Saturday, 29 October 2011

Down and Out in New York: the fact and fiction of Stephen Crane 1893-4

 Better known for his war stories, Stephen Crane (1871-1900) also wrote powerfully about the experiences of New York’s poorest citizens. His early short stories resonate with the sorrows of humanity, of dark figures huddled up on cellar stairs, on cold park benches and down filthy alleyways. His chosen locations reflect an urban brutality, the harshness of poverty and the futility of individual attempts to exercise free will. Many of his characters display a mute incomprehension at their misfortune or marginalisation, as the march of progress leaves them behind. They are anonymous and abandoned, too down-trodden to exercise any form of solidarity or resistance.

Crane had first-hand experience of the New York slums. Whilst visiting the city in 1891-2, he slept in the cheapest Bowery shelters and observed the dehumanising struggle for survival on the streets. In a 1909 study, social commentator Ignatz Nascher described the cheapest accommodation available to the destitute, from the ten cents per night dormitories where men slept on wooden planks, one row above the other, softened by straw; to the five cents “stalls” divided off a corridor, or suspended bunk-like strips of canvas. Worst of all were the flophouses at the rear of tenements, or the Municipal Lodging houses, where the poorest had to strip and hand over their clothing before being allocated a bed in a crowded room. Their garments were returned damp, crumpled and “disinfected” in the morning. Nascher found people asleep in the public toilets and the photographs of his contemporary, Jacob Riis, expose the regular use of corners, cellars, bridges, police cells, corridors, parks and saloon floors as places of rest. By Riis’ calculation, in 1890, more than half New York’s lodging houses were in the Bowery, sheltering three quarters of the homeless. These rapidly became breeding grounds “for more beggary and crime” where young men in “nine cases out of ten …turn out a thief, or a burglar…if not…a murderer.”

"Happy Jack's Canvas Palace-" a cheap doss house photographed by Jacob Riis 1890s

Central New York at the time was a city of paradoxes: in the Jamesian brownstone mansions of Fifth Avenue and north to Central Park, the rich lived in privilege only a few blocks away from the crippling poverty of the immigrant tenements. One of Crane’s protagonists catches a glimpse of prosperous New York society, which puts his life firmly into context. Contrasting his “old garments” with those of well-dressed passers-by, he identifies the “infinite distance” between them and the impossibility of attaining the “unconquerable kingdoms” of “social comfort” and “the pleasures of living;” neither can he understand their “confusion of strange tongues.”

The 1900 census listed nearly three and a half million people living in the Manhattan district, in an era when the city was approaching the “apogee of its self-confidence,” a vibrant cultural mix enhanced by expansion outwards and upwards. Between 1880 and 1920, two million Jews from Russia, Poland, Austria-Hungary and the Balkans established their own ghettoes in the tenements on the lower East side. These slums were among the poorest districts in the city, unhealthy, overcrowded and unsafe, although efforts were being made to bring the plight of their inhabitants to public attention: legislation in 1879, 1887 and 1895 had attempted to improve standards but the ever increasing population, coupled with inflation and low wages meant more and more people were crammed into unsanitary conditions. Manhattan’s 42,000 tenement blocks listed in 1900, housed over a million and a half people. Yet even below this, there existed an underclass, a huge mass of disenfranchised men and women, eking out an existence on the streets.
                A crowded Lower East Side tenement, home to immigrant workers 1890s

 Two of Crane’s stories of 1894; “An Experiment in Misery” and “The Men in the Storm;” transform his experiences into hellish metaphors where the city and even the weather are enemies of the dispossessed. Their lowly status makes them a target for the malice of wind and rain, one among the dumb, oppressed animals, flowing like “rivers” of “aimless men like chickens in a storm.” The elevated railway squats over the street like a pre-Kafkaesque “monstrous kind of crab” and the protagonist is “swallowed” by a saloon. In some ways, the city itself seems equally, if not more alive than the anonymous crowds, in a relationship of mutual harm.

 The men in the storm, in the story of the same title, huddle in a homogenous mass in the rain while they await the opening of a shelter. The snow is a malignant force, as if the crowd’s lowly status makes it a justifiable target; it “seeks out men’s meagre hiding places,” and “skilfully beats in among them,” making their faces “tingle and burn” as if attacked by “a thousand needle-prickings.” In the belief that they deserve their fate, the men are “silent” and “impassive” in the blizzard, like “statues of patience” or the animalistic “sheep in a winter’s gale,” protected by each others’ bodies. They are spectators, marginalised by the city, blaming themselves, although Crane is clear that their failure lies outside themselves; they cannot “perceive where they had failed, what they lacked to be thus vanquished in the race;” a race that is markedly contrasting with their current statue-like patience. Until the shelter opens, these men are literally and metaphorically going nowhere.

                                      "Night in Gotham Court," 1894, Riis.

In his 1893 novella “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” Crane presents a young woman whose frail charms were destroyed by forces beyond her control. Maggie had many real life precedents but Crane many have drawn upon two specific girls whose stories had become urban legend. In the 1850s, Missionary workers in the Five Points district encountered Maggie Carson, disfigured by smallpox and the “sweet,” “lady-like,” “flaxen haired” Maggie Ryan, both of whom were taken off the streets and found “positions” with “good” families. Their tales were blended by the New York Tribune into that of “wild Maggie,” to underline the effects of environment upon the development of character, a theme picked up by other philanthropic writers of the time.

Cruel treatment causes Crane’s young Maggie; “a small ragged girl;” to retreat; her “side glances” betray a “fear of interruption” while she eats like a “pursued tigress,” her features “haggard from weeping,” her eyes “gleaming with fear.” Her tenement home is a hellish vision: a “dark region” of a “careening” building containing “gruesome doorways.” Odours of cooking assault the senses and overcrowding contributes to the sense of a constant audience and precarious existence: the building “quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.”
Sexual temptation proves to be her downfall.  The cheap Bowery beer hall and theatre create the illusion of splendour and a fictional ideal of values. She is seduced by a cheap simulacra of Parisian culture: an orchestra of women in yellow silk, boys in “costumes of French chefs,” chandeliers and “fancy cakes,” losing herself in calculation of the “cost of the silks and laces.” Her seduction is easily accomplished, followed by her descent into prostitution and death. Maggie’s suicide is associated with the “gloomy” darkness of the river. The reader’s last glimpse of her is gliding Ophelia-like among “wet wanderers in attitudes of chronic dejection,” towards “tall black factories” lit only by the occasional beam of light. Prostitution has cast her into the lowest echelons of society, among men with “blotched features,” “shifting bloodshot eyes and grimy hands.”
                                           "A Little Mother" c1890, Riis 

Grim as these details are, Crane’s intention was to provoke social change. In contrast with the jolly rags-to-riches tales by uplifting authors like Horatio Alger, he did not shy away from delving into the lowest depths of the city to explore exactly how terrible life had become for those on the margins of society. The “ghoulishness” some of his privileged readers accused him of, was actually bravery. The timelessness of his world-wearied, neglected characters serves as an unpleasant reminder of the inequalities of today’s society. Modern parallels of his stories can be found living in equally appalling conditions on the streets of our cities.

Crane’s life was regrettably short. He produced the novel which made his name, “The Red Badge of Courage” at the age of twenty four and succumbed to tuberculosis four years later. In that short space of time, he worked as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American conflict and lived with a brothel-keeper in Sussex, befriending Conrad and H.G.Wells. He worked feverishly, was frequently ill and poverty-stricken. His death at the age of twenty-eight curtailed the flowering of a major literary genius and potential social reformer.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Victorian Girls on the Loose in Paris.

An Adventure in the art capital of Europe.

                                         A class at the Ecole des Beaux Arts

The significance of artistic Paris in the last decade of the nineteenth century is difficult to overestimate. Writers and painters flocked there from all over Europe in search of greater freedom and opportunity; the launch of the Salon de Refusés and proliferation of dealers and smaller galleries offered a tantalising glimpse of avant-garde success unthinkable at home.

The 1880s and 90s had seen the star of Impressionism eclipsed by the likes of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne; new techniques were being explored by Symbolists, Synthetists, Primitivists and Expressionists. Anything seemed possible in artistic terms. The exciting experiments of the Fauves and Cubists lay in the future. Others were drawn by depictions of Bohemian life by popular authors such as George Du Maurier, Eugene Sue and Emile Zola as well as the comparatively low prices of studios, alcohol and café meals. This was the absinthe era. A spell in one of the Parisian art schools was seen as the way to develop skills in paint and colour and learn from the masters long before Roger Fry’s 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition at the Grafton Galleries brought them to the attention of a broader section of English society.

 The lure of fin-de-siecle Paris for young English women, was that of employment, love and artistic experience in a city where they could escape the strictures of the parental home. Three such girls who went off in search of adventure were recent Slade school graduates, Ida Nettleship, Gwen John and Gwen Salmond. Yet in 1898, they were the lucky ones. While Ida’s parents were supportive of her artistic endeavours and Gwen Salmond’s financial support eased the passage for them all, Gwen John had to fight to join her friends, falling out with her father in the process. Many women with Parisian ambitions met with initial resistance as their Victorian parents saw the trip as little more than an opportunity to misbehave. Kathleen Bruce, a sculptor who visited the city in 1901, wrote “…to say that a lass perhaps not out of her teens had gone prancing off to Paris to study art was to say that she had gone irretrievably to hell” and the undeniable freedoms encouraged by the relaxed atmosphere of late café hours was equally as attractive as the opportunity to study at one of the academies. There were understandable fears that the great masters might corrupt their students, leading at best to heartbreak in the case of Gwen John and Auguste Rodin; and at the worst, ruin.

                      Female arts students drawing from life at the Slade, London

First, they took rooms in a cheap hotel while they searched for lodgings but quickly moved on to rooms on the outskirts of the Latin Quarter at 226 Boulevard Raspail, which Ida wrote to reassure her mother was “a very old lady style of pension…looking down on a boulevard with rather brown rustling plane trees and cafes” on the “delightful” side of the river. However, they then found what they were looking for on the fifth floor of 12 rue Froidvaux; a wide leafy avenue in the cheaper Montparnasse district, which they mis-spelt as Froidveau and mis-translated as “cold beef”. The ground floor was a café but a separate side door gave them a degree of privacy and quiet, the balcony with “good views” overlooked the cemetery and the toilet was of the old variety, which required water being thrown down it. The elderly female concierge was “very high in character” and strict about visitors; “les dames, oui, mais les monsieurs? Non ! Jamais,” information which Ida was keen to pass on again to her mother: “all this is rather amusing but it will show you it is a respectable place.” It cost 900 francs, but Ida worked out their combined finances, planned for basic living expenses and decided they could afford it for three months. What finally swung them in its favour was its proximity to the Louvre and Julian’s Academy.

Their studio was basic and had clearly seen better days but the girls had great plans; “half the wall is covered with brown paper, and when we have spare time and energy we are going to cover the other half,” Ida wrote, but spare time was lacking amid their busy schedule of gallery visits, sketches and exploring the narrow streets for shops selling art supplies. They ate at an anarchists’ restaurant, from which some of the waitresses became their models; at breakfast they read Shakespeare’s history plays and out in the street, kept an eye on Parisian fashions; evenings often became dressmaking sessions, based on what they had seen in the department stores. Gwen John produced an “Interior with Figures” which shows Ida in an historically-inspired creations, wrapped in a heavy pink shawl and full, ruffled skirt. When her father Edwin John visited, he took exception to a dress of Gwen’s, modelled on a picture by Manet, which he claimed made her look like a prostitute.

Gwen John's Interior with figures, showing Ida in the pink dress

Next, they had to enrol in an art school. The nearby Julian’s run by Benjamin Constant, was the girls’ first choice but it was very expensive and with thirty pounds remaining in her budget for fees, Ida considered the cheaper Académies Colarossi or Delécluse. However, she soon heard of the new Académie Carmen, which had opened up near the Luxembourg gardens at 6, passage Stanislas. It was run by Carmen Rossi, a model of Whistler, who would be undertaking some of the teaching: originally Rossi charged the female students twice the amount as the men, but Whistler soon discovered this and put a stop to it. At first, only Gwen Salmond with her sixty pounds for fees, could afford to enrol but she generously paid for Gwen John to attend as an afternoon student, while Ida enrolled under Laurent at Colarossi’s. Writing a pamphlet on the lure of the city in 1902, Clive Holland reflected the popularity of their choices; “a year or two at Julian’s, the Beaux-Arts or Colarossi’s is worth a cycle of South Kensington with its ‘correctness;’" by 1900, one in three students of the Beaux-Arts was a foreigner.

Perhaps the artistic highlight of the girls’ Paris sojourn was their contact with Whistler. He was coming to the end of a distinguished career (he died in 1903) and his reputation was sufficient to cause a stir among the students when the new Académie Carmen opened the autumn of 1898. The school rules were strict, even more than those of the Slade; the sexes were segregated into different studios, there was to be no drawing on the walls, no smoking, no singing, even no talking, which made it very unpopular with male students who soon rebelled against what they considered an unnecessarily draconian stance. A head student, the massier or massiere, was appointed to handle student matters and maintain the list of rules pinned to the wall: during part of 1899, this post was held by an English girl, Inez Bate who had achieved favour by painting exactly as Whistler taught. Taking orders from a young woman only irritated some of the male students further though and the class became predominantly female. Largely, the girls were happy to be presided over as part of a dedicated band; Gwen Salmond explained “Whistler is worth living for,” a “first rate master who knows how to teach,” “very beautiful and just right” and even Ida rushed to his defence, rebutting attacks on his teaching as “stupid and unkind.” In his later autobiography, her husband reminded Whistler of Ida when the two men met again in London; “I mentioned Ida Nettleship, who had been his pupil in Paris, had posed for him and was now my wife. Mr Whistler spoke of her with much sympathy, asking me to make her his compliments. Influenced by Whistler, Paris and a new found freedom, that autumn was a “most promising time,” full of inspiration and hope; in her letters home, Ida describes them as almost intoxicated with the possibilities of art; “we all go suddenly daft with lovely pictures we can see or imagine and want to do."
Whistler at work

Yet the fees were expensive and the girls were not making any money. All too soon, the dream had to come to an end. Reality beckoned. The Parisian interlude was never meant to be permanent, rather a glorious finishing process before the real business of life began. Returning to England, Ida was forced to confront the question of her future. Within the year, she would marry the flamboyant Augustus John, yet the marriage would be a troubled one. Paris would remain, for her, as an image of a better time, to which she longed to return. When she did go back and try to make a life for herself, a few years later, it was not with her husband, but with his other mistress and their combined brood of children.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Naughty Tudors: The historical realities of sex outside marriage

 Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, who displeased her brother, Henry VIII, by marrying for love in 1515.

A Tudor woman’s social status was defined by her performance as a mother and wife. Broadly, this meant being submissive and respectful towards her husband regardless of his behaviour; being industrious and resourceful in the house; moral and devout in character and bringing forth a number of healthy children, preferably male. The scandal of illegitimacy, therefore, was to be avoided at all costs. The strict Catholic line couldn’t have been clearer: fornication and adultery were against the law; intercourse within marriage was acceptable only for the procreation of children and the penalties were harsh and public. Children born out of wedlock could be baptised and even legitimised by subsequent marriage vows but the social stigma of bastardy and its legal implications could not be so easily shaken off. The ramifications of illegitimacy, especially within noble and royal families could be felt for decades or even generations later. Given that those united in dynastic marriages frequently sought love elsewhere and many middle and lower-class couples delayed marriage until a whole decade after the onset of sexual maturity, was the church was relying on an unrealistic sense of people’s self-control ?
The reality of sexual relations and the family unit was far more complex. The majority of young people could not afford to marry until their late twenties, yet often lived and worked together in close proximity. Are we to understand then, that temptation never got the better of them ? At the risk of sounding overly romantic, are we to believe that they never fell hopelessly in love ? Are we really suggesting that human nature has changed so unrecognisably in the intervening centuries ? No; of course young unmarried people in Tudor times had sex, with or without the blessing of church or society, yet it was often the women who were left to deal with the consequential pregnancies. Servants shared rooms with masters, young people disappeared off into the bushes at fairs and adultery was overheard through key holes and windows. Even the most rudimentary forms of contraception were beyond the reach of the majority. “Quondams” appeared in the sixteenth century but would not have been widely available: the rhythm method and coitus interruptus were also notoriously unreliable; folklore offered various unhelpful mixtures of herbs and methods of stopping up the womb using hot wax ! Whilst Katherine Howard famously knew how to “meddle” with a man without getting with child, Tudor records are full of accusations and orders concerning the paternity and maintenance of bastards. In the absence of evidence and flight of those accused, the majority of illegitimate children ended up being cared for by the parish until the age of seven, which was not popular with the tithe payers. It was in a community’s financial interests to closely police their young people.
Inevitably, informal betrothals and alliances arose; temporary relationships were entered into in good faith and broken when the couple moved on or found alternative partners. A verbal promise of marriage or “hand-fasting,” could be enough to licence physical relations, as proved the downfall of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth queen. Less than two years after her marriage, it was discovered that she had enjoyed two lovers in her youth, which she had omitted to mention to her new husband. With one Francis Dereham, she had exchanged promises, gifts and spent many nights together in a shared dormitory as husband and wife. Witnesses famously recalled how they had "hung together" by the belly "like two sparrows." Katherine might still have kept her head at this point but unfortunately for her, these enquiries led to the uncovering of her later adulterous affair and she went to the block in February 1542. Hand-fasting could even override later marriages in church, even if consummation had not taken place, as Henry tried to prove in the case of Anne Boleyn’s precontract to Henry Percy and successfully established to extract himself from an unwanted union with Anne of Cleves. Earlier, Anne Boleyn had conceived Elizabeth in December 1532, before her secret marriage to Henry took place in the new year. Promises could be made any time or any place: bedrooms, kitchens and fields witnessed secret agreements: it wasn’t until 1563 that the Council of Trent declared a marriage was void if not celebrated in front of a priest, although English law did not catch up until the eighteenth century.
 Legal marriages could take place anywhere, so long as the vows were properly made, enabling Catherine Grey and Edward Seymour to wed in secret in his bedroom in 1560 and immediately go on to consummate what became a doomed match. Edward’s sister, their only witness died soon after, Edward went overseas and Catherine found herself trying to conceal her pregnancy under Elizabeth’s watchful eye, unable to prove her marriage was legal. She had already been married once at the age of thirteen, which had been dissolved when it became politically expedient although this did not help her when the angry Queen committed her to the tower. Sometimes, agreements were consummated only for one of the parties to change their mind: in Rye in November 1571, the unmarried Joane Wilkinson found herself pregnant by Peter Greenaway of Hythe, who: “hath not only contracted himself in matrimony with the same Joane but also verie ungodlie hath mysused her bodie and therby gotten hir with child. Upon which complaynt the said Peter… denyed the same.” Pleading her case before the town council, she was aware that her fate lay in the testimony of others and “alleaged that there were divers credible witnesses residant within the town of Rye or near thereabouts that can depose of the same contract.” Justice for Joane would only rest on her ability to summon these witnesses and their willingness to testify and be believed.
Cohabitation was particularly frowned upon. Just how many of couples “living in sin” had been through some sort of hand-fasting or pledge is unclear: again, secrecy appears to lie at the root of the problem, although court records are full of the judgements made by neighbours, based on what they had seen. One Surrey ruling of 1569 decided that to establish paternity, it was “sufficient proof” that the mother and the accused had been discovered together in “suspicious” circumstances by a credible witness. At Midsummer 1589, William Pennocke, a maltman of Elstree in Hertfordshire, was charged with “living incontinently” with Mary Brooke, alias Thayer of Great Baddow, as a result of which she was pregnant. John Saunder, a clothier of Coggeshall, had been previously called to answer a case of adultery when he was resummoned for refusing to honour an order for maintenance of a child born to a Mary Webbe, of which he was also the reputed father. The Canterbury sessions heard in 1601 that one Mary Lawnder of Sittingbourne had lived an “incontinent” life, having born five or six illegitimate children, for which she was committed to a house of correction in Canterbury. 
Provision for illegitimate children, especially those born to the poor, homeless or servants, could be a drain on the parish, into whose care they were frequently entrusted. In Easter 1575, the general sessions at Chelmsford passed an ordinance for the relief of the poor and vagabonds:
“If any woman has a bastard child and any person can be proved or vehemently suspected by reasonable presumptions to be guilty of begetting the child or of incontinency, the justices shall take order with the man and woman for keeping the said child; and they shall take order with the mother to keep and nourish the child without charging the inhabitants and if they forsake the child and refuse to keep and same, they shall find her out and take order with her and if the man suspected to be guilty of begetting the child shall be conveyed away or concealed by his parents or other persons counselled by them to depart the country or his place of abode so he cannot be forthcoming to answer the charges against him, then the justices shall charge the parents and counsellors with the keeping of the said child until the party appear; and the justices shall take order by bond with the begetter of the child, and if he refuse to enter into bond, then they shall commit him to gaol.”
The assize courts took a dim view of those fathers who had failed to maintain their offspring, employing fines and imprisonment to ensure payment. Mariner John Brooke of Burnham had failed to support his daughter by Agnes Nicoll in April 1579 and was ordered by the local court to pay 8d a week to the parish for the keep of the child. At Easter 1591, Robert Barnard of Little Totham was also remanded in custody at Colchester gaol until he was able to support the child he had fathered with single woman Mary Turner of Southminster. In October 1586, John Poole was imprisoned for refusing to pay 8d a week for the upkeep of a child born to Mary Warde, currently maintained by the church wardens of West Hanningfield. Social class was no barrier to reprimand: Robert Noble of Thundersley was summoned in January 1591 for failing to maintain an order, meaning provision, for a child fathered by him on Margaret Nevell, who had been his servant and in March 1603, Elizabeth Bright, the servant of Nicholas Clarke, a painter of Beuchamp Roding bore his child. Marriage was no bar to desertion either: John Curtes of Shopland, husbandman, was to be apprehended in midsummer 1592, for having deserted his pregnant wife, who had passed her child on to the parish for care.  Sometimes costs were split between the parents. Edmund Cheveley of Stock was to contribute 6d weekly and Susan Dates 4d weekly for the maintenance of their child in 1579 but sometimes both parents absconded, like Alice Romboll and Arthur Machin, named and shamed by the constable of Writtle in 1576. In 1602, it was Anne Seayne of Billericay who had “unnaturally” absconded and left her child in the care of the parish and in 1591, Bridget Hammond at the Chelmsford Assize who had left with the consent of the father of her child.
Severe, public punishments for fornication and adultery were intended as deterrents and many many villagers actively denounced each other for transgression. Cases from the Essex assize courts suggest communities were jealously protective of their codes of moral conduct, reluctant to see their neighbours get away with unlawful behaviour. An intolerance of rule-breaking and the financial implication for the parish seem to recur in many statements and letters of complaint: the “whistle-blowing” culture cannot have helped neighbourly feeling, as seen in the swathe of orders made to keep the peace and the high number of physical and verbal clashes that required legal mediation. Denunciations could be supported by oaths of in excess of ten people, travelling to the local court to give witness, who would then provied an audience for the implementation of whippings and other shaming penalties. These were often carried out in market places or outside churches, at the busiest times of day. Yet society could not override biology. In spite of the social stigma and range of deterrents, the Tudors continued to have sex outside marriage and produce illegitimate children. It wasn’t the norm; the average per parish was around 10-12 from 1538 when records began, until the end of the dynasty in March 1603 and the lives of those involved could be very difficult as a result. It must have been very difficult for young people: the social and economic circumstances of their lives was often in direct competition with the rulings of their culture and church. Another four centuries before the stigma would finally be shaken off.


Monday, 17 October 2011

Anne Boleyn: A New Truth

  A woman who dared to rule a King.

Anne Boleyn has been selling books again. The story of her intense, passionate hold over England’s King and subsequent, dramatic fall has captivated historians and public alike in the intervening centuries. She has been portrayed in literature and on screen as a temptress and whore, a scheming politician and reluctant romantic heroine, whose heart had already been bestowed elsewhere. No other Tudor woman has elicited so much devotion among her followers or spawned so many books. Publications of 2011 alone, included a kindle edition of Henry and Anne’s love letters (March), Norton’s “Anne Boleyn in her own words” (March) the paperback edition of Philippa Gregory’s “The Boleyn Inheritance,” (May), David Loades’ study of the family’s fortunes (Sept) and a cluster of other novels. Yet Boleyn is never a straightforward character and the dramatic events of her short reign will always elicit a variety of interpretations.
But new truths still remain to be told. Whilst accounts rightly focus on Anne’s personal appeal and volatile relations with the King and her centrality to Tudor factional politics, one key aspect of her life has largely been neglected. Anne Boleyn was the casualty of Tudor gender politics. A casualty, as opposed to a victim, although she was undoubtedly the victim of a miscarriage of justice, engineered by the Machiavellian dealings of court politicians. For all its speed and disingenuousness, Anne’s fate was partly of her own making. She was a classic over-reacher of the Shakespearian kind; an over-mighty subject who played for high stakes and lost. Yet her greatest crime, in the eyes of her patriarchal contemporaries, was to transgress social boundaries and exploit her femininity to usurp the position of an anointed Queen and master the will of England’s most wilful King.
Sources disagree about Anne’s birth date; 1501 and 1507 are usually suggested, with modern scholarship tending towards the earlier year. Raised in the refined court of Margaret of Savoy, in the Netherlands, then as maid to the unfortunate Queen Claude of France, she acquired a polish that set her aside from her English counterparts, despite not conforming to contemporary standards of beauty. By the time she caught Henry’s eye in around 1526, he had already been married seventeen years and had possibly fathered two children by her more infamous sister. Anne’s policy of refusal, either by accident or design, put all the power into her hands. Women did not usually turn down the king’s advances but his romantic “enslavement” meant their roles were inverted, with Henry as the subject and Anne approaching some sort of rule over him. In personal terms, she held all the cards. Yet it was a misleading power, as it always came with the King’s permission; he allowed her dominance as part of his devotion. His favoured identity as “Sir Loyal Heart” and employment of the motifs of chivalry were genuine enough. In spite of his marital history, Henry retained a belief in true love and romance: he wanted to woo Anne; he was in love with the idea of the pursuit and the ideal. In the period of their courtship, spanning 1526 to early 1533, he allowed Anne a license which she exploited to the full. Yet once she became his wife, he expected her to conform to contemporary notions of submissive womanhood. He had allowed her to “win;” now the proper power balance must be restored.
Yet Anne was not a typical submissive female. Henry had fallen in love with the wrong woman, if he expected her to sit silently by and tolerate his opinions and peccadillos. Anne’s appeal to the modern reader lies in exactly this defiance; the insistence on an equality that was anachronistic in the Tudor court. She was opinionated and prepared to argue with him and did not show the deference he expected from a wife; ideally, he should have chosen a younger, more fertile model of Catherine of Aragon. In this, Anne was merely continuing the pattern of their pre-marital relationship in the belief that in this lay the “truth” of their union. Her “power” over the king before 1533 was so assured that she had assumed it would outlast their vows. Yet she failed to recognise that even when professing himself most in love, Henry’s submission had been a form of permission. As he later warned her, he could bring her as low as he had once raised her. Once she made the transition to Queen, her power began to dissolve. She was no longer the unattainable figure of romance but an obstinate woman who dared to try and rule her husband, such as were ridiculed and “tamed” in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. As such, she can be seen in the tradition of other females who were punished for attempting to defy their status, such as the prophetess Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, executed in 1534 for her resistance to the Reformation and Boleyn marriage.
Widespread misogyny was common during the Sixteenth century. Female inferiority was transported between discourses, from the law courts to medicine, familial relations to lyrics, jokes and sayings, so their low status was “overdetermined” by male society. Their subordination and otherness from men permeated mass-market culture, through sermons, manuals, treaties, popular literature, proverbs, folklore, charms, rhymes, song, ballads, anecdotes, jokes, superstition, seasonal crafts and customs, festivities, religious iconography, medicinal and herbal practices, emblem books, woodcuts for ballads and broadsheets, engravings and illustrations. Women were considered to have a particular talent for being subversive: feminine intelligence was often presented proverbially as cunning: “women in mischief are wiser than men,” they were “necessary evils” and were “made perfect by men”, a woman was “the weaker vessel”, “the woe of man” and “a man of straw was worth a woman of gold.” Popular culture identified them with noisy, silly geese, deceitful and insatiable cats, slippery eels, angry wasps and inflexible swine.
One common joke told how a Tudor man was asked why he had married a tiny woman and replied: “because of evils, the least was to be chosen.” Some pamphlets and chapbooks showed emblems of women lacking heads, in the sense of flawed intelligence but also decapitation as a symbol of the loss of power, the seat of wisdom, an inversion of patriarchal and therefore political power.  Disobedience to a husband was small-scale treason, almost as threatening to society as uncontrolled sexuality: one pamphlet’s caption reads “a headless maid is the worst of all monsters,” punning on the unsanctioned loss of virginity and sexual appetite that conflicted with the notion of female submission. Assuming Anne’s trump card during her courtship was her virginity, later slanders of sexual lasciviousness highlight just how fragile and short-lived her main bargaining tool had been. Her appeal for Henry had partly lain in her denial and abstinence; as she refused to conform, she was redefined in the terms of a sexual predator. The fear of female disobedience to male authority was apparent in popular maxims: “a woman does that which is forbidden her,” “women are always desirous of sovereignty” and “all women are ambitious naturally:” the new Queen represented the epitome of Tudor men’s most deep-rooted fears. Set within this context, the terminology of Anne Boleyn’s fall, with all its sexual and moral slurs, underlines a new truth about her condemnation.
Anne’s delivery of a daughter is often considered a factor in the failure of her marriage. Certainly, the much needed son and heir might have bought her more time, even assured her position by removing a key source of conflict but even before Elizabeth’s birth, the cracks had begun to show. Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys noticed the strain between the couple in the weeks leading to Anne’s confinement, which meant they were barely on speaking terms; violent arguments, flirtations and rumours undermined their remaining three years. As Henry’s romantic vision of Anne rapidly crumbled, she and her faction became vulnerable. Her accusers attacked her as a woman; sexually and morally: adultery, incest and witchcraft were classic weapons used by men to demarcate a female who had transgressed; they formed part of a recognisable social code that signalled a viable target, in which even other women and the King himself, participated. Without Henry’s protection, the already unpopular Anne became a scapegoat for social and gender venom, heaped with the abuse usually reserved for upstarts like her previous adversary Thomas Wolsey. When she miscarried her final child, early in 1536, those about her could see her days were numbered.
Alison Weir’s recent analysis of Anne’s fall posits a sudden, desperate attempt by Thomas Cromwell to save his own skin, with the reluctant co-operation of a monarch surprised by the nature of his wife’s charges. Yet Henry’s resentment had been brewing since at least the end of 1533 and found a welcome outlet in his servant’s case, which struck a chord with his wounded pride. His basis for divorce, reform and remarriage had lain in the inadmissibility of his first match to Catherine of Aragon: he had broken with Rome in the hope of a son who had not materialised. Anne had promised him the earth, or rather, he had romantically imagined the earth he allowed her to project. Now, her outspokenness and failure to produce an heir left him in no stronger position than in a decade before, although now he was the subject of humour and gossip throughout the whole of Europe. The reality of his dream became a source of humiliation and emasculation in a man defined by his pride and sense of prowess. Henry was not Cromwell’s instrument in Anne’s fall; rather, it was a savage retaliation of a male ego. By recategorising his wife’s early appeal as a form of witchcraft and enchantment, by pandering to the stereotypes of beauty and disfigurement and permitting her disingenuous condemnation as an incestuous, insatiable adulteress, in the knowledge that the supposed dates of her crimes tallied with times of her confinements, he colluded in the exploitation of contemporary misogyny to slur a woman he wished to be rid of. Anne’s shameful trial, in May 1536, as well as that of her co-accused; her brother George, Norris, Weston, Brereton and the musician Mark Smeaton marks an unforgettable low point in the  King’s reign and explains the fascination of subsequent generations with this miscarriage of justice.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

England's Green and Pleasant Lands: Edwardian artists react to Futurism.

                                "Speeding Automobile,"  Giacomo Balla, 1912

                               Prampolini's portrait of Filippo Marinetti, 1924-5

In the years immediately preceding the Great War, the vanguard of European art strove to depict the new century’s potential in startling new images. In March 1912, 40,000 people attended an exhibition of the Italian Futurists in London’s Sackville Gallery, encouraged by the inflammatory reviews of a national press who understood its readers’ traditional, bucolic tastes. Broadly, the Futurist intention was to liberate art from tradition, including the destruction of libraries and museums as institutions guilty of ossifying taste and preventing the advancement of the modern: it favoured war, machines, movement and masculine energy. English mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell conceded that “the modern world calls for such a philosophy,” in which, according to the Bergson theory, the dynamic sensation was itself made eternal, establishing the Futurist preoccupation with the innovations in transport that typified their decade. However, as when presented with most artistic innovations, the great British public were less than enthusiastic.

                                    "Expansion centrifuge de la luminere"                               
                                                Gino Severini 1913-14
                          (This sold for £157,750 at Christie's in December 2000)
To the Pall Mall Gazette, the experience was a “nightmare;” the Daily Express concurred in the view that Futurism was “the new terror,” filing its response under the heading “Picture Gallery of a Madhouse: Crazy Dreams put on Canvas.” The Morning Post refused to allow its critics even to review it, as “an immorality (which) must not be chronicled,” while the Manchester Evening News saw a connection between the “anarchic” paintings and a recent attempt at royal assassination in Rome. The Times reacted to perceived ugliness in the works: “the more intelligible the pictures, the more commonplace they appear…a perfectly commonplace picture of a very ugly woman” and Frank Rutter in the Sunday supplement wrote that “all London is talking of the Italian artists at the Sackville Gallery” even though “all their little novelties have already been paraded in Paris by men as able and abler than themselves.” Sir Philip Burne Jones, child of Pre-Raphaelitism, was “outraged by these ludicrous productions …outside the place of art altogether." Despite the hostile reaction, Futurist leader Marinetti felt he had found the ideal location for the new movement, claiming in interviews that “London is a futurist city…(with) a totally new idea of motion, of speed.” Some English artists agreed.

However, in others, this savage machine-age art elicited a very different response. The pre-war work of Slade students Paul Nash, Dora Carrington and their circle, drew inspiration from the English landscape, work and rural life, as the setting for biblical or mythological narratives. Seeing the mysteries of ancient Britain in the modern landscape, they “Cezannified” an existing tradition in order to forge a real national alternative to European Post-Impressionism; not avant-garde but modern, vibrant and capturing the Edwardian zeitgeist. The contemporary nostalgia and tendency to define “connection between land, countryside and nation as somehow innately English” had been fed by the establishment of the National Trust in 1895 and launch of the magazine “Country Life” two years later. With the increasing urbanisation of the population and spread of suburban living, a wide range of books were published on rural activities, aimed at “the villa residents and the more numerous others living in London.” Camden artist Spencer Gore’s beautiful images of Letchworth celebrated the town’s establishment as the first Garden City. The Slade students were following the tradition of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the proliferation after 1905, of fashionable, pastoralist “back to nature” movements.

                                         Letchworth, Spencer Gore, 1912

The works of Nash and Carrington went beyond simply capturing the popular mood, though. Their primitive, expressionistic elements ensured them a place in the Post-Impressionist canon and provoked strong responses among friends and rivals alike. Nash’s stunning 1912 “The Pyramids in the Sea,” employs a dark, intense palette that retains the sombriety of Sickertian tones but substitutes a grey-blueness, capturing a sense of sinister, nocturnal drama. The simple but startling presence of surreal forms rising from the waves is resonant of a Blakean nightmare, sublime in beauty and terror, foreshadowing Nash’s post-war symbolic and emotional landscapes. A similar palette and style marks the early works of his associates: curved, womanly, idyllic landscapes in light airy blue, russet, yellow and green. In order to capture Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” they looked to classical English landscape, eighteenth century poetry, romantic artists and the Pre-Raphaelites as well as other influences closer to home. The landscapes produced by Paul and John Nash, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer and their friends Gwen Darwin and Christine Kuhlenthal between 1912 and 1914 epitomised the traditional English love of the land, whilst introducing a new national palette, abstraction of patterns and an almost surreal interpretation of the artist’s emotional connection with the land.

                                     Paul Nash's Pyramids in the Sea, 1912

Carrington’s 1912 fresco panel “Picking vegetables” captured an idyllic symbolism and rhythm of rural life, with a mass of fluid Cezannish trees placed behind an almost Van Gogh-yellow curve of fields and pointillist trees. Two men are engaged in hoeing, bent at the waist, their motion echoed by the boy picking a cabbage, monolithic in quality and representing the harmony between mankind and the fertile landscape. Carrington contrasts the cultivated and the wild: abundant crops sit beside wild flowers, open fields contrast with dense woodland. Varieties of land use are portrayed in a pleasing, non-threatening vision of unity, while the waiting mother holds an empty basket, ready to take the produce to the kitchen or market stall. Similar fresco panels, “Hay Making” and “Sheep Shearing,” on which Carrington collaborated with Constance Lane in 1913, present the beauty and harmony of men engaged in rural tasks, in a light, airy palette. Writing to John Nash during her stay with Constance’s mother outside Hemel Hempstead, her belief in the function of art as expressive of a deep seated, passionate appreciation for the countryside is evident:
       “…it is a most wonderful country. You and Paul should just see the trees and
           green fields like lettuces, you could eat them, they are so luscious. And black
           sheep making patterns on the green fields…I (did)…some amazing landscapes
          …the best was a long-shaped upright panel with a moon on a sky glazed with
       many colours…green, blue-pink, dull mauve…what good shapes the trees make
           in this light.”

                           A later (1924) work by Carrington of Spanish hills.

However, there is very definitely the sense that Carrington’s enjoyment of the countryside was as an artist rather than a participant in rural life:
        “…about six workmen are running about…Lane and I feel like great masters
              controlling this band of men”
It is difficult to escape the “Marie Antoinette plays shepherdess” response to Carrington’s bucolic idylls, where art divides people along class lines into creators and workers, idealised through her portrayal. Her later, war-time landscapes of the hills around her home, would present a maturer vision, infused with emotional symbolism and hints of the surreal.

Symbolic landscape was the most preferable alternative for many young artists who rejected the more avant garde aspects of Post-Impressionism. Furthermore, its synonymity with Englishness made it more relevant and attractive, particularly among the Slade graduates. John Nash’s wife, Christine Kuhlenthal’s “The Picnic” of 1914 is heavy with nationalistic iconography. The neat lawn, enclosed by white picket fence protects and gives access onto a gentle rolling landscape of cultivated and uncultivated fields. Tall, white lilies soften the harsh line of the fence, exotic, elegant and protected within the garden. A distant lake lies silver and tranquil before misty blue-mauve hills and glimmers of gold in the west suggest the approach of sunset. Beneath the apple tree’s peeling bark, a man and woman face a second seated woman in bright golden dress, balancing an apple upon her head, suggestive of the William Tell legend, although there is no one to displace it. Apples are visible still growing on the tree and on the grass to the woman’s right, half red, half green, paradoxically symbolic of national identity and temptation. More subtle symbolism is at work here than in Nash or Spencer; the idyllically tranquil scene, with harmonious figures and colours, presents a protected environment that develops Arts and Crafts traditions. However, the picture contains the possibility of biting the apple, opening the gate and pursuing the path down towards the lake. This landscape is troubled by the subtle possibility of disharmony.

                                         John Nash, The Cornfield, 1912

The new English landscapes aimed to capture the spirit of ancient Britain and explore man’s relationship with the countryside as a specific function of nationality. In the search for a modern British art, such images capture a new artistic spirit emerging beyond the Edwardian era, invigorated by personal response to recent French developments but retaining reverence for the past. Additionally, woodgraver Gwen Darwin, sculptor Eric Gill, landscape painter J.D.Innes and allegorical artist Stanley Spencer’s responses to their rural environment prove the spread and depth of this era’s veneration of a world that was about to vanish. Now, the pathos of these scenes lies in our hindsight of the approach of war that would transform the Nash brothers' landscapes and curtail the glorious Edwardian flourish of artistic experiment.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Rebirth of a Catholic Queen.

 Can Catherine of Aragon’s popularity be revived, 500 years on ?
A review of Giles Tremlett’s biography “Catherine of Aragon; Henry’s Spanish Queen.”

                                                     The young widow

To placate the seemingly insatiable modern appetite for the Tudors, biographers and historians have been seeking fresh angles on old favourites. Increasingly, the same narrow ground of Henry VIII’s marital struggles and Elizabeth’s courtiers is ploughed, while less popular figures like Henry VII and Edward VI are only tickled by the fingers of history. One surprising new darling of the biography shelf though, is Catherine of Aragon, the previously much maligned Spanish princess whose refusal to grant Henry VIII a divorce sparked his break with Rome and the redefinition of the English church.
Giles Tremlett’s biography “Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen,” published in November 2010, was the first to reengage with this interesting and neglected figure, with Julie Fox’s dual biography “Sister Queens,” featuring Catherine and the legendary mad Juana following shortly after. Patrick Williams will complete the triumvirate with another new life, due for publication this October. This rash of interest may have been inspired by the five hundredth anniversary of her marriage and accession to the throne in 1509 or may be a consequence of the interest in her dazzling rival Anne Boleyn.
A spanish infanta, recently supposed to be Catherine.

Catherine has always suffered through comparison with the woman who replaced her. Anne’s allure is still felt by readers and historians interested in her powers of seduction and the heinous injustice of her fall; the Boleyn industry had spawned many times more books for Anne’s three year reign than Catherine’s entire twenty-four years of marriage. And as the opponent of the glamorous, quick-witted Anne, Catherine has tended to be painted as an old, obstinate and miserable figure, whose attempts to cling onto her husband stood in the way of the path of supposed “true love.” It was also Anne Boleyn’s modernism that held Catherine’s popular reputation in check. Recent studies have focussed on Anne as a religious reformer, berating nuns for not strictly adhering to moral codes and introducing the King to seditious literature. Her famous resistance to Henry’s advances and insistence on a relationship of sexual equality, expose her as far more than the figure head of Tudor factional politics. She has been liberated from the one-dimensional biographical depictions as either temptress or victim, while the Queen has remained her simplistic foil. These elements strike a chord with a modern reader, through which contrast Catherine appears to be old-fashioned and misguided. Yet Tremlett’s biography makes clear that she was in fact, an admirable, majestic, devoted and popular queen, dispelling the myths of straight-laced control to show her dancing, singing, laughing and enjoying the pleasures of the royal bed.
What Catherine possessed that Anne lacked was an inherited regality and understanding of the nature of Queenship. She was not averse to using theatre and histrionics when the occasion demanded yet she always performed within the compass of her role; there would be none of Anne Boleyn’s upstart confrontationalism that so damaged her relations with Henry and gave rise to his famous threat to cast her down, just as he had raised her up. Catherine’s demeanour was always royal. The daughter of two of the most powerful rulers of early modern Europe, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, she was reared amid much elaborate pomp and ceremony and knew when to use her strength and when to bite her tongue: frequently her queenly nature won over the messengers sent by Henry to browbeat her into submission. One of the highlights of Tremlett’s biography is the section spent on her childhood in Spain, a unique insight previously lacking from studies, which Tremlett is well placed to write as the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent. The princess is pictured at key moments, delineated in vivid details of war, ceremony and marriage, contrasting sharply with her later years of privation in England. Leaving the exotic, sun-drenched and barbaric life of her parents, she was ready to rule, even though she was never intended for Henry VIII. In many ways, it was her unshakeable belief in her own regality that was to cause problems later.
                                              The triumphant queen

There is little new material in Tremlett’s handling of Catherine’s short-lived marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales, the same old question of consummation evades answer, yet he approaches her hitherto neglected years of widowhood with a degree of empathy. His Catherine is an admirable survivor, caught between the difficult figures of Henry VII and her father, whilst trying to maintain her rapidly diminishing household. One of the things Tremlett does very well is to address the interplay of the personal and private, exploring Catherine’s illnesses and personal relationships in parallel with her role as an international figure. It was a waiting game, the outcome of which was never guaranteed. When, after seven years, she finally married Henry and became Queen, the happiest period of her life began. Readers of popular Tudor history might be forgiven for not realising her marriage lasted more than twice as long than those of the king’s five other wives put together. Tremlett stresses convincingly how well suited the pair were and in spite of Henry’s roving eye, Catherine’s position at his side was initially unquestioned.
The problem arose when it came to producing an heir. The real tragedy lies in Catherine’s string of miscarriages and stillbirths: by the early 1520s, with only one surviving daughter, relations between the couple began to change. Anne Boleyn arrived at court and the rest is well known. Where Tremlett’s biography manages to look at the old issue afresh, is in Catherine’s role in the Reformation. Undoubtedly, her refusal to retire from her marriage and her insistence on her queenship until the day of her death, contributed to the religious changes of the 1530s. Without her obstinacy, England may have remained a Catholic country until the death of Henry VIII and the lives of many of her advocates such as Thomas More and John Fisher, may have been spared. She was also prepared to become a martyr herself and to include her daughter in her fate. Yet Catherine did not have the benefit of hindsight. She could not have predicted just how far Henry would go in order to marry Anne Boleyn: in fact, the most common aspect of her response to the divorce was disbelief. She continued to believe that her husband would come to his senses and summon her again, even after she had heard of his remarriage and the birth of Elizabeth. In this, she was Henry’s match. They underestimated each other and the result was the Henrician Reformation.
Catherine died in 1536 just after her fiftieth birthday, removed from the husband and daughter she loved, as well as most of her friends. Henry gradually isolated her from the centre of court life until she found herself in virtual exile. Tremlett’s biography presents a mixed picture of a complex woman, who emerges admirably in adversity. Yet her stubbornness and sense of self importance, although a facet of her time, was largely responsible for changing those times. It is a long overdue reassessment of a life that has moments of intense joy and success, such as in her relations with her daughter and her regency during the French and Scottish wars, as well as the affection the English people had for her. Yet above all it is a tragedy and a great love story, for what emerges most from Tremlett’s book are the cruel twists of fate that affected the couple’s ability to have children: had Catherine born a healthy son, the marriage might have endured and remained happy. Speculation and "what'ifs" are a notorious cul-de-sac of history but it is on such small things that monumental historical changes hang. The fate of a nation was determined by the fertility of a Spanish princess’s womb.

“Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen” Giles Tremlett. Faber and Faber, 2010.
“Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana Queen of Castile.” Julia Fox. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, May 2011.
“Catherine of Aragon: A Life” Patrick Williams.  Amberley publishing. Due Oct 2011

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

No place for the Innocent.

"The Great Gatsby" and F.Scott Fitzgerald’s New York.

Published in 1925, the decadent romance of The Great Gatsby remains as alluring and elusive as ever. It is a tale of lost illusions, almost hagiographical, as narrator Nick Carraway deifies his dead friend in a way that speaks volumes about his devotion and causes some critics to question his sexuality. By the novel’s end, adultery, accidental death, betrayal and murder leave the naïve Carraway longing to return to the simpler, family-oriented life he had previously struggled to escape. The louche sophistication of New York, with its casual liaisons and broken promises cuts to the heart of the American Dream, of which Carraway is made a victim by his fundamental sense of fair play and loyalty. As Gatsby’s disciples fade away, only he is left, to organise the funeral and meet the dead millionaire’s father: it is a bitter lesson for a young man.

In a moment of poignant realisation, Carraway concludes his story with a lament for an idealised pre-Lapsian American landscape; an old, innocent life of fresh air and nature. Adopting the perspective of the Seventeenth Century Dutch settlers for whom the old island “flowered,” with a “fresh green breast,” stilling them in an “enchanted moment” of “aesthetic contemplation,” he regrets the country’s metaphoric lost purity and his own more recent awakening. This nostalgia for the vision of a clean, bright motherland offers a bittersweet message at the end of the novel: he sees the national impetus for self and social betterment, the belief that “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…” as self-defeating. The American Dream is an elusive grail, its capture elliptically suggested “one fine morning” but never realised, making the Platonic quests of “modern” (1920s) Americans as futile as “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  It is upon this flawed, irretrievable vision that Carraway pins the failure of Gatsby’s vision; his warning “you can’t repeat the past” cannot correct his friend’s blindness to the dark side of his dream: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Ironically the greenness of the light inviting Gatsby to pursue his dream is a false, man-made version of the true verdant landscape of the country’s innocence.

But perhaps there is more to Carraway’s yearnings. As a Mid-West American, he is an outsider, a social migrant and his ruminations are underlined by the experiences of migrants and immigrants of all nationalities, whose presence swelled the districts of central New York in the decades either side of the turn of the last century: by 1900, six out of every ten children in the city were not native born. They flocked to the city to escape poverty and persecution, dreaming of a better life where a nobody could rise to become president. Anything was considered possible in the socially-mobile new world, a dream voiced by Carraway as Gatsby’s car passes over the Queensboro’ bridge, but his “anything could happen” springs from the seemingly magical possibilities that wealth and privilege can bring, inspired by the “wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world” of the “sugar lump…city seen for the first time.”  At the other end of the social scale, vast crowds flocked to take advantage of an economy that was years ahead of Europe, sometimes to find the reality was just as harsh as that they had left behind, complicated by the territorial warfare of over-crowded tenement districts, such as those photographed so powerfully by social reformer Jacob Riis.

 Fitzgerald’s view of the city is elitist and selective; a distorted fantasy of opportunity which contradicts some evocations of New York at the time, such as Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep,” and the short stories of Anzia Yezierska, whilst later works like E.L.Doctrow’s “Ragtime” attempt to unite these seemingly disparate halves. Using a similar narrative of awakening, Doctrow fiercely undermines his child narrator’s innocence, following “there were no negroes. There were no immigrants,” a page later with; “apparently there were negroes. There were Immigrants.” A certain tense inversion of expectations is sensed as Gatsby’s car travels over the Queensboro’ bridge, passed by a limousine driven by a white chauffeur “in which sat three modish negroes…the yolks of their eyeballs rolled towards us in haughty rivalry” but this only causes Nick amusement, as do Tom Buchanan’s pronouncements about the threat to the “Nordic race.” Carraway’s and Fitzgerald’s concerns do not lie with the immigrants; it is simply a struggle that pits them against each other and Nick’s lack of solidarity with them is part of his essential detachment. He has come to the city in search of excitement, on the flimsy pretext of a dull job and the marriage of his cousin Daisy. Secretive and reticent, he serves as the foil to Gatsby’s ebullience: the rest of New York can take care of itself.

                                Robert Redford as Gatsby in the 1974 film

There is a tone of jaded sophistication in the fey Daisy Buchanan’s early inertia and existential wondering; “what’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon…and the day after that, and the next thirty years.” Even though the Great War was physically and emotionally removed from the characters of East and West Egg, there is a sense of Americans having come through differing periods of personal crisis. Carraway looks back with nostalgia to the regimented simplicity of conflict; “I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever;” Gatsby’s uniform allowed him to access a social set that he was usually denied, with cataclysmic results and even Daisy stresses recent suffering; “I’ve had a very bad time…and I’m pretty cynical about everything.” These blithe hints at traumas, real or imagined, partly explain the exhaustive hedonism of the era but do not excuse its excesses, as this pain is never fully developed for the reader and subsequently appears less real than the pain of love, or social disillusionment. The pangs of the rich are in stark relief to the real suffering of those struggling to make ends meet in the hinterland between New York and the mansions of West Egg.

Fitzgreald creates a similar no-mans land in the T.S.Eliot inspired wasteland lying between the playgrounds of the rich in “The Great Gatsby”. The location of the valley of ashes stresses not only the economic dependence of the Wilsons but the equally real practical dependence of figures like Gatsby and the Buchanans upon this silent, grey underclass of mechanics, butlers and servants who facilitate their world. To travel from West Egg to New York, the motorist has no choice but to pass through this powerful memento-mori landscape, hurrying as if it could infect them; even travellers by train cannot escape it; “the motor road hastily joins the railroad…so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.” The valley of ashes has an active malevolent force, a compulsive power that could pull travellers off their path, to be absorbed in the quagmire of greyness; its terror lies in the fact that death appears to be its life force, it flourishes on death, self-regenerating, Greek-myth style, with an army of ashes “growing” like wheat into a landscape of the “grotesque,” a colourless mockery of the real, vibrant life Fitzgerald contrasts through Gatsby’s identification with the colour yellow. In this barren inert world, life itself requires “a transcendent effort.” Its inhabitants are “ash-grey men,” even Wilson, showing the “faintly handsome” traces of former health has become “spiritless and anaemic.” He is enveloped by a symbolic “white dust,” which also veils “everything in the vicinity” and blends him into the “cement colour of the walls.” Tom Buchanan’s arrival brings the possibility of life, measured by the transference of colour; “a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes,” but the only other glimmers of pigment; the billboard eyes; are “dimmed” by weather and “paintless days.” The incongruity of Myrtle Wilson’s presence is made apparent through opposites; she is colourful, “smouldering” and “sensuous” in comparison with the “ghost” of a husband she walks through. Her physical vitality and her association with Tom make her immune to the all pervasive “white dust” but this is deceptive, for in drawing away from what she perceives to be death, she propels herself towards her own violent demise. Both Myrtle and Gatsby are classic over-reachers whose hectic efforts to live life to the full result in their own inevitable destruction.

This “solemn dumping ground” acts like a cancer or tumour on the healthy surrounding world. Its efforts are all feeble and sickly; it is its own graveyard; “occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest.” This bathetic reminder of death as the necessary result of life, essential for regeneration, shows the reader how the colourful charismatic lifestyle of West Egg is brought full circle; the valley of ashes provides the cars and fuel and reclaims them after use; a powerful metaphor for the human life cycle, attributing the garage and the billboard eyes with a higher sense of the purpose and ultimate end of all life. It is the valley of ashes, which reminds us that death is the great leveller, regardless of morals and wealth. The drawbridge over the “small foul river” forces the passing cars to sit and wait in enforced contemplation of the “dismal scene” for up to half an hour. The very randomness of this descending trap itself echoes the unpredictable call of death and the ever-present sense of doom that permeates the entire landscape of the novel. Fitzgerald’s emphasis on the lack of control the motorists have over their period of waiting clarifies how the innocent are equally as likely to become trapped as the guilty.

Nick Carraway finds the bleakness of the valley of ashes almost impossible to accept. He romanticises what he finds distasteful until reality later shatters his illusions; “this shadow of a garage must be a blind…sumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead.” Carraway’s belief in the treasure trove, the secret wealth hidden away from the grim reality is based on stories of gangsters and luxury in New York, a romance that quickly fractures when it breaks through Gatsby’s fragile idyll. A similar dishonesty oozes from the furnishings and artefacts of Tom and Myrtle’s New York apartment. Myrtle’s indulgences, paid for by Tom; gossip magazines, a puppy, cold cream and perfume; indicate her ultimate goals of luxury, to which Tom is her passport. In possession of these, having twice changed her clothes and arriving at her “long white cake” of an apartment, she casts off her previous role as easily as an actress, “throwing a regal homecoming glance around the neighbourhood.” Inside the flat, the “tapestried furniture” covered with Fragonard-style swing images echo a lost grandeur and social aspiration that belies the adulterous and brutal reality of their relationship. Myrtle’s furnishings smack of the desperate hopes of fabricating herself a new identity. Her uneasy social status is reflected in the ambiguity of other details; the photograph that tricks the eye, the dog biscuit “decomposing apathetically:” it is among these trophies of refinement that Tom breaks her nose. Even Carraway’s deteriorating perceptions mirror this subjectivity; “either it was terrible stuff or the whiskey distorted things because it didn’t make any sense to me.” His seemingly innocent pseudo-religious read; “Simon called Peter,” was in reality a contemporary work of soft pornography. The surreal, elliptical break down of narrative at the end of this chapter, propelling him from the bedside to the four o’clock morning train, reminds the reader of the fluid nature of the city and the existence of pockets of resistance to the general climate.

Carraway’s relationship with New York, is that of observer rather than real participator: in Myrtle and Tom’s flat, his impulse is to “get out and walk Eastwards towards the park through the soft twilight” and imagines himself “within and without,” looking up from the “darkening streets,” his “enchanted” attraction and “repulsion” echoing the dual nature of the city. New York is more alive for Nick than it is for Gatsby: location has a more powerful pull than people; he leaves behind his family for adventure in the West and fails to make any real personal connections, save that with Gatsby which only gains real significance as a result of Gatsby’s death, elevating him to the status of biographer. He drifts in and out of a half union with the morally ambiguous Jordan, while other incidental cast members remain unnamed; the “friend,” “other clerks,” and “girl who loved in New Jersey” are far less real than the “racy adventurous” city, with its bittersweet polarity of crowded “enchanted metropolitan twilight” and “haunting loneliness.” One of a crowd of dislocated, drifting “young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life,” Carraway feels the voyeuristic thrill of the observer and the “sinking heart” of the outsider. His New York is a glamorous composite of hotels, parties, restaurants, bright lights and the bustle of crowded streets and theatre goers, where people “hurry towards gaiety,” a grown up playground where the dark side can be sensed by not visualised.

Even though Nick Carraway recognises the city as “superior” to the “sprawling swollen towns beyond the Ohio,” he eventually decides to return home to the West, possessing some deficiency that made him “subtly unadaptable” to Eastern life. In retrospect, the city becomes “haunted,” “distorted beyond (his) eyes’ power of correction,” “a scene by El Greco,” both “conventional and grotesque,” devoid of lustre. One of his final images is the highly symbolic scene of men in dark suits carrying home a jewelled woman in white; no one knows the address “and no one cares.” For Carraway, the city is rotten at the core, infected by the disease of inertia and callous irresponsibility that has pervaded the glittering exterior.  The urban landscapes of “The Great Gatsby” are vibrant and complex in character, sustaining layered moral networks of goodness and innocence alongside vice and villainy. They are also highly subjective, shifting environments, constantly being reassessed and redefined with varying degrees of success by those who experience them from within and without. Their identities and distinct characteristics, influenced by global and local affairs are shown by the disillusioned narrator as able to permeate life in a more profound and lasting way than many human relations can. As Nick discovers, it is no place for the innocent.