A gothic novel with touches of crime and the supernatural, The Angel of Highgate follows the love affair of Lord Geoffrey Thraxton, a dishonorable man-about-town, and a mysterious woman he rescues from grave robbers one night in Highgate Cemetery. Set in 1859 London, Thraxton and his best friend and confidant Algernon Hyde-Davies move in and out of British high society. Along the way, they return to Highgate Cemetery, opium dens, brothels, and visit the depths of Victorian rookeries, whose crime syndicates make Dickens’ Fagin and Artful Dodger seem sincere and innocent. Accompanying Thraxton, Hyde-Davies, and the mysterious woman is a cast of colorful characters: embittered literary critic Augustus Skinner, dodgy physician Silas Garrette, Kew Gardens caretaker Mister Greenley, and chief “mobsman” Mordecai Fowler and his “leftenants,” Barnabus Snudge and Walter Crynge. Continue reading “Book Review: Angel of Highgate”
In Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy(Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 2016), Lynne Zacek Bassett tracks trends of historicism, naturalism, and emotion in fashion from the early nineteenth century through the present day. Bassett, a very well respected costume historian and curator, has a long record of producing thoughtful texts on the role of clothing and textiles in American life and especially in New England. Written to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, Gothic to Goth is similarly thoughtful in the clear connections it poses between seemingly disparate objects to argue for the societal influences that determined why men and women dressed the Romantic ways that they did.
Though a slim volume, Gothic to Goth presents a narrative that is both authoritative and instructive. Bassett first provides an extended definition of Romanticism as a movement, explaining its underpinnings in philosophy as well as two crucial aspects of the exhibition’s content: the way it was disseminated to varied social classes through literature and poetry and how the American variant differed from its British and German contemporaries for religious and democratic reasons. Bassett then proceeds to address a selection of components that make up Romantic style—historicism, color and pattern, religion, nature, emotion—and builds as she goes along, drawing these elements together over and over. In doing so, she productively indicates how this style’s reliance on nature and abstract ideals belies its practical and social complexity. Her construction of Romanticism and the Gothic as hardy and resilient forms of expression serves her well when she reaches more recent couture interpretations of these styles. It is the logical conclusion of her historical analysis that designers like Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, and Jean-Paul Gaulthier would be interested in adapting the Romantic idiom for new audiences.
The credibility of Bassett’s arguments depends on the viability of her comparisons across media and across eras—in other words, does it make sense when she compares a building to a tree to a dress? With the catalogue’s lavish and carefully selected illustrations, the answer, more often than not, is yes. Yet because this catalogue focuses on providing such a convincing overview of its topic, there are certainly items of clothing, objects, or lines of argument that may have deserved further analysis in a different context. For example, Bassett quickly informs readers that Victorian mothers were not as modest when it comes to breastfeeding as modern audiences might think and includes an exquisite ca. 1845 nursing dress tailored to hide its removable panels. With this dress and other items, suggestions of how the “natural” body is contained or policed (or not) by fashion come up frequently and could play a larger role in a more overtly analytical consideration of the subject matter. Similarly, though the connections to more recent fashion are substantial, their many components and allegiances are not as thoroughly spelled out as the ones for their nineteenth-century antecedents. However, it is fair to state that the twentieth- and twenty-first century variations on Romanticism could fill another whole exhibition of their own.
It is a strength of Gothic to Goth that it will provide useful information to both general and specialist audiences. Those readers encountering Romanticism for the first time, perhaps coming to this text through the lens of contemporary punk, goth, or steampunk fashion, will find direct, well-argued historical context. A specialist audience looking to situate particular trends will be well-served by the connections Bassett draws between clothing and a wide variety of visual art, decorative and design objects, literature, and print media. This exhibition catalogue navigates successfully between the mainstream and the macabre and makes the case that the consequences of nineteenth-century Romanticism still persist in our decidedly unromantic modern world.
Mary Manning has a Ph.D. in Art History, which allows her to professionally obsess about paintings and/or nineteenth-century France. She currently lives in the Cleveland area and, as an AmeriCorps Member, works with local history organizations on projects that allow them to do more and serve more people.
Welcome to “Where to Start with Weird Lit,” an occasional book review series on classic gothic, horror, and science fiction (a.k.a. “weird lit”) authors and titles from our own Medical Humanities editor Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook. This week we’re kicking off the series with a look at one of weird lit’s master crafters: Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937).
~Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Book Review Editor.
Let’s go for a classic right off the bat: Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Rhode Island’s own pioneer of the tentacle’y.
Lovecraft’s biography isn’t nearly as tangled as his stories: born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, lived most of his life there, and died in the same city in 1937, a victim to undiagnosed stomach cancer. He was married but he and his wife, Sonia Greene, didn’t actually spend all that much time together outside of a brief cohabitation in New York City. Arm-chair psychiatrists have been having fun with Lovecraft for decades; his letters and non-fiction writings open up a xenophobic, racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic nightmare world all their own and allow for brilliant parody along the lines of Mallory Ortberg’s “Texts from H.P. Lovecraft“:
I WENT OUTSIDE ONCE
IT WAS TERRIBLE
EVERYONE WAS WALKING DOWN THE STREET BUT THEY WEREN’T DESCENDED FROM THE MAYFLOWER.
Lovecraft’s stories are still pulling fans in — although once you’ve read through a few of his longer pieces, you may find yourself wondering why. His writing is verbose, hyperbolic, and often not all that good. But the appeal endures: film-makers, musicians, writers, visual artists all claim inspiration from Lovecraft; the best, of course, have taken their inspiration and turned it into something better than the original.
If you’re curious as to what the appeal might be, here are a few places you might like to start. (And I apologize for the quality of the online texts I’m linking to; you might find the Readability app useful. The story of Lovecraft’s copyright is almost as interesting as his biography and probably more tortured! Update: Thanks to an alert reader who sent along a link to the text archive I thought had vanished into the Internet ether: Electronic Texts of HP Lovecraft. You can also find a (very few) HPL texts on Project Gutenberg and some others on Internet Archive if you’re willing to brave the latter’s search function.)
There is always the classic: The Call of Cthulhu, the story that launched a thousand plushies. Cthulhu is really a two-parter: the first part tells the story of the unnamed narrator’s introduction to and initial researches into the Cthulhu cult itself; the second half is the retelling of the rising of Cthulhu’s dread city from the sea bottom. Cthulhu showcases just about every trick Lovecraft used regularly: faux newspaper narrative, documents from survivors, artistic artifacts, and so on as well as introducing the Big Squishy himself.
My personal favorite would be The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. I have very fond memories of sitting in the Fletcher Library in Burlington, Vermont, on a snowy day and reading this story. Ward is a novella-length piece with shades of many of the greats of gothic literature, including Dracula and Frankenstein as well as enough black magic, time travel, body-swapping, and demonic worship to keep anyone happy for a good long time. It also showcases one of Lovecraft’s weak spots: describing anything specifically. If you’re into audiobooks, Audible has several readings; I particularly like the one by Neil Hellegers and it’s less than $25 for an unabridged reading.
If you don’t have novella time, may I suggest The Rats in the Walls or Pickman’s Model? They’re both significantly shorter than either Cthulhu or Ward and are more of in the ‘shot in the arm’ mode of horror storytelling, rather than the slow, atmospheric burn of the longer stories. If you happen to live in or know Boston well, Pickman’s is particularly juicy. You may never look at the Boylston Street T stop in the same way again.
And then, of course, once you get hooked, you’re on your own. You can put cold iron your pocket — but it won’t help. Enjoy!