Monday 16 September 2019

Shhh! Happens

Today's post is about one of my favourite things.  I have a hypersensitivity to sound and so I retreat into silence whenever I can.  I am also rubbish at gauging sound so a common complaint I often get is that I talk too quietly or too quickly as I have difficulty working out how my noise is working for other people.  Let's pretend I'm talking at a normal level now, so read this slower and...hang on... should I talk a bit louder?  
How's this? 
No, you're right, that's too loud.  We'll stick with this.  Anyway, all this rambling got me thinking about depictions of silence in paintings...

Voice of Silence (1907) Viktor Zarubin
You'll be unsurprised that silence was seen as a virtue in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  More than that actually, it was spiritual, akin to Godliness (that that, Cleanliness!) and images like the one above reflect that.  The wise and spiritual will always find their wisdom and spirit in the soaring majesty of silent nature.  I like how the huddle of black clad figures are echoed in the grooves and cuts in the white of the cliff.  The men are just another grouping in the landscape, but I notice that they have built their own bench making it a little man-made rest-stop in the scenery.

Silence (1903) Mikhail Nesterov
Two fishermen and their boats bob on a silent lake.  Again, the humans have brought their own means to exist in the landscape, man-made crafts to carry them on the water.  I like to think the silence in this picture is because the two men are not talking to each other.  They used to share a boat, but then fell out over a particularly attractive turbot.

Winter's White Silence (1923-4) Lucy Kemp Welch
I particularly like the silence that comes with a snowfall.  All sound becomes muffled; I won't say 'deadened' even though it's technically correct because I find that glimmer of snow and the fresh 'crump' when you walk on it, to be the beautifully alive.  I think the idea of Lucy Kemp Welch (or the Notorious LKW, as I like to think of her) and her 'silence' is the effort of hard work in bitter conditions.  The two men are in no mood for conversation and the horses are getting on with their work but I find the scene singing with the hoof crunches in the snow, the ringing of the bridles, the huff of the horses.  Maybe the idea behind the painting is that the snow has silenced the normal voice of work, brought the conversations internal.  No-one is lingering in the cold as it penetrates everyone and everything.  The first horse has turned into an ice-horse and may well just blend into the landscape, becoming yet more snow for the others to wade through.

And All the Air a Solemn Silence Holds (1900) Joseph Farquharson
Farquharson goes that one step further and takes those annoying humans out of the landscape and leaves only a couple of discreet rabbits who I can't imagine are that noisy.  Again, snow is linked to silence, possibly also with the idea of sleep.  Linking with this is the mythology around the goddess Demeter, whose search for her daughter Persephone causes all of nature to stall and cease without the warmth of her love and attention.  The silence of the colder months could be seen as signs of this misery, this dying.

Silenced (1905) John Seymour Lucas
Talking of dying, a very human side of silence is death.  Heaven knows what our chap in white did to anger the retreating figures but his glowing costume alludes to the fact that he is an innocent party in all this.  I like the fact that our chap seems to have strayed in from the sunny corridor, his foot extending into the beams of light, but the shadows have claimed him.  The red and black of his attackers tell a very simple story of the evil lurking in the darkness, striking at the good, light figure but maybe it isn't as simple as that.  The black hat, now discarded on the floor, could hint that our angelic, glowing victim had another side, something more shadowy.  People don't get murdered in front of tapestries for no reason, you know.

The Silence of Pure Innocence Persuades Where Speaking Fails (1855) Thomas Brooks
Taking a quote from The Winter's Tale, we have a domestic scene where a widow points to her cute children in order to appeal to the better nature of the bloke in the top hat.  At first I wondered if it was a relative, but maybe her landlord is more likely?  The dead husband is shown above the fireplace as a noble soldier, cut down in his prime (I'm guessing recently as the baby isn't that old).  The trouble stems from the now sudden poverty that has struck the family because respectable women are unable to support themselves.  Are all the children girls?  It's hard to tell as all children seem to be dressed in dresses until the trousers kick in.  It doesn't look good, but we come across the important link between women and silence...

Silence (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
This is the image that set me going on the whole subject of silence actually.  I remember writing a post on the theme of how weird it was to have a picture of people playing music because you couldn't see sound (well, you can, it's called synesthetes.  Kandinsky apparently had it which means his paintings are actually pieces of music, or something).  It is therefore equally as interesting to have a picture, which is by its very nature a silent thing, of a silent thing, as its point.  It feels like over-egging the pud, if you know what I mean.  However, what's going on with all the women..?

The Hour of Silence (1907) Henri Meunier
When you start looking for it, there are an awful lot of women being quiet in pictures.  Lots of ladies keep 'mum' in these images - there's another thing, why 'mum'? Is keeping 'dad' something different?  It's from a Middle English word, where we also get 'mumming' and 'mummers' who act without speaking.  I'm sure it's only a coincidence that 'mother' also gets shortened to a word that means to keep quiet.  The mum who lives next door to us keeps anything but.  She has an impressive range and volume and wonderful ennuciation.

Mollie: In Silence I Stood your Unkindness to Hear (1882) George Dunlop Leslie
From the poem, 'Wapping Old Stairs', poor old Mollie puts up with all manner of nonsense from Thomas, who cheats on her with Sal or the very dubious 'Susan from Deptford'.  Yet she entreats him to stop sleeping about because she washes his trousers and makes his grog.  Mollie, love, you can do better.  Also, don't stand there in silence, I know a few choice words for your precious Thomas, one of which is Gitweasel.

Wings of Silence (undated) William Shackleton (1872-1933)
Even when women are together, we keep our mouths shut, apparently.  Even little water sprites don't disturb the beauty of nature.  I love the little bird just causing tiny ripples on the surface of the pool with its wing tip.

Musicienne du Silence (1900) Arthur Hacker
Maybe, and I might be a tad suspicious here, there could be a link between the press for female suffrage and the depiction of women as silent.  A number of the images I've used today come from the early twentieth century, just as women were finding their voice of protest.  The idea that a woman would be a silent figure, taking the abuse of her unworthy husband, or a sad widow allowing her dignity to do the talking, grows more abstract with Symbolism.  They become voiceless beauty, paragons of silent perfection, examples and fantasies.  Are all women meant to aspire to this hushed perfection?  What of men, are they meant to follow the example set by these goddesses or like poor Mollie's Thomas, use their silent partner as a scapegoat for all the wrongs of life?

The Silence (1965) Carel Weight
Finally then, Carel Weight painted this family group in the 1960s, but I include it because, a bit like Stanley Spencer, I often get a feeling of purposeful antiquity or timelessness in Weight's scenes of modern life.  Of course, the woman in the middle could well be a Victorian as she sits in splendid isolation on her (possibly Morris & Co) throne.  One side is a figure that could be construed as her son, the other, possibly her grandson, but to my mind it does not seem to be a companionable silence.  Despite being penned together by the garden wall, the upright strokes of the fence and plant supports separate the figures.  Is this modern life?  Not keeping quiet out of dignity or feminine ideals, just not having anything to say, not even to our children.  I'm not sure that's progress...

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Review: Charlotte Bronte's Devotee

One of the funniest parts of the Harry Potter Studio Tour is when you see a video of the (then) very junior assistant at Warner Bros talk about taking home the novel of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and coming back in all buzzing about this book which she felt would be massive.  And it was.  Well, imagine the publishing assistant who came in the morning after with the manuscript from Charlotte Bronte clutched in their hot little hand? Say hello to William Smith Williams...

I had the very great pleasure to meet Philip Hamlyn Williams at the Lincoln  Literary Festival and heard how he was writing a biography of his great, great uncle William Smith Williams.  The result is Charlotte Bronte's Devotee, a thoroughly researched and entertainingly written book about one of the best-connected men in mid Victorian Britain.  I struggle to think of anyone who wouldn't be interested in this story because so many people seem to be connected to him.  Do you have an interest in the Bronte family? Ruskin? Rossetti? Thackeray? Lawrence Alma-Tadema? George Eliot? Mrs Gaskell? All crop up in this tale of publishing and friendships, with a healthy dose of sudden death and dodgy marriages thrown in to boot.

Thomas Carlyle
I love how much detail there is in here.  I was tickled by the fact that in the early years of the nineteenth century, the road between Westminster and London was beset with highwaymen so MPs had to travel in groups for their own safety.  From the first, Williams was a man of connections, counting John Keats as a schoolmate and from his first foray into publishing could count Thomas Carlyle amongst his friends with correspondence from Dickens.
Charlotte Bronte (unknown date) J H Thompson

Of course, it's for his friendship with Currer Bell (or Charlotte Bronte, as she is more usually known) that we acknowledge Williams today.  His recognition and encouragement of Charlotte's talent from the first builds a close and lasting friendship.  Reading her letters to him (treasured and preserved by the family) are a treat and make you wish that his letters had also been kept.  Indeed, the one we have reminded me of the treatment of the one letter from Fanny Cornforth quoted in Paull F. Baum's book of Rossetti's letter to Fanny.  The Bronte Encyclopedia suggested that this letter from Williams to Charlotte showed Williams to have 'no great skill in writing and that the ambitions which frustrated him so were based more on fantasy than fact' which is a sweeping statement for one letter, especially one written on the occasion of Emily Bronte's death.  It is obvious from Charlotte's responses to his other letters over many years that his letters brought her joy.

One of the unexpected joys of the book are Charlotte's comments on being a woman at the time, many of them offered while Williams still (on the face of it) believed he was corresponding with a gentleman.  On the subject of female further education, Charlotte was enthusiastic - 'Whenever I have seen families of daughters sitting waiting to be married, I have pitied them from my heart.'  I absolutely loved the comments she got back from Poet Laureate Robert Southey after sending him some of her poems - 'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be ... the daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind.' Well, he's a keeper.

This is an easy read because the tone of the narrative is so friendly and conversational from a writer who obviously loves his subject and wants you to love it too.  I feel I know figures in literary history just that bit better after reading this and my opinion of Charlotte Bronte has risen greatly.  I knew pretty much nothing of Williams beyond his part in Bronte's publishing life but found his achievements as fascinating as his personal life.  The friendship he shared with Charlotte was not all plain sailing especially with Mrs Williams (at least in the perception of Charlotte) and one quote from Charlotte on friendship really struck a chord with me:
'In the matter of friendship I have observed that disappointment here arises chiefly - not from liking our friend too well - or thinking of them too highly - but rather from an over-estimate of their liking for and opinion of us.'
In these times of on-line, written friendships, I find that to be unfortunately true and wise words indeed.

I cannot recommend this book enough as it is a treat and a gem.  Autumn is when we should be gathering books to see us through the winter months and let this be one of them.  Charlotte Bronte's Devotee by Philip Hamlyn Williams is available from Amazon UK (here) and US (here).