Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Literature of the 1900s by Jonathan Wild

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Review of Jonathan Wild, Literature of the 1900s: The Great Edwardian Emporium (Edinburgh University Press, 224 pp., £75)

Shopping, like much else, became recognisably modern in the first decade of the twentieth century. One of its principal modernisers was the American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge, the ‘Earl of Oxford Street’, whose flagship London store, opened in 1909, aimed to turn shopping from a necessity into a leisure activity. Selfridge’s offered immersive and material pleasures: its departments were arranged over many floors; its spaces were designed particularly to appeal to women; customers could see and handle the wares, assisted by 1,400 well-trained staff.

Jonathan Wild’s impressive Literature of the 1900s, volume one in The Edinburgh History of Twentieth-Century Literature in Britain, takes the department store as a metaphor for the decade’s literary field. The book’s chapters are figured as a store’s departments – departments for war and external affairs, administration, children, decadence, and internal affairs. The conceit is more than a clever way to organise his wide-ranging and potentially disparate material: it focuses the reader on the consumption of literature, which is his book’s central theme. Wild argues, convincingly, that readers and reading changed on or around January 1900, as literature, and fiction in particular, became Britain’s major leisure activity, and readers, or consumers, demanded more literature, and more kinds of literature.

Writers and writing changed too, in response to consumer demand but also reflecting the profound social changes of the last decades of the nineteenth century. Continue reading

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Review: Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exhibition

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James A. Ganz, ed, Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2015, ISBN 978-0-520-28718-1, 400pp.

In 1915, San Francisco held a world’s fair to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition declared the joining of Atlantic and Pacific and pointed to a new American civilization that looked both East and West and played a central role in an increasingly global culture. The apotheosis of the ‘White City’ type of American world’s fair, it was more colorful than its 1892 Chicago inspiration and soaked in the warm sunlight and mysterious mists of San Francisco’s Mediterranean climate. The fair’s campus was a series of large classical courtyards designed by America’s most prominent architects including McKim, Mead, and White, architects of Columbia University; Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial; Carrere & Hastings, architect of the New York Public Library; Bernard Maybeck, patriarch of the Bay Area’s Arts and Crafts designers; and Arthur Brown, Jr, architect of San Francisco’s shining new Beaux-Arts Civic Center. The Fair’s central tower was set with thousands of glass jewels so that it shimmered in the sun; fountains splashed in courtyards filled with lush planting; the color palette that unified the buildings was designed by leading color theorist, Jules Guérin and illuminated by colored spotlights at night. This was American utopian design at its best Continue reading

Review: Theodore Wratislaw – Fragments of a Life

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D. J. Sheppard, Theodore Wratislaw: Fragments of a Life (The Rivendale Press, 2017)

Was there ever a more 1890s-sounding character than Theodore Wratislaw? His surname sounds like a Beardsley drawing: the craggy ‘wrati’ leading into the sinuous ‘slaw’. If that isn’t enough, his middle name ‘Graf’ hints at possible connections to the Bohemian nobility: a useful foil for a poet whose birthplace was the town of Rugby in Warwickshire. To those who haven’t read their copies of The Yellow Book or The Savoy too closely, Theodore Wratislaw seems invented – qualities that clearly endeared him to Max Beerbohm, whose famous fictional 1890s hero ‘Enoch Soames’ contained at least a ‘dash’ of Wratislaw.

Theodore Wratislaw (1871-1933) was, however, not only very real, but – as D. J. Sheppard’s excellent new biography reveals – shared Beerbohm’s fate of living the vast majority of his life outside of the decade in which he achieved passing notoriety. The question of what happened to the main players of the 1890s in the 1900s and beyond has always been a fascinating one. Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson and Johnson were all dead by 1902, leaving the survivors of the decade to either trade in nostalgia for the rest of their lives (as Beerbohm did, to some extent), or try to forge a new identity for the coming century Continue reading

Review: Fin de siècle essays on the photographic nude

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James Downs (ed.), A Carnal Medium: fin-de-siècle essays on the photographic nude. Portsmouth: Callum James Books, 2012.

A Carnal Medium. Fin de siècle essays on the photographic nude is a collection of ten articles originally published in three journals during the period 1893-1898. These articles were addressed to a specialist (though not necessarily professional) readership rather than a general one, but then – as now – there was a large crossover between amateur and professional in photography. The writers could therefore assume a degree of knowledge of techniques and processes on the part of the readership which is not generally held in the digital age of the twenty-first century.

The articles all address the problems – both practical and ethical – presented by photographing the nude figure, but taken together they also generate a discussion on the role of the nude in photography and on the relationship of photography to painting. While this is mainly general, it also includes one photographer’s replies to specific points raised in an article by a fellow photographer to create an interesting public dialogue. Continue reading

Review: Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence

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Review: Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence by Allan Johnson. (Palgrave 2014)

In Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence, Allan Johnson considers the visual influences of Alan Hollinghurst’s novels. Specifically, he asserts that the predominant textual and visual aspects of Hollinghurst’s oeuvre are “the sequences of writing which most successfully portray and vitalize the visual images of the aesthetic past”.

Alan Hollinghurst is a Booker Prize winning contemporary British writer who has been publishing since the eighties. Together, his five novels portray male homosexual identity from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods through to the present day. Johnson’s book posits that this homosexual literary and cultural history acts as a vital influence for Hollinghurst’s books, placing them within the distinct visual aesthetic tradition of “modern gay writing”, and imbuing them with a culturally-specific potency unique to this heritage. Fundamentally, his book aims to identify several specific images within this aesthetic tradition, while also exposing and explaining their innate, “positive” vitality as they influence generations of modern homosexual British literature, and ultimately Hollinghurst himself.

Johnson’s central argument is that certain images resonate throughout generations of literature. He claims this is because particular textures, shades and tones are especially potent or suggestive to readers, and subsequently that distinct visual sequences reappear within a specific discourse, such as “modern gay writing”. Such a thesis appears nowhere more apparent than in a consideration of the Edwardian period. Continue reading

Review: The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel

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Review of Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg, The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel (Farnham: Ashgate 2015)

Writing in the June 1920 issue of The Sackbut, Alvin Langdon Coburn claimed:

There are some who are born with an appreciation of music but whose tender years have not been made unbearable by musical drudgery. Hours of ‘five-finger exercises’ with the thoughts on the playground, and lessons from an uncongenial teacher, never did a child any good and never will. All art-expression should come as a pleasure, a welling-up of an inner joy. Without this, art is dead, a stale and tasteless thing, and […] some have this innate musical instinct slumbering and dormant in their natures, unable to find a way of expressing itself, and to such the pianola comes as a positive exultation![1]

Coburn’s observations foreground several issues that are at the heart of Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg’s The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel (2015): the quandary faced by those unable, or who have never had the opportunity to learn, to play the piano, but who deeply appreciate and wish to perform the music written for it (and, via piano reductions, for the orchestra); the tension between admiring music ‘naturally’ and respecting it professionally; and the anxieties generated by a mechanically made art, be it through technology or through the prestidigitation of a well-trained human being. Continue reading

Review: G.K.Chesterton, London and Modernity

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Matthew Beaumont and Matthew Ingleby, eds. G.K. Chesterton, London and Modernity, London: Bloomsbury 2013 [ISBN:9781780937069]

This lively and varied collection of essays on G. K. Chesterton’s complicated relationship with modernity, and his intricate rendering of London in his writing, does more than offer a corrective to the previous dearth of critical work on Chesterton’s attitudes to the modern city. Through careful examination of Chesterton’s contradictory opinions and light-hearted prose, a broader view emerges of what “modernism”, and indeed London, meant to the Edwardians. Chesterton is an enigmatic writer whose elastic prose is characterised by an unlikely combination of paradox, punning and moments of profound insight; as Lynne Hapgood comments early on in the collection, “Even Chesterton’s stylistic flamboyance in this novel, veering between the absurdist, the heroic and a kind of anticipatory surrealism, was par for the course in an Edwardian period when the novel was charactertized by its sheer generic diversity.”[1] His writings helped to curb the pessimistic strain of “high” cultural responses to urban life in the re-creation of a comic London, offering an alternative to the gritty city slums and intensely private spaces portrayed in many naturalist modern urban writing. Yet, as several of the essays attest, jest is often a conduit for unexpected wisdom or sharp political comment. Continue reading