Luxurious Glamour at The Wallace Collection

A friend and I recently took a visit to the very beautiful Wallace Collection, which is a museum in the middle of London, in a luxurious town-house, displaying hundreds of French 18th-century painting, furniture and porcelain, as well as armoury and older paintings.

While it might make bring to mind  the slightly more touristy National Portrait Gallery, this Collection is a lot more visually appealing – the rooms are each beautifully displayed with grandeur aplenty, and there’s plenty of things to see.

I loved how all the rooms have their own character, with a separate vivid colour theme for each room so that the furniture, artwork and small trinkets all went together well. Each painting had something to look at, and the beautifully ornate furniture looked amazing – like something from of a historical period-film!

One of the things I also enjoyed was that the museum is relatively quiet – there’s plenty of time to walk around at your own pace, you get to explore the house (although you still can’t touch!), and best of all, you’re allowed to take photos (which a lot of other places don’t allow) – and entry is free too.

At the end of the tour, when you’re done, there’s a charming little restaurant outside to have some tea and relax. I didn’t manage to get a chance to visit the restaurant this time, but I will do the next time I come here to browse (and daydream about being a princess in 17th Century France).

If you’re around central London, I’d recommend a visit, whether it’s just ten minutes or a couple of hours, it’s a visual delight for anyone : )

And The Mountains Echoed

Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk. ~Susan Scarf Merrell

And The Mountains Echoed, much like Khalid Hosseini’s earlier novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Sun begins, and draws its roots from Afghanistan and its tumultuous history, following on from the upheaval of the country in the 70s to emigration to America. Unlike his other two novels, however,  there is also a layering of characters from other cultures – Markos, a Greek surgeon, photographer and philanthropist, Nila, a part-French, part-Afghan artist who embodies the glamorous, detached Parisienne lifestyle, and Iqbal and his family, who have come home from emigration to Pakistan to find his family are unable to claim their home, or even Amra, a Bosnian nurse caring for the wounded in war-torn Kabul.

Although there is plenty of diversity in this story, at the heart of it all is the focus on the two primary characters, Abdullah and Pari, siblings whose close bond is ripped apart when they are separated at childhood, sold by a desperate father. So begins a ripple which resounds over the next 60 years, in which each sibling feeling incomplete without the other, affecting their families and friends around them.

There are several themes throughout the novel, which reverberate through each generation of siblings, lovers and friends – each of them having their own forms of abandonment and reconciliation, and each of them finding the true meaning of love and relationships over the years.

Normally a large number characters in a novel may overwhelm the story, but in this case, each character contributes, reinforcing a theme which subtly leads back to Abdullah and Pari. Each sibling carrying their own sense of incompleteness and abandonment; Abdullah growing up in Afghanistan and having his own family, emigrating to America in an attempt to find stability, and Pari, taken to France by her adoptive Mother, learning French culture and never understanding her identity and what is missing.

While this story is a little depressing in it’s telling, it’s beautifully written – there are parts of it which read like an old story being told, and indeed each character does tell his tale in order to contribute to this strange myth-like story.

If you’re looking for something full of culture, history and beauty, this has plenty of all three, and gives more besides. While it does show the characters and their yearning – to be elsewhere, to be with family or to be simply accepted – the characters are beautifully rendered, invoking a feeling of amity and the idea that you can step forward, and be a part of their lives.

A Snapshot View of Tour de France 2014

We were lucky enough to have the Tour de France cyclists whizz past my office today, and of course we all took this as an opportunity to leave the office building for an hour while we cheered passing floats, followed by the superfast cyclists.

We all cheered when they came (although there was a lone, non-Tour-de-France related cyclist who rode past first and got the shock of his life when we all screamed), and there was plenty picture-taking/mobile waving/jumping up and down.

And then, as quick as they came, they left, and the crowd just as quickly dispersed and went back into their offices.

A good way to spend a Monday at work : )




Grief, Haunting Histories and Romance in the Snow

Have you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Aftermath (March 1919) – Siegfried Sassoon

Kate Mosse’s most recent novel, The Winter Ghosts depicts a young man struggling with the aftermaths of the Great War, including coping with the loss of his elder brother who fought in it. Set a few years after the war has ended, the novel is punctuated with memories of the past interspersed with the unsettling scenes of the present, and descriptions of surrounding landscapes and feelings. There are many themes in this novel which echo Mosse’s previous novels, such as the strong French setting, and the idea of a violent and unsettling event in the past which haunts the present. With “nothing is as it seems” to set an almost melancholy tone and the sense of mystery, Mosse creates the hidden pasts and illusions.

In the style of a true, old-fashioned ghost-story, Mosse introduces an English protagonist, Freddie, who escapes to a quiet, shabby town in France to find himself, amidst coping with the death of his brother and his idealised image of him. As an outsider Freddie sees the country through different perspectives, preferring to relate to it as a form of escape, an Other place: “Here in France I was a stranger” ; it is an alien land which is – “plain, clean anonymous…We suited one another”.

Always reverberating through the story is the theme of being stuck in the past, and always feeling as if there is a ‘story within a story’. There is an overriding sense of irresolution which hangs over the Freddie, he is haunted by the effects of the war and the after-effects which come with it, he is grief-stricken over the loss of his brother George, and he is traumatised by the neglect of his parents who have placed their dead son on a pedestal. With this, comes a sense of isolation which leaves Freddie stuck in an “emotional no-man’s land”, a clever metaphor which weaves in references to the War and the effects of solitary grief. Exploring the idea of being a man, Mosse presents George, as being the ultimate male role model, and something which has been skewed by memory and powerful emotions to become a male figure that has become an unrealistic ideal which Freddie can never match up to. And accordingly, Freddie in contrast feels emasculated by what he perceives as his own weaknesses, his interests and his personality, even down to his love of books and music. Mosse questions then, what it means to be a man in an era where a man’s role is almost dictated to them, and where they must meet expectations of them, or like Freddie, crumble away in guilt and silent docility. The struggle for George to carry on without his brother (“George has been my family” ) and his inability to connect with other shows a larger struggle, that of the idea of male grief and the accepted social norms for how to deal with grief.

Soon Freddie comes across voices, fleeting figures, which is a  different types of haunting, creating a figure of mystery before the readers even see anything latently supernatural. Stumbling across a traditional village which is bound in air of sadness and dogged by their own past he meets Fabrissa, a quiet yet alluring young woman whom he feels drawn to. He quickly connects to her through their shared sense of tragedy and grief, their tragic memories and their loss from their respective pasts. As Freddie wryly notes, “the dead leave shadows”, and this proves to be true in a number of ways.

Freddie epitomises being stuck in the past and the inability to move on, due to his own sense of survivor’s guilt, which is only further emphasised by his growing romance with a woman who he is unable to understand or fully reach. Thus the impossible-ness of his situation is also characterised in this romance, he is unable to move forward or change anything in the past, until he is forced to confront the past and accept the emotions that come with it.

In comparison to this is Fabrissa’s own suffering, her physical prison which correlates to Freddie’s mental one, and the fact that she is, like Freddie, surrounded by violence which has ripped apart her life. Emphasised by the beautiful, green scenic landscape,and the rich, colour-filled descriptions of their surroundings,  which is as lovely as it is eerie, Fabrissa manages to create a spectral atmosphere which builds up as she reveals more secrets about her past. It is no accidental irony that as the re-enactment of the past and Fabrissa’s life begins to build up, so does the feeling of feeling alive become stronger for Freddie – and this can be interpreted in many ways, either as Freddie being distracted from his pain, or seeking emancipation through Fabrissa’s history.

There are several themes which run throughout this book, the beauty of landscape, the idea of male grief and suffering, and violent wars and the effects of it, which all work together to make a surprisingly subdued, yet effective ghost-story. Essentially, there is a love story at the heart of all this, yet it is also quite a tragic one which ultimately suggests that grief is the pervading, although educational, factor in all of this. But the real feeling you’re left with at the end of this novel is one of feeling slightly haunted, the unspoken sense of violence and the powerful sense of wanting to be alive is a lasting one, which creates an unsettling feeling which stays a while after you have finished reading.

Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts (Orion Books: London 2010) pp. 282 £7.99

Adele: The forgotten heroine in ‘Jane Eyre’

“You have not quite forgotten little Adele, have you, reader?” – Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Emma Tenant’s latest re-imagining of a Bronte classic, “The French Dancer’s Bastard” appears to give the character of Adele a voice that was previously absent; suggesting that Charlotte Brontë wrapped up Adele’s story too easily, and “It was all a little more complicated than that.” Tennant thus uses this novel as a platform to create the figure of Adele, a complex character who is heavily affected by the events at Thornfield Hall, as well as her own roots. It is interesting that while Jane Eyre and even Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea point towards post-colonialism, especially towards the Caribbean, Tennant chooses to focus on the image of France as a post-revolution region. As a result, we are left with a stateless Adele, she feels as if she has been torn from her roots in a changed France, and is unable to assimilate herself in a cold, foreign England. It is something to note also, that this novel aligns itself neatly with Wide Sargasso Sea rather than using Bronte’s Jane Eyre as its canon. Thus, many details in this novel are familiar concepts from for readers of Wide Sargasso Sea, as the author takes familiar literary concepts and ‘re-writes’ them.

We are presented with, initially, an image of France as a happy, delightful “glass palace”, in which Adele’s life is surrounded by clowns, dancers and entertainers. Through the world of theatre, acting, pantomime and imagination, Adele’s childhood appears very much to be presented through rose-tinted glasses, which heightens the enchantment of her colourful life, as well as charismatic her beautiful mother Celine Varens. The flowery language and poetic descriptions appear to symbolise the vitality of Paris, which helps to disguise the underlying financial problems that Celine faces, as well as the social stigma which has been subtly weighed on her due to her occupation and her care-free attitude. In contrast to this is the prospect of a grey and foreign country, that is, England which primarily is presented as synonymous with the dark ‘Mr Edward’. The stark difference in the gloomy, mysterious and English Mr Edward compared to Adele’s light, gay and French mother further polarises the two world that Adele faces. Thus it becomes easy for Adele to dislike her rigid Papa, preferring to root herself in the easy Paris lifestyle, and choosing to retain its manner in her own personality, which becomes more apparent when she is uprooted and sent to England. Both Edward/Adele’s perspective in the beginning are full of innocence, remaining ignorant to what will happen, which it oculd be argued eventually leads to their disillusion.

Adele shows her awareness of Edward buying her mother, and perhaps by connotation his oppression of Celine. This is no accident, hinting to history and the French revolution in which the ‘Ancien Regime’ was overthrown. As Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre point to the colonisation of the native by the English, similarly, The French Dancer’s Bastard appears to show how the French, namely in the guise of both Celine and Adele, have been tamed by the symbolic English figure. Celine consistently asserts that the French has been ‘freed’ after the revolution, but the author suggests otherwise, stating that it may not be as black and white as this.

And so, the character of Bertha/Antoinette also becomes a significant feature in addition to this theme. While her madness ensures a form of prison for her, similarly, England is a prison for Adele, in which is it shown as a as dark, unpleasant place to live, showing echoes of a young ‘Antoinette’ from Wide Sargasso Sea. In this way, Adele identifies with Bertha, even seeing Bertha as a different strand of the French variety, unable to distinguish the difference in her own French roots and the exotic Creole prisoner. Describing Antoinette as her French queen, Adele attempts to put a different slant on her ‘madness’ and how she has been presented to the outside world. Contrasting Celine’s ideas of ‘freedom’ and revolutionary policies, Antoinette appears to be more of a maternal figure to Adele than her own detached mother. While asserting that  “Antoinette may be white but bears effect of slavery”, we see a similarly in how the identity of Adele, just like Antoinette, is distorted and shaped, particularly by Edward. From small details such as changing her name to ‘Adela’ from ‘Adele’, and effectively Anglicising it, to her very way of life, Edward asserts his authority on Adele, symbolising a patriarchal domination, as well as symbolising a colonial power.

Throughout the novel, Adele always seems to be playing a role – for her mother, for the circus, as a ‘bastard’, a loving child for Edward. This always appears to be a role, which makes it clear why she ultimately bottles up her own true self and her love: “Why do you live the life of someone who doesn’t exist?”
Corresponding to this, Edward himself finds it difficult to relate to Adele, feeling as if he is haunted by her, and viewing her as a “devil’s child”, expressing doubts that she is even his child, yet at the same time acknowledging that it is likely she is his due to their temperaments. The novel itself is has a fairly tragic tone, sympathising with Adele and her quest for love: “One day Papa will love me all the time”. Coupled with the reader’s knowledge from the start of the novel that her mother will soon leave her, Adele is presented as a very lonely figure, and it is no wonder that she further becomes a confused, complex character.

Throughout the novel, we see both Edward’s perspective corresponding to Adele’s, assumingly this is to show their similarities in their natures, as well as their own confusions and uncertainties. Although Tennant puts across a valid point in ‘rewriting’ a history for Adele, since she was previously ignored and neatly tied up with the rest of Jane Eyre, there are a lot of inconsistencies, mainly due to the novel aligning itself too Wide Sargasso Sea rather than using Jane Eyre as its canon. There are various details, especially in the figure of Antoinette/Bertha and the history of Edward and his mistresses and conquests, which are not elaborated in Jane Eyre. The subtle differences and changes in both Adele’s character and her relationship with Mr Rochester are also something to consider, as there appears to be stark difference in their characters, which does not quite seem to add up.

There are also, almost comical, ‘explanations’ to the events in the first novel, such as Mrs Fairfax attempting to make both Jane as well as Adele take responsibility for a fire that she herself started, and the vagueness in the circumstances of Bertha’s death. Also something which is difficult to take in is the idea that Celine is the ‘one’ true love of Edward Rochester’s life, which is something he is unable to let go of, and essentially begins to unravel the themes in the original novel. Similarly, features such as Celine’s occupation from being simply a dancer to a circus wirewalker and entertainer are a little incredible to accept for this era, suggesting that Tennant attempts to add some sensationalism to the novel, in order to make Adele seem more angst-ridden and to heighten the contrast between French and English.

Also something to look at here is the idea of colonisation and the whole master-servant relationship explored here. Whereas Wide Sargasso Sea provides a voice for the West Indian side and writes back, this novel attempts to describe the ‘freedom’ of the French and the idea of truth as a form of freedom, which for some readers may not always ring true.

The novel is split into three parts which symbolise significant eras of Adele’s life, with Part One focussing on her childhood in France and her feelings of alienation in England, Part Two looking at her verge on adolescence and her wanting to go back to her ‘roots’ in following her mother’s steps, and Part Three in which she attempts to reconciliate her two sides of her and her incompleteness. Despite her assertion that “I belonged nowhere”, Adele’s search for her roots, identity and her family show that like Jane Eyre herself, she is looking for love and acceptance. While there are many incongruities in the novel which do not match the original plot, I think that Tennant is attempting to create a similar type of ‘new’ heroine in Adele. While Adele very much at times seems like a lost, emotional teenager, she does not let this shape her, choosing to accept what she does have and choosing to simply “move into the next stage of our lives”.