William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, a Romance (1839-40)

Amidst my dissertation work, I have managed to read another Victorian novel. If you knew me, this would not surprise you. My fellow graduate students now roll their eyes at me when I talk about the amount of work that I complete. Yes, it is amazing how much work one can accomplish when one puts forty hours of effort in per week (just saying – writing a dissertation is really about schedules, organisation, and commitment to work EVERY DAY).  However, enough about that nonsense; I want to tell you about this fantastic novel that I have read.

Jack Sheppard is a Newgate Novel – that is a crime novel centred around characters who have committed a crime and are either trying to avoid being sent to Newgate Prison and /or trying to escape from Newgate after they’ve been sentenced. Jack Sheppard is a historical figure – also known as John Sheppard – a thief who was famous for breaking out of Newgate. He became a popular anti-hero or Robin Hood figure for working class and poor Victorians who were frustrated by the injustices that the wealthy and upper-middle classes could get away with while, the poorest citizens were convicted to ridiculous sentences because of theft. While it was not exactly Jean Val Jean serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, it was not a just or equal system.

Jack Sheppard Sir James Thornhill 1723

(alleged to be a drawing of Jack Sheppard by Sir James Thornhill)

Jack Sheppard, born of a gin-guzzling woman and Tom Sheppard, a criminal himself killed by the famous thief-catcher Jonathan Wild, is essentially an orphan. Mr. Wood, a Carpenter takes the child from the mother who is in no condition to care for her son and raises him, along with another orphan boy named Thames Darrell, as a brother to his daughter Winifred Wood, and eventually as his carpenter’s apprentice. Mr. Wood is trying to turn Jack away from his dissolute heritage and make him a respectable tradesman. Wood also cares for his mother who, years later, has sobered up and lives a life of repentance.

Ainsworth makes a couple of interesting choices in regards to Jack’s turn to crime. First, he has bad influences, hanging around on the streets with pickpockets, prostitutes, and other nefarious people. Ainsworth also makes a point about Jack’s physiognomy, the shape of his head and the expressions of his face indicate that he is untrustworthy and a reprobate. Mrs. Wood, untrusting of her husband’s fidelity and suspicious that the boys are secretly his bastards hates Jack (she is not much of a Thames fan either), and wants him out of the house by the time he is twelve.

At the same time, despite his desire to be a thief, Jack is doggedly loyal to his fellow orphan Thames. Thames is an ideal apprentice who takes his work with Wood seriously and regrets any perception that he is taking advantage of his place. Jack respects Thames’s ideals and regrets not being able to live up to them. He also uses his nefarious knowledge to help Thames who becomes a central figure in the novel’s plot, which involves Jonathan Wild’s evil plot to steal a fortune from a French nobleman. Jack, while trying to escape the law for both his own crimes, and crimes that Wild wrongly accuses him of, spends the novel trying to save his comrade’s life and fortune.

The novel is a suspense-thriller with lots of chase scenes, prison breaks, bloody fights, and a sense of fun comradery amongst Jack’s gang of thieves: Blueskin, Mrs. Maggot, and Edgeworth Bess. Blueskin’s loyalty is especially important and interesting as he commits crimes and sacrifices himself multiple times in order to gain Jack’s freedom.

The homosocial bonds between Jack and Thames, Jack and Blueskin, and even Jack and Wild are fascinating studies of male friendship and competition worthy of analysis by the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The portrayal of women is also interesting. Maggot and Edgeworth Bess both help Jack on multiple occasions and ensure that they help themselves throughout the novel. While Ainsworth has Jack and others lament the inconstancy of women, at the same time, these women show how such inconstancy means survival and freedom from dependence on men. Winifred, while in many ways a typical heroine, is also somewhat clever and brave. On more than one occasion, she is the one who opens the front door of the house when all the men are too cowardly to face who may be on the other side.

I really enjoyed the novel. If you enjoy modern true-crime books, try Jack Sheppard. If you enjoy interesting character studies that seek a depth that goes beyond good/evil binaries, then this may be the novel of you. It is also a good geographical study of the city of London. Set in the early eighteenth century, it is also a study of England of that period with lots of cameo appearances by Hogarth, Gay, and Sir James Thornhill.

Jack Sheppard (Broadview Literary Editions)

 

I recommend the Broadview Edition of the novel because of the wonderful introduction by Edward Jacobs and Manuela Mourão and for the contextual material contained in the back. Use the link above where you can buy this edition directly from Broadview Press.

 

Until next time,

 

Happy Reading!

500 Views! Thank you!

Hello everyone,

I would like to extend my thanks to everyone who has visited my humble little site so far. I have now surpassed my goal of 500 views as of yesterday.

As I said in my introductory post, I want this to be a resource for people interested in Victorian and Edwardian Literature. At this point the site is a links page to important and frivolous information available on the internet.

I hope to expand this project into more in the coming years but for now it is a lovely way to keep myself and my own resources organised. I hope that some of you find the information I link to useful or at least interesting.

If anyone finds something they would like to share on here, let me know! Send me any comments that you’d like as well. Please no spam though. I don’t like computer viruses – I’m a poor graduate student and I cannot afford to replace my electronics at this time so please be kind.

I will post more after the holidays and I promise it won’t be Christmas related. I’m looking forward top telling you about the novel I’m currently reading. Also looking forward to updating more links and pages to this site.

Happy Festivus!

Happy Solstice!

Southhampton 1867 The British Library Board copyright

(*Image Copyright belongs to The British Library Board)

The British Library’s Facebook Page

Are you friends with the British Library on Facebook yet? Even if you aren’t on Facebook you can visit their Facebook page. Today, in honour of Solstice, they’s posted several images from their archives including this one from 1867 that comes from a travel book of the period. The BL provides the following information:

“Trilithons (B and C) from the South west. Image taken from Plans and Photographs of Stonehenge, and of Turusachan in the Island of Lewis; with notes relating to the Druids, etc… Originally published/produced in Southampton, 1867. ”

Love the British Library for many reasons. Today they’ve given me another. Check them out if you haven’t already. Remember, you do not have to be a vetted scholar to enjoy the rich cultural artefacts of the nineteenth century.

Two Films

Hello again,

 

I want to tell you about two films coming to the theatres that are at least related to the Victorians. While not based on “Victorian” novels, they are based on novels written in the Victorian Era:

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877).

 

Both of these films look visually stunning and each is attempting to experiment with the filmmaking form in order to bring something original to the film experience.

Les Misérables is based on the musical and not the novel so it is an adaptation of an adaptation. Though director Tom Hooper (King’s Speech) says that he read the novel in preparation and was moved by Hugo’s writing. What really interests me in this film adaptation is that the actors are singing live on set. They did not record a soundtrack previously and then lip-synch on set. As a result, the singing clips released so far are astounding for their emotinal resonance rather than for the actors’ vocal ranges.

Anna Karenina is directed by the man who remade Pride and Prejudice and adapted Atonement. I know there were mixed reactions to these adaptations but I enjoyed them both. This time the film takes a postmodern approach by having the action take place on a stage. The cinematography and effects give it a sense of fantasy, making the drama of Tolstoy’s work operatic. The film looks like it could be fantastic.

Hopefully I will be able to see them both in the theatre. If not, they will both be joining my collection of books on DVD.

Mrs. Beachley’s Mulled Wine

MrsBeachleyLogo

If you are anything like me, you enjoy a little alcoholic refreshment during the holiday season (heck, I enjoy it on days that end with “y”!).

 

Well Victorian and Edwardian lovers, have I discovered a wine for you. Mrs. Beachley’s Mulled Wine. I picked it up a couple of weeks ago as a hostess gift for a party earlier this month and I purchased a spare for myself. What a beautiful sweet wine. Now, it calls for heating up but I had it at room temperature and it was still lovely. The orange essence is pronounced and the spices are wonderful. It’s sweet so probably best for dessert or an after dinner drink. But I don’t pretend to be a wine expert so try it for yourself and tell me what you think.

What I find particularly interesting is that the receipt comes from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. So it is a recreation of a Victorian classic. Its ingredients remind me of what Scrooge calls “Bishop’s Bowl” in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

In fact, tell the makers what you think! Their email is on their homepage at the following link: http://mrsbeachleys.com/

Now, rest assured, I have nothing to do with the making or selling of this wine. I am telling you about it at this page because of the nature of Victorians and Edwardians. I like to share wonderful little discoveries and I encourage you to try it (if you can find it, my liquor store ran out!) this month.

 

An Old Fashioned Christmas

http://www.anoldfashionedchristmas.com/index.html

An Old Fashioned Christmas

An Old Fashioned Christmas

Above (and to your right) is a link to a charming Christmas website. With 10 days left until the 25th, I thought it was a good time to remind ourselves that so many of our secular Christmas practices were developed during the Victorian age. At An Old Fashioned Christmas, you can find Victorian Christmas Card, prepare letters from Santa for the Children, and find links to all sorts of holiday goodness.

Now, I am one of those people who resents all the commercialism of this time of year. However, it only needs to be commercial if you want it to be. In my home, we only give handmade gifts (including our own Christmas cards). We do this on very little money and we do not exchange gifts amongst ourselves.  Remember, what the images on these cards evoke: family, outdoor activities in the winter, community gatherings, romantic moments, feasting. None of these activities have to be commercialised.  You can avoid the malls. You can avoid maxing out your credit cards. The Victorians never did such things. Secular holidays can be full of meaningful ritual. Christianity is not a requirement, just have some faith in your friends and family.

So stop worrying about what other people think or the necessity of expensive electronics for kids who won’t really appreciate the money you’re spending. Keep things intimate, simple,  and festive. Check out An Old Fashioned Christmas for some lovely ideas.

Victorian Christmas Stories and Charles Dickens

A_Christmas_Carol_02

Have you ever read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843)? You have probably seen one of the many countless adaptations on television, on stage, or at the movies. Like most, I had never read the story. Well, I rectified that gap in my Victorian reading history and read Dickens’ delightful short story. The entire work is about 90 to 100 pages so it should fit nicely into the holiday season. In between wrapping presents, preparing your family’s feast, listening to Christmas Music, and enduring the madness of the malls, I highly recommend a Dickens interlude.

Dickens’s story coincided with the first Christmas Greeting card released the same year. Dickens’s story essentially defines the modern and secular Christmas of today, taking the focus away from biblical tales of the nativity or wise men. Instead, he brings a sense of humanity to what we often dismiss as a time of greed and consumption. In other words, he brings humanity to everyday life in the modern metropolis.

Scrooge is the ultimate miser, but he is also a frail human who realises his wrongs halfway through the story. He endures the lessons of the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Christmas Future because he knows that they are trying to help him. I think that Scrooge is, at heart, a kind-hearted character who, in his old age, regrets the isolated and selfish life he has led. He sees the despair of Tiny Tim, the genuine love of his nephew Fred and realises that he can use his power to help others thrive. There is a sense in Dickens that economic consumption can be channeled for the benefit of humanity and not merely for the benefit of investors.

I was also fascinated by Dickens’ use of horror. The children named Want and Ignorance (pictured above by the talented John Leach from the original book illustrations) symbolise the horrific conditions of child poverty in Victorian England. The moment when Scrooge realises that the corpse lying dead for weeks and forgotten by society is his own is a powerful and disturbing image. Tiny Tim isn’t just on crutches, his weak legs are held straight by iron leggings. As a child, my mother wore leather and metal versions of such braces a hundred years after Tiny Tim and I assure you that no matter the materials, they are a horror to endure.

This story was a rich and rewarding read and I am delighted to realise how many more Victorian Christmas stories I have on my bookshelves by William Makepeace Thackeray, Marie Corelli, Elizabeth Gaskell and more by Dickens. I don’t know if they will delight me the way A Christmas Carol did but I’m looking forward to finding out this year, and in the years to come.