by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

Penny Dreadfuls

Posted 16 September 2009 in by Catriona

Yesterday, I found in the letterbox the most recent catalogue of penny dreadfuls from Jarndyce, the antiquarian booksellers who specialise in eighteenth- and, especially, nineteenth-century books.

I bought a copy of Bow Bells Novelettes from Jarndyce some years ago, which is why they offered me a copy of this catalogue.

Seductive as it is, I doubt I’ll be able to buy anything from this catalogue (not even—sigh—the copy of Eliza Winstanley’s “Entrances and Exits” that they’re offering), but I do so love Jarndyce catalogues.

Look how beautiful this one is:

And it’s full of enticing illustrations from the penny dreadfuls themselves. Agnes Repplier, an American writer, wrote (in the late nineteenth century) an essay on English railway fiction (available here from Google books) in which she argued that “the seductive titles and cuts which form the tour de force of penny fiction bear but a feeble affinity to the tales themselves, which are like vials of skimmed milk, labelled absinthe, but warranted to be wholly without flavour” (211).

I don’t know about the absence of flavour, but I know the illustrations are fabulous.

Look at this cover for “The Boy Detective; or, The Crimes of London”:

From this, it appears as though most of the crimes are committed by the boy detective himself. Still, at least he provided himself with an appreciative audience.

And, on another note, how can he even see that a crime is being committed in that room, from the angle he’s standing on?

Or what about “Risen from the Dead”?

The actual caption for this one is “‘Great Heaven! Where am I?” exclaimed the supposed dead man,” but I prefer to imagine that the caption reads, “This is a pretty complicated way of getting out of telling your wife about us.”

Then again, I have too much time on my hands.

This one doesn’t have a caption, but I’m sure we can write our own.

My current choice is “Had she been capable of experiencing any emotions at all, Sivestra would have congratulated herself on having the foresight to bring her embroidery scissors to the planned seduction.”

Duchess Novelette is quite a late addition to the realm of Victorian periodicals: it ran from 1894 to 1902. (Indeed, the novelettes were generally quite late: there’s a fascinating 2008 article from Kate Macdonald and Marysa DeMoor on the production of novelettes and supplements from Publishing History, which you can find here. That’s a PDF file, but it should open in your browser.)

Its lateness in the period explains the relative sophistication of the cover image:

Nothing, however, can explain the fact that rather than “A Wild Love,” it should probably be titled “That’s Definitely Going to Give You a Crick in the Neck, You Know.”

Also, considering the heroine—at least, I’m assuming that’s the heroine—is dead here, the hero’s expression should probably verge more on “horrified” than on “slightly bewildered.”

Speaking of sophisticated images, this one is obviously from an earlier publication. It’s labelled “The Death Struggle”:

I would have labelled it “Slightly After the Main Struggle But a Disturbingly Long Time Before the Actual Deaths.”

This one’s my favourite, so far:

This caption reads, “Kairon stooped down and imprinted a kiss on the half-parted lips of the statue, and, as he did so, distinctly felt them move!”

Um, Kairon? Unless you thought there were a reasonable chance that the statue would come to life, why were you snogging it in the first place? And who makes a statue with “half-parted lips”? I’m thinking Pygmalion has been convinced to go into mass production.

And trust me: there’s a rational explanation for this last one.

Well, semi-rational.

Spring-heeled Jack was a specifically Victorian urban legend, and popular subject for the penny-dreadful market. Sadly, he hasn’t proved as durable as Sweeney Todd or Jack the Ripper, but he certainly had his own degree of fame.

I’m assuming that what appear to be whiskers are the blue-and-white flames he was said to vomit.

And I’m rather annoyed that, having already prepared a joke about why he might be wearing a unitard, I find, apparently, a tight-fitting oilskin is all part of the mythos.

He might have had more consideration for the needy bloggers of the future.

Well, I Wouldn't Say Literature Is Dead, Exactly . . .

Posted 6 September 2009 in by Catriona

But, yes, I am as disturbed as the next person by the news I found over on Topless Robot: that HarperCollins is bringing out a new edition of Wuthering Heights—with a cover based around the cover art for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and a tag claiming that this is “Bella and Edward’s favourite book.”

That’s fine: you weep a little if you want. Or faint. Or giggle.

I’ll be here when you get back.

No, this is not a mock-up: here, have a look at the HarperCollins website, where you can pre-order this for only U.S.$8.99.

Now, I do have a problem with this and, oddly, it’s not the same as Topless Robot’s problem: I’m actually deeply fond of Wuthering Heights, as a good little nineteenth-century scholar should be.

It’s such a nasty book, you just have to enjoy it.

(Thought I do admit to bewilderment that people find Heathcliff sexy. Mr Rochester? Oh, my: yes. But Heathcliff? Not working for me, I have to say.)

And, as I’ve admitted here, I enjoyed the Twilight series—at least until Edward started really creeping me out in book three (why, yes: I am a little slow), and until I read book four.

But I have to ask: in what way is this Edward and Bella’s favourite book? If I recall correctly, Bella says it’s one of her favourites, but Edward says he can’t abide it, until he’s stuck with nothing to read while Bella talks in her sleep all night, and then he finds one of Heathcliff’s more psychotic passages about wanting to rend Edgar Linton limb from limb, and suddenly warms to the book.

Not what I would call the most common reason for enjoying Emily Bronte’s only novel.

In the long run, is this actually going to kill literature? I wouldn’t have thought so.

Is it going to make more people read Wuthering Heights? Well, it might make more people buy the novel, and I don’t suppose that the publisher cares whether the purchasers actually read it: it’s not as though Emily’s going to be writing a sequel any time soon.

So this doesn’t mark the death of literature, for me.

But it is deeply, deeply silly.

Still, there’s always amusement value in the tagline, which you can see better in the full-size image.

“Love Never Dies”?

That depends on your definition of “die,” doesn’t it?

And also of “love.”

The Great Spare-Room Book-Moving Debacle

Posted 6 September 2009 in by Catriona

If you were following my Magical Mystery Bookshelf Tour last year, you’ll recall that the spare room was the point where I just stopped apologising for the appalling conditions in which I force my books to live.

In fact, it took me five separate posts before I finished that stage of the tour.

So it’s not really surprising that I decided the spare room needed an overhaul and a new bookshelf.

But despite careful measuring, the bookshelf I bought was slightly too big for the only available space, wasn’t it?

Of course it was.

So the overhaul turned out to be more extensive than planned. Every single item of furniture was moved in this room, and every single book taken off the shelves.

Still, the room looks much better.

In fact, if you were to stand in the direct centre of my spare room—well, you’d be standing on a patchwork quilt that my sister made me by hand, and I’d probably ask you not to do that.

Still, setting that aside for the time being, if you were to stand in the direct centre of my spare room and look from left to right, you’d see it looks like this now:

And, yes: that is an almost empty shelf there. Clearly, there are more than enough books still on the other shelves to fill that one up. But it gives me such a luxurious feeling of space, to have one shelf in the house that isn’t stuffed to capacity.

So empty it stays.

Until the next Lifeline Bookfest, anyway.

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