Feb 072016
 

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Today is the birthday (1812) of Charles John Huffam Dickens, English writer and social critic. He created some of the world’s best-known fictional characters and is regarded as one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century critics and scholars had recognized him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories enjoy lasting popularity. Images from Dickens’ work pervade the modern world almost as much as those from the Bible or Shakespeare – such is his enduring legacy.

Dickens was born in Portsmouth and left school at the age of 12 to work in a boot blacking factory to help provide for the family when his father was incarcerated in Marshalsea debtors’ prison.This stint, though short, left an indelible impression on Dickens and colored his sensibilities about social justice for life. He wrote,“no words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into the companionship of common men and boys.The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in…was passing away from me, never to be brought back, cannot be written”

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Despite his lack of formal education, he edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms.

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Dickens’s literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of The Pickwick Papers. Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity, famous for his humor, satire, and keen observation of character and society. His novels, most published in monthly or weekly installments, pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publishing. The installment format allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience’s reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on such feedback. For example, when his wife’s chiropodist expressed distress at the way Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield seemed to reflect her disabilities, Dickens improved the character with positive features. He also moderated some of his language in writing about Fagin in Oliver Twist after accusations of anti-Semitism. His plots were carefully constructed, and he often wove elements from topical events into his narratives. Masses of the illiterate poor chipped in ha’pennies to have each new monthly episode read to them, opening up and inspiring a new class of readers.

Here is a typical assessment of Dickens culled from Wikipedia:

Dickens was regarded as the literary colossus of his age. His 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, remains popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are also frequently adapted, and, like many of his novels, evoke images of early Victorian London. His 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, set in London and Paris, is his best-known work of historical fiction. Dickens’s creative genius has been praised by fellow writers—from Leo Tolstoy to George Orwell and G. K. Chesterton—for its realism, comedy, prose style, unique characterisations, and social criticism. On the other hand, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf complained of a lack of psychological depth, loose writing, and a vein of saccharine sentimentalism. The term Dickensian is used to describe something that is reminiscent of Dickens and his writings, such as poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters.

What can I say? Let me start with the critique. Wilde’s characterization, summarized in the remark, “You would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell,” is nothing more than his own pompous and self-congratulatory cynicism. It can be dismissed without further comment. Woolf’s assessment is, by and large, unfairly anachronistic. She may have been overly taken with Freudian analysis, for example, but cannot fault Dickens for being unaware of psychoanalytic theory that was decades in the future. In fact, I would argue that he was the forerunner of a great deal of Freudian theory in that he posits with full vigor Wordsworth’s claim that “The Child is the father of the Man” in Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Christmas Carol, and other works. What could be more both Freudian and Dickensian than the notion that childhood experience engenders adult personality?

Despite Dickens’ vehement opposition to child labor, slavery, and other social ills, I will accept that he often adopted views that now can be seen as racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. But I am willing to cut him some slack here. First, he clearly moderated his anti-Semitism in the character of Fagin by later introducing the much more sympathetic Jew, Riah. Second, Dickens was a product of his age, and I don’t believe he can be entirely faulted for this. It is true that he was blind to the inherent ethnocentrism of Victorian imperialism, and was enamored of the “virtues” of the British middle class. This is to be expected. He lived in an era well before the advent of modern anthropology. How many Victorians would we have to consign to the dustbin of outmoded prejudice and narrow mindedness if we judged them solely by our current values? How will the world judge our oh-so-lofty morality 200 years hence?

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Obviously in a short post of this nature I cannot cover the entire life and works of Dickens with any satisfaction. Let me simply turn to my favorite: A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas, commonly known simply as A Christmas Carol. I’ve loved this book since I first discovered it as a young teen, in the days when people still read for pleasure, and, in my world, television and assorted mass media were way in the future, so that back then I was not bombarded with an endless slew of schlock images and references. To me it was, and is, an enchanting and compelling tale. I have read it every Christmas since, and at one time I amassed a large collection of editions including a facsimile of the original manuscript, replete with Dickens’ own corrections and annotations.

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Very few people now know two salient facts. First, telling ghost stories at Christmas was a common practice in Victorian times, so the book fits a genre of the times. Second, the book represents a novel (for the time) humanitarian vision of Christmas, rife with its condemnation of the ills of industrialism, social injustice, and class warfare, and hopes for a more “Christian” celebration. It is sadly ironic that Dickens’ desire for Christmas to become a joyous season of goodwill should have been corrupted into what we have today – a pathetic materialist frenzy, with Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit et. al., degenerating into hopelessly stereotyped and hackneyed caricatures of their former selves

I wonder how many people nowadays understand that the Cratchits’ goose was not intended as a symbol of largesse, but as an indication of their poverty? Goose was cheap food in those days, not the high-priced, high-class luxury it now is. If you’ve ever cooked one you’ll know that there is very little meat on even an ample goose (and Cratchit’s was far from large). After his reformation Scrooge sends Cratchit a turkey to make amends: the right bird in those days for a lavish, festive meal. I’ve always cooked a goose for Christmas, but at $40 a pop, or more, its status has changed completely. Now it’s turkey that is poor food (in the U.S. at least). That is to say, it is common, everyday poultry in comparison with goose, which is generally rare.

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Perhaps surprisingly the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized following the appearance of the story, and the name “Scrooge” and exclamation “Bah! Humbug!” have entered the English language. But historians have argued that the book’s singular achievement is the powerful influence it has exerted upon its readers over the years. In the spring of 1844, The Gentleman’s Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens’ novella; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson waxed enthusiastic after reading Dickens’s Christmas books and vowed to give generously; and Thomas Carlyle expressed a generous hospitality by staging two Christmas dinners after reading the book. In the United States, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1867, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey. In the early years of the 20th century, the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love”; Squire Bancroft raised £20,000 for the poor by reading the tale aloud publicly; and Captain Corbett-Smith read the tale to the troops in the trenches of World War I.

According to my sometime colleague, historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol. He writes that Dickens “linked worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation”. In advocating a humanitarian focus for the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit. With the appearance of the Oxford Movement and the growth of Anglo-Catholicism, a revival in the traditional rituals and religious observances associated with Christmastide also occurred.

This simple morality tale with its pathos and theme of redemption significantly redefined the “spirit” and importance of Christmas, since, as Margaret Oliphant recalled, it “moved us all those days ago as if it had been a new gospel.” The tale helped resurrect a form of seasonal merriment that had been suppressed by the Puritan quelling of Yuletide pageantry in 17th-century England.

A Christmas Carol has been adapted numerous times for stage and screen, almost since its first appearance as a book, with varying degrees of success and fidelity to the original tale. Here’s a gallery of images of a few of my favorites adaptations, some straight re-tellings, some indirect homages. Carol Kane’s ditzy portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Bill Murray’s Scrooged (1988) tickles me senseless.

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One of Dickens’ favorite dishes was baked apples. Among other things he swore by their ability to prevent seasickness. He became a baked apple convert while sailing to Boston in 1867. They were served at every meal during the Atlantic crossing, and he always helped himself to plenty. “I am confident that they did wonders, not only at the time, but in stopping the imaginary pitching and rolling after the voyage is over,” he wrote to his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth.

Here’s the stalwart Victorian Isabella Beeton’s recipe for baked apples in a suet crust that is both simple and delightful, along with her usual inimitable comments.

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BAKED APPLE DUMPLINGS (a Plain Family Dish).

  1. INGREDIENTS.—6 apples, 3/4 lb.. of suet-crust No. 1215, sugar to taste.

Mode.—Pare and take out the cores of the apples without dividing them, and make 1/2 lb. of suet-crust by recipe No. 1215; roll the apples in the crust, previously sweetening them with moist sugar, and taking care to join the paste nicely. When they are formed into round balls, put them on a tin, and bake them for about 1/2 hour, or longer should the apples be very large; arrange them pyramidically on a dish, and sift over them some pounded white sugar. These may be made richer by using one of the puff-pastes instead of suet.

Time.—From 1/2 to 3/4 hour, or longer. Average cost, 1-1/2d. each.

Sufficient for 4 persons.

Seasonable from August to March, but flavourless after the end of January.

USES OF THE APPLE.—It is well known that this fruit forms a very important article of food, in the form of pies and puddings, and furnishes several delicacies, such as sauces, marmalades, and jellies, and is much esteemed as a dessert fruit. When flattened in the form of round cakes, and baked in ovens, they are called beefings; and large quantities are annually dried in the sun in America, as well as in Normandy, and stored for use during winter, when they may be stewed or made into pies. In a roasted state they are remarkably wholesome, and, it is said, strengthening to a weak stomach. In putrid and malignant fevers, when used with the juice of lemons and currants, they are considered highly efficacious.

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SUET CRUST, for Pies or Puddings.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of flour allow 5 or 6 oz. of beef suet, 1/2 pint of water.

Mode.—Free the suet from skin and shreds; chop it extremely fine, and rub it well into the flour; work the whole to a smooth paste with the above proportion of water; roll it out, and it is ready for use. This crust is quite rich enough for ordinary purposes, but when a better one is desired, use from 1/2 to 3/4 lb. of suet to every lb. of flour. Some cooks, for rich crusts, pound the suet in a mortar, with a small quantity of butter. It should then be laid on the paste in small pieces, the same as for puff-crust, and will be found exceedingly nice for hot tarts. 5 oz. of suet to every lb. of flour will make a very good crust; and even 1/4 lb. will answer very well for children, or where the crust is wanted very plain.

Jan 252016
 

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Today is the birthday (1882) of Adeline Virginia Woolf (née Stephen), an English writer who was one of the foremost modernists of the early 20th century. During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Woolf was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household. Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Her mother, Julia, had three children by her first husband, Herbert Duckworth: George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth. Her father, Leslie Stephen, had first married Harriet Marian (Minny) Thackeray (1840–1875), the daughter of William Thackeray, and they had one daughter: Laura Makepeace Stephen, who was declared mentally disabled and lived with the family until she was institutionalized in 1891. Leslie and Julia had four children together: Vanessa (later known as Vanessa Bell) (1879), Thoby (1880), Virginia (1882), and Adrian (1883).

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Leslie Stephen’s eminence as an editor, critic, and biographer, and his connection to William Thackeray, meant that his children were raised in an environment filled with the influences of Victorian literary society. Henry James, George Henry Lewes, and Virginia’s honorary godfather, James Russell Lowell, were among the visitors to the house. Julia Stephen was equally well connected. She came from a family of beauties who left their mark on Victorian society as models for Pre-Raphaelite artists and early photographers, including her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron who was also a visitor to the Stephen household. Supplementing these influences was the immense library at the Stephens’ house, from which Virginia and Vanessa were taught the classics and English literature. Unlike the girls, their brothers Adrian and Julian (Thoby) were formally educated and sent to Cambridge, a difference that Virginia would resent. The sisters did, however, benefit indirectly from their brothers’ Cambridge contacts, as the boys often brought their new intellectual friends home.

According to Woolf’s memoirs, her most vivid childhood memories were not of London but of St Ives, Cornwall, where the family spent every summer until 1895. The Stephens’ summer home, Talland House, looked out over Porthminster Bay, and is still standing, though somewhat altered. Memories of these family holidays and impressions of the landscape, especially the Godrevy Lighthouse, informed the fiction Woolf wrote in later years, most notably To the Lighthouse.

The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. She was, however, able to take courses of study (some at degree level) in Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901. This brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women’s higher education such as the principal of the Ladies’ Department, Lilian Faithfull (one of the so-called Steamboat ladies), Clara Pater (sister of the more famous Walter, George Warr. Her sister Vanessa also studied Latin, Italian, art and architecture at King’s Ladies’ Department.

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The death of her father in 1904 provoked a serious mental crisis and she was briefly institutionalized. Modern scholars (including her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell) have suggested her breakdowns and subsequent recurring depressive periods were influenced by the sexual abuse to which she and her sister Vanessa were subjected by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth (which Woolf recalls in her autobiographical essays A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate).

Throughout her life, Woolf was plagued by periodic mood swings and associated illnesses. She spent three short periods in 1910, 1912 and 1913 at Burley House, 15 Cambridge Park, Twickenham, described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder.” Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life.

After the death of their father and Virginia’s second nervous breakdown, Vanessa and Adrian sold 22 Hyde Park Gate and bought a house at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. Woolf came to know Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Rupert Brooke, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, and Roger Fry, who together formed the nucleus of the intellectual circle of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group. In 1907 Vanessa married Clive Bell, and the couple’s interest in modern art had an important influence on Woolf’s development as an author.

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Virginia married the writer Leonard Woolf on 10 August 1912. Despite his low material status (Woolf referring to Leonard during their engagement as a “penniless Jew”) the couple shared a close bond. She wrote at the time:

First he is a Jew; second he is 31; third, he spent 7 years in Ceylon, governing natives, inventing ploughs, shooting tigers, and did so well that they offered him a very high place, which he refused, wishing to marry me, and gave up his entire career there on the chance that I would agree. He has no money of his own… but from the first I have found him the one person to talk to.

We analyse each other’s idiosyncrasies in the light of psycho-analysis walking round the square. My reports, however, are apt to twist up into balls what is really amicable, serious, disinterested, and almost wholly affectionate. It’s true that Leonard sees my faults.

The two also collaborated professionally, in 1917 founding the Hogarth Press, which subsequently published Virginia’s novels along with works by T. S. Eliot, Laurens van der Post, and translations of Freud’s works. The Press also commissioned works by contemporary artists, including Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell.

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The ethos of the Bloomsbury group encouraged a liberal approach to sexuality, and in 1922 Virginia met the writer and landscape gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. After a tentative start, they began a sexual relationship, which, according to Sackville-West in a letter to her husband dated August 17, 1926, was only twice consummated. However, Virginia’s intimacy with Vita seems to have continued into the early 1930s. In 1928, Woolf presented Sackville-West with Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the eponymous hero’s life spans three centuries and both sexes. Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West’s son, wrote, “The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”

Woolf began writing professionally in 1900, initially for the Times Literary Supplement with a journalistic piece about Haworth, home of the Brontë family. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915 by her half-brother’s imprint, Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd. Woolf went on to publish novels and essays to both critical and popular success. Much of her work was self-published through the Hogarth Press, because she struggled dealing with external criticism and rejection.

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Woolf is considered a major innovator in the English language. In her works she experimented with stream of consciousness and the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of characters. Woolf’s reputation declined sharply after World War II, but her importance was re-established with the growth of feminist criticism in the 1970s.

Here’s the only known recording of Woolf talking about the art of writing and language:

I taught Woolf for about 10 years as part of a general course for freshmen. To The Lighthouse was required reading for all first year students in the spring semester. I never felt I could do much with the text for a whole host of reasons. The Freudian/Oedipal theme between James and Mr Ramsay that runs through the entire novel seems heavy handed nowadays, although when the book was first published I expect it was novel and engaging.

I do grasp the idea that by using a stream-of-consciousness writing style Woolf was trying to paint a picture of what a day in the life of the Ramsays and entourage in their summer house was like, and I find it well enough done for what it is. Obviously the whole scene is heavily autobiographical; Woolf could well be describing a summer in St Ives with her family and their glitterati friends in the 1920s. The reason I find it well enough done is that I find the writing about the events as tiresome as I would have found the events themselves. Sitting around day after day reading or discussing “good” literature with a bunch of rich and “important” people, would drive me up the wall.

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Therein lies the heart of the problem for me. Woolf was brought up in, and lived among, the privileged of England’s society. Their interests and problems are not mine. I am, however, sympathetic to Woolf’s mental illness. People very close to me have suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, so I know the details intimately. Just before she weighted herself down with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse she wrote this gut-wrenching note to Leonard:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

These sentiments are soul searing. Trying to convey their meaning to 18 year olds in New York in the 1980s was impossible.

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The final chapters of the first part of To the Lighthouse describe a formal dinner party which Mrs Ramsay hosts. The soup course is of particular concern for many reasons. The full text of the book is here if you want to delve the mysteries of Mrs Ramsay and her ladling of the soup: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100101.txt There is no mention of what kind of soup it is, nor any other details about the meal, only that the soup was worth seconds for one guest – and that caused a stir. So here’s a soup that was popular at the time, Royal Cheddar Cheese Soup.

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Royal Cheddar Cheese Soup

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter
2 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
6 cups chicken stock
½ tsp dry English mustard
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
½ tsp hot pepper sauce
3 tbsp minced chives

Instructions

Melt the butter over medium heat in a heavy pan. Add the onions, potatoes, and garlic and sauté 10 minutes.

Add the chicken stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes.

Using a food processor or blender purée the stock and vegetables .

Whisk together the dry mustard and heavy cream in the pan over medium heat. Then add back the purée and heat through, stirring to avoid sticking.

Stir in the cheese and hot sauce and keep stirring until the cheese has melted.

Ladle into serving bowls and garnish with some chives.