Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: The Children's Book

In the history of fiction, there have always been authors who have been driven to write The Great American Novel, a single work of literature that defines the United States, incorporating the vast socio-political and cultural history and thus aggrandizing the essence of America. Although no one really has been able to accomplish this, there have been numerous authors who have been created snapshots of America and its social development over time. For instance, John Jakes’s Kent Family Chronicles traced in eight volumes generations of a single family from the colonial period through the 1890s. James Michener’s Centennial is another example in that it concentrates on numerous people in a single town over time. Edward Rutherfurd demonstrates his ability to do this from the international perspective, writing social history novels like London and most recently New York. A.S. Byatt has written award-winning fiction that showcases her talent and skill as a literary author, but it is with her most recent work, The Children’s Book, that one can say she has now joined the legacy of these authors and written a form of The Great British Novel.

I am a long-time fan of Byatt’s work, and you will recall how pleased I was to have finally met her last October. I am admittedly not unbiased in my opinion of her work. Do I like everything she has ever written? No, of course not, and I suspect she would agree that in retrospect there are some books in her oeuvre that are better than others, in terms of plot or characterization, or in the strength or weakness of her writing. In that vein, let me say upfront that although The Children’s Book is an incredible book, it is not a perfect novel. If you compare it to Possession, the novel for which she will always be best known (and which is my favorite novel), The Children’s Book lacks that earlier book’s plot twists. It has so many characters that you will need a cheat sheet and might want to draw a few family trees. The problem is that readers may feel like they never get to know any of them the way they got to know Possession’s fictionalized Victorian authors Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Even more surprisingly for a novel that centers around a children’s author, there is nowhere near as much of the in-writing (i.e. literature written by the fictional authors) that made Possession so brilliant in its construction and storytelling. In short, The Children’s Book is not Possession.

But of course that is exactly the point. Byatt obviously wanted to write a novel that drew on her evocative sensibilities about the Victorian period, but needed to present it to readers in a new way or run the risk of becoming trite. In this she has succeeded, for The Children’s Book is a novel about British social and cultural history in which the numerous characters act, interact, and react, with one another and in response to environmental stimuli. This is a novel about people responding to changes in their world. It is a book about learning and education and training. The Children’s Book is about growing up.

Taking place from the year 1895 through World War I, The Children’s Book recounts the lives of an extended family centered around Olive Wellwood, a successful children’s writer who, with her socialist husband, her spinster sister, and her bevy of seven children, resides matriarchally in an Arcadian estate in southern England called Todefright. Early in the novel, the Wellwoods are celebrating their annual midsummer festival, and carriage after carriage arrive with other family members and friends who gather to perform Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on an outdoor stage and partake in all the excitement of the fete. This is the Wellwood children’s world, a place where magic and fantasy orchestrated by their mother’s storytelling and celebrity makes them believe anything can happen. The Wellwoods are a progressive family. They are members of the Fabian Society, which was in favor of peaceful but radical democracy for the working classes, and they encourage the Arts and Crafts communities that create beautiful handcrafted goods over mass production. With such progressiveness comes an open mind, most notably about sexuality, for many of the adults in this group. And that is perhaps one of the most important parts of Byatt’s tale, for what better way for children to learn about themselves and others but to consider their own sexual awakenings and awarenesses. Indeed, these aren’t Victorian children who only speak when spoken to. The Wellwood children and their friends masturbate with guilt, spy on others, question everyone’s parentage, encounter incest and adultery, discover first love and inevitably feel the pain that follows. More importantly, Byatt adeptly shows how this progressive environment was changing the social fabric of England itself at this time, and thus these children become microcosms for a new generation of English boys and girls on the brink of modernity.

Byatt’s creative writing is of course highly polished. She has a strong command of the English language and knows how to manipulate it to suit her storytelling. She breaks the rules of fiction writing, frequently telling us what characters say instead of actually having them speak their own lines, interrupting the flow at times with the narrative first person which serves to remind us of not just any authorial voice but her authorial presence. And yet, most skillfully, she comments about writing itself, by setting us in the mind of Olive, the children’s author, allowing us to sense at times what it feels like to be a writer and to be conscious of what an author needs to say, how it will be received, and how it may overtake the writer herself. Here is a scene (which Byatt read at the book signing last October) in which Olive, pregnant and bed-ridden, struggles over her writing, what she wants to say and what she knows she cannot say.

She wanted to write that—the wading through blood—the absence of sun and moon, and the roaring of the sea—but she had never done so, for her tales, though they were getting darker and stranger, were meant to be for children. There was a proliferation of Christian stories at that time, about the exemplary deaths of little children, looking upwards to the skipping little angels in the fluffy clouds of heaven. But there was nothing like red blood to the knee. She thought briefly about the coming birth, the blood that would flood, the pain that would gripe, the possibility that the emerging stranger on the flood of blood would be mottled, waxy and inert, a tight-lidded doll, like Rosy. She knew about amniotic fluid—the unborn creature did not really float in blood—but blood went to it, her blood, down a livid rope that could give life, or could strangle. These things were not spoken of, or written about. They were therefore more real, and more unreal, intensely, simultaneously. (p.157)

As a literature professor, Byatt’s own education pours through this book more so than in others as she educates readers about everything from the decorative arts to international politics of the day. Sections of the book read mostly like scholarly essays, but sometimes like Wikipedia entries, as she moves us through time. We learn about the Fabians, the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the death of Queen Victoria, the premiere of James Barrie’s Peter Pan, and the sinking of the Titanic. We travel to Munich to learn about the advanced skills of marionette theater artisans, and we travel to Paris for the 1900 Exposition Universelle and see modernity in design and the decorative arts (the chapters on the Expo are among the most sumptuous in the book and demonstrate Byatt’s skill at synesthesia, using words to evoke the multi-sensory experience of contemporary Paris and the sensuality of Art Nouveau design). We learn about Sigmund Freud and Edward Carpenter along with the characters. We stand beside them as they fight for women’s suffrage, and we learn how to make ceramics as they mold the clay and sweat before the hot kiln. We meet a decrepit Oscar Wilde, a provocatively talented Auguste Rodin, a sexually inhibited Rupert Brooke, among other historical figures. We become, in fact, part of the world of these characters. Indeed, the way they enter and exit, with some characters diminishing to the background while others move to the foreground, all of it mirrors the very realistic way in which people come and go in our own lives and play significant roles for brief periods of time. These characters are not just figments of Byatt’s imagination; they are meant to be representations of real people at this time.

There is Dorothy Wellwood, who is determined to become a woman doctor but is forced to face secrets about her own life along the way. There is Julian Cain, the half-Italian son of a museum curator who struggles to understand his homosexuality and what he wants to do with himself once he goes to study at Cambridge. There is Charles/Karl Wellwood, who finds himself rejecting his family’s money and social status in favor of societal anarchism. There is Griselda Wellwood, who endures all the social niceties for young women of her class but desires instead to do so much more, to earn a university degree. There is Philip Warren, the impoverished boy from the north brought into the Wellwood circle when his artistic talent and skill as a potter earns him the respect of the entire community. There is Tom Wellwood, who shares a strong bond with his literary mother but finds himself growing more and more distant from her and everyone else as nature becomes his only source of comfort. And of course there is Olive Wellwood herself, a woman who escaped her own horrific childhood in the coal mines of the North to become a successful children’s author, a woman whose private adventure books written for each of her children reinforces her connection to them, but inadvertently leads them to question their own pathways in life.

Yet, for all of Byatt’s ability to engage with the reader about how these children are growing up, one cannot help but sense the harbinger of doom that one knows is at the end of the novel’s pages: World War I. The reader has the hindsight to know that for all that these children are learning and how they are growing up, none of it will prepare them for what is coming and what one knows may happen to many if not all of them. The Great War will shock them as it truly shocked the world. Men went to fight in what they believed would be a simple skirmish, easily won, easily accomplished, simply one’s patriotic duty for King and Empire. Instead, the Great War killed off 1/3 of the male population in Britain, and those who did return suffered from shell shock, nerve gas damage, and other ailments because of trench warfare.

This brutality and abject realism then demonstrates where Byatt’s talents truly lie, because we read more than 600 pages of The Children’s Book knowing what is looming in the distance for these characters whom we’ve grown to love and identity with, but Byatt never foreshadows these events. She propels us through the story by focusing on what these children experienced as new, exciting, adventurous, and life-changing, none of which could ever prepare them for the Great War. Only in retrospect would they be able to see how innocent they really were. The Children’s Book then is not just another novel with fictional characters. It is a historical recounting of art, literature, psychology, sexuality, and politics in England and abroad over a twenty-year period, and how everyday people were part of these events and affected by them. That is Byatt’s accomplishment in this book, for these are more than just characters. They are people. They are you and me.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Genealogy Bytes: The Census

Have you filled out your 2010 census yet? If not, why not? The census provides a snapshot of Americans in a particular period of time. Over time it will show historic trends, like increases or decreases in ethnic groups, urban groups, and the average number of children per family. The 2010 census has an added feature that is rather interesting. For the first time, homosexuals living with a lover can designate that person as an unmarried partner. While this information will not provide us with a true record of the gay population in the US (i.e. straight couples also can be unmarried partners, and single gay people are not recorded), it is still the first census that will try to track this information. It also is attempting to trace the ethnic heritage of the Hispanic/Latino population (e.g. Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, etc.), as this is the fastest growing ethnic group in this country.

For genealogists, however, census records are one of the greatest tools for researching one's family history. The US has been counting the population and its demographics every ten years since 1790, and in the UK they've been doing it every ten years since 1801. Over a year ago, I posted about the release of the UK 1911 Census, which helped me discover some fascinating information about a distant cousin who had emigrated to NYC in 1905 to work with at his uncle's architectural firm. I thought it might be interesting to follow-up on that and show how census information has helped me fill in gaps about another part of my English ancestry. It’s interesting to see how, using census records, one can trace the movements of their family over time.

The picture you see here is a photograph taken around 1930 of my great-grandparents Thomas and Jessie Ambrose, who by this time had been married for about 45 years and were then living in the Bronx on Westchester Avenue. Thomas was born illegitimately in June 1860 in the Lake District town of Ambleside in England. His mother, Martha Camm, a domestic servant, married the boy’s father, Charles Ambrose, a few months later. They then moved to where Charles’s family lived in Southport. Using the 1861 census, I found the family living on Boundary Street in Birkdale, where Charles is listed as an agricultural laborer. On the 1871 census, everything is still the same, but now Charles and Martha have two children: Thomas and Ann. (Oddly, though, Ann is listed as the elder child. After doing further research, my cousin HA and I were able to discover that daughter Ann was Charles’s illegitimate daughter from a different woman who had died.)

In 1881, Thomas is now living with the William Constable family on Fenton Street in Barrow-in-Furness, where he’s working as a bricklayer. This is the first mention of him as a mason, which would turn out to be his lifelong career in the US. In fact, Thomas emigrated to NYC the following year, and in 1885 he married Jessie Bagge, whose family also had come from northern England, so they shared a similar cultural heritage. Jessie, however, was only 15 years old when she married Thomas, age 25, a bit of family history that still surprises all of us!

Because the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed in a fire, we cannot find the Ambroses in federal census records until 1900 and 1910. At that time, they lived in Manhattan on First Avenue around 66th Street (what was then a working class neighborhood), and it’s during this period that we discover Thomas and Jessie growing family of 7 sons and 2 daughters (Charles, Thomas, Walter, Alfred, George, Mary, Ernest, Martha, and Edward). By 1920, they had moved to the Bronx and were living on Zulette Avenue, where now they are joined by two of their grandchildren, Thomas and Mildred.

In 1930, about the time the photograph was taken, they were renting an apartment for $35 a month (can you imagine?!) on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx . By this time, 5 sons and granddaughter Mildred were still living with them. As for what happened next, we’ll have to wait, because due to the 75-year privacy law, the 1940 census will not be made available to the public until 2015. I do know, however, that their son Thomas will have died before then, a victim of prohibition alcohol poisoning. Mildred will have died as well, but her death at 21 years old is still a mystery to be solved. My great-grandfather himself passed away in 1943 at 82 years of age, and Jessie lived to be 93 years old, dying in 1963.

All that, just because my ancestors filled out their census forms! So be a part of history and do it!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

AHNCA Symposium 2010

One year ago, I blogged about the annual graduate student symposium sponsored by the Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art (AHNCA), and in a separate post put up the abstract for my paper (on the Ottoman Turks at the Great Exhibition of 1851). Yesterday, AHNCA sponsored their 7th annual symposium. I was only able to go for the morning panel session; fortunately this was the one on which I knew two of the speakers. All of the papers during the session were quite good.

Nicole Simpson (CUNY Graduate Center) spoke about three-dimensional picture books, one of hundreds of different types of souvenirs that were designed for the opening of the Thames Tunnel in the 1840s. This tunnel, when it was constructed, was one of the great innovations of the industrial revolution. It cut through the Thames River, connecting the north and south banks. It was designed like an arcade so that people would visit and shop and listen to concerts. These picture books were constructed as a way to experience the tunnel effect, with a series of prints all attached to one another and holes put into the front card to allow the viewer to "see" the tunnel. Simpson discussed their role in association with other related visual artifacts of the day, such as stereographic photography, and considered their intended audiences. Following her talk, Elizabeth A. Avery (Ohio State University) spoke on the little-known French Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856), considering how his mixed race heritage influenced his painting style. Avery ultimately concluded that in his self-portraits he was hesitant but willing to show himself with his mixed racial heritage. However, in his narrative paintings, such as the 1841 Biblical subject The Toilette of Esther (image above, from the Louvre), he emphasized Whiteness and sublimated representations of mixed races and Blacks to conform to the European dominant paradigm of idealized beauty.

Isabelle Havet (University of Delaware) gave a fascinating talk on a series of photographs taken of an unknown hermaphrodite around 1860 by the French photographer Nadar (1820-1910). While these pictures can be seen as part of Nadar's general interest in scientific observation of man and nature, Havet argued they can be seen also as a form of artistic photography, and noted that ultimately the viewer of these images got from them what he needed. The photographs themselves were actually quite disturbing to look at, to the point that I and (I suspect) others had to look away. This was not because the photos showed the hermaphrodite's naked body, but because the person was subjected to a level of physical examination that bordered on rape. In two of the photos, she was lying on a table in stirrups, and a doctor forcibly revealed her vagina and penis to the camera while she hid her face in what appeared to be shame. In the question-and-answer session afterwards, some people adamantly disagreed with some of Havet's claims, but I suspect much of this had to do with the fact that these individuals were very uncomfortable with the entire subject. Not everyone has an open mind about alternative sexualities in art. I asked Havet about her thoughts on gender transference in these images, because what struck me was how masculinity and femininity were emphasized and mocked using standardized tropes one finds in academic-style painting of the time (she agreed and said she plans to look into that more).

The last speaker of the morning was Kerry Greaves (CUNY Graduate Center), who spoke about the artists' colony in Skagen, on the northernmost part of Denmark, which started mostly in the 1840s but became an important location for artists late in the 19th century. This was an area I knew nothing about (come on, how many Danish painters can you name?), so it was fascinating to hear her talk because it introduced the audience to new artists and focused on subjects unique to that group. Many of the other papers to be presented that day looked interesting as well, but I didn't stay to hear them. You can see the list by clicking here. The AHNCA symposium is a great opportunity for graduate students to present their work. It gives them a chance to speak in public if they have not done so before, and allows them a chance to get feedback from, and to network with, scholars in the field.

My New Faux Dog

Meet Pierre, my new faux dog! My dear friend SVH and my canine nephew George (whom you've met before) sent him to me as an early birthday present. He comes from Jake's Dog House, the place with "cool stuff for cool dogs." While I wish I had a real dog, for now, with my crazy schedule, a faux dog will do very nicely. As you can see, Pierre is a black toy poodle. He's currently hanging out on the bed with Ted, a bear that was a Christmas gift from my mother about a decade ago.

Now, wouldn't Pierre look fancy in a pink beret like the one Missy Boo has? (She's one of the ASPCA's 2009 Furry Fashionistas.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

200 Posts!

This marks the 200th post on bklynbiblio! Fireworks continue to be in order...just as they were when we celebrated the 100th post last February (image courtesy of Wikipedia). We've been up and running for over a year and a half now. Thanks to all my readers for your interest, comments, and support. Here's to the next 100 posts!

CAA 2011 in NYC

It seems odd to write the year "2011" already, but professional organizations are always thinking way ahead of the current year. The College Art Association (CAA) just had their 2010 conference last month in Chicago (which you may recall I contemplated attending but ultimately decided not to go, letting Sherman Clarke fill me in with his highlights of the conference), and now CAA is ready for next year's conference to be held February 9-12, 2011. They have released the call for papers.

This will be CAA's centennial conference, demonstrating the professional strength of the art history discipline for the past 100 years. Few people realize the rich history of art history. Samuel F.B. Morse (inventor of the telegraph) was also a successful painter. He was appointed the first Professor of Fine Arts at New York University in 1831, where he taught courses on the practice and history of art. The same school was one of the earliest to organize a department of art history in 1922. (I would tell you more about the history of my art history program, but after spending 30 minutes on the school's website, I cannot find out any information about it!)

Below are just a few of the panel sessions that seem like they will be of interest (click here for the official site for the call for papers).
**"Boston and New York, ca. 1910: Issues of Cultural Exchange" celebrates the CAA centennial by considering art historical exchanges between these two cities from 1900-1920.
**"Before the White Box: Museum Murals in the Nineteenth Century" addresses the role of wall paintings in institutions, an art form which was extremely popular in the 19th century but died out by World War II.
** "The Ethnographic Ruse: Early Erotic Photographs of Non-Western Women" considers how seemingly innocent (National Geographic-like?) images in early photography can also be seen as sexual commodities.
** "Through the Lens: Photographers and New York Skyscrapers" looks at the historic tradition of the now ubiquitous skyscraper photograph (hence the 1904 image above by Edward Steichen of the Flatiron Building, from the Met's collection).

Saturday, March 6, 2010

1920s London in Living Color

Thanks to PR who first forwarded this to me, one of my new favorite blogs/websites is How to be a Retronaut, with its tagline "If the past is a foreign country, then this is your passport." With an Anglo-centric focus, this site has an incredible array of old photographs and videos documenting historic aspects of the world and its visual culture. Among the most recent posts, for instance, are autochromes (some of the earliest color photographs) from 1910 taken by a women of her daughters. It's fascinating to see the recreation of everyday things and everyday lives like this. The genealogist in me loves this, and the art historian drawn to the 19th century in me is fascinated by how it brings us closer to actually seeing and understanding who these people were and how they lived. The video below is a rare silent film in color of London from 1927. It is currently one of the most popular posts on Retronaut's site. Since it's also on YouTube, however, I'm pulling the video from there. You have to be grateful that the British Film Institute is preserving these films. When you watch the video, keep in mind that you only have seen this in black-and-white before. Color versions have been recreations from Hollywood movies. To see it like this--live--truly makes you feel like you can reach out through time and identify with these people. As an Anglophile and frequent visitor to London, I'm amazed also to see people in the same places I have visited, like the Greenwich Observatory and Kensington Gardens. Fashions may have changed, but sightseeing has not.