Victorian Musings

Since I gave up on Trollope for the Classics Circuit a strange thing has happened. I thought that I would veer away from Victorian novels and towards something else. But that hasn’t happened. The great Victorian authors are calling me loudly.

It’s strange because the eight books I read this year for Our Mutual Read weren’t typical Victorian classics.

I read two wonderful travelogues by Victorian novelists who toured Cornwall: Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins and an Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall by Mrs Craik.

My third Victorian travelogue was an account of Thomas Cook’s first tour to Switzerland that was rediscovered after being lost for many years: Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal.

Back with fiction I met two gentlemen – Mr Tress and Mr Pugh – with extraordinary stories to tell in Curios by Richard Marsh.

I read two wonderful French works from the Victorian era: The Child by Jules Vallès and One Thousand and One Ghosts by Alexandre Dumas.

And I read two works by Louisa May Alcott for Margot’s All Things Alcott  Challenge. Thank you Margot, for inspiring me! I read Eight Cousins and A Long and Fatal Love Chase. I had intended to read Harriet Reisen’s  biography too, but the year is winding down and it’s not a book I want to rush. Next year, definitely.

Eight wonderful Victorian books and two challenges completed.

But I dropped Trollope and drifted away from Dickens, and now they are calling me back.

This year life got a little too busy and so I think I rushed a little too much at my reading. And now I realise that what I need is to immerse myself in a long slow-paced book, the kind of the books that Victorian Authors did so well.

I’m looking forward to reading some Dickens over Christmas, and in the new year I’m going to pick up The Old Curiosity Shop again. I have learned that one of the great things about reading Dickens is his stickability: I can put his books down for ages but I still remember everything when I pick them up again.

And I’m signing up for The Victorian Literature Challenge at Words Words Words.

I’m not reading from a fixed list, I’m going to read the books that call and the books that I discover along the way.

But a few authors and books are calling particularly loudly:

I’m going to try Trollope again: I just need to pick the right book at the right time, and not go wrong as I did this year.

Lifetime Reader has inspired me to reread Thomas Hardy.

And this might just be my year to read Vanity Fair. My mother had been telling me to read it for years, and she’s generally right about these things.

Mrs Gaskell is one of her favourites, and that’s part of the reason why I’m signing up for the Gaskell Reading Challenge at Gaskell Blog too. I’ve only read Cranford, so I have a good number still to choose my two books from.

My mother is quite frail now and she doesn’t have the concentration or the short-term memory to do much reading, yet she remembers details of books like Cranford and Vanity Fair that she read st school more than fifty years ago.

She will be pleased to see me reading the books that she loves, and she remembers enough details for us to be able to talk about them.

It’s a tribute to the skills of many Victorian novelists, and to the power of a wonderful teacher whose words my mother can still quote too.

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins

“Will you allow me, reader to follow the custom to which I have just adverted; and to introduce to your notice this Book, as a friend of mine setting forth on his travels, in whose well-being I feel a very lively interest. He is neither so bulky nor so distinguished a person as some of the predecessors of his race, who may have sought your attention in years gone by, under the name of “Quarto,” and in magnificent clothing of Morocco and Gold. All that I can say for his outside is, that I have made it as neat as I can—having had him properly thumped into wearing his present coat of decent cloth, by the most competent book-tailor I could find. As for his intrinsic claims to your kindness, he has only two that I shall venture to advocate. In the first place he is able to tell you something about a part of your own country which is still too rarely visited and too little known. He will speak to you of one of the remotest and most interesting corners of our old English soil. He will tell you of the grand and varied scenery; the mighty Druid relics; the quaint legends; the deep, dark mines; the venerable remains of early Christianity; and the pleasant primitive population of the county of Cornwall.”

I love Wilkie Collins. And I love my native Cornwall. So imagine my delight when I found a book by Wilkie Collins in the library’s Cornish room. Joy!

Rambles beyond Railways: Notes in Cornwall taken a-foot. A travelogue visiting so many places I know so well. Bliss!

And it gets better. The book I picked up was the original 1851 edition. And a bookplate at the front advises me that it was found, in tatters, in 1933, restored and then presented to the library. What a wonderful thing to do! And so I was holding the same edition that the author himself must have held. Wow!

But enough gushing; enough exclamation marks! What about the contents?

I am pleased to report that they were a delight.

The journey began aboard ship. In 1851 the railway stopped in Plymouth and so travellers had to be ferried across the River Tamar into Cornwall. The vogage is wonderfully related with such vivid descriptions and a helpful local local boatman coming to life on the page.

It was the start of a 214 mile walking tour – here’s where Wilkie Collins and his friend, the artist Henry Brandling travelled and stayed.

Plymouth to St. Germans Fourteen miles (by water) The Anchor
St. Germans to Looe Ten miles The Ship
Looe to Liskeard Nine miles Webb’s Hotel
Liskeard to Lostwithiel Eleven and a-half miles The Talbot
Lostwithiel to Fowey Eight miles The Ship
Fowey to St. Austle Nine miles Lynn’s Hotel
St. Austle to Truro Fifteen miles Pearce’s Hotel
Truro to Falmouth Eleven miles Royal Hotel
Falmouth to Helston Twelve miles The Angel
Helston to Lizard Town Twelve miles Lizard Town Inn
Helston (through Marazion) to Penzance Thirteen miles The Union Hotel
Penzance to Trereen Eleven miles Loggan Rock Inn
Trereen to Sennen (Land’s End) Six miles First and Last Inn
Sennen (by Botallack) to St. Ives Twenty miles Stephen’s Hotel
St. Ives to Redruth Fourteen miles Anderson’s Hotel
Redruth to Perranporth (Excursion to Piran Round) Ten miles Tywarnhayle Arms
Perranporth to St. Columb Major (Excursion to Vale of Mawgan) Fifteen miles Red Lion
St. Columb Major to Camelford Twenty miles The King’s Arms
Camelford to Tintagel Seven miles The Stuart Wortley Arms
Tintagel to Boscastle Three miles The Commercial Inn
Boscastle to Launceston Eighteen miles The White Hart


 It was a joy to be allowed to walk alongside them. There are so many highlights, and I will share just a few.

We visited the pretty fishing village of Looe:

 “At each side of you rise high ranges of beautifully wooded hills; here and there a cottage peeps out among the trees, the winding path that leads to it being now lost to sight in the thick foliage, now visible again as a thin serpentine line of soft grey. Midway on the slopes appear the gardens of Looe, built up the acclivity on stone terraces one above another; thus displaying the veritable garden architecture of the mountains of Palestine magically transplanted to the side of an English hill. Here, in this soft and genial atmosphere, the hydrangea is a common flower-bed ornament, the fuchsia grows lofty and luxuriant in the poorest cottage garden, the myrtle flourishes close to the sea-shore, and the tender tamarisk is the wild plant of every farmer’s hedge. Looking lower down the hills yet, you see the houses of the town straggling out towards the sea along each bank of the river, in mazes of little narrow streets; curious old quays project over the water at different points; coast-trade vessels are being loaded and unloaded, built in one place and repaired in another, all within view; while the prospect of hills, harbour, and houses thus quaintly combined together, is beautifully closed by the English Channel, just visible as a small strip of blue water, pent in between the ridges of two promontories which stretch out on either side to the beach.”

St Michael’s Mount. The place, the legends and the history. They all came to life.

“Look up at the Mount. Behold, where the naked granite alone rose before, a chapel with a tower, built on the pinnacle of the eminence, and a range of buildings by its side; both superb with the massive adornments of Saxon architecture, and both rising like crowns of beauty on the noble summit of the Mount. See, on that stone terrace before the chapel, which overlooks the causeway, a row of men in black robes, with the sign of the cross worked on them. Hear the music of the organ rising sublimely, and mingling with the chaunt of the advancing procession, as it already begins to toil up the steep ascent. Now, while the foremost ranks approach the terrace, one man steps forth from his brethren who stand there, and speaks, holding up a crucifix in his hand. His words, as he addresses those beneath him, fall slowly and distinctly from his lips. He tells his audience that here, on the pinnacle of the Mount, the Archangel Michael first descended to earth; he commends them for coming from afar to visit the holy place; he promises remission of their sins, by the authority which he and his brethren hold from the Apostles of Christ, to all who have journeyed to St. Michael’s Chapel for religion’s sake. When he ceases, the pealing of the organ swells louder and louder on the air, and the members of the throng below kneel together, bareheaded, on the earth. As the robed Abbot, who has just addressed them, stretches out his hands over the whole assembly and speaks the blessing of the Church, the scene fades, darkens, vanishes; and this view dissolves in its turn, as the last dissolved before it. You have just beheld the Mount as it was in the eleventh century, when the shrines of religion grew many in the land – as it was when King Edward the Confessor gave the place to Benedictine monks, and when pilgrims journeyed to it reverently from all parts of our native country.”

And just around the bay, a glimpse of my home town:

” Look on, some three miles away on the beach, and observe those long ranges of white walls fronting the sea; extending up the base of the hill, inland; and backed by fields, plantations, gardens, and country dwelling-houses, all intermingled charmingly on the broad surface of the rising ground. This place has grown out of a few cottages built by fishermen: it is the most western town in Cornwall – Penzance.”

Of course there were standing stones:

“If a man dreamt of a great pile of stones in a nightmare, he would dream of such a pile as the Cheese-Wring. All the heaviest and largest of the seven thick slabs of which it is composed are at the top; all the lightest and smallest at the bottom. It rises perpendicularly to a height of thirty-two feet, without lateral support of any kind. The fifth and sixth rocks are of immense size and thickness, and overhang fearfully, all round, the four lower rocks which support them. All are perfectly irregular; the projections of one do not fit into the interstices of another; they are heaped up loosely in their extraordinary top-heavy form, on slanting ground half-way down a steep hill. Look at them from whatever point you choose, there is still all that is heaviest, largest, strongest, at the summit, and all that is lightest, smallest, weakest, at the base. When you first see the Cheese-Wring, you instinctively shrink from walking under it. Beholding the tons on tons of stone balanced to a hair’s breadth on the mere fragments beneath, you think that with a pole in your hand, with one push against the top rocks, you could hurl down the hill in an instant a pile which has stood for centuries, unshaken by the fiercest hurricane that ever blew, rushing from the great void of an ocean over the naked surface of a moor.”

So many wonderful places to see:

“What a scene was now presented to us! It was a perfect palace of rocks! Some rose perpendicularly and separate from each other, in the shapes of pyramids and steeples—some were overhanging at the top and pierced with dark caverns at the bottom—some were stretched horizontally on the sand, here studded with pools of water, there broken into natural archways. No one of these rocks resembled another in shape, size, or position—and all, at the moment when we looked on them, were wrapped in the solemn obscurity of a deep mist; a mist which shadowed without concealing them, which exaggerated their size, and, hiding all the cliffs beyond, presented them sublimely as separate and solitary objects in the sea-view.”

“We now go across the beach to explore some caves—dry at low water—on the opposite side. Some of these are wide, lofty, and well-lighted from without. We walk in and out and around them, as if in great, irregular, Gothic halls. Some are narrow and dark. Now, we crawl into them on hands and knees; now, we wriggle onward a few feet, serpent-like, flat on our bellies; now, we are suddenly able to stand upright in pitch darkness, hearing faint moaning sounds of pent-up winds, when we are silent, and long reverberations of our own voices, when we speak. Then, as we turn and crawl out again, we soon see before us one bright speck of light that may be fancied miles and miles away—a star shining in the earth—a diamond sparkling in the bosom of the rock.”

But this is so much more than a travelogue. There are myths and legends:

“It is said that the terrible Cornish giant, or ogre, Tregeagle, was trudging homewards one day, carrying a huge sack of sand on his back, which—being a giant of neat and cleanly habits—he designed should serve him for sprinkling his parlour floor. As he was passing along the top of the hills which now overlook Loo Pool, he heard a sound of scampering footsteps behind him; and, turning round, saw that he was hotly pursued by no less a person than the devil himself. Big as he was, Tregeagle lost heart and ignominiously took to his heels: but the devil ran nimbly, ran steadily, ran without losing breath—ran, in short, like the devil. Tregeagle was fat, short-winded, had a load on his back, and lost ground at every step. At last, just as he reached the seaward extremity of the hills, he determined in despair to lighten himself of his burden, and thus to seize the only chance of escaping his enemy by superior fleetness of foot. Accordingly, he opened his huge sack in a great hurry, shook out all his sand over the precipice, between the sea and the river which then ran into it, and so formed in a moment the Bar of Loo Pool.”

And there are wonderful accounts of Cornish lives and communities. Miners, fisherman, and so much more:

“Now, the scene on shore and sea rises to a prodigious pitch of excitement. The merchants, to whom the boats and nets belong, and by whom the men are employed, join the “huer” on the cliff; all their friends follow them; boys shout, dogs bark madly; every little boat in the place puts off, crammed with idle spectators; old men and women hobble down to the beach to wait for the news. The noise, the bustle, and the agitation, increase every moment. Soon the shrill cheering of the boys is joined by the deep voices of the “seiners.” There they stand, six or eight stalwart sunburnt fellows, ranged in a row in the “seine” boat, hauling with all their might at the “tuck” net, and roaring the regular nautical “Yo-heave-ho!” in chorus! Higher and higher rises the net, louder and louder shout the boys and the idlers. The merchant forgets his dignity, and joins them; the “huer,” so calm and collected hitherto, loses his self-possession and waves his cap triumphantly; even you and I, reader, uninitiated spectators though we are, catch the infection, and cheer away with the rest, as if our bread depended on the event of the next few minutes. “Hooray! hooray! Yo-hoy, hoy, hoy! Pull away, boys! Up she comes! Here they are! Here they are!” The water boils and eddies; the “tuck” net rises to the surface, and one teeming, convulsed mass of shining, glancing, silvery scales; one compact crowd of tens of thousands of fish, each one of which is madly endeavouring to escape, appears in an instant!”

This is a book that has clearly been thoroughly researched and it hold a wealth of  material, wonderful vivid writing and extraordinary insight.

I didn’t mean to gush, but I really can’t help it. Some books you can’t analyse and pick over, you just love them unconditionally.

I was so sorry to leave.

“Come! the night is drawing round us her curtain of mist; let us strap on our trusty old friends, the knapsacks, for the last time, and turn resolutely from the shore by which we have delayed too long. Come! let us once again “jog on the footpath way” as contentedly, if not quite as merrily, as ever; and, remembering how much we have seen and learnt that must surely better us both, let us, as we now lose sight of the dark, grey waters, gratefully, though sadly, speak the parting word: – FAREWELL TO CORNWALL!”

I will definitely be bringing this book home from the library again, and walking again through my homeland in such wonderful company.

And you can make the trip too. Rambles beyond Railways can be read online here.

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins


I was thrilled to discover The Classics Circuit.

What a wonderful idea!

And I was even happier to discover that Wilkie Collins, definitely one of my very favourite authors, would be the subject of the first tour.

But what to read?

The Arctic called to me. I have one sublime story of an Arctic expedition (The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding) already this year and I have another (Cold Earth by Sarah Moss) on my library pile. So when I noticed that Collins had written a novella set around an Arctic expedition more than a century before those two I knew that reading it had to be a high priority.

It’s a lesser known work, but it definitely has a place in literary history.

The Frozen Deep first saw life as a stage play in 1857. The two main protagonists were played by Collins himself and Charles Dickens. Imagine that! And it was when she was cast in the Manchester production that Ellen Ternan first met Charles Dickens.

Seventeen years later Wilkie Collins adapted his play for reading on an American tour, and it was subsequently serialised and then published in book form.

It is easy to see The Frozen Deep’s theatrical roots, but the conversion to novella form has worked well. Scenes are beautifully painted, and it is very easy to conjure up images in your head. There in much dialogue, and it is easy to hear voices in your head too. And the style, the twists and turns, and the compulsion to turn the page are unmistakably Collins.

But what of the story? Well, I’d like to hark back to its theatrical roots, and so I present a drama in three acts.

(There will be spoilers. I read a lovely little edition courtesy of the Hesperus Press, but you can read the Frozen Deep online here.)

Act 1

The curtain opens at a ball, celebrating an expedition to find the Northwest Passage which will set out the following day. Among the guests are Lucy Crayford, whose husband is a  lieutenant on the voyage, and her young friend Clara Burnham. Clara agrees to marry Frank Aldersley when he returns from the expedition. But she is trouble? Why? Because Clara knows that by here silence she has allowed another man, Richard Wardour, to believe that they have an understanding. And Wardour, it seems, has just returned from another voyage, learned that he has a rival, and signed up for the same expedition to seek revenge….

The curtain falls.

 Act 2

The curtain rises on a very different scene. Two years have passed and the expedition’s ships  are trapped in the Arctic ice. Many of the men are weak or dying. Wardour has just learned the identity of his rival, and is still set on vengeance. The officers cast lots to decide the composition of a search party to bring help from the nearest settlement and, though Crayford tries to stop it, both Aldersley and Wardour join the party. Those two become separated from the main party and Wardour contemplates leaving his weaker rival to die on the ice…

The curtain falls.

Act 3

The curtain rises on an English drawing room. News has arrived some of the crew have been rescued. Crayford is safe , but both Aldersley and Wardour are listed  as missing.  Clarafears that her fiance dying by his rival’s hand. Lucy sets out for Canada to meet her rescued husband, accompanied a distressed Clara.

The scene shifts toa boat-house on the Newfoundland shore. The Crayfords are happily reunited. Then a lone figure appears. Wardour. He is weak and delirious and seem not to understand questions abot Aldersley’s fate. He leaves the hut, only to reappear carrying aldersley, frail but very much alive in his arms. Wardour collapses and dies, having sacrificed his own life for Clara’s happiness.

The curtain falls for the last time.

The frozen DeepThe Frozen Deep is  a dramatic and compelling tale.

It can’t, of course, have the depth of characterisation or plot intricacies of the novels. I would have loved though to know a little more about Lucy, and could have happily done without the accounts of her second sight that really weren’t needed to forward the plot. And Wardour had so much unexplored potential. And just what happened betweeen him and Aldersley on the ice? A potentially wonderful scene lost.

But there is much to enjoy. A fine entertainment!