English and Drama blog

2 posts from August 2014

15 August 2014

Living the Victorian Nightmare: The Damnation of Theron Ware

The Devil, so the theory goes, has the best tunes. In literature it is probably fair to say he also has the majority of the best books. Even when he doesn't take centre stage himself the Devil's calling cards - lust, envy, temptation, the lure of wealth and power - usually make for fascinating themes with which to drive forward plot and character. In such a diabolically crowded field it is hardly surprising that certain elegant Faustian tales have slipped through the net and fallen into undeserved obscurity. One such tale however, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) by the American author Harold Frederic is surely ripe for rediscovery. Not only is it an excellent story in itself, it also reveals a great deal about the anxieties, doubts and fears - as well as the glorious freedoms - of the Victorian fin de siècle. As a one-volume summation of troubling late-Victorian themes the book can hardly be bettered. After all, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) featured a meddling scientist; Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) depicted a man in thrall to his own brilliant potential and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) featured, in the figure of Lucy Westenra, a predatory New Woman capable of seducing men at the drop of a neat little handkerchief. The Damnation of Theron Ware, on the other hand, features all three.

Theron Ware

(Above: the original cover for The Damnation of Theron Ware. If you only read one unfairly neglected masterpiece in your life, make it this one)

What makes The Damnation of Theron Ware so brilliantly perceptive is the way it plays upon doubt, temptation and the desire to experience the intoxicating pleasures of life to the full. In the course of his work as a Methodist pastor in small-town America Theron Ware comes into contact with people very different, and to his mind considerably more exciting than he is himself. Take Celia Madden for example (that's her on the cover above): flame-haired, free-spirited and stunningly beautiful. Unsurprisingly when Celia takes Theron back to her heavily-draped rooms full of religious art and erotic sculptures and plays him Chopin nocturnes on her piano he emerges, sometime later, bewitched, bothered, bewildered and besotted. The poor chap is never quite the same again: at one point he even has a mystical vision of Celia's face overlaid upon that of the Virgin Mary in a stained glass church window.

The Victorian attitude to the New Woman, the generic term for the independently-minded women who came to prominence in the 1880s and 1890s, was curiously contradictory. For her critics, who were by no means all male, she was stereotyped - in an extremely contradictory fashion - as either a mannish, child-hating lesbian or else as a sexually predatory vamp. Celia Madden, with her charm, charisma and disregard for convention, is the embodiment of the latter variety. Similarly Theron's encounter with the atheist scientist Dr Ledsmar, a man who performs sinister experiments upon his collection of lizards and bees and who dopes his Chinese manservant with increasingly heroic doses of laudanum simply to observe the consequences leaves Theron questioning his drearily out-dated notion of morality. The local Catholic priest, meanwhile, Father Forbes, has a very free take on theological doctrine which reduces Theron to feelings of hopeless inferiority. In his attempts to be more like his new friends Theron abandons the very traits - respect, decency, diligence - that first brought him success. In turn Celia Madden, Dr Ledsmar and Father Forbes find Theron's plays at being more progressive both feeble and embarrassing. Morality clashes with amorality; the past clashes with the future; small town America clashes with the birth of the modern and the desire to do good works for the many clashes with the pursuit of individual desire and pleasure.

Harold Frederic

(Above: Harold Frederic, barely-known author of unfairly-neglected masterpiece. Life can be cruel ...)

The English title for Harold Frederic's book was Illumination. The twist being that the 'illumination' Theron achieves comes at the cost of spiritual and moral decay and only serves to leave the surrounding darkness more profound. As a morality tale on the dangers of temptation it is a fine novel. As a depiction of fin de siècle fear, anxiety and hedonistic pleasure it is up there with the very best.



04 August 2014

We Will Remember Them


Laurence Binyon, 'For the Fallen', Add. MS 45160. © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Laurence Binyon. Usage Terms: Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

In August 1914, as the story goes, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey waited for the news of the German response to the British ultimatum. If a response did not arrive by 11 pm on 4 August, Britain would be at war. As the hour approached, Sir Edward looked out of his window at the Foreign Office and noticed a lamplighter attending to his work. Aware of the enormity of the looming European war, he remarked spontaneously, ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.

This oft-quoted phrase has inspired 14-18 NOW's Lights Out, a 'shared moment of reflection' in which everyone in the United Kingdom is invited to turn off their lights between 10 and 11 pm on 4 August, leaving a single light or candle to shine. Many institutions are participating, including the British Library. The building will fall dark, and we will be casting a light on perhaps the best-known elegy from the First World War: a handwritten copy of Laurence Binyon's poem, 'For the Fallen.' Its central quatrain will be familiar to anyone who has attended a Remembrance Day commemoration, or seen it carved in any number of cenotaphs here or around the world:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Binyon, at that time Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and an expert on William Blake and Asian art, published the poem in The Times on 21 September 1914. The moment of publication came as the true nature of the war began to reveal itself, not long after the early British defeat at Mons and just after the German advance was held by the French and British Expeditionary Force at the Battle of the Marne. Too old for active service, Binyon himself later worked as an orderly in military hospitals in France, and in 1917 reported for the Red Cross on the work undertake by British volunteers on the Continent, which he published as For Dauntless France (London, 1918).

Some of Binyon's notes about his work at the British Museum and his service during the war are held in our India Office private papers, including this note to the war artist William Rothenstein from 30 July 1917: 'I am to spend next week in a tent, with about 13 others, I believe. Won't it be nice, this weather? I can feel the dripping on my face. But I am learning the mysteries of the machine gun, which is rather fascinating'.  The after-effects of the war continued, infiltrating all aspects of daily life, with Binyon writing in 1919 that 'the government is still in possession of our reading room'. As a result there was little chance of an exhibition (MSS B213/48, 19 Feb 1919). (The Library's current exhibition, Enduring War: grief, grit and humour, continues until 12 October.)

Binyon's other war poems, such as 'The Zeppelin' and 'Fetching the Wounded',  can be seen via Europeana 1914-1918, including the manuscript copy of 'For the Fallen' and Sir Edward Elgar's setting of the poem.  The printed edition can also be seen on our First World War site: www.bl.uk/world-war-one.

A recording of 'For the Fallen' is also included on the British Library CD of First War Poetry.  The poem is read by the actor Rory Kinnear.

Rory Kinnear reads For the Fallen

Finally, it should be no surpise that Winston Churchill's rhetoric also rose to the occasion.  On the 4 August, he 'enlarged in his lively and imaginative way' to the editor of the Westminster Gazette, one of our sources for Grey's remark: 'At midnight, we shall be at war, at war... within a week enemy airships may be sailing over this spot on which we stand and dropping bombs on the mighty'.  A fragment from a downed enemy airship may be seen in the exhibition mentioned above.


[Matthew Shaw]