Michael Caine in A Muppets Christmas Carol (1992).
I should probably come right out and say that I did not grow up with A Christmas Carol. In my defense, I am neither British nor American; the story is not as culturally significant in the Netherlands as it is in other parts of the world. Until very recently, my only exposure to the story had been through snippets of the Muppets, Blackadder, and Scrooged. I had some vague idea of the plot and its characters, but I had never seen a full movie adaptation, let alone read the book. Every year I told myself that I would finally pick it up and read it for myself, and every year I either forgot or decided to read other holiday books instead (last year’s pick: Hogfather).
I think I knew that this book would be almost impossible to review. It is the quintessential Christmas read, has been adapted a billion times into other media, and has an iron-clad place in Anglo-American culture. It’s like trying to come up with a fresh perspective on Hamlet; everything has already been said – and probably much better by people much cleverer than you.
So… No pressure.
We all love our Dickensian tales about evil stepmothers and adorable orphans who have to make their own way in a dark world – but sometimes they get lucky. Fiction has given us some of the most loving and supportive adoptive parents you will ever see, and these ten foster families particularly warm my heart.
Image Credit: CardAid.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, and what better way to spend the winter holidays than curling up in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and a good book? Here is a list of works to get you in the christmas spirit, ranging from familiar classics to more recent publications.
“La Miseria” (1886) by Cristobal Rojas.
Remember how Victorians thought tuberculosis was the ultimate Romantic disease?
In the 1800s, TB (or “consumption” as it was known then) was considered to be a desirable way to die because it was the sign of a delicate, sophisticated soul. Looking like a TB patient even became the height of Victorian fashion; women would paint little veins on the side of their face and drink vinegar in an attempt to bleach their skin and become as pale as possible (as immortalised in this Horrible Histories sketch). In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that our current obsession with skinny models is a trend rooted in this consumption craze.
TB was a particularly popular way to kill off characters in nineteenth-century literature. Authors delighted in glorified descriptions of trembling men and women with gigantic dark eyes who had somehow become wiser and even saint-like through their condition (usually glossing over the less attractive aspects like the excruciating pain and the smell).
The Shining (1980).
Two siblings look alike.
“Ophelia” (1852), John Everett Millais.
Victorians were obsessed with death in general and suicide in particular. For women who wanted to take their own lives, drowning was a common choice and the image of a female body floating in the water became a popular one in the Victorian imagination. This idea was heavily romanticised: it was like these women (especially “fallen women”) had been cleansed of their former sins and had found a quiet beauty in the (imagined) quiet serenity of their demise.
Artists and writers depicted women falling out of windows, jumping off bridges, and walking into lakes. Performances of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were very popular, the painting of Ophelia by Millais (see above) was painted and exhibited in 1852, and in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Lord Henry asks Dorian how he knows that “Hetty isn’t floating at the present moment in some starlit mill-pond, with lovely water-lilies around her, like Ophelia?”
As Foucault noted in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1988),
when civilization, life in society, the imaginary desires aroused by novel reading and theatergoing [sic] provoke nervous ailments, the return to water’s limpidity assumes the meaning of a ritual of purification; in that transparent coolness, one is reborn to one’s first innocence.
“A New Vice: Opium Dens in France”, cover of Le Petit Journal, 5 July 1903.
In nineteenth-century England, opium was both a popular recreational drug and pharmaceutical (in the form of laudanum or poppy tea). The mysterious effect of the narcotic and the gloom of the “Oriental” opium dens spread across London appealed to many Victorian authors, and some Romantics claimed that the drug fueled dreams were a great source of creative inspiration.
Lady Justice statue on top of the Old Bailey, London.
Lady Justice can be a cruel mistress and since writers thrive on the pain and confusion of their characters, there are a number of famous lawyers and court scenes to be found in fiction.
A tribute to two of my favourite art forms: literature and musical theatre! If you’ve ever watched Les Mis and found yourself thinking, “you know what this needs? A monologue on the history of the Parisian sewer system”, this is the list for you.