Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Most Boring Mysteries Imaginable

I really wanted to like The Mysteries of Udolpho. Really. I very sincerely wanted to do so. It is one of the first Gothic novels and it was written by a female author in a time where novels were sneered at as 'women's stuff' and women were considered too feeble-minded to vote, even though they were sometimes allowed to own property. However, because it is one of the first Gothic novels, it feels like Mrs. Radcliffe was working out what the genre was as she went along.

This makes the novel incredibly dull.

For example, she seems to have stuck with the classical French ideal of bienseance, which basically means that nothing exciting ever happens where the viewer/reader can see it. Whenever there's a fight, the heroine faints or staggers away pleading for the men to stop; whenever there's a scene of utmost horror, the chapter ends, or it happens to men that do not care to describe their experiences to the heroine until several chapters later, in the most boring fashion imaginable.

Perhaps the Amateur Historian is not the intended reader of the novel. Though I am a fan of Romanticism, I am not a fan of excessive sensibility, and all the times the heroine ends a chapter crying annoy me to no end. In fact, I am hard put to say what it is, exactly, the heroine does besides weep, suffer, stop playing her lute because she is crying so much, and get unfairly persecuted by nearly everyone she meets. I sometimes wondered if I was reading about a particularly mobile water feature.

Likewise, the Amateur Historian had nothing but cordial disdain for the love interest Valencourt. What good can be said about him that has not already been said about Koko the gorilla? He can almost express himself in a normal human fashion and his ability to form special bonds with pets makes one really hope for his intellectual development and the potential of ranty, emotionally disturbed young men to join normal society and actually resemble other human beings. Like many Gothic heroes, he thinks that stalking means love. The Amateur Historian does not, and thus felt extremely uncomfortable about the whole romance, which basically was Emily crying with happiness or vexation and Valancourt variously breaking and entering, defacing public property by carving poems on trees, trespassing and relying on really, really awful emotional abuse to get Emily to do things she did not want to do.

Granted, the whole book could be subtitled, 'Ranty Men Make Emily Do Lots of Things That Make Her Cry' but still, you want a love interest that isn't a total dick when he's not weeping piteously, releasing sighs fit to break one's heart and raving incoherently about his gambling debts. God, I hated him. I wanted to call the cops on his emotionally abusive behavior, only there isn't a police force in whatever-time-the-book-takes-place in the South of France, and he's a fictional character. However, just a general tip for any Gentle Readers out there thinking of writing their own Gothic novels-- when the hero is going through his requisite near-death experience, the reader should not be cheering for his demise, like I was. I was actually hoping that all the characters would mysteriously die because I hated them all so very, very much.

Some of the secondary characters were decent, of course, and the satire of various society figures was pretty well done, but it wasn't enough to pull the novel from the Marsh of Monotony caused by everyone going off into hysterics at the slightest provocation. The descriptions of nature and the French and Italian countryside were quite well done, and, like the neo-Romantic I am, I loved all the passages on the sublime aspects of nature and the "melting sweetness" of music. The plot is decent, which makes it all the more disappointing that the prose is so dull and the characters are about as sympathetic as mold spores.

It's hard to see what's so frightening about the book, too. Sure, there are elements of horror and everyone thinks they see a ghost at one point or another, but the narrative skims blithely over it. I found that the only really interesting bit was the third to last chapter where everything was explained. If the content of that chapter had actually been the whole book, it would have been wonderful. As it was we have Lady Mopey and her love interest Sir Douchebag weeping their way over the Alps and back.

I'm at a loss of what to say about this just because it was so dull. Perhaps this was not meant for modern eyes, or did not age well? I am at a total loss to explain the novel's popularity. I found it extraordinarily easy to put it down and it was even easier not to pick it back up for weeks.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"It's going to be fun for the family.”

For those Gentle Readers wishing to plan their summer vacations in 2017, might the Amateur Historian suggest Napoleonland? According to The Telegraph, along with the expected museums, hotels and gift shops, you can ski down a slope decorated charmingly with the frozen bodies of men and horses, presumably from the Russian campaign, watch a water display of the Battle of Trafalgar, attend the execution of Louis XVI, or participate in a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo.

Sign me up. My favorite exercise is cross-country skiing past an enormous number of dead French soldiers.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jane Austen Old Spice Parody

The Amateur Historian is currently forcing herself through The Mysteries of Uphaldo which is remarkably dull for a novel that Mr. Tilney read in two days with his hair standing on end the whole time, and greatly appreciated this parody. I shall probably earn myself deep enmity for saying I prefer Henry Tilney to the other Austen heroes, but so be it! Let it be the subject of a long discussion in the comments section.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Huzzah for Hat Pins

This is perhaps a little out of the Amateur Historian's chosen period, but this article on Victorian/Edwardian women's self-defense with hat pins is too good not to have on this blog.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Jane Austen Fight Club

Jane Austen's Fight Club from Keith Paugh on Vimeo.
This is a few years late, but I remembered it after watching all the imagined sword-fighting scenes in the BBC's highly entertaining adaptation of Northanger Abbey. Hopefully the Gentle Readers will find this amusing.

Friday, January 6, 2012


I do not like Twilight for rather a stupid and specific reason, to be honest. The Amateur Historian wishes desperately to say that her initial, gut-reaction of dislike arose from feminist principles, an admiration for the subtleties and satires of Jane Austen over the sentimentality Brontes, a dislike of melodrama or something of sort, but it really started because the person who introduced Twilight to the Amateur Historian said Edward was a "Byronic hero."

Well, no, that’s not quite how it works. The Byronic hero stemmed from the Romantic and Gothic adulation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in particular for his characterization of Satan  as a personnage of “flawed grandeur”—a magnificent and powerful person destroyed through their hamartia, or tragic flaw (hamartia stemming from Aristotle's Ars Poetica).The one to perfect this beloved staple of nineteenth century fiction was, of course, Lord Byron, who drew from his own self-myth and from the trajectory of Napoleon, whom Byron saw as a brilliant, dark and mysterious leader who just also happened to be the author of his own downfall. Byron wrote these young, oddly charming, prematurely-tainted-by-sin, trapped-by-the-constraints-of-memory-and-society protagonists in Childe Harold, The Corsair, Lara, and Manfred.  Though I suppose Edward does reflect, the erie, supernatural seducer of Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon, how is Edward a) a fascinating psychological portrait, b) lead into his own destruction by free choice and a tragic flaw, or c) representative of Byron, who, well…

For the last point, have these macros, Gentle Readers:

It's enough to make one want to join George Takei's Star Alliance.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Great... well, rather Bleak Expectations.

Ah Charles Dickens, that perennial Christmas favorite! This year, however, the BBC decided to adapt his Great Expectations instead of A Christmas Carol, for which the Amateur Historian is grateful, if only because it has given us another Gorgeous Man in Period Costume. Or Beautiful Man in a Cravat. The title of this tag will need work.

Pip sure did grow up nicely.

At any rate, the Amateur Historian freely admits that Dickens is not her favorite social justice nineteenth century novelist. Victor Hugo does it better, on a more epic scale, Balzac is frankly more ballsy, and George Elliot can actually write female characters. Sorry Dickens. You earned my enmity with Lucy Manette and that horrible Purity Sue Agnes in David Copperfield. The best I can say for your angels in the house is that at least they don't turn into hideous copies of their husbands, a la Tolstoy. However, the Amateur Historian does like Great Expectations best out of Dickens's oeuvre. Though unfortunately Miss Havisham is again a Dickensian heroine defined by her reactions to men, she is still a very intriguing figure, and Estella is wonderful. Pip is well... a Dickensian hero. He is pretty generic, the Everyman who is supposed to guide us, the readers, on a journey to middle-class morality and propriety.

The new production takes a few interesting spins on these popular characters, namely, Pip is better looking than Estella.

As one British reviewer put it, if she was Miss Havishmam, she would be tempted to say to hell with the experiment and marry Pip, so she could look at him over the breakfast table every morning. However, it astonishingly makes Pip less likable. The child actor they have for Pip turned out a really excellent performance and adult Pip's early earnestness at the end of the first episode (and his lovely blacksmith costume) make one (or rather, the Amateur Historian) really want him to be a decent person who deserves a happy ending. However, he's not. Great Expectations is about vengeance and class snobbery, so Pip gives off the impression of being a useless pretty boy sponging off of the misery of others rather than a confused young man desperate to understand society and to succeed. Yay corrupting capitalism? Yay Marx was right? It rather made me want to #occupybondstreet.

It is sometimes painful to watch, though if one mutes the sound and watches Burberry model-turned-actor Douglass Booth angsting in tailcoats and top hats, it becomes ever so much more enjoyable. The final return to the forge and to, you know, decent, thoughtful, humanitarian and compassionate behavior much more satisfying, but the little changes to Joe (I love Joe!) made it less cathartic than one needed after the poorly-lit but beautifully dressed angst preceding it.

Estella left me cold, which I think she was supposed to do. I have nothing to say against her performance, but it did not particularly dazzle. This was not entirely her fault, since the tone of the whole series was incredibly bleak. There was no leavening of Dickens's usual humor to make Estella's coldness and lack of a heart more noticeable. Her child incarnation was charmingly awful, but her adult form... well, when Pip is prettier, there really isn't much one can do, is there, aside think of how awful 1830s sleeves were and wish for a return of Pip's fabulous waistcoats and his questionable pinky-rings. In fact, I rather enjoyed the child actors better than the adult actors. They were much more fun to watch, and actually seemed to enjoy their parts. Pip and Estella spent most of their screen time looking tortured. This isn't out of line with the script, but it does become a little dull after a while.

Gillian Anderson makes an interesting spin on Miss Havisham, portraying her in rather a J.M. Barrie sort of way, as a woman who refuses to grow up. She also self-immolates on a bonfire made of her ersatz-fiance's letters, which was incredibly disturbing to watch, if one is easily squicked out by things going wrong with the human body, like the Amateur Historian is. Seriously, I cannot sit through an episode of House without having to hide my eyes at least twice.

Ah, and what would a Dickens novel be without a cast of supporting characters who are much more interesting than Blandy McBland, the hero of the piece? Joe was as good-hearted an incarnation as he usually is, though I was disappointed they cut out all of his little games with Pip, to alleviate the misery of a poor childhood, and his backstory as an abused child who had forgiven his own awful father and was determined to prevent the miseries of his old childhood with Pip. He was such a breath of fresh air when he appeared, however. There was no Biddy (I can't say that I missed her), just Joe with his kindness and decency. Pip's uncle was enjoyably snobbish, but Mrs. Joe was not as funny as I read her in the novel. During some of her scenes, I kept thinking, 'haha, child abuse? Is that what the BBC wants me to laugh at?' Still, she turned in a fine performance, as can be said for all of the secondary actors. Mr. Jaggers seemed to really enjoy his role, and his final monologue was excellently filmed and so dramatically satisfying, I rather wished the episode would end there. Mr. Wemmik and Herbert Pocket were a nice mix of materialistic and sympathetic, though Ray Winstone, as the mysterious convict, seemed to be playing Ray Winstone more than anything else. I'm not altogether familiar with British actors, but I suppose there must be people like John Malkovitch everywhere, who are famous for playing themselves in every single role. Indeed, there is no arguing with the casting or the filming, which was rather beautifully grim, with mud, fog, shadows and rot vying for time on screen, but with the little changes to the script and therefore the characters. What's the point of a lot of the little changes? Why have Pip's scene with the convict over a bridge instead of in a graveyard (I guess to nicely bookend it, considering what ends up happening to the convict)?

All in all, it was a decent adaptation, and if one has a few idle hours, one could do worse than watch Douglas Booth in period clothing. However, it hardly achieves the brilliance of past adaptions of Dickens, and past BBC adapations. It feels all at once too artsy and too grim to be Dickens, and for those like the Amateur Historian, who loves the satire in nineteenth century novels above all, there is none to be found.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Horrible Histories Paul Rivere's All American Toothpaste

One of the Amateur Historian's friends admitted that she believed in making easily fulfilled New Year's resolutions, and therefore, her resolution was to take better care of her teeth. One hopes she did not invest in this toothpaste in order to do so.

Happy 2012!