English and Drama blog

4 posts from November 2014

18 November 2014

The Face in the Glass: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Victorian Gothic Tale

Imagine, if you will, an Italian villa, its walls baked by the sun and its gardens surrounded by orange groves. What could be more welcoming and delightful? There is, however, a room at the back of the villa; a room, lined with old leather-bound books, which catches little of the light and always seems dank and cold. Curiously it is with this stale and sunless room that the successive owners of the villa become fascinated. Fascinated indeed to the point of obsession. It is also within this room that an antique mirror made of a distinctive dark glass can be found, a glass that, perhaps, reflects something a little more mysterious than a bland representation of reality. Those who gaze into the mirror's depths become entranced, beguiled, morbidly enraptured, but they also lose vitality, finding themselves ageing prematurely and hurtling towards the grave. There is sunshine outside the villa, but a contrasting haunting darkness within.

Face in the Glass
(Above: The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales, a selection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's finest tales of the macabre and the uncanny. Published by the British Library)

The above synopsis sounds like something by Edgar Allan Poe but it is actually the outline of an enigmatic and extremely unsettling short story called 'Herself' by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), one of the many brilliant and enigmatic Gothic tales that she wrote throughout her life. The Victorians and the ghost story go hand in hand but, even in such a brilliant and crowded field including authors such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Oscar Wilde, Braddon stands out as a particularly fine writer of the beautifully crafted tale of terror. Her stories are always inventive, always challenging and they exhibit a terrific range and variety. Braddon had a gift for evoking atmosphere and an ability to induce that delicious, creepy sensation of something being 'not quite right'.

Today Braddon is best known for her brilliant sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret (1861), a book which turned conventional expectations on their head by having, at its heart, a beautiful, blue-eyed, seemingly 'butter-wouldn't melt' blonde woman as the villain and a man as the victim. At the time this was highly innovative and radical. In Gothic literature, of which sensation fiction is a quintessentially Victorian offshoot, the women were there to swoon and the men were there to be diabolical - not the other way around. Villany had never before been presented in such a subversive and beautifully beguiling fashion.

Although several of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novels are coming back into print her Gothic tales remain somewhat neglected, a situation which a new publication by the British Library - The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales - aims to redress. The volume gathers together a selection of Braddon's sinister tales, each of which highlights a particular facet of her brilliant imagination. Just as with her longer fiction her short stories endlessly turn conventional expectations upside down. For example, Braddon's female characters are spirited and independent,often railing against the restrictions imposed upon them by Victorian (and distinctly male) society. Similarly she had little time for the conventional happy ending. Many of her short stories have genuinely chilling conclusions while others are veiled in enigma and mystery.

The stories within The Face in the Glass feature visitations from beyond the grave; tales of haunted houses and mirrors that distort the truth. There is a tale of an island inhabited by the spirits of the departed and a story of an elderly woman, Good Lady Ducayne, with claw-like hands who cares little for the qualifications and experience of her attendants provided they have youthful blood flowing through their veins.

Good Lady Ducayne
(Above: Good Lady Ducayne, as depicted in the original publication of the story in The Strand Magazine. 1896)

There is plenty of darkness within the pages of The Face in the Glass, but there is also considerable humour, invention and imagination. The Victorians knew how to tell ghost stories, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon told some of the finest ghost stories of all. The best of her tales such as 'Eveline's Visitant', 'Her Last Appearance', 'The Ghost's Name', 'The Island of Old Faces', 'Herself' and 'Good Lady Ducayne' bear comparison with the acclaimed supernatural tales of Poe, Dickens and Wilde.

The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales is available from the British Library Shop, while sensation fiction, ghost stories and many more Gothic-tinged horrors are explored in detail in the Terror and Wonder exhibition and the assoctiated exhibition book.



14 November 2014

History at Stake! The Story Behind Vampire Slaying Kits

One particular item in the British Library's Terror and Wonder exhibition has inspired more cries of amazement, shivers of fear and gasps of delight than any other. I refer, of course, to the vampire slaying kit which is on loan to the British Library from the Royal Armouries for the duration of the exhibition. In this guest post the curator who looks after the item, Jonathan Ferguson, talks about the origins of the kits and the strange history that lurks behind them.

Vampire New 02
Above: The vampire slaying kit, on loan from the Royal Armouries and currently on display at the British Library.

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****

As Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries I deal with everything from medieval hand cannon, through finely decorated works of art, to the latest military assault rifles. But some of my favourite objects are the unusual; the technological dead ends, the experiments, and the whimsical pieces. In parallel with my professional interest in arms and armour is a fascination with the paranormal, though I am not myself a believer in its objective reality. As much as I grew up with Dracula, Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice, I am by nature a sceptic, tending toward the debunking of extraordinary claims. It was in this capacity that I came across my first 'vampire killing kit' on the internet some seven years ago. It was essentially a cased Victorian percussion pistol with accoutrements for loading; so far, so typical. However, this also included a hammer, stakes, a crucifix, and other classic tools of the fictional vampire slayer. It purported to be 19th century in date, but was rather obviously of recent manufacture. Nonetheless, it attracted a lot of interest and intrigue online. Looking into it, I discovered that there were many more of these kits (over 100 are known to exist), and many of them quite professionally made and wholly antique in appearance.

I decided to use my museum training to investigate these unusual pieces, in particular those labelled as having been created by a 'Professor Blomberg'. It is usually stated that these, and vampire kits in general, are late-Victorian novelties or souvenirs, sold to tourists travelling to eastern Europe in the wake of the publication of Dracula in 1897. Some sellers and media outlets even claimed that they were made for believers in vampires, for self-defence purposes. I suspected that they were indeed novelty items, but were rather more recent than many believed. I conducted a survey of the folklore surrounding 'real' vampires, that is, dead bodies exhumed by a troubled community and ritually 'killed' as scapegoats for whatever malaise might be affecting people. Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits. I persisted, revisiting the fictional stories and movies of my childhood and beyond, noting the development of the various ingredients in the typical vampire killer's toolbox. It became clear that the 'Blomberg' kits, with their focus upon silver bullets, were very unlikely to have existed prior to about the 1930s at the earliest. Though constructed from antique boxes and contents, they were most likely not produced until the era of the classic Hammer vampire movies. Other kits are harder to pin down in terms of date and could be older, but there is as yet no evidence of this. Varney 01
Above: An illustration from Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1845 - 47). Varney was actually susceptible to bullets, but would be revived by moonlight. The situation with Count Dracula was rather different.

To some this might come as a disappointment, or even as a reason to decry the kits as fakes as some do. Would-be buyers should certainly not purchase under the apprehension that they are buying a Victorian antique as my own research has shown. So why acquire such an object regardless? Museums do collect deliberate fakes as comparators and for their own artistic and cultural merit, yet vampire kits are not fakes per se, because there is no evidence of a Victorian original. In the case of historical artefacts for which the original does not survive, we will also display reproductions. In this case, there very likely isn't an original. Self-defence against the supernatural was for many in history (and indeed today) a matter of life and death, but the weapons they used were ephemeral. The wooden stakes, guns, and agricultural implements that they attacked vampires and other revenants with either no longer survive, or have lost their provenance and are unable to tell us their story.

So, if they're not fake, and not reproductions, what are they? The answer is that they are 'hyperreal' or invented artefacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props. They can also be regarded, and indeed have been sold as, pieces of modern art. Formerly the preserve of art galleries and of course libraries, contemporary collection is now also a staple of museum collecting policies. Our profession collects the artefacts of modern war, of medical science, communications technology, even of people's pastimes. 'High art' in the form of contemporary artworks has been joined in museum collections by 'low art' props fabricated for our favourite movies and plays, just as Twilight takes its place next to Dracula in the British Library's stacks. Curators and visitors alike now recognise that objects do not have to be ancient to be interesting and important, as the Were-Rabbit also displayed as part of Terror and Wonder shows! Such immediate and intriguing pieces can also attract new audiences to our respective fields; in the case of the Royal Armouries, that of arms and armour. For all these reasons, we at the Armouries sought to acquire the vampire killing kit that you can now see on display at the British Library.

Vampire New

So, although I had set out to 'debunk' their very existence, I came to realise that these enigmatic objects transcend questions of authenticity. They are part of the material culture of the gothic; aspects of our shared literary and cinematic passions made physical. Lacking any surviving artefact of vampirism either folkloric or fictional, fans of the gothic had created one to fill the gap. So whilst we at the Armouries still plan to scientifically test our vampire kit, and there is the possibility that it's early rather than late 20th century in date, for me the outcome has almost become moot. Vampire killing kits are genuine artefacts of the Gothic fiction that still provides sustenance to our most beloved monsters.

Jonathan Ferguson

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****

The vampire slaying kit will be on display at the British Library until 20th January 2015. There's an opportunity to learn more about vampires as depicted in Victorian literature via our Discovering Literature website. Also, on the British Library's website, you can help conserve a classic Gothic novel for future generations via Adopt a Book and discover more about our series of Terror and Wonder Gothic Events to tie-in with the exhibition.

08 November 2014

Happy Birthday Bram Stoker!

The 8th of November is always an occasion for celebrations within Gothic literary circles, marking as it does the anniversary of Bram Stoker's birth. And yet, at first sight, when you look at the details of Stoker's life it seems odd that he should have produced so many fine Gothic novels. Indeed, with Dracula, he produced arguably the most enduring and influential Gothic horror story of them all.

Bram Stoker
(Bram Stoker - mathematician, athlete, theatre manager and a creator of fine Gothic horrors)

The details of Stoker's life are interesting in themselves but give little insight into why his imagination should have produced so many dark, supernatural tales. He was born in Dublin on the 8th November 1847, the third of seven children. His childhood and youth were a paradoxical mixture of extreme illness (he was largely confined to bed until the age of seven) and vigour (he was a noted athlete during his time as a student at Trinity College Dublin, from where he graduated with a degree in Mathematics). It was during his time as a student that he became interested in the theatre and it is perhaps here that the darkness creeps in. For a while he was the theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, co-owned by the author Sheridan Le Fanu whose novels such as The House by the Churchyard (1863) and Uncle Silas (1864) contributed so much to the popularity of Sensation Fiction during the 1860s, and whose short story 'Carmilla' (1871), telling the tale of a predatory female vampire, was undoubtedly an influence on Dracula. It was while working as a theatre critic that Stoker first met the actor Henry Irving, a man whose charisma and brooding presence is often thought to have been in Stoker's mind when he created the character of the Count.

In 1878 Stoker married the celebrated beauty Florence Balcombe. One of her previous suitors had been Oscar Wilde and although Wilde and Stoker, who had known each other at Trinity College, fell out over the marriage Stoker was ultimately able to resume his friendship with Wilde in later years. Oscar Wilde, of course, went on to write one of the few Gothic novels able to bear comparison with Dracula - namely The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

(Florence Balcombe, society beauty and, from 1878, the wife of Bram Stoker)

Upon moving to London after his marriage Stoker became acting manager, and then business manager of Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre, a post he held for 27 years. Through Irving Stoker met Arthur Conan Doyle, the future author of such Gothic tales as 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' (1892) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). While he was at the Lyceum Stoker oversaw a stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's brilliant novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The play, which began its run on the 3rd September 1888, caused controversy due to its perceived similarities to the Whitechapel murders carried out by Jack the Ripper, murders which began at almost exactly the same time. The more you look into Stoker's life, and the more you look at the people with whom he built friendships and working relationships, the more you begin to see the all-pervading air of Gothic drama that fed into Dracula.

Of course Dracula rather overshadows the rest of Stoker's work as an author. To some extent this is inevitable, it is, after all, by some distance his most powerful work. Even so his other novels deserve respect. In particular I have always had a soft spot for The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), a novel about an archaeologist's attempts to revive Queen Tera, an ancient Egyptian mummy. Like Dracula the novel offers valuable insights into fin-de-siècle themes such as the rise of the New Woman; Imperialism and the way in which the old world of tradition and superstition clashes with the new world of scientific progress. The book was also the basis for one of Hammer's finest and most under-rated movies - Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. The title may be daft, but with its striking lead performance by Valerie Leon and its distinctive visuals the film is most definitely a gem.

(The Jewel of Seven Stars - not as iconic as Dracula, but a fine book all the same)

There is, of course, plenty more to discover about Bram Stoker and Dracula in our major exhibition Terror and Wonder; and there is a wealth of information about Gothic novels and themes on the British Library's Discovering Literature website. There is also an opportunity to help conserve an iconic Gothic novel via Adopt a Book.

So, in conclusion, happy birthday Bram! For those of us who love Gothic literature he really was one of the finest exponents of the chilling tale and, on his birthday, perhaps we should raise a glass of something dark and red in his honour. Thank you for the novels, and thank you for all those dark, hauntingly beautiful memories.


06 November 2014

Mouse-skin eyebrows.

In the British Museum collection there is a print dated 18 June 1782, showing two women driving a vehicle in front of a cosmetic shop. The vehicle is a gig, raised absurdly high on springs, so that the seats are poised above the height of the four horses pulling it. A monogram on the side shows the letter A, indicating that the lady driving is Lady Archer, the famous beauty (though hers was a beauty famously achieved with much artificial aid). The caption below states: The Portland Place A-R. Driving without a beau to R-D’s perfume warehouse P-LL M-LL

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The cosmetic shop has an improbably large bow window, curling round the corner of the building, and notices above the door advertise some of the products on sale within: Italian washes, Ivory teeth, Mouse Eye Brows etc and the Best French Roush.

It is widely supposed that during two or three periods of the eighteenth century, women satisfied the demands of fashion for high and thick eyebrows by shaving off their own and replacing them with false eyebrows made from mouse-skin. It’s an uncomfortable idea, but reasonably creditable within the context of other cosmetic and medical products of the time. However, the evidence for the practice is thin, and very specific in its nature. Apart from this cartoon the evidence is largely satirical poems, by Matthew Prior, Jonathan Swift, and an anonymous poem printed in the London Daily Post on 19 June 1736, containing the lines:

                    Or Nightly Traps insidious lay,
                    To catch new Eye-brows for the Day

The relevant poem by Matthew Prior, dated 1718, runs:

                    HELEN was just dipt into bed
                    Her eye-brows on the toilet lay
                    Away the kitten with them fled
                    As fees belonging to her prey

                    For this misfortune careless Jane,
                    Assure yourself, was loudly rated
                    And madam, getting up again,
                    With her own hand the mouse-trap baited.

                    On little things, as sages write,
                    Depends our human joy or sorrows
                    If we don’t catch a mouse to-night,
                    Alas! no eyebrows for to-morrow.

This is one of a series of mostly misogynistic poems that show women using false eyebrows, and false eyes, to retain their attractiveness in the face of increasing years. It dates from 1718, a few years after Richard Steele’s The Tender Husband (1707), which has a reference to false eyebrows:

Mrs Clerimont: … Oh bless me Jenny, I am so plane, I am afraid of myself – I have not laid on half red enough – what a dogh-baked thing I was before I improved myself, and travelled for beauty – however, my face is prettily designed to day.

Fainlove: Indeed, madam you begin to have so fine an hand, that you are younger every day than other.

Mrs Clerimont: The Ladies abroad used to call me Mrs Titian, I was so famous for my colouring; but prethee. Wench, bring me my black eye-brows out of the next room.

Jenny: Madam, I have them in my hand. 

Fainlove: It would be happy for all that are to see you today, if you could change your eyes too. 

Mrs Clerimont: Gallant enough – no hang it, I’ll wear these I have on … 

Black eyebrows, not mouse-coloured – though ‘mouse’ and ‘mousey’ as terms for the colour date from much later. Not that we should necessarily expect the material of manufacture to be specified here, but it seems likely that in this passage, in which Mrs Clerimont’s use of cosmetic eyebrows is being highlighted, the opportunity of a satirical reference to the source of the items would be taken up. 

Swift’s poem A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed (1734) contains the famous lines: 

                    Her eyebrows from a mouse’s hide
                    Stuck on with art on either side,
                    Pulls off with care, and first displays ‘em,
                    Then in a play-books smoothly lays ‘em. 

Corinna, Swift’s ‘nymph’, evidently takes great care of her false eye-brows, which are protected from attack during the night by vermin, unlike her plaster and hair-piece. The poem does not spare Corinna at all – she has a ‘crystal eye’, false teeth, a wig infested with fleas, ‘flabby dugs’, and plumpers – lumps of cork kept in the mouth to fill out the cheeks after rotten teeth had been removed. For all of the cosmetic aids, other than the eyebrows, there is ample evidence, including evidence of how they were made. Note also the reference to where the eye-brows are kept – a ‘play-book’, indicating that Corinna was an actress, who might be expected to wear larger than life make-up accessories. 

Lack of evidence is of course nothing more than lack of evidence; but at the time of the cartoon of 1782 there were several books available that gave details of how to dress false hair – The Art of Hair-dressing, and Making it Grow Fast, 1750, by William Moore; A Treatise on the Hair, 1770, by David Ritchie; Palacocosmos, or the Whole Art of Hairdressing, 1782. In comparison with what we know about how wigs were constructed, powdered and coloured, how beards were dyed, and the huge number of recipes for preventing or encouraging hair growth, not to mention how to prepare other facial cosmetics, the absence of information on how to prepare, style, fix and preserve mouse-skin eyebrows is noteworthy. 

This does pose the question – to what extent should we rely on satirical literature for documentary evidence of social history? When Prior’s Helen, in another poem, reproaches her maid Jenny for losing her box of false eyebrows, and claims: 

                    I can behold no mortal now,
                    For what’s an eye without a brow? 

We know that this is hyperbole and an accurate reflection on how many people feel about themselves without the aid of cosmetics. 

Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is tipped beyond the realm of reality, but retains enough reality in it to create an ambiguity; the tone of the narration, the details of documentation, and the way these details are bound into the narrative give an air of authenticity . We know there is something believable in the highly fanciful tale – an ambiguity which Swift clearly enjoyed: witness the apparent glee with which he told Pope of ‘a Bishop [who] said, that Book was full of improbable lies, and for his part, he hardly believed a word of it. 

Satire, to work, has to be close to the truth; it goes beyond the boundary of truth, and in doing so, in defining that boundary, it tells us what is truth. Satire indicates what people thought, and how notable details make something recognisable. Corinna’s crystal eye (did so many women lose their eyes?) is an easy target and is focused on, just as was Richard Nixon’s nose and Margaret Thatcher’s handbag; but in the absence of other documentation how much can we rely on it as actual evidence of social history? 

Julian Walker 

Julian's latest book, The Finishing Touch: Cosmetics through the Ages is published by the British Library (hardback £10, ISBN 978 0 7123 5752 4) and is available from bookshops now, including shop.bl.uk/