Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review : The King of Inventors by Catherine Peters (Martin Secker & Warburg 1991) / The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William Clarke (Sutton Publishing 2004)

Compared to the conventions of Victorian morality as presented in the literature of the time, many Victorian novelists had private lives which may have raised some eyebrows. Dickens separated secretly from his wife in favour of the young actress Ellen Ternan, George Eliott lived openly with G.H. Lewes who was already married to someone else, and Thackeray confined his wife to an asylum in France due to her mental illness. But none had as unconventional a private life as Wilkie Collins. From 1858, except for a brief period, he lived as man and wife with the widowed Caroline Graves, and from 1864 he set up a second household with Martha Rudd, by whom he had three children. Caroline did leave Wilkie in 1868 to marry Joseph Clow (Wilkie attended the wedding) but by 1871 she had returned to him.Caroline managed the bills and paid Martha's rent, and the Martha's children were welcome visitors to their household. Yet this remained a secret to Wilkie's reading public.

Not that Wilkie Collins was a conventional ladies' man - he was short with tiny hands and feet, an odd misshapen forehead, overweight and unfit. Yet he loved women and they loved him in return - he was kind and charming, and, in his own way, very honourable.When Wilkie, his brother Charles Collins and John Everett Millais heard a woman scream whilst walking by Regent's Park, it was Wilkie who went to investigate what was wrong. It may be that this was when he first met Caroline Graves, but it is more likely that it provided him with the genesis of the dramatic first meeting with Anne Catherick in The Woman in White.

Throughout the 1860s, Wilkie Collins was the most influential English novelist barring Dickens alone. The Woman in White defined the sensation novel which dominated this period, The Moonstone gave the genre its most lasting modern incarnation in the shape of the detective novel. From 1870 onwards, Collins' powers started to decline, partly due to the loss of his close friend's Dickens' influence; partly due to an increasing desire to write issue-based novels (Swinburne wickedly wrote
            What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition
            Some demon whispered - 'Wilkie! have a mission' (Peters pg 313));
partly due to an increasing dependency on Laudenum to alleviate the pain of "rheumatic gout". Whatever the cause, he never recaptured the heights scaled in the 1860s.

Two contrasting books examine his life in detail. First published in 1988, William Clarke's The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins focusses almost entirely on the man, his life and that of his family. Clarke, who died earlier  this year, was a leading financial journalist whose wife was a great-granddaughter of Collins. This family connection enabled him to access Collins' bank accounts and to try to explain why, despite the careful construction of his will in a manner worthy of one of the plots of his novels, both sides of his family saw little benefit from the wealth that he had accumulated. Clarke shows that in all probability the family was swindled by his lawyer/son-in-law Henry Bartley.

For all its meticulous research and in some cases the first-hand testimony of elderly family members, the Secret Life largely passes over the novels themselves. The King of Inventors by Catherine Peters remedies this shortcoming. Peters sets out the thesis that Collins was haunted by a second self, a double that was often behind him, especially in his later opium-influenced years. This double manifests itself in his novels which are primarily concerned with questions of identity. Certainly, doubles feature largely in his works, from Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White, to the multiple Alan Armadales, to the twin brothers Oscar and Nugent Dubourg in Poor Miss Finch. And even when doubles are not involved, the novels usually resolve round questions of identity, literally in The Law and the Lady, or as a question of legitimacy of birth in The Dead Secret or No Name, or of marriage in Man and Wife.

Peters combines a perceptive reading of the novels with a thorough and well-researched construction of Collins' life, and, whilst she doesn't have all the access that William Clarke has obtained, her use of the texts of the novels to illuminate the biography is much superior. As an example, Peters describes three aspects of Collins' own character revealed in The Law and the Lady. Physically he is akin to husband Eustace Macallan, with his gentle eyes, beard streaked with grey and limp. As a ladies' man, he is represented by the elderly roue Major Fitz-David, and as a writer and fantasist by Miserrimus Dexter. She goes on to show how further extreme aspects of this his most bizarre creation were to be seen in his temperamental actor-friend Charles Fechter, who was also a heavy-drinking, food-loving extrovert. Clarke, however, dismisses The Law and the Lady in a paragraph.

Yet Wilkie's private life ultimately remains a mystery. The circumstances in which he first met both Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd remain matters of speculation. Why Caroline Graves should choose to get married in 1867, and then return once again to Wilkie, is also out of the reach of the biographers. And most mysteriously of all, why should someone who dedicated his life to writing about identity, illegitimacy and the problems inherent in legal ambiguity choose not to attempt to legitimise in some way the two families for which he was responsible.Both Clarke and Peters attempt explanations, but in the end, Wilkie's own life proves the one intricate plot incapable of resolution.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Theatre Review : Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfmann - Pinter Theatre (Dir Jeremy Herrin 28/11/11)

Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfmann wrote Death and the Maiden as several South American states were emerging from the shadow of the brutal military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s. As the Arab Spring takes hold, and the headquarters of the Secret Police are swept open in Tripoli and Cairo, Dorfmann’s play is frighteningly relevant. Sadly, it will probably continue to be so.

In an unnamed South American state, Gerardo Escobar is a liberal Civil Rights Lawyer, who has just been nominated to a Truth-and-Reconciliation  commission following the re-establishment of democracy. Paulina Salas is his wife - beautiful, intelligent, yet scarred by her torture and rape at the hands of the military during the dictatorship. She is dismayed to hear that Gerardo’s commission will investigate only those who have died, denying her the opportunity of some form of catharsis.

Gerardo is visited by a stranger,  a doctor called Roberto Miranda who has stopped to help him on the road. Paulina believes she has heard his voice before, as the doctor who oversaw her torture and rape. She captures Roberto at gunpoint, ties him up and threatens to kill him in order to force him to confess his crimes, whilst her husband argues that such actions will only perpetuate the cycle of violence in the country. As Paulina’s story is told, pieces of information emerge, but what is true and what has Roberto made up in order to secure his release?

This is a complex, intense work, better suited to a small studio such as the Theatre Upstairs where it was first performed than the Edwardian Pinter Theatre, although it is appropriate that such a work should grace the stage which bears Harold Pinter’s name. Perceptions of the characters shift throughout – Gerardo’s liberal values are challenged when he doubts Roberto’s innocence, Paulina’s pain is undoubted, but is this the only way in which she can achieve release? And is Roberto as he says an innocent man? But why does he have a tape of Death and the Maiden in his car, the music played by the Doctor who tortured Paulina?

Both Tom Goodman-Hill and Anthony Calf give powerful, nuanced perfomances as Gerardo and Roberto respectively. But this play needs at its centre someone who can reveal the pain and despair that Paulina has carried for 18 years, they must be capable of opening up their soul. Thandie Newton as Paulina is very good but she doesn’t really have the depths that this part requires. She is too pretty, too well manicured. Her hair stays in place, her voice doesn’t crack from pain, you just aren’t convinced that she has suffered as she describes. And without that necessary pain at its heart, the play loses its undoubted power (though that is not helped by a half-empty house and an unnecessary tension-killing interval). Which is unfortunate, as this production is probably the most thoughtful and relevant piece of theatre currently showing in a dismal West End.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Theatre Review : The Comedy of Errors - Olivier Theatre (dir Dominic Cooke 23/11/11)

Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus, has had a falling out with Syracuse. As a result, any visitor to his city from Syracuse must pay a fine of 1000 marks or face death, which is bad news for Syracusan merchant Egeon who is visiting Ephesus looking for his son. He did have identical twin sons and identical twin servants, but one of each was lost at sea, so the others took their names, Antipholus and Dromio, in their memory.

Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have settled in Ephesus since their shipwreck, where Antipholus has married and become a respected citizen. When an identically attired Antipholus of Syracuse arrives with his Dromio, needless to say, mayhem commences.

This play is not one of Shakespeare's great reflections on the human condition, and don't let anyone persuade you that it is a reflection on the nature of duality, of divided consciousness or anything like that. Instead, it is an unashamed comedy, usually best played with liberal doses of slapstick. Dominic Cooke's good-looking production makes full use of the the resources of the Olivier stage to develop an endlessly protean modern Ephesian cityscape, but the staging is always in danger of dwarfing the action. There are times when it works well, such as a madcap chase scene when all four twins are pursued by some mad medics round a revolving stage, but more often the scenery hogged the stage and gave no space for the humour to breathe.

Lenny Henry is a charismatic lead as Antipholus of Syracuse, and it was always going to be difficult for Chris Jarman as Antipholus of Ephesus to equal his presence, although he manages quite well. Meanwhile, I could never remember which of the Dromios was which, despite the fact that Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser, both bedecked in Arsenal shirts as Dromios of Syracuse and Ephesus respectively, didn't look particular similar. The excellent Claudie Blakely as Adriana, however, couldn't even tell her husband from his brother, and the scene where Antipholus of Syracuse is locked out his modern penthouse flat whilst Antipholus of Ephesus has been dragged to bed protesting (not too much) by Adriana is particularly well done.

There are many good points to this production. The opening scene where Egeon explains why he has two sons and two servants with the same name is usually a drag but is imaginatively dramatised as the Ephesian tenements transform into tall ships. The ambulance disgorging an army of paramedics is very funny. There is a wonderful point where you realise that music being played by some Eastern European buskers is in fact modern pop classics about madness such as Black Sabbath's Paranoid and Gnarls Barkley's Crazy sung in something like Serbo-Croat.

However, I've seen this done better. Overall it is just a bit too earnest, too over-designed to really hit the funny bone as this very modern play is more than capable of doing. The complex stage mechanics paradoxically make the action more static than it might otherwise be, and the good performances from the leads never have the space to develop into something better. The Olivier's revolving stage is a wonderful resource for any designer, but there have been times recently when it has been in danger of becoming the star of the show itself, rather than the actors and their words. The National Theatre must take care to use this resource judiciously, focus on the plays themselves and leave the staging pyrotechnics to the musicals.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review : The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World's Classics 2008)

Having introduced the Victorian reading public to the professional detective in Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone, in The Law and the Lady Collins turns to what is probably the first full-length novel to feature a woman trying to unravel a mystery. Valeria Woodville has recently married, but she discovers that Eustace, her husband, is hiding a secret from her - in fact, she may not be married at all, as he has been using a false name. Naturally concerned, she starts to investigate Eustace's past, and discovers that he has been tried in Scotland for murder of his previous wife, and found not proven. Convinced however of his innocence, Valeria sets out to clear his name.

This is also the second of Collins' novels to try to address what he saw as being the iniquities of the Scottish legal system. The verdict of "not proven" is a distinctive feature of Scottish justice, indicating that the jury felt that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. Whilst the accused on receipt of this verdict is free to walk from the court, it was perceived that it was not without a certain stigma.Collins felt that this ambiguity was a weakness in the Scottish legal system, yet does not examine the probably fatal consequences for Eustace if the jury had found him guilty. The "not proven" verdict had in recent years been topical due to the notorious  Madelaine Smith trial in Glasgow, where the pretty upper-middle class woman had been accused and found "not proven" of poisoning her lover.

As Valeria feels her way towards the truth, she meets Miserrimus Dexter, one of Collins more extraordinary creations. Strikingly handsome with long flowing hair and beard, yet born without legs, Dexter hauls himself around in a chair that he is capable of moving with great speed. He lives in a bleak mansion cared for by his devoted, subjugated sister with learning difficulties. Dexter has come straight from a gothic novel - he is a poet, improvisational actor, cook and aesthete, yet bizarre and unstable, given to extreme behaviour and mood swings which culminate in a clumsy attempt to kiss Valeria, who must nevertheless control her revulsion if she is to uncover the secret of the death of Eustace's wife.

As ever with Collins, this is a gripping, fast-paced and intriguing adventure, the labyrinthine plot creating sufficient false leads to fool at least this reader for part of the novel. Collins gave his female characters more independence and autonomy than most of his male contemporaries (compare with Dickens' anonymous heroines) and although Valeria is not as well-defined as Marian Halcombe or Magadalen Vanstone, she is yet another strong, stubborn headstrong female lead from this great unconvetional Victorian.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Theatre Review : Juno and the Paycock by Sean O'Casey - Lyttleton Theatre (dir Howard Davies 14/11/11)

This was my introduction to the great Dublin trilogy of plays that made Sean O'Casey's name, and given that the production was coming direct from the Abbey Theatre Dublin with a superb cast, I was expecting something very special. However I was disappointed.

The action is set in the dilapidated tenament flat of the Boyle family, the ceiling showing the traces of 18th Century forgotten grandeur. Bedrooms are simply partitioned or curtained off allowing little or no privacy for Juno Boyle (Sinead Cusack) her workshy husband Captain Jack Boyle (Ciaran Hinds) and their children pretty Mary (Clare Dunne) and Johnny (Ronan Raftery), who has lost an arm in the Irish uprising against the English.

Whilst Captain Jack paycocks round the town avoiding the risk of being asked to do any work, Juno holds the family together. Mary sets eye on schoolteacher Charles Bentham, who has his eye on her in return, especially when it transpires that Captain Jack may be the beneficiary of a will due to the death of a relative. However, the will is not what it seems and the family who have spend extravagantly on credit on the back of it soon see all their goods recovered. Wrestling with the spectre of poverty are these of the Civil War and the harsh morality of the times. Johnny has betrayed a "Die Hard" neighbour and is living in fear of his life as a consequence, whilst Bentham's absence in England is explained when Mary announces that she is pregnant. In a final poignant scene, Captain Jack staggers around drunkenly, unaware that everything that he had has been lost.

The play is undeniably powerful, yet this production failed to inspire. The first problem is a simple one of intelligibility - the powerful Dublin accents take a long time to get used to, and much of the first half was barely comprehensible.Whilst I don't believe that audiences should be patronised with easy theatre, there is still a minimum threshold of intelligibility that must be met. But the second problem was much more fundamental - the central performances simply lacked the depth that their characters required. Admittedly, I was watching this at a first preview and the cast may still be adjusting from their transfer from the more intimate Abbey Theatre to the caverns of the National, but I just couldn't believe that Sinead Cusack had the strength to hold the family together, or that the normally wonderful Ciaran Hinds could do anything other than shout, whilst Ronan Raftery looked more like a love-sick teenager than a wounded soldier in fear of his life. I will however exclude Clare Dunne from this criticism, as she held the stage as a tenement girl who is capable of attracting such a catch as a solicitor must be able to do, Risteard Cooper as the disreputable rogue Joxer Daly, who is capable of stealing his best friends last bottle of stout, and a wonderful cameo from Janet Moran as Mrs Maisie Madigan, the Boyle's earthy neighbour.

The production simply lacked the power from the central characters to drive the play's dramatic trajectory first up as they come to terms with their supposed wealth and then down into the depths as the truth about the will is revealed - the first half in particular was very weak, the second half improved as this is where O'Casey's most powerful writing is concentrated.But by this time the damage has been done, you simply don't care enough for the central characters to be able to properly feel the nature of the tragedy. And this is a great shame, as you can see the palimpsest of a great play peeking through.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review : Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World Classics 2008)

On the surface, this sounds rather unpromising.

Lucilla Finch has been blind since an early age. When shy young bachelor Oscar Dubourg moves into her neighbourhood, she quickly falls in love.Oscar has a brash identical twin brother, Nugent, who likes Lucilla but the feeling is not reciprocated.Oscar is hit on the head causing debilitating epilepsy, but this is cured by using nitrate of silver - the only problem is that it turns his skin blue, and Lucilla, despite being blind, has a dislike of dark colours. All of which would not have been a problem if it wasn't for Nugent introducing her to the oculist Herr Grosse, who believes he can cure Lucilla of her loss of sight. Nugent spots the opportunity to supplant his brother in Lucilla's affections.

Following hard on the heels of his detective story The Moonstone and the legal drama Man and Wife, Wilkie Collins confounds his admirers by once again switching styles to a domestic drama, albeit one with a mystery to resolve and replete with  Sensational elements.

It is interesting to compare this novel and its lead character to his early work Hide and Seek, which features Mary, a deaf and dumb girl. Mary is impossibly idealised, incapable of any wrong, and a passive recipient of the affections of others. Lucilla Finch is a much better realised character - whilst pretty and affectionate, she is also headstrong and the possessor of a fine temper which predispose her against listening to advice. In addition to driving the plot, this makes  her a much more believable and engaging character.

In fact, all the main characters are well-drawn. Oscar Dubourg superficially is weak and vacillating, but he is loyal and has an inner strength. Nugent's brash overconfidence alerts the reader at outset, but he also wavers between selfishness and remorse so that one is never sure whether he would carry through any action to trick his brother. Mme Pratolungo, the narrator, has an engaging, conversational tone and a fiery continental temper as well as unreliable republican sympathies.

Herr Grosse is an eccentric German who has made his reputation in the United States, and is introduced by Nugent, so one instinctively mistrusts his dirty appearance, his snufftaking and tobacco-smoke and his murdering of the English Language. However, appearances can be deceptive. On the other hand, the bumptious, arrogant and self-important Reverend Finch is the recipient of all the animus that Collins can summon up against clerical hypocrisy.

In his previous work Collins devoted his energies towards investigating the weaknesses in marital law across the United Kingdom. No such elevated subject drove him to write this novel, but he still did not stint on his research - he carefully studied cases of blind people who regained their sight and the subsequent physical and psychological impact upon them. He also looked at the effects of Nitrate of Silver on the skin of epileptics. Through careful study and explication, Collins made a basic plotline which sounded superficially ridiculous believable and engaging. This is not a great work of literature, but it is a very readable and enjoyable novel.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Book Review : Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World's Classics 2008)

Despite the success of The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins did not follow up immediately with another mystery or detective novel. Having defined the Sensation genre and laid down the basics for proper detective fiction, he promptly changed tack once again and wrote Man and Wife, his first and probably his best "issues novel". Not that this was a complete departure from Sensation fiction - this still has all the usual sensational elements intact: bigamy, murder, jilting husbands, imprisoned wives and ghostly, malevolent dumb cooks. But the plot itself was this time overtly constructed around two contemporary issues - the ambiguous state of marital law in Scotland and Ireland, and the moral risks posed by a focus on a healthy body when not balanced by a healthy mind.

Anne Silvester was governess to the aristocratic Blanche Lundy, but as she had been placed in an "interesting" situation by the "Honorable" Geoffrey Delamayne, she plans to utilise ambiguous Scottish marriage laws which rely purely on witnessed consent and not the full sacrament sanctioned by the Church and State in England by escaping to a remote Hotel and have Geoffrey address her as "wife" before witnesses. However, Geoffrey is called away to his dying father, and asks his friend Arnold Brinkworth to stand in for him, knowing that Anne will be ejected from the hotel if approached by a man who is not her husband. So Arnold innocently poses as Anne's husband. Meanwhile, Geoffrey gets a better offer, and tries to wriggle out of his commitment.

Geoffrey is a cad, but an athletic one with a finely tuned body which he has devoted much time to honing.Collins' assertion is that in spending so much time on athletic pursuits, he has neglected his moral development through reading books and following the arts. Unfortunately he overstates his position since, bone-headed though certain denizens of the gym may be (and many are not too, I hastily add, as I hide away my bicycle clips), few are brought to the verge of death or cold-blooded uxoricide through their obsession.

The Scottish marriage laws, however, are much more conducive to Collins' enquiry. In fact, they could almost have been designed for would-be Sensation Novelists as within their ambiguities lie boundless possibilities.Collins lays bare the problems inherent in them, whilst nicely contrasting through the story of Hester Dethridge the iniquitous way in which English matrimonial law forced women to surrender all their rights on marriage, placing them beyond the reach of the law.

By now, Collins has refined his craft and despite the above-noted flaws in conception Man and Wife is never less than a compelling read. The complex marriage plot is handled lightly without too much need for didacticism, although Geoffrey's foot-race is trite and the final few chapters descend into melodrama.

The story is aided by some of Collins' best drawn characters. Sir Patrick Lundie is a shrewd, wry Scottish lawyer, permanently at odds with the impossible snob Lady Lundie. The roguish head-waiter Bishopriggs has walked straight out of the pages of Sir Walter Scott, and Geoffrey Delamayne starts interestingly before descending into the role of a steroetypical cad. These outweigh the blandness of Arnold Brinkworth and Blanche, whose escape with her Aunt from Ham Farm is the only interesting thing that she does.And the mysterious dumb cook Hester Dethridge is never really convinces.

Unfortunately one cannot see what the shy, sensitive and virtuous Anne Silvester sees in Geoffrey Delamayne at all, and least of all why she might get herself pregnant by him. And this is really getting to the heart of the problem with the novel - why should Anne get herself in the position she finds herself, and is it really in character for her to devise such a devious plan to be wed? Similarly, one cannot understand why Hester Dethridge acts as she does in the final chapters, even if she is being blackmailed by Geoffrey. However, one is prepared to overlook these points, as Collins never lets your interest flag once you start to race towards the conclusion of this interesting book.