I’m in London just now, and I recently went—for the first time—to Sir John Soane’s Museum. Soane, an eminent 18th-century English architect who designed the Bank of England among other important edifices, spent some fifty years building and expanding his home and collections at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. When he died in the 1830s, the house and its interior remained almost entirely preserved as he left it, eventually opening as a museum. From the 1790s into the Regency period, Soane bought up and demolished three houses (numbers 12, 13, and 14) and rebuilt them as a series of rooms that express his singular vision of interiority. The spaces were also formed to display his various collections: of paintings such as Fuseli’s The Count of Ravenna and Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress; of antiquities from Rome and Greece; of gothic remnants, fragments, and ephemera. While these miscellaneous objects are of interest (some are even quite precious), it remains the place itself—its curious corners, its layers of light and gloom, its secret spaces tucked behind walls with hidden openings—that holds an ever-fresh charm and vitality. It’s a house that somehow speaks, or rather whispers intimately just in one’s ear.
Fuseli's The Count of Ravenna
One of the house’s great wonders comes from Soane’s attentiveness to the ability of mirrors and colored panes of glass to enchant a room. He figured out how to transform a little space into a series of spaces, through built-in mirrors behind mantels, surrounding bookshelves, on doors, on the inside of shutters, or in other ingenious places easy for the eye to miss (but not hard for one to sense in the general feel of the space). Convex, rounded mirrors set in corners and hanging along mid-room archways splash reflected light around spaces in strange ways. Light needed to be caught and spread, so he angled windowpanes upward and set gratings into floors so that the brilliance would leak downward into the underground rooms. Primrose yellow or rose-tinted glass set into many-tiered skylights cast a glowing, slightly nacreous illumination on the marble fragments, wood floors, and miscellaneous objects. Things of all sort seem to find their element in such light, as if the little sculptural pieces—and that skeleton in the corner—might find new life.
Soane wanted to capture the present just as it was leaving for good—or being actively destroyed. Many of the things in his collections, and parts of the house itself, were gathered from London and European buildings demolished or rebuilt, often in order to be replaced by more fashionable shapes (sometimes the latter were of his own design). In the two small inner-courtyards seen from a variety of windows, Soane arranged such architectural leftovers as a term and capital from Furnival’s Inn, Holborn, a mid-17th-century structure demolished in 1818, and two arches that were formerly window openings in the old House of Lords, Westminster, a 13-century building dismantled in 1822. Panels of medieval stained glass make up the fanlight. The gothic pedestals he inserted in the front of No. 13 came from the 14th-century north front of Westminster Hall, which was rebuilt by Soane himself from 1819 to 1822. He also gathered parts of edifices that had been pulled down in the very distant past, such as the portion of a Roman alter with bulls’ heads from the first century A.D. he kept in his study. What interested Soane was the trace—of much larger things, of more expansive times, of eras long gone. His small collection of fossils represents this fascination ideally: a creature’s most minute details impressed permanently in stone.
Soane’s house holds tinges of death and of melancholy. One feels this descending into the basement, with its giant sarcophagus (of the Egyptian King Seti I), its cast of a skull adorning the center of a table, and the looming gravestone and “ruined cloister” in one of the small courtyards, seen through a window. On the tombstone is inscribed “Alas, Poor Fanny,” a lament for Mrs. Soane’s dog (there are many references to this beloved dog throughout the house). He described these rooms as meant to “impress the spectator with reverence for the monk,” and he called them the Monk’s Parlour and the Monk’s yard. One begins to realize that Sloane is teasing here, especially when his description, a quotation from Horace, is considered: “it is pleasant to be nonsensical in due place.” With these crypt-like rooms, Soane was satirizing the fashion for the gothic during his lifetime, especially follies like Strawberry Hill (and gothic novels like The Monk and The Mysteries of Udolpho). Yet these rooms are also infused with an atmospheric loveliness. Soane’s house can hold these many layers: it’s a meditation on time’s passing, on the movement of light and life, but it’s also a thing of light-hearted whimsy.
A mourning ring with a lock of Napoleon's Hair, an item in Soane's collection
My kind friend Tony recently bought me a rather expensive ticket to Sleep No More, a theater piece put on by the British company Punchdrunk. Punchdrunk has taken over a 5-floored warehouse space in Chelsea and transformed it into what appears to be an abandoned, pre-World War II hotel called the Mckittrick, with close to 100 rooms. Let me start by saying that I am no theater lover, so I mean it as the highest compliment when I say that this experience was nothing like theater. This work is a temporary art installation, with each room a wonderfully curated space. The audience (wearing masks and asked not to speak) is free to wander around the many rooms, doing whatever they desire there. The actors occasionally interact with the spaces with silent dance numbers that are sexually charged, passionate, and acrobatic (I watched one attractive young man climb a wall and hang over a narrow hallway). There appear to be some Macbeth-inflected scenes (lots of death, blood, and nudity), but the little pieces seemed entirely, and evocatively, unnarrative, to me. The only story they tell is their ability to leave traces of unrequited desire in haunted places and objects.
Even though the work seems to be set in the early 20th century, much of it has a late-Victorian feel. It also shows the influence of Joseph Cornell; indeed, being there can feel like walking around inside his boxes. (Also: if it weren’t so sophisticated, it would recall those haunted houses from my small-town, American youth.) All is dark and backlit with flickering candle light. Torch songs by female warblers emerge, scratchily, from ancient, wooden radios. There is a ballroom, a real bar (where one can order absinthe punch) and a shadow bar with vines growing among the broken glasses and ripped-up chairs thrown in a corner, where one can only pick up dust (and some left-over blood). There is a check-in desk with keys hanging and cubbyholes containing mail and packages. Old phone booths in the lobby; numerous book-lined, flocked-wall-papered studies; and store rooms with left luggage stacked high are the most quotidian delights. A dining room with tables set and ready spills a mound of salt out of one corner with, magically, a taxidermied deer emerging, startled, from the white.
salty dining room
On one floor can be found a hospital wing, with rows of white beds in one room and a row of bathtubs in another. A collection of hair snippets from the absent patients sits, giving a feel of death. There are rooms of a lunatic asylum of the old-fashioned sort, with a padded cell where it looks like a blackbird exploded (as effective a metaphor for insanity as I can think of). To represent the presence of the mentally lost is a howling (taxidermied) dog, which is indescribably moving. There is a taxidermy shop, with a sad deer looking out from a forest. Workshops have desks on which sit decomposed animals, waiting for the taxidermist to come back and pick up her tools. A baby’s room has an empty crib, with headless dolls floating near the ceiling. A little girl’s sleeping chamber contains a mirror that turns the gazer into a ghost (I’ve never experienced a mirror like this before – how does it work? Who knows).
locks of hair
waiting to be assembled
There is an egg-themed sitting room, with a pile of eggs under a glass dome, glowing from inside. Little eggs line the wall, cut out and peopled with miniature scenes. The miniature is a common element—tiny actions in boxes, drawers, or other small spaces. An inversion of interior and exterior recurs. There is a graveyard and a winter forest with a little hut. There are smoky ruins, and a melancholy garden. Again and again, I discovered spaces imbued with secrets, lost pasts, and the remains of those departed. This is a museum of dreams, of nightmares, of reverie. I never wanted to leave.
It’s difficult for us to understand the Victorian interest in taxidermy, which ran wide and deep, especially for those who are animal-rightists, vegetarians, or vegans. Taxidermy was so popular that ladies’ journals of the era explained how women could kill, skin, and mount their own birds, reptiles, and other little creatures at home. Anyone with the time or leisure might take up the genteel pursuit of botany, entomology, or naturalism more generally. Collecting flora and fauna, studying it and creating elegant displays of it—think of shadow boxes with pinned butterflies, labeled carefully—for the home was fashionable. This was partially due to the sciences still not being fully professionalized—a process in development throughout the 19th century—so that almost anyone might jump in and claim some expertise. A deep need also existed to tame nature, to prove that it could be classified, organized, and displayed sedately in the parlor.
But the work of Walter Potter was something extravagant even for the Victorians. He created elaborate dioramas of taxidermied animals—like kittens—enacting polite, human rituals, such as having a tea party. Frogs play leapfrog in one work, and birds have an elaborate Victorian funeral (with an owl as the grave digger) in “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.” These pieces are splendid flights of the imagination. If you will be in London over the next few months, don’t miss the works from Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, on display at the Museum of Everything. A good article on the show:
Walter Potter's School for Rabbits
Potter's The Kitten's Tea Party
My fascination with Victorian pornography came from an act of collecting. It started with the 3,000-page memoir My Secret Life, written around the 1870s by an anonymous, sex-obsessed gentleman. Its many volumes became, speedily, coveted objects. They would seem to glow on my bookshelves, their leaf-green jackets tight around the textured paper. Other titles took their place beside them, such as The Power of Mesmerism, Teleny, and The Romance of Lust. Once my interest in Victorian pornographers kicked in, I discovered a neat symmetry. Many of these nineteenth-century fellows were themselves book collectors, and, like myself, they especially hankered after rare erotica. They started with the love of esoteric, hard to acquire (illegal, even) books and then moved on to penning them. Would I, too, come to be a pornographer?
The thing I like about old porn is not really the sex. There is some titillation to be had there, sure, but the liveliness is in the everyday minutiae. I wanted to know how a prostitute would be picked up on those foggy, gaslit London streets. What sort of room would they retire to? How much would she charge? Clothing, furniture, and implements seemed important to me: the settings of Victorian sex. I suppose this is a key reason I don’t enjoy contemporary pornography much: the décor is atrocious, as are the garments to be peeled off. The spaces they do it in are obscene, and not in the good way. Steven Marcus, in his book The Other Victorians, coins the term “pornotopia”: the “utopia” in porn where all acts and objects are only props that increase sexual pleasure. For me, then, Victorian pornography provides the best paradise. The “thing-ness” of these narratives delights me. Material objects in Victorian writing of all types have a stirring weightiness to them, as if the Victorians knew better than we how to milk pleasure out of the stuff and substance of daily life.
Books themselves, like rooms, were not meant to just house content—sexual acts, in the case of pornography. No, their materiality, their animation as meaty things, could mean just as much. When I gaze on my shelf of Victorian porn, the volumes gleam, their covers and pages tensed, like limbs, for sensual action.
I’ve been staying in Haworth, West Yorkshire for a few days, doing research at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. I feel a little abashed admitting this, since it’s such a tourist destination and coming here—and relishing it, as I most certainly am—is a little like admitting a nerdy love of romance novels or something similar that is too earnest and impassioned. Yet my embarrassed attraction remains, and both of these emotions arise repeatedly since the house and environs of Emily, Charlotte, Anne and the rest of the family fit exactly all the clichés that have developed around their novels.
The house sits right up against a packed graveyard, its tall, large gravestones covered with a green moss that also grows on the surrounding dry-stone walls and the towering trees. These trees are inhabited by noisy blackbirds that almost constantly call in their gloomy voices across the graveyard and house. The town and parsonage occupy a high, windy eminence, the cobbled streets so steep the horses would to slip backwards when trying to climb them. The buildings are all a grey stone, with slate roofs, mostly dating from the 18th century but looking medieval in their primitive blockiness. The surrounding moors are dramatic, lonely, and desolate, with ruins, dark heather and bracken, the air “wuthering” as it is so perfectly described in the novel.
In order to see items of clothing, tresses of hair, and other relics that were not displayed publicly in the museum, I arranged in advance with the librarians/curators. I was charmed to find that the helpful women who showed me these objects had a tinge of the gothic about them, their clothing all black, with red lipstick, black hair, and high, black boots. Even though it all fits the stereotype perfectly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. While Emily, Charlotte and Anne first took their gothic notions from the Romantic poets and the Gothic novelists before them, in particular Byron and Scott, their novels have persisted in a way their predecessors haven’t. To them—and to the environs that nurtured them—do we owe the high romance with the gothic today: vampires included.
For more on the Museum: http://www.bronte.org.uk/
On March 1, I’ll be conversing with the artist David Salle about artistic collaboration, Victorian pornography and art, and other topics. Please come!
New York Public Library
Stephen A. Schwartzman Building
Margaret Liebman Berger Forum
. . . resulting in this interview, about Victorian pornography and sexuality.
On Friday I went to the Morgan Museum to see “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.” Victorians are richly represented here, as are some of my favorite American ponderers on the writing self, such as Thoreau and Whitman. We get to see the minuscule handwriting of Charlotte Brontë, which she initially developed as a child so that her writing could be kept secret from adult eyes. In the diary paper at the show, she writes of her dreary life as a teacher at Roe Head. “Well here I am at Roe Head. It is seven o’clock at night, the young ladies are all at their lessons, the school-room is quiet, the fire is low, a stormy day is at this moment passing off in a murmuring and bleak night.” Fanny Grenfell’s tortured musings of desire for Charles Kingsley, whom she would eventually get to marry, appear in her diary, written in the format of love letters she was forbidden by her parents to send to him. The most moving diary to me is John Ruskin’s. The Morgan exhibits a few empty pages, which Ruskin deliberately kept as a record of a psychotic break he had for a few months in 1878, which he called “the Dream.” On a similar note, Walter Scott kept a diary primarily to resist “the cold sinkings of the heart” that troubled him occasionally. When looking at these lovely volumes and the variety of handwritings (some even in code!), I felt a sense of reverence for their materiality. These are true relics: touched by the hands, the wholly unique handwriting, of these great writers and thinkers.
Come to a reading and conversation with Susan Crain Bakos, acclaimed sex writer and author of The Sex Bible and Kink: The Hidden Sex Lives of Americans at Greenlight Books, in Fort Greene.
686 Fulton Street
Also, the New York Post makes some interesting comments about the event:
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Join me and Rachel Kramer Bussel for a bawdy conversation about Victorian pornography and women’s sexual pleasures. Bussel is the editor of many anthologies of women’s erotica, and she hosted the renowned “In the Flesh” reading series at Happy Ending.
McNally Jackson Bookstore
52 Prince Street