As a working-class girl from Cardiff, she knew more about that world than many of her contemporaries. She was brought up in a rented Victorian house, an only child living with grandparents as well as parents. Her mother and father were both shop assistants for local grocers. ‘My dad used to bone sides of bacon,’ she recalls. ‘He died when I was 11, giving me the opportunity to feel sorry for myself as a semi-orphan. Around that time, I first read David Copperfield and immediately identified with the lone child hero.’
It was the most autobiographical of Dickens’s novels, and Girl in a Blue Dress is another fictional take on an aspect of his life, albeit under the name of Alfred Gibson and set in the period immediately after his funeral. The central figure is his wife, Dorothea Gibson—alias Catherine Dickens—who is neither invited to the funeral nor favoured in the will. By the time of Dickens’s death, aged 58, they had been separated (though not divorced) for 12 years. She had been given a home and an income, while the famous writer kept their 10 children and had more time to spend with his much younger mistress.
It’s a brave writer who will take on Henry James, but John Harding’s publishers trumpet his debt to The Turn of the Screw. So Flora and Miles become Florence and Giles, and Bly House becomes Blithe House, a mansion set in New England in the 1890s. Fortunately, however, Harding rings enough ingenious changes on James’s study of perversity to produce his own full-blown Gothic horror tale.
Arnold laces her tale with a lively infusion of all things Lewis Carroll. Familiar images—a looking-glass; nursemaids and piglet-babies; puddles made of tears; cupboards and keyholes; Cheshire cats, walruses, dormice, oysters and caterpillars—pop up with a knowing wink and a nod. Merging 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with a distinctly measured approach, Arnold also draws on her experience as a contemporary childcare social worker, weaving a tapestry rich with imagination, madness and sadness. (At a particularly painful point in Daisy’s story, it comes with relief when a stalwart character, gentle with kindness, attempts to take charge: ‘Tell me again … but calmly this time, Daisy. So I can understand.’)
Our second event for 2016 extends our innovative approach to the BookTalk formula once again, providing BookTalkers an opportunity to meet the authors of two recent best-selling novels set in the Victorian period: Gaynor Arnold and John Harding. There will also be the opportunity to hear about the continuing public appetite for the 19th century from Professor Ann Heilmann, an internationally recognized expert on Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature based within Cardiff University.
A report by Caleb Sivyer on the first BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 19 Nov 2015: a “dark listening” of Emile Zola’s turgid tale of sexuality and insanity, La Bête humaine.
But by now every telegraph bell along the line was ringing, and every heart beat faster at the news of this ghost train that had just been seen passing through Rouen and Sotteville. People were afraid: there was an express travelling further up the line, it would surely be caught. Like a wild boar charging through a forest, the train continued on its way, oblivious to red signals and detonators alike. At Oissel it nearly collided with a pilot-engine; it brought terror to Pont-de-l’Arche, for its speed showed no sign of slackening. Once more it vanished, and on it raced, onward and onward into the dark night, bound they know not where, simply onward. What did it matter what victims it crushed in its path! Was it not, after all heading into the future, heedless of the blood that was spilled?— Émile Zola, La Bête humaine (1890), ch. 12
In the frenzy of his desire to have her, and excited by her caresses, Jacques, having no other weapon, was already stretching out his fingers to strangle Severine when she herself, from habit, turned and put out the lamp. Then he took her, and they lay together. It was one of their most passionate nights of love, and best of all, the only time when they had felt completely merged together, completely obliterated each in the other.— Émile Zola, La Bête humaine (1890), ch. 11
Left on his own, Jacques remained where he was and continued to gaze at the still, slumped heap, which appeared no more than a blurred mass in the dim lamplight cast along the ground. And the inner agitation that had quickened his steps, the horrible fascination that kept him standing there, culminated in one piercing insight that burst from the depths of his being: that man, the one he’d seen with the knife in his fist, he had dared! that man had travelled the distance of his desire, that man had killed! Oh! to stop being a coward, to have the satisfaction at last, to plunge the knife in! And what about him, who’d spent the last ten years desperately wanting to do just that! There was, in the midst of his fevered interest, a measure of self-contempt, of admiration for the other man, and above all the need to see the thing for himself, an unquenchable thirst to drink in the spectacle of the tatter of humanity, the broken puppet, the limp rag, to which a living creature is reduced by the mere stab of a knife. What he only dreamt about that other man had done, and there it was. If he were to kill, that’s what would be lying on the ground. His pulse raced madly, and his violent itch to kill grew fiercer, like a sexual urge, at the sight of this sorry corpse. He took a step forward, drew closer, like a nervous child coming to terms with its fears. Yes! He would dare, he too would dare!— Émile Zola, La Bête humaine (1890), ch. 2
On 19 November 2015, we’ll be hosting our first 2015/16 BookTalk event: a ‘dark listening’ of the ninth episode from the Season 1 of the BBC’s forthcoming radio adaptation of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novel series. Find out more here!