By the Thames

Anthony Giddens sees modernity as a condition whereby pre-modern (traditional) culture have given way to modern (post-traditional) culture; identity becomes more reflexive and self-consciously constructed. Roles are negotiated rather than assigned by convention. Anthony Trollope is consciously writing in The Way We Live Now as an opponent of modernity, counterpointing the morals and dignity of an increasingly impecunious aristocracy with the corruption of the self-made men of the rising mercantile classes; "his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age". However, the novel also questions conventional ideas of identity; the stereotypically Jewish aspects of the portrayal of Melmotte’s venality is balanced by the portrayal of Mr Breghert as he is wronged by members of the upper classes unwilling to accept that times have changed for social acceptance of Jews. Similarly, Marie Melmotte proceeds from being a hapless victim to revenging herself on her father and taking on property. Equally, the fact that Melmotte is brought down the avarice of the aristocracy and the dissipation of figures like Sir Felix, serves to deconstructs the opposition at the heart of the novel between old fashioned order and middle class rapacity. The novel acknowledges some of this in its discussions of how Melmotte himself is viewed; "as the great man was praised so too was he abused… the working classes were in favour of Melmotte… from their belief he was being ill-used.. that occult sympathy for crime, when the crime committed is injurious to the upper classes… it came to be said of him that he was more sinned against than sinning."

Similar concerns appear throughout Zola’s The Kill, where Haussman’s rebuilding of Paris serves throughout as a metaphor for the disorientation and the Durkheimite anomie of modernity. As such, Paris is seen as artificial and inauthentic, no longer the organic product of social evolution; "a strange feeling of illicit desire at the sight of this landscape that had become unrecognisable, so worldly and artificial." The preoccupation with the artificial and contrived point clearly to Zola’s affiliation with Huysmans. As traditional roles fall into desuetude, so too do traditional ethics of abstinence; "the main preoccupation of society was with knowing how to enjoy itself." Sin becomes a form of consumption, of refinement. Similarly, sexual roles also become fluid once they are no longer constrained by traditional norms; "the sign of his boyish debauchery, this effeminisation of his whole being… he seemed born and bred for perverted sensual pleasure. Renee enjoyed her domination." Renee assumes the masculine role, Maxime the feminine. The paradox in many Zola novels is that while the central fable of his novels is concerning with condemning the immorality of modern, post-traditional society, the syuzhet draws much of its sensational interest from depicting them. As such, The Kill is loosely based on a moral fable, with Renee being betrayed by Saccard and Maxime. However, Saccard’s indifference to her adultery goes a long way towards aborting that moral framework, with the cash nexus replacing normal social relations.

Hans Christian Anderson’s stories depict a world where, as a character in The Ice Maiden puts it, "antiquated ways are discarded" so that mermaids and telegraph wires co-exist (memorably, the eyes of the ice maiden are described as being like the barrels of a shotgun) and the conventions of folk tales (of the kind described by Vladimir Propp) become contested and dispersed. A tale like The Tinderbox recognisably belongs to the same world as that of the Brothers Grimm; a hero is offered the chance of fame and fortune and is ruthless in his will to power, in contrast to the moral fable of Big Claus and Little Claus or The Ugly Duckling. However, in later stories this is sublimated, either into a thanatophilic concept of virtue being rewarded in the afterlife (as in The Little Mermaid, The Marsh King’s Daughter or The Story of a Mother) or where aspiration and virtue alike are thwarted (as in The Shadow). Contingent upon this is a world that is far less centered around the protagonists, where everything from animals to inanimate objects have become anthropomorphised, as cats and storks become participants and commenters within the narrative. The fate of creatures like The Snowman or The Fir Tree is more suggestive of Kafka’s Metamorphosis than the Brothers Grimm. Equally, if the stories frequently see female sexuality as threatening (particularly with the Ice Maiden or Snow Queen) then they also displace the role of the hero in favour of female characters, like Gerda in The Snow Queen or The Marsh King’s Daughter.

Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor is one of the most interesting dystopian novels I can think of. Whereas the majority of apocalyptic science fiction, from Wyndham to Atwood, revolves around the causal factors (technological, ecological, political, economic etc) for whatever has changed society from its familiar state, Lessing elides this; "for ‘it’ is a force, a power… ‘it’ can be, has been, pestilence, war, the alteration of climate, tyranny." The novel is deliberately dislocated from any specific sense of time or place and instead concentrates on the consequences of social breakdown from feral packs of children to tribal migration. Nonetheless, Lessing undermines the dystopian aspects of the novel in a number of ways. Firstly, dystopian fiction, whether 1984, Day of the Triffids or The Handmaids Tale tends to emphasise individual agency in the face of events. By contrast, Lessing repeatedly stresses that governments are powerless in the face of change while her characters take no actions to change matters. Offered the choice of moving to safer areas in the countryside, they do nothing. Submission is the order of the day (Lessing’s interest in Sufism comes through strongly in how she handles time, viewing all phenomena as manifestations of a single reality, or Wujud i.e. being). She also expresses little sorrow for the loss of ‘the age of affluence,’ implying that the experiments in communalism that emerge represent an improvement on the society that had marginalised people like June Ryan; "all property worries gone; all sexual taboos gone… free, at least from what was left of ‘civilisation’ and its burdens." By repeatedly ‘cutting’ to descriptions of Emily’s childhood, Lessing also appears to characterise the family in Laingian terms as a source of neurosis whose loss is not necessarily to be mourned.

From Zola’s view of the novel as a scientific experiment to Wolfe’s ‘new journalism,’ the novel has attempted to purge itself of all assocations with artifice and imagination, preferring instead to present itself as something objective and factual. If inherent in the idea of realism, it nonetheless represents a problematic conception, if only because if the act of observing something can change a subject, how much more can the act of narrating change it. The most notable example of which being Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a ‘non-fiction novel’ relating the murder of four people on a Kansas farm in 1959. Bearing this in mind, the idea of creating a film depicting the writing of the book is an oddly postmodern one (a representation of a representation), particularly since the sparse and austere cinematography appears to be trying to emulate the novel’s journalistic style.

Wimpole Hall, designed by Sir John Soane and James Gibbs, appears at first a model of neo-classical symmetry and proportion. However, the interior easily belies this, as corridors snake in on themselves leading to dead-ends. His main contribution is a drawing room with a large domed ceiling, not unlike some of his works at Lincoln’s Inn. The main contribution from Gibbs was a Wedgewoodesque book room. The highlight of the interior was a small collection of Gillray prints, mostly lambasting the Prince Regent and the Broad Bottomed Ministry (as well as some more unusual ones with hunting as their target). I was also struck by a Grandfather clock, where a ship rocked on the waves in time with the ticks and tocks.

An interior chapel is painted with a trompe l’oeil effect (something of a theme; there’s also a painted playing table, complete with painted cards). The grounds are home to a small church (with a large wing filled with marble monuments of the house owners) and a set of gothic ruins in the distance. The gardens have been restored to their original formal patterns (reversing Capability Brown’s vandalism), though landscaped pleasure grounds filled with a wide range of trees and shrubs remain (including the national collection of walnuts). The sky was a brilliant shade of turquoise inbetween dark rain clouds, while the flatness of the Cambridgeshire landscape reminded me strongly of a Trent Valley that had never been industrialised.

Perched high above the Thames, Cliveden feels as if it should be a gothic castle. Instead, the Italianate building and formal gardens look as if they should be nestled within the gentle slopes of a valley. I’d forgotten the sheer amount of Roman and Italian sculpture in the grounds, such as the Borghese balustrade with its dragons and eagles as well as more modern conceits like the turtles on one of the fountains. The Wisteria was flowering alongside the Acer in the Chinese water garden (it felt as if cherry blossom should have been correct for the pagoda, but the Wisteria made a more than acceptable substitute). Ducklings splashed about in the waters around the Botticelli fountain. Further along the Thames and one comes to Windsor. The castle here towers well above the Thames (the site was chosen by William the Conqueror on defensive grounds) though the presence of the town nestling beneath it softens the scene somewhat. I find a meadow by the river, go paddling in the water and watch the swans glide by. Rather inevitably, the town itself has a rather kitsch feel to it, largely due to the continuous citing of often rather trivial historical associations; HG Wells working as a draper or Nell Gwyn and Shakespeare staying in local taverns. You do have to go back quite a long way before anything actually happened at Windsor. Even much of the castle has a rather Ruritanian feel to it, presumably due to the changes made by George the Fourth. The castle has been redesigned and redesigned so often that its medieval appearance is illusory and hyperreal. The town does at least have a more concrete feel to it, with a Guildhall designed by Wren and the nearby church St John the Baptist, home to an anonymous Renaissance painting of the last supper and beautiful altar mosaics and corbels, designed by the same artist that worked on Westminster Abbey.

Further down the Thames again and one comes to Richmond. When the likes of Hampton Court and Ham House were built here, courtiers would sail to the city on barges establishing its role as a rural suburb early on. Ham House was originally designed in the Jacobean period and much like its rival at Hampton was extended during the restoration. The house reached its apotheosis at this point, described by Evelyn as comparable to the finest villas in Italy and furnished like a palace. Nonetheless, its owner fell from favour at court, penury beckoned and the house was left to stagnate for centuries. Visiting in 1770, Walpole described it as dreary, ancient and decayed, a place barricaded away from the rest of the world and liable to defeat even his passion for the antique. Today, the house seems rather less formidable, in spite of the busts of Roman Emperors filling niche after niche in the redbrick walls at the front of the house. Nonetheless, the house looks out from a long avenue towards the Thames, as parakeets fly overhead. The restored gardens provide a glimpse of what Evelyn meant, with a wilderness area populated by statues of Hermes, hornbeam hedges and secluded gardens, formal gardens planted with lavender and box and overlooked by Bacchus and kitchen gardens (there is also a still chamber for the preparation of perfumes, conserves and cordials). One room contained detailed plans for rebuilding Inigo Jones’ Westminster Palace, the subject of much speculation in Defoe’s Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain and a good example of the many unfulfilled projects of what London could have been.

Like Hampton, the planting of myrtle, lemon, oleander and almond trees is of the period (tulips and pineapples are incorprated into statues and gates throughout the gardens). Conversely, the interior tends to illustrate the decayed grandeur of the place. A great hall hung with paintings by Lely and Kneller leads to a grand staircase, with an elaborate wooden balustrade. The North Drawing Room above is hung with Flemish tapestries (still retaining much of their original colour; a later room has Spitalfields tapestries copying Watteau designs), white marble chimneypieces and ionic columns and ivory cabinets. This leads to a long gallery, where dark black wood is gilded with gold, and Van Dyck paintings of the Royal family line the walls. A strange self-portrait hangs above the door, showing him with a sunflower, symbolic of art and nature, sovereign and subject. Marquetry and Japanned furniture, often with blue and white Kangxi porcelain line the walls. A closet leads to a collection of miniatures of subjects like Elizabeth, Lucretia’s suicide and a love in flames (he who does not burn will die). Finally, an elaborate four-poster bed forms the centrepiece of the Queen’s bedchamber, decorated with Van De Velde paintings.

Lacock in Wiltshire was once the home of an abbey that offered a home to the unmarried daughters of wealthy families, and to a village that grew wealthy through the wool trade. The Abbey was dissolved in the reformation while the nineteenth century cotton imports had a similar effect on the village. The combination of these factors with the relative isolation of Lacock led to them becoming a form of time capsule. The village remains full of half-timbered buildings, while the church of St Cyriac still houses a Lady Chapel where paint remains on the ceiling alongside especially elaborate gargoyle carvings. The church has a window above the chancel arch, indicative of the customary ‘wool gothic’ style of Cotswolds churches. The walls are still whitewashed, presumably indicative of no Victorian changes. The exterior of the church is equally elaborate, while the size of the tombs testifies to the wealth of the community. The abbey has rather less of a sense of continuity with that period, save for its cloisters. After the reformation, it was converted into a country house and an octagonal tower added to the side. The interior is dominated by a circular table, supported by three satyrs, while much of the house is dominated by images of the scorpion from that owner’s crest. Later owners provided good examples of early gothic revival. The great hall comes with a barreled ceiling studded with crests, a rose window and wall niches filled with extraordinary terracotta figures representing death and the scapegoat. Later owners experimented with camera inventions and translation of cuneiform and populated the house with the likes of geological specimens and stuffed pangolins. The grounds are more classical, ranging from a stone sphinx to a botanical garden.

Nearby lies Great Chalfield house, a fifteenth century manor house complete with a moat. The church of All saints lies within the moat and includes a beautiful painted pre-raphaelite organ and wooden rood screens. Swallows nesting in the rafters looked down curiously on the visitors. The grounds bear witness of plants overspilling the paths and forcing their way through the cracks between the lichen covered paving stones (looking rather like Mariana’s moated grange), a welcome correction to the meticulous restoration of the house itself. The great hall on the interior is much as one would expect, save for mask-like faces looking down from the galleries with empty eye-sockets (designed for the lord to spy on servants). Red paint remains on the rafters of the hall, while perhaps the most impressive aspect of the rest of the house are the oriel windows.

Having been to Highgate Cemetery earlier this year, I returned to London today for more of the Victorian way of death. The ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries represent a form of ritual, as much as photographs, death masks and portraits of the recently deceased produced by the Victorians, as well as jewellery that utilized a locket of the dead person’s hair, extravagant funerals and the wearing of black crepe. After a stroll round the Kyoto gardens in Holland Park, were I watched the peacocks lazily strut about and a wagtail flit from one stone pagoda to another, I began at Brompton Cemetery. More like a landscaped garden than Highgate, ferns have nonetheless grown thickly across much of the grounds while squirrels scamper across the tombstones. The layout is also more formal than Highgate (based on the structure of a cathedral), with a central avenue leading to a chapel modelled on St Peter’s Basilica, which is flanked by long colonnades. The tombs are also more impressive than the majority of those in Highgate, with Neo-classical, Gothic and Egyptian mausoleums lining the central avenue. The most impressive tomb is that of James McDonald (Chairman of Anglo-American Oil), a gothic affair complete with Pre-Raphaelite angels and stained glass windows. Conversely, the names of the dead are rather less noteworthy than either Highgate or Kensal Green; Emmeline Pankhurst being the most well known. The cemetery is also a rather blatantly obvious cruising ground; albeit by coincidence rather than by design, there’s something rather reassuring (and oddly apposite) about desire persisting in the midst of death.

I then travelled north to visit Kensal Green, the first of the Victorian ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries to be constructed and perhaps the most impressive. While the trees were still leafless when I went to Highgate, Kensal had a perversely bucolic aspect in the sunshine with buttercups and daisies flowering while a Green Woodpecker perched on top of one of the graves. Kensal Green would certainly have been rural when it was built, but today the cemetery is dominated by the rusting skeletons of two gasometers and the louring presence of Erno Goldfinger’s brutalist Trellick Tower. Kensal is by no means as formally laid out as Brompton, though it does have a set of Greek Revival Chapels (complete with catacombs and hydraulic catafalque) and a central avenue. The tombs along this are especially striking. On one side is the tomb of William Casement (four male statues supporting a stone canopy, in the manner of the Erechtheum), Andrew Ducrow (an Egyptian tomb decorated with scarabs and guarded by two sphinxes), Edmund Molyneux (Italian Gothic in red Peterhead granite) and Henry Edward Kendall (a Gothic cross decorated with Minton tiling). On the other side is Mary Gibson (a Corinthian canopy surmounted by four Pre-Raphaelite angels reaching towards the sky), and the quack doctor John St John Lang (a classical statue standing within a circular canopy) who died of the affliction his medicine purported to cure and William Mulready (a gothic statue lying in state in a classical canopy).

Kensal also has the advantage of the reputations of those interred there, from many writers and artists (Thackerary, Hood, Collins, Trollope, Waterhouse and Grossmith), engineers and scientists (Brunel and Babbage), disgraced royals and fascinating figures like Dr James Barry (a successful army doctor and duellist who was only unmasked as a woman after her death) and the Duke of Portland (an eccentric recluse who had built underground ballrooms and mazes under his estate, and was claimed to have faked his death as part of the Druce affair).

Beginning with Shadwell and Hawksmoor’s church of St George in the East before travelling to Limehouse and St Anne’s church. I’m always stuck by Hawksmoor’s buildings; they make few concessions to architectural tradition and often feel as if they should be stage scenery; viewed from the front they are striking and impressive while viewed from the side they seem two-dimensional. St Anne’s also happens to have an unexplained pyramid in its graveyard (drawings in the British Library suggest Hawksmoor may have planned pyramids on the turrets, while Christ Church in Spitalfields does rather resemble a pyramid from the front), possibly a Masonic reference. Walking around these areas, it was difficult not to be struck by how they are changing. High property prices elsewhere in London seem to be driving new property development, with cranes and tall blocks of luxury flats leaping up all around. This gentrification sits alongside the still all too visible poverty of East London and makes for an uncomfortable contrast. Walking back to the Limehouse station, I passed an old public library with a statue of Clement Atlee (Limehouse was his constituency). The architect of the welfare state was decaying badly and was missing his hand; a fitting comment on what was happening around him.

Travelling back into the centre of London took me to another Hawksmoor church, St Mary Woolnoth, a bizarre structure that barely looks like a church at all, lacking as it does a tower or a spire. I then walked around some of the other buildings in the area, like Wren’s gothic church of St Mary Aldermary and his more baroque St Stephen Walbrook, before changing location again to the other side of the Thames and Lambeth. The gates of Lambeth Palace adjoin onto the former church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, now home to the Museum of Garden History. The sight of a Victorian graveyard, filled with the typically ornate Victorian funerary monuments and planted with sisal, poppies, roses, foxgloves and acanthus, was an odd indeed.

Passing by, I returned to north of the Thames, returning back to the city and The Museum of London. The first exhibition here was dedicated to Pre-Roman settlements in what was to become London. I was struck by the note that since the Thames is notoriously prone to flooding, entire sections of land could suddenly be left underwater. An excerpt from Pepys’ diary captures this well; "digging his late Docke, he did 12-foot under ground find perfect trees over-Covered with earth, nut-trees, with the branches and the very nuts upon them, some of whose nuts he showed us, their shells black with age and their Kernell, upon opening decayed; but their shell perfectly hard as ever. And an Ewe-tree he showed us (upon which he says the very Ivy was taken up whole about it), which upon cutting with an adze, we found to be rather harder than the living tree usually is." Manmade objects seem to have survived well too, with the Walbrook having developed as a religious site, with votive offerings thrown into it to appease the gods (I was struck by a panel paralleling this to Bedivere throwing Excalbir back into the lake); a practice that seems to have continued well into the Roman period. This section showed a number of such offerings, typically carved from evergreen woods.

The Roman section was mainly noteworthy for displaying the statues from the Mithraeum found near St Paul’s. As one would expect, several depictions of Mithras and the demon dull abound, along with statues of Minerva and Egyptian deities (apparently the Eastern cults proved more popular in this part of the Empire than the Roman ones). This also included the recently discovered sarcophagus from Spitalfields, decorated with shells throughout. The rest of the exhibition seemed somewhat lacklustre, though I was rather taken by a Victorian automaton called ‘Psycho,’ who was able to play cards and perform mathematical calculations. Due to the removal of internal workings (or hidden actors, depending on the extent of one’s cynicism) the explanation for these feats has been lost.

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