Museum Of Musings

Heritage, history, books, and a plethora of opinions.

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Edith Nesbit and her Victorian tales of horror

Edith Nesbit is well known for her wonderful contributions to the British canon of children’s literature. Her books have a transcendent quality. My grandparents read them, my parents did, and I was encouraged to as well. Yet, I discovered recently that Penguin re-published her collection of horror stories, titled ‘Tales of Horror’, and it includes some very creepy short stories. I cannot be alone when I confess that I had no idea that Nesbit authored four collections of horror stories. Whether or not this is down to an simple overshadowing by her acclaimed children’s books, or a more biased disbelief in the abilities of a female author to write horror, it is difficult to determine. Nevertheless, four collections of horror stories speak of Nesbit’s enthusiasm, or even a need to write using horror stylistics. Before I go into her stories, it is worth noting several biographical aspects that could shed light some light on her work…

Perhaps a more well known fact about Nesbit was her turbulent and seemingly abusive marriage to Hubert Bland in 1880, with whom she would co-found the famous socialist group the Fabian Society. Her life leading up to her marriage, aged 19, was equality as turbulent. Frequent moves around England and France with her mother and sickly sister, Mary, and the death of her father when she was just four perhaps instilled a resilience to the instability that stayed with her. I can find no other reason why Nesbit would have the courage to withstand her later lifestyle.

Hubert Bland

After falling pregnant, Bland and Nesbit married. Not long afterwards, Nesbit discovered that her husband had already fathered a child with his ailing mother’s companion. Bland would continue this pattern of self-indulgent infidelity, and would father yet another child with Nesbit’s close friend, Alice. It is a testament to Nesbit’s courage and comparative tenderness that she eventually allowed both Alice and daughter to stay within her house, Alice employed as Bland’s secretary. Her daughter was later adopted by Bland and Nesbit. It would appear that Bland’s infidelity stemmed from a desire of an open marriage, something that Nesbit was probably ignorant to until much too late, and of course a practice almost inconceivable for a wife to pursue too. Bland’s contemporaries and biographers have commented on his libertine behaviour,

He was pugnacious, powerful, a skilled pugilist, and
had a shrill, thin voice reportedly like the scream of an eagle. Nobody dared be uncivil to him.¹

 

Yet, it would seem that Bland encouraged Nesbit’s writing, if not only as a form of relatively stable income. As a man who professed he did not support women’s equal rights, and neither did Edith, it is to some credit that he was not so proud to disarm his wife of her pen. Moreover, he perhaps enjoyed the respect that was given to them as a literary couple, he with his journalism and Nesbit with her fiction. I would like to think that this kind-of partnership gave Nesbit at least some happiness and marital fulfilment in an otherwise fairly grim situation.

So this is where I turn to her horror stories. A few critics have noticed the ‘adult sadness’ present within her children’s books, and a few more have hinted that her tales of horror contain numerous superfluously perfect Victorian family norms, especially concerning the relationships between husbands and wives. But Victoria Margree has suggested that because these horror…

endings are frequently brutal, tragic and bleak, and refuse the happy endings that generic conventions compelled in her work in other genres²

 

… it has allowed Nesbit to introduce scepticism about the institution of marriage. For example, in her tale ‘The Violet Car’, an elderly couple struggle with the psychological effects of grief, injustice, and guilt after their daughter is killed by a car and the father is plagued by a ghostly vehicle that only he can see. The theme of blame and emotional suppression is obvious in this story, and Nesbit paints them as equally insidious as the supernatural apparition. The story ends with the father’s death, as if that would fix the problem, yet it only leaves the reader bleakly aware that nothing has been fixed and that the couple’s behaviour is the true horror component.

We cannot really paint Nesbit as a first wave feminist, but its evident that her life experiences and her socialist politics enabled her to question the status quo of the society in which she lived. And as with any thoroughly disturbing horror story, the heart of these stories is shot through with very human suffering, something that was all too familiar to Nesbit.

 

 

¹ Julia Briggs (2004) ‘Bland, Hubert (1855–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; online edn, May 2012, librarycatalog.vts.edu/view/article/47683

² Victoria Margee (2014) ‘The Feminist Orientation in Edith Nesbit’s Gothic Short Fiction’. Available at: http://eprints.brighton.ac.uk/13331/1/Nesbit_revised_submissionFINAL_Margree.pdf

#Book Club – Microhistories – ‘Perfume’

Microhistory is the “intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (stolen from Wikipedia)

 

There has been quite a few books popping up recently that focus in on a small object or event, and then look at a larger picture in history. Its a refreshing perspective on the writing of history books, and in many ways makes vast histories of people and events more accessible. And I’m absolutely addicted to them.

As a new feature of this blog, I’m going to read and give short reviews of a few of these microhistories, beginning with ‘Perfume: A Century of Scents’ by Lizzie Ostrom (2015).


Perfume: A Century of Scents

 

The human ability to smell is not perhaps at the forefront of the list when we think about our most important human senses. Yet, smell is everywhere, and our brains are capable of storing and remembering around 10,000 various smells (according to the BBC…). Even more so, our brains constantly connect smells and scents with memories, which is why we can get all nostalgic when we catch a whiff of something, even if you can’t quite place where you’d ‘sniffed’ it before. Such is like the memories given to us by scents in the form of perfumes. Perfume is one of those things in the modern world that we often take for granted. Many of us wear it daily, or have that one bottle applied religiously on special occasions, it has become part and parcel of getting ourselves ready for life. It is because it is such an everyday thing that it is easy to forget that the wearing of scent has been around for centuries, if not millennia. Nobody would blame you if you thought there couldn’t be a rich cultural history attached to this. But as Lizzie herself comments in the first paragraph:

Scent has radiated from the the collars of politicians as they stand on the steps triumphant, and when they leave, hounded and broken. It has been dabbed on by performers getting into character  for their next role. And it has been present – even playing a supporting or confidence boosting role – in negotiations, tussles, crimes, parties, productions and seductions.

 

Lizzie, in this wonderfully glitzy hardback, reflects upon the last 100 years of perfume wearing by delving into exactly 100 different scents, popular in their time. She really captures the feel and the impact of each scent, without flapping about trying to convey the actual smell, seeing as they are, in fact, long gone. Its written in an entirely accessible way, and by no means do you have to be a history buff to follow it.

I think the best way for me to explain this book is to give you a little sniff of it:

 

Mouchoir de Monsieur by Guerlain, 1904. (p.22-23)

I thought this would be a great example from the book to illustrate whats included, not just women’s scents!

Lizzie tells us that this one by Guerlain was what was known as a ‘handkerchief’ scent. Scents in this period would often be daubed onto pieces of cloth or clothing, rather than onto the skin. This was designed to ward off the ‘bad airs’  or revive someone with the flick of your handkerchief. But, as Lizzie explains, these scents weren’t just meant to be strong and powerful, like Dettol, they were designed by expert perfumers.

Lizzie explains that this particular perfume’s cultural history ties in with the Flaneurs. This was a name given to certain men of leisure, men who wandered about towns from cafe, to  theatre, to park, seeking philosophical enlightenment (probably unsuccessfully). A little like a rich bohemian, perhaps. Finally, somehow Lizzie has been able to track down how this perfume actually smelt. She describes it as a “balance between creamy-smelling coumarin and campherous lavender” with some “typical animalic dirtiness beneath” to mimic the urban smells of the Flaneur’s city.

I quite like to imagine this book as a sort of tour-de-force exhibition on the history of perfume. In fact it would make a great physical exhibition, say, at the V&A. But for now we have Lizzie’s book, and I can only hope someone who reads this will give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Available at: 

Waterstones

Amazon UK

The next #BookClub microhistory will be ‘The Button Box’ by Lynn Knight.

 

 

 

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