R.I.P.Challenge II The Murders in the Rue Morgue

The Murders in the Rue Morgue from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

I’m finding these short stories interesting, if not spine chilling, although some of the descriptions (as in this story) turn my stomach.

This short story is the forerunner of the detective story, in which an amateur discovers who committed the crime through using his superior skill and logic when the police are baffled.

The key to this story is analysis. It opens with an account of analysis using the games of draughts, chess and whist as comparison. Poe writes:

‘œAs the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.’™

Monsieur C Auguste Dupin is the amateur, the analyst, who discovers the identity of the murderer of an old lady and her daughter. About 3 o’™clock in the morning the neighbours in the Rue Morgue, Paris are awakened by a succession of terrific shrieks. The daughter is found on the fourth floor of the house behind a locked door (locked on the inside). The room is in the ‘œwildest disorder’™, there is a razor smeared with blood and tresses of long, grey, bloody hair, apparently pulled out by the roots. There was no sign of a body, but one was eventually found in the chimney:

‘œ ‘¦ and (horrible to relate!) the corpse of the daughter, head downward, was dragged therefrom: it having been thus forced up the narrow aperture for a considerable distance.’

The body of the mother is found in the yard at the rear of the building ‘œ’¦ with her throat so entirely cut that, upon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off.’

Both bodies showed signs of brutal mutilation, vividly described by Poe. There are several people who gave evidence all differing about the nationality of the voices that they heard coming from the building. There is seemingly no way that the murderer could have either entered or left the room, or indeed the building. Dupin with his superior analytical skill manages to uncover the fantastical sequence of events that resulted in the murders and establishes the identity of the killer.

Poe’™s style is detailed and to match the character of Dupin is detached and dispassionate. Apart from the horrific details of the state of the bodies there is nothing macabre in this tale. I could guess the identity of the murderer, but I think that’™s because I’™ve seen films and read books with a similar storyline ‘“ lifted from Poe, I now suspect. Dupin is not a particular likeable detective, but he uses his little grey cells in a manner much like Agatha Christie’™s Poirot and, of course, Conan Doyle’™s Sherlock Holmes.

Lewis Carroll … Again

Whilst in Stratford last week I browsed the bookshops, one of my favourite pastimes, and couldn’t resist buying The Complete Stories and Poems of Lewis Carroll. I have my old and well-worn copy of Through The Looking Glass but I don’t have the copy of Alice in Wonderland that I read as a child. So I was delighted to see this book with the Tenniel illustrations and other stories and poems by Carroll that I haven’t read before.

Included in the book are Sylvie and Bruno, The Hunting of the Snark, as well as early verses and college rhymes, and acrostic and other poems.

The Tenniel woodcut illustrations are brilliant. Here is the Mad Hatter, singing:

“Twinkle, Twinkle little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.”
Tenniel sounds like a stickler for perfection and the first edition of Alice had to be re-printed because he was not satisfied with the printing of his pictures. Most of the copies of the original edition were recalled but some survived and are now worth a fortune.

When Through the Looking Glass was being produced Tenniel sent Carroll his drawing of the Jabberwock for the frontispiece. Carroll was concerned that children would be frightened by the monster and sent copies of the drawing to thirty mothers asking their opinion. They agreed that it was too frightening and so the drawing of the White Knight was used at the front of the book and the Jabberwock was relegated to the text. I like the White Knight, but actually when I was a child I was fascinated by the Jabberwock and didn’t find the drawing the slightest bit frightening.

Looking at it now it does look terrifying and I can understand how a parent would find it alarming – strange how one’s perception changes.

My love of words probably stems from Through The Looking Glass. I remember learning and reciting the Jabberwocky as I enjoyed the sounds, without understanding exactly what it means:

“‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jujub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch.”

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.'”

Brilliant!

Stratford and Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre

D and I have been away for a few days. We went to Stratford to see Twelfth Night at The Courtyard Theatre. Although we have stayed in Stratford several times over the last 10 years and watched several plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company we had never been to The Courtyard Theatre before. We were quite surprised that it was some distance away from the main theatre and in what looks like a large rusty metal box. Fortunately the inside is nothing like the outside and the auditorium is impressive, seating over 1,000 people, with the audience seated around three sides of the stage. We were in the stalls and had a really good view of all the action on the stage.

On previous visits to Stratford it has been crowded with tourists and we’ve never visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. We didn’t make it this time either, but when we walked up to The Courtyard theatre in the morning before the matinee we followed the signs to Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised in 1564, where he worshipped and where he is buried. Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church dating back to the 13th century, set in a lovely, peaceful position by the River Avon. Perhaps next time we’ll manage to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre.

We stayed at the Alveston Manor Hotel. We’ve stayed here before, as it is just a few minutes walk from the River Avon and the RSC Theatre and also because the original timber-framed house is a beautiful Tudor building, full of atmosphere – leaded Elizabethan windows, panelled walls lined with paintings of Shakespeare and characters from the plays and photographs of old playbills. It is set in gardens with an ancient Cedar Tree under which, it is rumoured, the first performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was given.

Twelfth Night

We went to the matinee performance. The theatre was full and as we waited for the play to start we overheard from the seats behind us: ‘Well Mother, this is going to be different. I’m hoping a lot of this will pass you by.’

At the end of the performance we overheard a conversation from a couple following behind us as we walked away from the theatre: ‘I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best.’ ‘Oh no’ came the friend’s reply ‘I didnt like Feste at all – ‘far too modern and the microphone! Her friend: ‘I didnt like Sir Toby, a woman doesn’t have enough stature to play a man.’ The cross-dressing was not to everyone’s liking, although I think the teenage element of the audience found it hilarious.

This was the second performance of Twelfth Night that we’ve seen by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. The first time was in the RSC theatre, now closed because a new auditorium is being built (due to be completed in 2010). That was a traditional performance, complete with Feste, the fool dressed in motley, playing a lute, an Elizabethan set and was very colourful and funny. This performance was different. The setting was black; nearly all the actors were dressed in black Edwardian costumes and not a box-tree in sight. Feste was a dissolute musician in evening dress, playing a grand piano, and using a microphone into which he drawled at the opening of the play ‘Twelfth Night – or What you Will ‘ –  and the scene was set. On came Viola, shipwrecked, barefoot and in a nightdress and shawl, and obviously a man.

The play continued – Viola, believing her twin brother, Sebastian has drowned in the wreck ‘disguised’ as a boy, Cesario, goes to the court of the Count Orsino, who is besotted with unrequited love of the Lady Olivia, who repels his wooing as she is in mourning for her dead brother. Everything is topsy-turvy in this play and this performance certainly demonstrated that, with Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a foolish foppish knight) and Fabian (a servant) all played by women, giving a pantomime performance and reminding me somewhat of the hobbits in Lord of The Rings – small in size but yet full grown and different from adult men. I could suspend my disbelief to enjoy their performance, even though I found it a bit bizarre, but I’m sorry to say that I found the performance of Viola/Cesario (Chris New) was just not convincing – even though I know that originally women’s roles were played by boys, there was no way that I could conceive he was a woman disguised as a boy, nor that Olivia could possibly find such an effeminate young man attractive, let alone fall in love with him and this grated and irritated me throughout the play.

I did like Feste (James Clyde); his foolery, his bored condescension and his singing were superb. I also liked Olivia (Justine Mitchell) and her housekeeper Maria (Siobhan Redmond) who both gave spirited and convincing performances. Malvolio (John Lithgow) was magnificent in his portrayal of the ridiculous steward driven into seeming madness, wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and smiling grotesquely. The grand piano had to stand in for the box-tree, so that this was where the tipsy Sir Toby (Marjorie Yates in tweeds) and the others hid to watch Malvolio find the letter written to fool him into believing Olivia loves him and it worked quite well, as the actors popped up and down commenting on and sniggering at Malvolio’s conceit and self importance.

Twelfth Night relies on the use of language and wit and is essentially a comedy about deception and disguise, about illusion and reality, about what is sane and what is rational and above all about love, the irrationality and unruliness of love.

Like the lady behind me I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best and I’d add Maria and Olivia as well – they were all excellent and made the play one that I enjoyed and will remember.

An added bonus was that whilst in Stratford I bought a hardback copy of Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: the Biography for the bargain price of £3.35.

Lewis Carroll, Photography and Memories of Childhood

I’™m reading Lewis Carroll: a biography by Morton N Cohen. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, two of my favourite books from childhood, was the pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 ‘“ 1898), a Victorian mathematics don at Oxford University.

In this post I’™m concentrating on Charles’™s keen interest in photography. This developed from his early drawings and sketches illustrating verses and short stories he wrote in the family magazines and booklets. By the time he was 24 in 1856 photography had become an absorbing pastime for him, encouraged by his uncle and fellow students at Oxford. He bought a camera, the necessary chemicals and the extensive and cumbersome equipment needed to take photographs. It was very different from photography today, when all you need is a small digital camera that goes easily in a pocket or handbag (unless you’™re a professional photographer, or very keen amateur) and the results can be instantly seen.

He arranged his photographs in albums, all indexed and listed in registers. He took landscapes, architecture, drawings and sculptures ‘“ but his main interest was in portraits of people, his family, friends and Oxford colleagues. Photography gave Charles entry to the Oxford social world through his portraits, mainly of small children. He introduced himself to Alfred Tennyson, as a result of simply arriving uninvited when Tennyson was visiting friends in Coniston and proposing to take photographs of his children.

His main focus was the Liddell children. Henry Liddell was the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, where Charles had become Mathematical Lecturer in 1855. The Liddell family included Alice and her older sister Lorina. Charles was a great favourite with the Liddell family and the stories he told to them and in particular to Alice were later published as Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He became well known as a portrait photographer and took many photographs of friends’™ families, enjoying the theatricality of dressing up, using props and composing scenes for his set pieces. He was particularly interested in the composition of his photographs for proportion and balance, and examined other photographers’™ work at the Exhibition of he British Artists in London in 1857 ‘œ’¦ chiefly for the arrangement of hands to help in grouping of photographs.’

Photography in the 1850s was a complicated and intricate business. You needed a darkroom to prepare the ‘œplate’ ‘“ film didn’™t come into use until the 1880s ‘“ by pouring a gummy solution of collodion onto a glass plate. This had to be carefully prepared so that it wasn’™t smudged or spoiled by dust particles and then carried to the camera. Once the plate had been exposed you then had to rush back to the darkroom to develop it and then it had to be fixed, varnished and allowed to dry.

For outdoor photography all the equipment, including a darkroom tent and water for rinsing the plate when there was no fresh water available, had to be transported to the countryside. There was so much equipment that Charles had to hire a porter and a carriage or horse-drawn van to carry it all. It was a major expedition and not surprisingly Charles didn’t take many landscape photographs.

Photography is no longer such a difficult process, so much so that we take it for granted. My grandchildren are used to instant digital photographs and have no idea of what it was like when I was a child, anymore than I had any idea of what photography was like when my parents were children, let alone in the 1850s. My dad had a Kodak Box Brownie camera and I remember waiting for what seemed like ages for our black and white holiday photos to arrive back from the chemists. You had to be careful with loading the film not to expose it and had to remember to wind it on between photos. Later we had colour film and then the excitement of Polaroid cameras when you could hold the print in your hand as it developed ‘“ instant photographs!

This has sent me on a trip down memory lane and here are some photos taken on the Box Brownie. I was about three in the photos on the beach. I think it’s amusing to see what my Dad wore on the beach – a jacket and with his trousers rolled up for paddling.

I’m perhaps a bit older in the photo with my Mum, looking at lots of sandpies. We used to go to New Brighton in the summer, so I think these photos were taken there.

Here I am in the garden at home looking very fed up at having to pose in front of the raspberry bushes for the photo. The last photo is of me and my Taid (Welsh for grandfather) – my mum’s dad. Granny and Taid came to live with us when I was 6.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott – R.I.P. Challenge II

On the cover Iain Pears describes Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott as ‘a compelling contemporary love story and a fascinating historical investigation.’I’ll add to this that it is a tale of the supernatural concerning two mysteries – one from the present day and one from the 17th century, where the past and the present are seen to overlap.

As indicated by the title the book is haunted by ghosts. It’s also full of alchemy, mysterious figures, quantum physics and animal liberation campaigns. All of which make a potent mixture. This is the second book I’ve read recently with alchemy as a theme – see The Season of the Witch, here.

It is set in Cambridge, following the death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a reclusive historian, found floating in the river that runs through her orchard, clutching an antique glass prism in one hand. Was it suicide, or was she murdered? Cameron, her son a neuroscientist, asks Lydia Brooke (formerly they were lovers) to finish writing his mother’s book about the 17th century and Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy. Lydia moves into Elizabeth’s house – a strange house full of light moving upon the walls, flickering, appearing and disappearing for no apparent reason. Lydia explains:

Light that looks like water- as if it’s reflected off a bowl of water. Rainbows that appear in little stubs that stretch out till they disappear, really slowly. I’ve tried photographing them but my camera doesn’t seem to be good enough to catch them.

The book moves in time between the present day and the future as well as the past. Life is seen as a palimpsest, layers of time overlapping and interweaving. It’s narrated by Lydia, who finds herself heading back into a relationship with Cameron, as she looks back on the events that lead up to a court case and into a series of mysterious deaths in the 17th century. At first I found it somewhat puzzling and fragmentary – who was being addressed and who is on trial, how did the animal liberation campaign fit in, what was Newton’s involvement, who was responsible for the deaths and how or if they were connected to the present day?

The image of ground elder with its tenacious roots joining a ‘great network of root systems underground’ indicates the connections that will be revealed as the story unfolds, once Lydia starts digging into the past. The paranormal is added to the mix through Elizabeth’s friend Dilys Kite, a psychic, who reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s character Alison in Beyond Black, who Lydia consults in an attempt to find out more about the past than is revealed in written sources. The interconnection theme is continued in the theories of quantum physics, with the mystery of how particles of light and energy, and time and space are intricately entangled.

The setting is brought to life through Stott’s beautiful descriptions of Cambridge, invoking the smells of the medieval fair, the colours along the River Cam and the landscape of the Fens. Colour and light play a large part in the book; a description I particularly like is this of the river:

Reflected colours ran from the brightly painted barges into the water. Greens – so many greens all around us: the silver-green of the underside of the willow trees, the emerald of the grass along the bank, the mottled grey-brown-greens of the scrubland on the common over the other side. Virginia Woolf had described the riverbanks as being on fire on either side of the Cam, but there was no such fire here now. Or at least not yet. There was red – rowan berries, rose hips, pyracanthas – but the red sat against the astonishing palette of autumn green like the sparks of a newly lit fire, like drops of crimson blood in the hedgerows.

A book to read and savour on many different levels.

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Crow Lake is one of those books that stick in my mind long after I’d finished reading it. I borrowed it from the library and wish I’d bought it, as it’s a book I’d like to re-read in the future. I read it quickly and didn’t make many notes, which means that I was too engrossed in my reading to jot down points of interest. In fact I just wanted to read on and on and was sorry when I finished it.

It tells the story of a family of four children living at Crow Lake in the north of Canada in an isolated house miles away from any town, with just a few other families in the vicinity. The narrator is Kate Morrison and the story unfolds as she looks back on her life, triggered by an invitation to her nephew’s 18th birthday party. When she was seven her parents were killed in a car crash, leaving her, her baby sister and two teenage brothers, orphaned. The trauma of their parents’death affects the children in different ways and as Kate looks back on the events that followed she begins to see that not everything was as it seemed to her at the time.

Things that struck me as I read this book were thoughts about the nature of memories; the difficulties of understanding other people and feeling empathy; the relationship between character and destiny; and the concepts of free will and choice as opposed to being carried along by fate.

Kate has bottled up her memories thinking she has put the past behind her. But it’s not that easy, because years later when she received the invitation and saw her brother Matt’s handwriting she realised it was all still there, simmering away at the back of her mind:

I got the same old ache, centred more or less mid-chest, a heavy, dull pain, like mourning. In all those years it hadn’t lessened a bit.

From that point on, she goes back over the chain of events that had led to the tragedy linking her family with the Pye family who lived about a mile from the Morrisons and were their nearest neighbours and to Kate’s alienation from her family and Crow Lake.

The book focuses on Kate’s relationship with her brother Matt, in particular, but there are also wonderful descriptions of her baby sister Bo, with her independent defiant attitude and her oldest brother Luke, who sacrifices his career to look after his sisters. In addition the complex relationship Kate has with Dan Crane and his parents reflects the difficulties she has in coming to terms with herself and her family. Combine these memorable characters with the beautiful descriptions of Crow Lake and its ponds and the result is a memorable and lyrical novel.

Booking Through Thursday – Sunshine and Roses

Sunshine and Roses

The reverse of last week’™s question:

Imagine that everything is going just swimmingly. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all’™s right with the world. You’™re practically bouncing from health and have money in your pocket. The kids are playing and laughing, the puppy is chewing in the cutest possible manner on an officially-sanctioned chew toy, and in between moments of laughter for pure joy, you pick up a book to read . . .

What is it?

This is quite difficult to answer, but I think that I’d read a book I’ve not read before, probably by an author I like, such as Margaret Atwood. A couple of books that I would like to read again are Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase and M Scott Peck’s In Search of Stones. Both are books that I read with anticipation and they lived up to my expectations. Both are personal accounts of the authors’ beliefs and spiritual journeys.

The funny thing is that although I’ve got piles of unread books sometimes I can’t find the right one to read next and end up starting a few and feeling that they’re just not quite right. Then I pick up a book in a bookshop or the library and it’s the right one for that moment. The book I’m currently reading, Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson is a beautiful, but sad book (so far) and it’s just right at the moment, but if I was feeling sad myself it would probably make me feel worse.

Some books are hard to read because they’re so moving and I thought of Hannah’s Gift by Maria Housden when I first read this question, because it’s a book that I just couldn’t read if I was depressed. It’s the story of a mother’s three year old daughter’s illness and death and it is heartbreaking. It made me cry and I just had to stop reading it; I picked it up later because I felt I had to know the end.