Plot Junkie: Horror, at home and abroad

This week hasn’t left  lot of time for non-academic reading, between… well, everything (I won’t go through the list of pending projects again. It just stresses me out. And I’m quite enjoying this rainy Tuesday morning, with my coffee and cuddly dog, and would prefer not to add a heapin’ helpin’ of stress.) So here’s what I’ve been reading for school: a bit about World War I and a little more about Victorian ghosties. Love ‘em both. Wish I had more time–all I want to do is read. (I want that on my tombstone. Local papers please copy.)

Deliver us from Evil: A Southern Belle in Europe at the Outbreak of World War I, Mary W. Schaller

Nancy Johnson arrived in Naples on June 8, 1914, with twenty-seven pieces of luggage, a letter of introduction from Woodrow Wilson and assurances that her congressman father would wire her more money whenever it was needed. She had been sent to Europe to forget an unapproved beau—one Roscoe Campbell Crawford, a working class Protestant of Irish descent… definitely not what Ben Johnson, Kentucky Catholic, had planned for his last single daughter. (Nancy married Roscoe in 1915. Either her father was just so thrilled to have her back that he stopped objecting, or she just didn’t care any more. The author of this book was their granddaughter.)

Nancy was one of thousands of Americans holidaying on the continent during that last summer before the war: the Vanderbilts (Frederick and Louise); Nicholas Butler,the president of Columbia University; and “an estimated thirty thousand midwestern schoolteachers” taking guided tours of the places about which they taught were all caught unawares and unprepared for the European conflict. Letters of credit—many which drew on vast fortunes—were denied by banks stockpiling gold, trains were commandeered by the army, sailing schedules were cancelled. As the open boarders of the nations were slammed shut, thousands of wealthy Americans swarmed the U. S. Counsel, demanding to be taken care of.

To deal with the situation that they so unexpectedly found themselves in, four American businessmen trapped in Europe chartered a ship, the Principe di Udine, and sent a few of the wealthy Americans home, Nancy (and all twenty-seven pieces of luggage) included.

Much of my opinion about the events this book seems to be about what/who wasn’t included. The book doesn’t actually state that the less-advantaged American travelers in Europe were neglected, but there were certainly a lot of people left standing on the dock when the Principe pulled out. “Though the little ship could pack over a thousand people in its steerage, the committee realized that the American refugees, many traveling with a great deal of baggage, expected much better accommodations.” If that doesn’t make you see red (ha), I don’t know what will. Of course, just in the way the book was written—the inclusion of the information, however slight, about the other travelers in Europe–obviously provides a space for this type of frustration with the inequalities of the modern world. So kudos to the author for stitching their story so firmly into the weft and weave of this one. I was much more interested in the background story—that of the people who managed to take care of all of these entitled people—than the story of the entitled people. And I want to read the story of those thirty thousand school teachers!

Anyway, the book only very obliquely  address the economic disparity of the modern world. It’s mostly about Miss Nancy Johnson, debutante daughter of the senator, and her escape from Europe. Honestly, I was so expecting some grand trek over the Alps or hidden in a boxcar or something—this is what happens when you only read fiction!—that I was a little surprised when her path was so smooth. She is coddled, from the moment she initially lands in Europe to the moment she is shuffled back on board another ship, by men who fear the temper and power of her father. But she makes it out alive. And that’s important.

The book was well written—could have been a done a little better (why do biographies always start with the birth? Give me a bang-up intro—tell me why I’m reading this book—then skip back to where her people come from.) and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit more than I’m expressing in this review. Yes, the assumption of privilege made my blood boil. But the experiences of the privileged are a legitimate part of our history and our world, as are the experiences of the thirty thousand school teachers. Beyond giving me quite a good view of the early days World War I (which I need, as I’ve yet to make it beyond the fourth page of Tuchman’s Guns of August) it gave me several ideas for future research into the plight of the not-so-privileged.

Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918), Martin Tropp

And from the horror abroad, I moved on to horror a little closer to home. Martin Tropp’s Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918) is proving a fantastic read. His argument is that the most enduring images of fear (Dracula, Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde) gave “form and meaning to the frightening events that have come to mark modern culture.” You can see from the dates included in the subtitle just what frightening events he refers to—from  the beginning of the Industrial age  (fears of machines), to the urbanization of the country (poverty, contamination and over-population of major cities); to Jack the Ripper and the Great War—he argues that the popular conception of these real nightmares was framed and formed by these modern myths. He quotes biologist Peter Medawar in his introduction:” We cannot make sense of the world around us without some structure which gives it meaning—there is no such thing as pure observation.” Tropp argues that the structure that allowed people in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to understand the huge changes in their world was literature—and specifically, horror literature.

I absolutely love how this book connects my two major interests right now—the Victorian Gothic and World War I. I’m not sure if this will prove immediately useful (beyond the absolutely fascinating chapter on Northanger Abbey, which I’m using for my independent study), but it’s definitely going in the file!

And that’s what has been occupying my time this week. Anybody read something fabulous lately? I love book suggestions!

that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile

I came across the most fascinating passage about the Mona Lisa while researching my Victorian ghosties. I know that the painting is supposed to be one of the great works of our civilization, and I certainly am not claiming the authority to contradict that. But once you’ve seen something a million or so times, with clever caption bubbles added, reimagined as salt shakers, or recolored in pastels and neons to resemble Warhol’s Marilyn, it’s a bit difficult to even see the actual work without all the cultural baggage of this is a great art.   

Walter Pater reframes the Mona Lisa as a culmination of our culture, not an individual representation. Here’s what he had to say:

The presence that thus so strangely rose beside the waters is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years man had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which ‘all the ends of the world are come’, and the eyelids are a little weary…Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how they would be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire she has been dead many time, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy which it has moulded the changing lineaments and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

I love the way this gives me a completely different way to think about an image I’ve seen so many times. Pater, who was writing in the 1850’s, puts the painting in context for his Victorian contemporaries by referencing the common points of their culture: just as Mona Lisa is “etched and moulded” by the “animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age” and so on, the Victorian admirer of the painting would have been similarly etched and moulded. He makes “Lady Lisa” into a cultural touchstone, representative of the entirety–as he imagines her persistence through the ages of history, he assumes our continued existence.

Not striking stuff for us, right? The extinction of the human race isn’t really a daily worry for me. But the Victorians? They worried about that more. Scientific progress was continually complicating religious beliefs for them: geological advances called Genesis into question; Darwin was on Beagle in the early 1830’s, his letters to the scientific community introduced his revolutionary theories;  the first dinosaur bones were identified in the Victorian era, providing concrete proof of the possibility of extinction for the unadaptable. The Victorian era was unsettling, to put it mildly. 

Pater’s insistence on the mutability and perseverance of Mona Lisa reframes the religious dream of an eternal life into a perpetual life–not for the individual, but for the collective. Pretty radical, eh?  That shift in perspective seems revolutionary to me: our individual progress is worth less than that which we contribute to the group.

I came across the quote from Pater in Ruth Robbins’ article “Apparitions Can Be Deceptive: Vernon Lee’s Androgynous Specters” which appears in Victorian Gothic, a volume of articles edited by Robbins and Julian Wolfreys and published in 2000 by Palgrave. (English major. We cite.) 

Robbins quotes Walter Pater , an Oxford professor in the mid-19th century whose essays influenced the aesthetic movement of the late Victorian Britain. Oscar Wilde is probably the most commonly associated with this movement—it highlights living life itself as a work of art, that art (Art) is for sensuous pleasures, not moral or didactic conveyance.

If you are interested in a bit more information about the Mona Lisa, the Louvre has an interactive lecture that completely sucked me in. I feel immeasurably smarter, even if I did take a break from the Victorian ghosties.

Read more about the changes in Victorian thought and theology here.

Want to read more about what our changes to the Mona Lisa say about our culture? You know you do. Find it here.

*The title is, of course, from the Nat King Cole song.