Tag Archives: Victorian era

“Elephantasia” – John Sutherland’s take on Jumbo and elephants in general


John Sutherland, Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation (Aurum Press, 2014)

Such was my ignorance I didn’t even realise Jumbo was a particular late-nineteenth century elephant, the world’s most famous elephant. The story of the life and death of Jumbo as he is captured in Africa and exhibited – and mistreated – in Paris, London, and the USA is a fascinating one. It offers a cross-section of the era in the most incredible way – colonialism, emerging technology, sexual mores, exhibits. This was an elephant with links to both Queen Victoria and P. T. Barnum, the great American showman. Continue reading

James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A fictional biographer on the trail of J. M. W. Turner’s secrets


Spoiler alert

In James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense (2001), Walter Hartright and his sister-in-law, Marian Halcombe, set out to investigate the life of the British painter J. M. W. Turner a couple of decades after his death. Walter has been informally commissioned by Lady Eastlake, supposedly to provide a more acceptable account of Turner’s life than a muck-raking biographer named Thornbury, who we never actually meet. With its subject and setting in London at the height of Victorianism, as well as borrowing its protagonists from a Wilkie Collins’ novel, it is a deeply Victorian novel concerned with respectability and repression. Walter sets about interviewing people who remember Turner, and learns contradictory things about the painter. Marian tries to unearth Turner’s early life through letters and journals. They are led toward dark secrets in Turner’s life, only to begin to suspect they are actually being used for other people’s agenda. The mania Walter finds in Turner’s life infects his own, as he unleashes his repressed sexuality and becomes, a little unconvincingly, something of a sex fiend.

It is an intriguing premise, and seems well-researched. However, its epistolary narration works against it, and the whole novel feels as if it is relating events at too far a remove as characters diarise or correspond about things which have happened to them. The most engaging scenes are those which shake off the pretence of being letters or diaries and just directly narrate.

I was drawn to it as an example of the biographical quest novel made famous by A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990). Many bioquest novels are set in the present with biographers unearthing the secrets of past ages, particularly the Victorian or Edwardian ages. Yet The Dark Clue has an intra-Victorian setting – the mid-Victorian era interrogating the early-Victorian era. The passages most typical of the bioquest are the ones in which Marian uncovers archival secrets. The novel has the quest structure, yet resists the romance conventions of the genre – it has a darker heart, with the quest leading not to personal redemption for Walter and Marian but near-destruction and misery.

The biographical project itself is left quite unresolved, abandoned because of the effect on the biographers. Walter and Marian end up fearing they are being tricked into producing a biography which condemns Turner as a paedophile and murderer in order to get around a stipulation in his will requiring that a gallery dedicated to his work be built if the nation wished to retain ownership of the paintings. This central premise seems slippery to me. Firstly, isn’t the rival biographer, Thornbury, supposed to be the muck-raker? Secondly, and more importantly, Victorian biography avoided scandal. Would there have even been muck-rakers like Thornbury, let alone a gentleman like Walter publishing shocking allegations about a well-known painter? The biographer Froude was heavily criticised in the period for merely suggesting Thomas Carlyle was impotent. The abandonment of the project, at least, is realistic for the period if such discoveries were made. Interestingly, it echoes another bioquest from the same year, Barbara Vine’s The Blood Doctor, in which the secret is too shocking for the present-day biographer (the subject’s descendant) to continue.

I haven’t yet seen the recent film, Mr Turner, so I can’t make the obvious comparison to it, but I do half intend to watch it.

Review of a Forgotten Novel: Thomas Henry Prichard’s Retaliation

‘Should he continue in the wide field of literature he will assuredly become one of our first writers of romance,’ wrote Launceston’s Daily Telegraph, reviewing journalist Thomas Prichard’s novel, Retaliation: An Early Tale of Melbourne (1891). It was not to be. This is the only novel Prichard was to publish before his death by suicide in 1907; in addition to his journalism, the rest of his oeuvre is filled out with two known short stories in The Bulletin and two serial Christmas stories in newspapers, as well as poems and some works of non-fiction. Retaliation was published in a cheap paperback edition with a green cover and sold for a shilling. Trove, the combined catalogue of libraries across Australia, lists six copies held in Australia; there may be several more in libraries not listed, and a few in private hands, but essentially, Prichard’s novel and his literary career have been forgotten. Retaliation is a popular fiction of its day, and while competent and representative, is not especially memorable. It does, however, read as a fascinating document of its time, especially in relation to the work of Prichard’s famous daughter, Katharine Susannah. Continue reading

Crisis of Doubt: literary vs historical biography

William Hone, one of the 'reconverts' discussed in Larsen's book.

William Hone, one of the ‘reconverts’ discussed in Larsen’s book.

Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (OUP, 2006) is an interesting biographical project. In order to challenge the prevailing myth of honest Victorian thinkers inevitably suffering a crisis of faith and abandoning Christianity, Larsen tells of eight significant (and representative) reconversions running the other way, secularist leaders who returned to some form of Christianity, not on their deathbed but in their right mind, years before their deaths.

Does it work as biography? Does it need to? The account Larsen is trying to challenge is so ingrained that his entire book is singularly focused on constructing his alternative. Long after thinking there probably was something to his case, I found myself feeling ungripped by the biographies themselves. Reviewer Philip M. Davis, one of the critics Larsen is directly challenging, obviously felt the same way:

But he does not make these men or their lives very interesting. Nor can he give a reader insight into their inner lives—partly because their writing is not in any sense literary and does not allow a way in.Worst of all is the realization that their actual thinking (too often merely typical and predictable, however sincere)  is  not  actually  very  deep. Accordingly, despite  his  thesis, he  cannot find  here  the  relation  of  religion  and  compelling  thought: he  still  needs Tennyson or John Henry Newman—or at least W. H. Mallock or Francis William Newman.
That is to say, this is a book only for historians. Larsen won’t mind perhaps that it isn’t for the literary types. But my point is not that: it is that, sadly, Crisis of Doubt has no theological depth. (Catholic Historical Review 94, no. 2: 397-398. )

I don’t wish to stand between these two dueling gentlemen. Larsen makes a strong case; Davis suggests he’s missed a bigger point (crisis of faith and crisis of doubt as part of the same phenomenon), and what’s more, his review is one of those superbly written demolition jobs which can’t help but sway a reader who hasn’t quite made up their mind on a book.

No, their duel aside: what of this claim about biography? Davis suggests that there is biography for historians, and then there is biography for literary types. And, to a large extent, it relies on the biographical subject. Biographical subjects who are not ‘in any sense literary’ do not allow the biographer ‘in’. Mere thinkers – and apparently shallow ones in this case – give no clue to their inner lives. And that is what makes for mere historical biography, as opposed to literary biography.

Given the biographical subject I am considering taking up, I hope he’s wrong. I hope the reason Larsen’s writing is not gripping as biography is the fact he is not attempting to write good biography but to make a point. The more literary biographer should have a sense of wonder at the unfolding of a person’s life, and invest it with a more beautiful kind of prose. (I wonder to what extent this is possible in an academic context – in, say, writing for a PhD?)

Furthermore, Larsen makes only limited use of letters or diaries; if they exist, they could give us a greater sense of these figures’ inner lives.

Martin Thomas faces this problem in writing the biography of anthropologist R.H. Mathews – the man gives nothing away, not even in the many letters and diaries Thomas manages to unearth. The man is ‘self-contained’; his diaries ‘are utterly devoid of reflection’. Thomas casts his whole narrative as a quest for his elusive quarry, and it works very well. Yet not every biographer faced with the unrevealing subject can take this option. I suppose I hope I will be able to, if I need to.

Davis’s review of Larsen, then, intensifies two key dilemmas for me in preparing to write a biography. Firstly, properly understanding the difference between what he calls a ‘literary’ and a ‘historical’ approach to biography. Secondly, to what extent do I need to select a biographical subject who reveals their inner life?