When I wasn't reading in the British Library, I was...reading other things. OK, when I wasn't in a museum, conferencing, visiting my cousins, wandering around London, etc. But still, I read a few things.
Ronald Frame, Havisham. In the tradition of Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, but without the radical revisionism. Frame invents a backstory for Miss Havisham that roughly parallels Pip's, albeit a few rungs up the social ladder: the daughter of a wealthy brewer, she is shipped off to a somewhat down-at-heel aristocratic family for "finishing"--without knowing that her father has secretly paid off said family. In this familiar conflict between capitalist social climbing and the traditional ways, Catherine is initially disgusted by the taint of the money (symbolized by the actual stench of the brewery) that really sustains and subsidizes her social transformation; only her father's death, which reveals that her aristocratic friends have been self-interested all along, leads her to become a serious businesswoman instead of a leisured lady. In good Dickensian fashion, though, monetized relationships prove corrosive: her "friendship" with working-class Sally, which has slightly erotic undertones, eventually leads to her undoing at Compeyson's hands. Under the circumstances, Catherine's decision to make Satis House "a memorial to the real Catherine Havisham; a repository of holy relics" (256) extends the logic by which gentility is defined by things and etiquette instead of interiority; by purchasing identical wedding dresses and insistently making herself up as she was on the day of her thwarted marriage, she reduces her own identity to objects and repeated tasks, a theatricalized representation of ladylike behavior. Beyond this, the events of Great Expectations occupy relatively little of the novel, and while Frame makes Pip far brusquer than the original, he is recognizably the same character (unlike Carey's version); alert readers will notice that Pip's final encounter with Miss Havisham alludes to his attempt to save Estella in David Lean's famous adaptation from 1946. Estella's rather gloomy conclusion follows Dickens' original, deleted ending, leaving Pip a bachelor with aspirations to write a novel (i.e., Great Expectations). Fittingly enough, the novel concludes not with people, but with "the contents of Satis House" (359), the remnants of long-lost social aspirations, now long disconnected from their origins and sadly out of fashion. Overall, the novel amplifies some of Great Expectations' themes by translating them into a different social register and a different gendered trajectory, rather than undercutting the original as Carey does.
Robert Edric, The London Satyr. I've discussed Edric a couple of times before. Although he writes more fluidly in this novel than some of his earlier efforts, his first-person narrator, Charles Webster, has the same lack of affect that characterizes all of Edric's other POV characters. This strangely anesthetized effect derives, I think, from the narrator's emphasis on describing his actions instead of his motivations or feelings, alongside his tendency to carefully analyze other characters for clues. "I left her and walked to the lilac stump," says Webster of a day with his wife at his late daughter's grave, "smelling the scent of the blooms in the wet wood. I unfastened my collar and pulled down my tie. I unbuttoned my jacket. I took out Bliss' letter and opened it" (248). Undsoweiter. The "I" is insistent, and yet it seems little more than an accumulated series of movements described in clinical detail. The emptiness of Webster's "I" here underscores his ambiguous position in a complex social network that links the world of Henry Irving's Lyceum to the underworld of the Victorian porn industry to the other-world of spiritualism. Webster, the Lyceum's in-house photographer, has been recruited by the mysterious Marlow to provide theatrical costumes for erotic photography; alas for all concerned, one of Marlow's wealthy clients has murdered a pre-adolescent prostitute whom Marlow once photographed, and the subsequent investigation threatens to reveal not only Webster's involvement, but also that of an entire network of upper-class sex criminals. Despite this sensationalism, the plot actually goes out with a proverbial whimper. Edric is far more interested in linking photography, sexuality, and performance: the photograph's apparent ability to capture a moment forever lost in time, preserving stasis instead of motion, intersects with spiritualism's promise that the lost dead can be momentarily brought back into contact with the living, while the pornographic photograph turns out to be as much a staged performance as is the aging Henry Irving's attempt to act Romeo. Similarly, spiritualism lends itself to celebrity culture as much as the theatre--which, in turn, depends on the photographer both to provide advertising (the actor's headshot) and to create an artifical record of theatre's evanescence. The murder, then, raises some harsh questions about this closed circle of late-Victorian theatricality, in which representation seems far more important than action, and often relies on open or implied exploitation (the medium's figuratively vampiric relation to the bereaved relatives, for example).
Maria McCann, The Wilding. Not a direct sequel to her earlier As Meat Loves Salt, but follows on from it chronologically (the earlier novel is set during the English Civil War; this is post-Restoration). The Wilding is a Gothic coming-of-age tale, set in a claustrophobically restricted range of locations. Over the novel's course, the protagonist, young Jonathan Dymond, progressively loses his innocence, his virginity, his livelihood, and, figuratively speaking, his parents, while he also inadvertently replicates his own abandonment by his real father. In good Gothic tradition, the plot concerns itself with legitimacy, paternity, and rights of succession, while making matters difficult thanks to adultery, attempted murder, rape, and incest. "Now that I come to reckon it up, I am like an orphaned child," says a puzzled Jonathan near the end (331); even the promise of a comic resolution, in the form of an arranged marriage to a reasonably well-off local girl, offers no actual solution to Jonathan's now-problematic sense of identity. The family he has "found" turns out to be one that he cannot claim, and yet, despite his wishes, he can no longer understand his adoptive parents in quite the same way. Even "father" is not really his title to have. It is symptomatic that the novel ends with Jonathan still "unsure" about whether or not to send the letter has written to his son (335).