrespect.

 

Of the interment, I wish not to speak. The rain driving in off the sea, the black-suited clergyman racing through the service that he might return to the comfort of his own fat fireside, and the bodies, three of them, sewn into their rough sacks, heaved one by one into the tainted pit of a paupers’ grave. I did not even know which one was hers.

The second post will be on the second tragic suicide of that autumn: Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. The woman he abandoned, pregnant, when he eloped with Mary….

Lynn Shepherd is the author of four novels, the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s (The Solitary House in the US), A Treacherous Likeness, and The Pierced Heart.  She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

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23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Film review: Bright Star

Page 1

By Carla Ferreira
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art— / Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night [. . . .]” The opening lines of John Keats’s ethereal poem are splendid enough to make even the staunchest modernist swoon. Despite my deep-rooted allegiances to Whitman—a secret Keats fan himself—and later poets, I looked forward to viewing Bright Star, the 2009 biopic/love-story of one of the great English Romantics.

Cue the opening scene: a close-up of a needle stitching, stitching, stitching. Violins play in the background. Why are we looking so closely—and for so long—at this needle? Like much of the film, it is a scene that only makes sense later; throughout, this delay in knowledge always seems hardly worth the initial effect of awkward confusion. True to my English major sensibilities, I wrote in my notes, “Possible phallic symbol?”

But no—although let’s not rule it out altogether—it shows us sewing as fine art and craft, that of Fanny Brawne, Keats’s love interest. Fanny’s sewing serves as counterpart to Keats’s poetry writing and Jane Campion, Bright Star’s director/writer, makes sure that if the viewer understands nothing else in her film, this parallel is obvious. When Charles Brown criticizes her sewing, Fanny is quick to reply that her sewing earns her more money than the “scribblings” of him and Keats.

This retort is supposed to make us think, “Wow, Fanny is as strong-willed as she is quick-witted.” Now I believe that in literature and film, as in life, strong women are essential. But Fanny is no fierce heroine. Instead, it’s almost as though Campion were pointing at her the entire film, saying “Look, there! A strong woman!” but instead we are constantly presented with a poorly-developed character whose main pastimes appear to be pouting, languishing over Keats, and treating her younger siblings like servants. Abbie Cornish’s acting is lost on a script that makes Fanny appear like more of a petulant child than anything else.

However, at this point, you may be thinking less about Brawne and more about Brown—namely, who is this Charles Brown I mentioned earlier? Well, the film presents him in the same manner. While those more familiar with Keats might know who he is from the start, the rest of the audience will come to know him as the obnoxious friend/writing companion/occasional housemate of Keats. His continual sparring with Fanny will be the recurring distraction of the film.

Let me warn you now: if you choose to watch Bright Star because you are eager to see the love story of Brawne and Keats, you may in fact be settling down to watch the odd threesome of Brown, Brawne, and Keats.

In fact, the unexplained intensity of the hatred between Brown and Brawne gets played out almost as if there were romantic tension. But this is done so clumsily that it rather seems as though Campion toyed with the idea of Brown as a romantic competitor to Keats, so as to spice things up, but instead of committing to the concept, settles for creating awkward drama.
Case in point: midway through Bright Star, Keats angrily confronts Brown upon finding out that Fanny has received a valentine from him. Brown has no motive in sending the valentine besides annoying Fanny, but the whole ordeal gets blown up into one of the most—out of many—melodramatic scenes in the film. Brown informs Keats that Fanny “makes a religion of flirting,” and I suppose we are supposed to take this as an explanation for why Brown is so intent on harassing Fanny: he’s just trying to protect his dear friend Keats. Ah, yes, now it makes sense.

But why does it matter? Brown’s foppish behavior—painting him as an entirely one-dimensional character—receives time that could have been better spent developing Keats. Was Brown in fact a real-life impediment to the relationship between Keats and Fanny?
Perhaps, but the fact of the matter is that the facts don’t matter: either m

ke Brown a compelling enough character that he’s worthy of attention or take away the time spent exploring his character and redirect it towards Fanny and Keats. Paul Schneider, bedecked in a plaid jumper, delivers a spirited performance but ultimately is incapable of injecting interest into a character so poorly written.

Keats himself, in contrast to Brown, is the most likable character, despite some attempts to cast a world-weary Rochester/grumpy Darcy aura about him. He falls neatly into the trope of “charming troubled starving poet,” complete with brooding looks and lots of moments petting a cat near a fireplace. Ben Whishaw does his best to prevent Keats from devolving into pure emo-poet by gracing the role with some humour. His endeavours are helped in no small part by his impish grin and winsome gazes: for a dying poet, he’s quite the eye candy.

I have focused so much on the characters because it is difficult to ascertain a particular plot in this film and I do not mean this in any postmodernist sense. I mean that Bright Star, throughout much of its two hour length, makes it difficult to identify what we as viewers are supposed to care about. Mostly, we are distracted by how much Brawne and Brown hate each other.
The more or less overarching conflict is that Keats cannot marry Fanny because he has no steady income. Gradually, this becomes less important to Fanny’s sainted mother. After dealing with Fanny’s attempts to turn her room into a butterfly farm and then near-suicide over Keats, Mrs. Brawne probably figures that it’s best to consent to Fanny’s wishes before the whole house becomes some kind of butterfly sanctuary. By this point, though—spoiler alert!—Keats, in the fashion of most 19th-century poets who died young, is suffering from tuberculosis. His friends decide to sponsor a trip for him to go to Italy and he dies there, away from Fanny.

When Fanny receives the news of his death, Cornish’s acting is phenomenal—she depicts Fanny’s sorrow exquisitely, embodying the raw cold reality of genuine mourning. However, the countless instances of melodrama throughout the film steal the glory that this scene could have had. I wanted to feel Fanny’s pain here, but instead of catharsis, I was feeling saturated with the constant breakdowns I had already seen.

In short, if you must watch Bright Star, take measures to keep yourself entertained, much like if you were on a long road trip. For example, upon watching the film a second time, I found it helpful to keep track of how many times Fanny’s siblings are randomly out-of-place voyeurs. Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Samuel and Edie Martin as Toots often appear to have received the instructions to stand creepily in a scene where they have no place, just staring, always there. The final scene in which Fanny recites the poem, Bright Star in the winter woods could have been a scene of delicate beauty, for once showing her love for Keats without overstating it. But Samuel was too distracting, ever present as a blur in the distance. He is just standing in the woods, watching his sister read a poem from the dead Keats. Perhaps some redemption could be found if a horror movie spinoff were made featuring these two siblings.

Until then, if you love Keats, I would recommend re-reading some of his poetry over watching Bright Star. If you don’t love Keats, I’m not sure why you are reading this review, but I would recommend not misusing any more of your time by watching this film.

Carla Ferreira is a Newark, New Jersey native with a penchant for
studying in cities called Cambridge. After four years studying English and French at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she taught English to high school students in Bordeaux, France. Her year at Trinity Hall – University of Cambridge was spent mostly writing an MPhil dissertation on Walt Whitman, Jules Laforgue, and T. S. Eliot, but was also spent in part relearning how to ride a bike, taking napCarla Ferreiras in libraries, and knitting bookmarks for her course-mates. She is currently working as a teaching assistant in Los Angeles, California and hopes to eventually publish a book of poems. In the meantime, a few of her poems can be found in literary journals such as The Lascaux Review, Off the Coast, and Shot Glass Journal.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Film review: Pandaemonium

Page 1

by Esther Rutter
Anyone who is even faintly familiar with the major events in the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge will have a field day watching Julian Temple’s quasi-biopic Pandaemonium. I recommend inviting your literary-inclined friends round for an evening of riotous entertainment, watching the film whilst taking part in the following themed drinking game which embodies the ‘spirit of the age’ and gets you through the film’s 125 minutes without spiralling into artistic despair and literary indignation:

  1. Challenge your guests to each bring a beverage inspired by Romantic literature. Suggestions could include: Rime of the Ancient Grand Marnier, Hartley Wallbanger, or even Sex on the Bysshe.
  2. Line up your beverages within easy reach of the screen, along with plenty of snacks to soak up the alcohol. With revolution in mind, and tongue firmly in cheek, how about some revolutionary biscuits? – Garibaldis and Bourbons should be first on your list.
  3. The rules are: Drink every time you spot an anachronism or gross misappropriation of historical events. Eat a biscuit every time a government agent appears to spy on a revolutionary writer.
  4. Drunk on inaccuracies and high on sugar, plot the revolution (or even just the film) anew with your inebriated acquaintances.

Of course, this is all in jest – but you have to hope that the film was made in this spirit too. The major questions of historical accuracy and authentic portrayal of characters and events have already been dealt with at length by the Guardian’s John Sutherland when the film first emerged. It would be tedious for me to simply list all the travesties of inaccuracy and character assassinations; this is really a film which attempts to posit Coleridge as the true –though flawed – genius of the Romantic age, portraying Wordsworth as a jealous power-hungry snitch, Byron as a foppish social commentator à la Russell Brand, and Dorothy Wordsworth as a rude and prematurely maddened bossy boots with a predilection for ill-advised romantic attachments. The characters verge on caricature and the past is awkwardly melded with images from the present (STC on the London Eye is a particular low point). High art it ain’t.

But the trouble with Pandaemonium is that you can’t simply dismiss it as a bad work of fiction. It is underpinned by just enough instances from the lives of Coleridge and Wordsworth to be partly plausible: Coleridge and Wordsworth really did create Lyrical Ballads together in the Quantocks in the late 1790s, Coleridge really did write ‘Frost at Midnight’ inspired by the birth of his son Hartley, and the composition of ‘Kubla Khan’ really was interrupted by the infamous ‘person from Porlock’ (although I think this is the first time that Wordsworth has been suggested as that person). It is also a rare example of a film which details the process of literary composition (other notable examples are Jane Campion’s brilliant Bright Star and the popular Shakespeare in Love), and for that alone it is to be commended. It falls between the two stools of fantasy and biography, and as such it gives the discerning viewer a bit of a genre headache – is it simply too inaccurate to be trusted, but it does contain a few kernels of fact.

Instead, the film seems to be an experiment in cinematic biofiction, a curious genre that takes people and places from real life but shapes them in a new image through fantasy dialogue and narrative. Could it even be viewed more as a kind structured reality, a literary prototype of shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex, in the way it melds fantasy and reality? Like them, it isn’t critically acclaimed, but both challenge what we trust to be ‘real’ and what we perceive as ‘truth’. As an aside, Dorothy Wordsworth is portrayed by Emily Woof, the daughter of the foremost authority on Dorothy Wordsworth, Pamela Woof. Whilst one can imagine the horror of the academic at the inaccuracies of the film, one does have to marvel at life and art’s continued intertwining.

But is the film faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the work of those early Romantics? Let’s look to that great manifesto for the Romantic movement, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, penned by Wordsworth during the time shown in Pandaemonium:

“The principal object…was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them… in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.”
Does Pandaemonium use incidents from real life, in accessible language, imaginatively portrayed? Yes, yes it absolutely does. Does it encourage its audience to consider aspects of human nature and what drives people creatively, whether it be inspiration, opiates, jealously, or companionship? Again, yes. The only trouble with the film is that is it just doesn’t do it very well. Their lofty aims are to be applauded, but the film fails on its execution. And in that, perhaps, they share something with those first efforts of Wordsworth and Coleridge – without the Preface mentioned above, the Lyrical Ballads poorly received and misunderstood by its first audience. Perhaps someone needs to go back and help Julian Temple and Frank Cottrell Boyce to hone their ideas, place them within a tangible and relevant context, and for goodness sake give Dorothy something other than that dreadful leather jacket to wear.

Esther Rutter is the Education Development Manager at the Wordsworth Trust, where she introduces schools and families to the life and works of the Romantic poets. She also edits the life writing blog Discriminating Brevity and contributes to OxfordDictionaries and Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. She has a soft spot for mountains, beer festivals, and literary ne’er-do-wells.

Esther Rutter Chateau de Chillon

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Frankenstein in Hollywood

Page 1

by Barry Forshaw
‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ gasps the English actor Colin Clive, working himself into a paroxysm over the twitching, scarred body of the patchwork corpse he has reanimated in Frankenstein (1931). It’s a seismic moment in several senses, freezing the derisory laugher it might prompt in an age of more subtle performances.

An analysis of the English influence on the first important wave of adaptations of Gothic literature in Hollywood in the 1930s is obliged to concentrate on the achievements of the massively influential James Whale, director of the seminal Frankenstein and several key movies of the genre (sometime informed by his irreverent gay sensibility). Later British-made adaptations (e.g. from the Hammer studios) were both reactions to and departures from the earlier films, with certain elements (including copious bloodletting) moved from the periphery to centre stage, but Whale (and his cadre of the British talent) set the gold standard.

Even before the completion of the immensely successful Dracula, Universal Studios had considered filming Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the talented director Robert Florey (later to make the deliriously inventive Beast with Five Fingers) was in the frame – long lost screen tests had even been made with Lugosi as the monster in make-up which apparently owed something to the Paul Wegener version of The Golem). But the Florey/Lugosi Frankenstein was not to be – an impeccable Englishman of iconoclastic manner named James Whale stepped into the frame and created (pace Browning’s Dracula) the first great universal Gothic film with this extremely free adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Whale had made his mark with two much-acclaimed films, a 1930 adaptation of RC Sherriff’s anti-war play Journey’s End (which he had directed in 1929 both in London’s West End and New York) and the more workaday Waterloo Bridge (1931, which, significantly, starred Mae Clarke as a prostitute — the director was subsequently to cast her as Frankenstein’s endangered fiancée in his Shelley adaptation).

Whale came to America as one of the many European talents that early US cinema was beginning to assiduously collect (and domesticate); his sophisticated manner (and homosexuality) were regarded as aspects of the ‘otherness’ which distinguished these ‘exotic’ foreign talents from US directors. What was not immediately apparent was his pitch-black sense of comedy. To modern audiences, the opening scenes of Frankenstein (with its outré components: grave-robbing, a grotesquely scarred hunchback, the driven, shibboleth-defying Frankenstein hiding behind headstones) are now clearly infused with a delicious gallows humour (literally so, when the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz played by Dwight Frye, cuts down a body from a gibbet). And there is the lovely moment when the dishevelled Fritz carefully adjusts his sock before scuttling up a staircase). None of this wry underlay provided by Whale would have been immediately apparent to the film’s original audiences, who would have focused on the macabre atmosphere, and who would never have seen such scenes so redolent with horror before. This judicious balance of irony and dread was new in this nascent genre, demonstrating how Whale was ahead of his time.

The British expats in Hollywood often favoured each other’s company, so it was hardly surprising that Whale employed the actor Colin Clive (with whom he had made Journey’s End) for his Frankenstein (now renamed ‘Henry’; Shelley’s ‘Victor’ is assigned to another character), Clive’s performance, viewed today, has a curious duality, with some remarkably contemporary underplaying alternating with scenery-chewing excess. But as an organic part of Whale’s idiosyncratic conception, Clive cannot be faulted. The film’s definitive coup, however, though was James Whales’ hiring of an English actor (of Anglo-Indian antecedents), the prosaically-named William Henry Pratt, who was to be granted the memorable stage name Boris Karloff. As with Christopher Lee’s later assumption of the role for the Hammer studios, this judicious piece of casting is one of the film’s several master strokes, furnishing a mimed, virtually silent performance which is one of the cinema’s great assumptions of a monstrous outsider (finessed, of course, by Jack Pierce’s brilliantly utilitarian make-up which allowed the actor to retain and use much of his own facial expressivity).

Those looking for a faithful channelling of Mary Shelley’s literary original would be disappointed; once again (as with Browning’s Dracula), a variety of stage adaptations as much as the original novel had been utilised for the film version, jettisoning Shelley’s arctic finale. The device of the theft of a supposedly ‘abnormal’ criminal brain (clearly — and rather ludicrously — labelled to that effect), as opposed to the carelessly dropped ‘normal’ brain which was to be placed in the monster’s cranium, suggests that a more quotidian rather than poetic approach was taken in adapting Shelley’s narrative.

frankenstein-1931-05-g
One might read another significant change from the novel as evidence of early 1930s dumbing-down: the creature’s loquaciousness is reduced to a series of inarticulate grunts and cries – but in the context of Whale’s schema, this is greatly to the benefit of the presentation of Frankenstein’s creation as something of an enfant sauvage, a badly served innocent whose violent actions are the result of taunting (the hunchback Fritz’s sadistic wielding of a flaming torch) or tragic misunderstanding of games (the monster’s inadvertent killing of a little girl by tossing her into the river like the flowers she had been throwing). Of course this interpretation is muddied by the fact that we now know the monster has a ‘criminal’ brain – but little in the creature’s behaviour suggests these actions of the results of criminality.

The death of the little girl famously resulted in a particularly egregious piece of censorship – the removal of the latter half of the scene after the monster reaches down towards her (followed by a shot of her father carrying her soaked body with one stocking askew) encouraged audiences to infer more sinister behaviour by the monster than this elision now suggested). The first appearance of the monster (in the series of jump cuts echoed years later by Alfred Hitchcock in a similarly shocking view of a gruesome face in The Birds) still carries a remarkable charge today, and marks out the fearful territory in which we are to regard the monster, however much sympathy we are invited to extend towards him later.

He is, of course, the outsider– as both Whale’s Britishness and homosexuality made him in Hollywood (although both of these things were hardly novel in the circles in which she moved). The youthful Frankenstein’s portrayal as an outsider with his taste for the forbidden (articulated in one of his more subtle moments by Colin Clive) is readable also as a metaphor for the director’s wry perception of his own status. (Bill Condon’s 1998 film Gods and Monsters constructs a plausible picture of Whale’s later life in Hollywood, aided by a nuanced performance by Ian McKellen as the director). And any reading of the monster (as played by Karloff) as a classic outsider to whom the director has extended sympathy is consolidated by the readings of virtually other every other actor (with the honourable exception of Christopher Lee) who has essayed the monster, with performances in which the physical mutilation and capacity for murderous violence are foregrounded at the expense of the alienated loneliness.

More than Browning’s Dracula, the prodigious success of Whale’s film virtually forged the horror film industry and spawned multiple progeny, mostly at the mercy of the law of diminishing returns — with the splendid exception of this film’s immediate sequel. It also popularised a certain (somewhat reduced) quotidian perception of Gothic motifs in the public mind, motifs which were almost parodically treated by Whale even before they had established themselves in any iconographic sense. But viewed in the 21st-century, the concatenation of elements that make Frankenstein work so well are still easy to discern: the aforementioned stressing the creature’s outsider status; the utterly persuasive mime utilised by Karloff to characterise his tragic misfit and (above all else) James Whale’s intoxicated, endlessly inventive utilisation of the newish medium of sound cinema. The film function as both as a blackly comic horror fable and as a serious study of misguided human striving. What’s more, the defining, status-quo  cliché of so many horror and science fiction films: the rosary-clutching suggestion that man should not trespass onto the territory of God — is given little force by the director, a man perfectly prepared to defy the deity.

The success of the film consolidated James Whale’s position as one of Universal Studio’s most bankable directors — and their ace practitioner of the horror film (a position he was further to consolidate with what many considered to be his best work, the sequel to Frankenstein — which would place on screen for the first time the novel’s diminutive female creator.
After Frankenstein, the other James Whale films which creatively utilised Gothic elements are an atmospherically eccentric adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s now-unread novel Benighted, as The Old Dark House (1932); a darkly comic, very English take on HG Wells’s The Invisible Man (1933); and what many considered to be Whale’s chef d’ouevre, the delirious The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). All of the Catherine wheels and Roman candles in the director’s box of fireworks are gleefully detonated here: his luxuriating in the theatrical, his taste for unorthodox close-ups, staggered camera angles and (for the time) ambitious tracking shots.

All of these, along with his very British sense of irony, informed The Bride, as did Whale’s background as a graphic artist and newspaper cartoonist (a characteristic the director shared with another, later filmmaker of similar exuberance, Federico Fellini). The film is further enhanced (unlike the virtually music-free Dracula and Frankenstein) by a fully realised orchestral score from another talented expat, Franz Waxman, adding a nigh-operatic dimension to Whale’s already grandiose conceptions.

Barry Forshaw
Barry Forshaw is one of the UK’s leading experts on crime fiction and film. His books include Nordic Noir, British Crime Film and Death in a Cold Climate. Other work: Euro Noir, the HRF Keating Award-winning British Crime Writing, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and Italian Cinema. He writes for various newspapers and edits Crime Time. This post is an extract from British Gothic Cinema which is out now.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More
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