Gammon and Spinach

Catherine Dickens

A middle-aged woman with a sad, plump face stands at the drawing-room window of 70 Gloucester Crescent, Camden-town, London. It is the year 1859, and she is 44 years old. Over the last 23 years she has borne her husband 10 children, and buried one: a wonderful tribute to her qualities as a mother, that only Dora died in infancy, though He sometimes chose not to see it that way. She also lost her darling sister Maria, aged just 17, within a few months of her first child’s birth: that was more than 20 years ago, now, but she still feels it, wishing gentle Maria was here to comfort her in her newly single state.[private]

She does not look like a figure of tragedy, this short fat woman in widow’s weeds: with her round face, sagging curls and soft jowls she is more like a minor comic character in a novel – sometimes sinister, sometimes pitiful, but always faintly ridiculous. It is not the fate of the fat to be tragic; they don’t suit it. When they are dying they still seem robust, gross even. As the portly gentleman or the corpulent lady coughs their last one cannot help feeling rather sorry for the poor pallbearers, which tends to rob the moment of its morbid grandeur. Do not expect posterity to mourn you, the obese dead, for it will not! Romantic death belongs to the thin and beautiful, like Maria; anyone else’s passing is usually more sordid than sorrowful. This sad fat woman, whose name is Catherine, does not expect to be mourned. She wonders whether He would even allow it. She has suffered much in her married life, and although it is over now, she feels as though her poor heart, stout as a little pony’s, has only just begun to break.

Why? This is why: she is standing at the window, drooping blue eyes glazed with tears, because she is listening to her two daughters singing. Their mingled voices rise like sweet perfume from the windows of the tall white house across the street, where they have their weekly music-lessons. Every Wednesday she stands just so, staring, straining until her eyes blur and smart, to try and catch a glimpse of them through the window. She has not spoken to her two girls, Mary and Kate, in over a year – or rather, they have not spoken to her. Or more precisely still, He has not let them. Her neighbours know her as Mrs. Hogarth, a widow – but Hogarth is in fact her maiden name. She does not use His name any more – it is too well-known by far – and so Miss Bates the music teacher has not the faintest idea that she is hosting her opposite neighbour’s estranged daughters, and that is how it must be.

Catherine sometimes becomes rather faint after standing so long at the window and has to sit down or ask Jane, her maid, to bring her a little water. But it is all worthwhile when she spies the girls entering and leaving the house (and it does feel like spying), their wide bright crinoline skirts swinging. She studies their fleeting faces anxiously for signs of unhappiness or ill-health, but to her relief and slight disappointment, there is none. It is as if they do not notice their mother’s absence at all. Indeed, they look so altogether well that they remind her of herself at 19; fresh, rosy-cheeked, with brown springy ringlets and laughter in their eyes. Catherine doesn’t wear the crinoline herself: it’s too much of a bother to keep up with fashion, and she feels broad and clumsy enough as it is.  Besides, no skirt however voluminous could narrow by contrast her waist, thick with child-bearing, or shrink her matronly bosom.

But once, this frumpy dame was a pretty girl; one of the prettiest, her admirers said, in the whole of Edinburgh: blue-eyed, dark-haired, slender as a willow branch, with beautiful hands and dainty ankles. And she had her admirers, oh yes, back when William was on the throne and her husband-to-be was just a jobbing journalist, nosing around in Newgate and picking up criminal crumbs in the press-gallery of the Old Bailey. He wasn’t such a Great Man, then! Not so great as to resist a pair of sparkling eyes and a deep décolletage; not so high and mighty as to be above writing her love-letters full of exuberant, childish passion, with scores of kisses at the end. She had counted over forty at the bottom of one of them. She keeps His letters in a jewel-box in her cold, overlarge bedroom and does not look at them. They no longer seem to belong to her; she will give them to a library, or Museum, perhaps, upon her death, for He is already great enough that she knows some place or other will be interested in them. She will never sell them, no matter how straitened her circumstances become: she saves them so that, despite all His coldly defensive statements in the news-papers, all the gossip circulating among His friends, and the dreadful rumours in the yellow-press, the world may know that He loved her, once.

Her hands are still remarkable for their prettiness, or so Jane tells her. The only part of her which has stayed the same since girlhood, they are delicately plump and soft and white as two doves. Her fingers are long and well-formed, and she has not outgrown her wedding-ring, as so many fat women do. At least, not physically.

She also watches from this window when Charley is late back from the office, anxiously awaiting his return to dinner. Charley is her darling: her eldest child, her bright boy, her beloved son, and the only one of her children who has stayed with her, not Him. When they moved here, he was just 21 – the same age she was when she married – and so handsome; awfully like his father, but kinder, and softer about the eyes, like herself. A little crack opens up in her heart again as she thinks of him marrying, and leaving her.

Well! She will not stand in her son’s way, or hold him back, or drag him down, as He said she had done to Him. Had her husband not wanted a wife to tend the home and hearth: to bear His children, and arrange His meals, and fill His home with beauty and ease, and make it merry and bright? And hadn’t she done all that, and more? And lost her figure in so doing? You show her a woman who has borne 10 children and planned 10,000 suppers and dinners, whose husband can still fit his two hands about her waist as he could when they were first married! Even the dear Queen is no longer the slender girl of 20 years ago – because she, too, loves her husband.

He had blamed her for having so many children, but of course would never control His own urges, though she was so “fat and hideous”. Instead, He had seemed to expect her to use sponges and vinegar like a whore, to lessen the danger of conceiving. Well, she never had and never would! Did His actress-whore, the one He’d sent the bracelet to, wash herself out after? Catherine doubts it. She doubts it very much.

Catherine becomes very breathless and hot when she is angry, and so she has to sit down in the window-seat and close her eyes for a moment, and lean her sweating forehead against the cool of the glass. This is exactly why she always tried never to show anger in front of Him: He disliked any display of temper whatsoever from a woman, and it made her red in the face and even more conscious of her own ridiculousness. As if He, in his flying fits of passion, his big beard wagging and spittle flying, was not quite absurd! Very well, He was a genius, all the world agreed – but was it so terribly hard to write books? She had published one herself, eight years ago; she had wanted to know what it felt like. It was her last, ill-judged, clumsy attempt to understand Him, to find some common ground. “What Shall we have for Dinner?” was a cookery book, admittedly, but what else was she to write, after years of running His household? Besides, it had gone into several editions, and was still in print: she made a modest little annuity from the royalties.

A smile floats on her lips as she remembers one of the first recipes, for gammon and spinach, which He adored. She would make it for Him sometimes, as a late supper, when He was up till midnight working and Cook and the other servants were in bed. The gammon would be tender and blood-hot, and she would sauté the dark-green spinach leaves in butter until they wilted, with a pinch of salt and pepper and a shaving of nutmeg for flavour. He always said it was the best meal He’d ever tasted, and called her His “darling Kate”, and “Queen of the Kitchen”. But now when people said “gammon and spinach” they meant stuff and nonsense, tommyrot. When had that happened? When did the meanings of words change? Of gammon and spinach, richer and poorer, till death do us part?

She has never been a great novel-reader, Catherine; she was always too busy with the infinite and multitudinous duties of a mother and wife to spend much time lying on a chaise-longue with a three-volume shocker. But she has read all her husband’s books, and now, with her flat wide forehead pressed against the cold windowpane, and her rather prominent blue eyes shut tight in daydream, and her daughters’ voices throbbing like larks’ or thrushes’, her own aches and pains and sadness and heaviness drift away, become like breath and mist. She remembers her favourite book of her husband’s, and her favourite character in it: funny, round, slightly mad Miss Flite, and her attic full of songbirds who will never learn to fly. She remembers the silly sad names of them easily, like a chant learned in childhood: and she remembers thinking when she read them, that perhaps, for once, she knew what her husband meant.

Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.[/private]




Love in Two Dimensions

Image: Library of Congress and http://nighthawk101stock.deviantart.com/
Image: Library of Congress and http://nighthawk101stock.deviantart.com/

I fell in love with his silhouette. It stood on the mantelpiece in his aunt’s parlour, a slice of monochromatic masculinity in the floral cocoon of the room. ‘It’s such a true likeness, Viola. I do so look forward to you meeting him,’ his aunt said. Then we sat in silence, admiring the shape of his hair, the jut of his nose and the shy curve that joined his chin to his mouth.

[private]”Viola, allow me to introduce you to Henry,” she said on the day that he arrived; her anxiety steepled and collapsed her hands as she spoke. Beside her was the silhouette brought to life: as flat and inky and papery as his portrait on the mantel. When he moved to greet me I was faced for a moment with his missing dimension and had to crane my neck to catch sight of him again.

I loved him best when he was most starkly contrasted. Before we married I had the walls of our house papered from eaves to cellar in brutal shades of white. I replaced the dark-wood furniture with high-backed chairs upholstered in snow drift velvet, and marble tables like blocks of ice. I dressed our bed with swans’ feathers.

We honeymooned in Lyme Regis. We watched couples striding out across the Cobb, ladies’ skirts billowing into abstract shapes and men clutching tall hats to their heads. The wind blew their laughter over us.

“I can’t. I’ll blow away,” he said.

“I’ll hold onto you,” I replied. So he held my arm and I sheltered him from the grasping wind as we set out down the stony walkway. But half way down I stumbled on the salt-slick path and a little gust reached past me and caught him in its teeth. For a moment he billowed like a sail, then the full force of the wind took him, tumbling him and rolling him before it carried him out over the sea. His dark shape was printed for a moment on a cloud and then he was gone.

He left nothing behind but a tiny corner of himself that had torn off between my fingers; it is impossibly black against the whiteness of my palm.[/private]




The House Rules

Photo by Sara Richards
Photo by Sara Richards

It is a model of Victorian architecture – solid with foundations of moral fibre; unlike modern houses.  Mike said he didn’t fit in with the house. He said it didn’t like him.

You let Mike go because you love the house, because you think he will return, because you don’t realise how weak you are. The house lets Mike go because you aren’t married, because he abbreviates his Christian name, because he wears white Nike trainers.[private]

The house spits the flat-pack blonde wood and plastic furniture into the front garden – done with the sin-eating of Scandinavian deforestation Chinese workhouses and. Inside, the furniture is all Victorian – sobriety-heavy oaks and drapes. The house will not allow the enlightenment of electricity, so no one comes round for Friday night drinks anymore; they say it is too dark, too dingy. You find temperance in solitude framed by the leaded windows; the stained glass shadowing the blush of a brazen sun attempting friendship. You hand in your notice at work. Victorian ladies do not lower themselves to menial tasks; they marry. Now you live in a Victorian house, now you’re Victorian, you need to find yourself a Victorian husband – one with an exterior of genteel manners and a seedy alter ego that frequents brothels and expects you to stay at home with needlework and Bible readings. But each day the industrially-revolutionised bricks girdle you into submission. The house expects you to marry, but the house will not allow you outside. Not without a chaperone.

If Mike – or anyone – can decode the language of flowers in your window boxes, will they see your SOS? Zinnia thinks of absent friends, whilst purple hyacinth weeps, until Virginia Creeper snakes around them, asphyxiating. [/private]




To the Reader

Photos by El Bibliomata
Photos by El Bibliomata

By now, you know me. You know what I’m like. And so, when I received an urgent letter from Lescaut during my own birthday supper, I’m sure you won’t think less of me for not jumping out of my chair, extinguishing the candles and escorting the best and brightest of Parisian society to the street, right in the middle of the second course. Lescaut was by this time a social pariah despite my best efforts to endear him to others. My social standing was already in question, guilt by association, and I do not think it is vain to feel proud of the fact that I had not abandoned him all together. My manservant slipped me the letter, I read it discreetly yet in full view so as not to arouse suspicion, and I handed it back to him without show, all the while laughing at an amusing anecdote being told by Mlle. B—. In short, I bit my tongue and waited until supper had ended, the last carriage had been hailed and my servant had retired to bed.[private]

By the sole lamp of the library, I took the letter and read it again: “Dearest Pierre, I am not long for this world. This time, I’m serious. God knows what will be met on the other side. Please come immediately. The only thing keeping me here is the bond of our friendship.  I would hate to cut it so abruptly without showing you the proper courtesies of our long and dear association. Lescaut.”

It was now gone midnight and the letter had been received at half past ten. Yes, if you must know, I did feel guilty, but in my defense this wasn’t the first such letter I had received and despite the late hour, I donned coat, hat, and umbrella, braved the lamp-lit streets (on foot, hired carriages being few and far between at that hour) and made my way to my old friend’s house as quickly as I could go.


I knocked on the door—once, twice, thrice—with no satisfaction. I felt my temper rise. The hallway was dark through the front door window. Hardly surprising. It was no secret that he had had squandered his inheritance—a vast fortune—on his machinery and his toys. It was the talk of high-society, how he had dismissed all of his servants and now lived alone. Indeed, he owed me several hundred francs, which I hadn’t the least hope of reclaiming.

I shimmied my way around the edge of his garden, surveying window after window, which were all, of course, darkened with curtains drawn. It was only when I came to small, ground level window, the window of the pantry, that I found a faint glimmer of activity. Like the sparks of a smithy, the glimmer of busy human hands making itself known.

‘Lescaut! Lescaut!’ I whispered and then banged with my fists in intervals of two minutes and more. Eventually I heard the front door open and from the darkness, my friend’s voice hissed ‘Pierre? Is that you? What in the Devil’s name are you doing in the garden?’ What in the Devil indeed.


It was typical of my friend’s situation, mentally and financially, that he offered me no refreshment nor did he even bother lighting a lamp. I would have wagered that he had not seen daylight or Christian company for some months, judging by the sordidness of his dress and his unkempt beard. “Pierre,” he muttered again and again, “how good of you to come.” Yet his mind was clearly elsewhere. He did not look me in the eye or greet me with a kiss, but simply closed the door behind me and proceeded through the labyrinth of his manor to the pantry. I followed as quickly as I could, but my eyes were not accustomed to the dark as his were, and although I had been in the house many times before, and had many fond memories of the literary salons we held while students in the Sorbonne, I quickly lost track of him. It was only when I heard and followed his shouts of “Pierre! Blast you, where are you?” that I found the stairs down to the pantry, and the damnation to which they led.


I followed his voice down the treacherous steps, guided by the feel of the walls and the flashes from below. When I stepped down into the room, he seemed to have forgotten me again, and was hunched over a machine I find difficult to describe, somewhat like a clock with lightning jumping from one hand to the other. There was ivory in it, and some transparent crystalline substance, and beneath it a carriage, with a leather seat and some leavers.

“Lescaut, what—what is this?”

He turned to me. He wore around his neck the darkened glass goggles of an engineer and his famous toothy grin, once the bewitchment of Paris, held the glow of the machine like a battery.

“I’ve done it, Pierre,” he said, “just like we always dreamed.”

“What have you done?”

His smile faded and for a moment I thought he would dismiss me entirely and turn back to his infernal machine.

“It is true. How sad. I had almost forgotten what you are.”

“What am I, Lescaut?”

“You are a simple construct” He said, “A tool of the story. You have no memory beyond the previous page.”

“I don’t follow you, Lescaut. I remember everything. I remember our friendship. I remember the Sorbonne.”

“Exposition” he spat. I was now in the middle of the room, halfway between him and the machine. “You’re not even really French. None of us are.”

We all knew this of course. It was very fashionable when we were young to discuss these ideas—what did it mean to be characters in a story? We were any less real for being fictional? Etc, etc. It was all very exciting as a student but then we grew out of it. You start thinking to yourself “So what if this delicious bread is just a string of adjectives and nouns?” And you eat the bread. “Who cares of this woman is just a metaphor?” and you dance with the lady. We had all accepted this long ago—all except Lescaut.

“You could come with me, Pierre.”

“Where are you going? What is this machine?”

He pointed his finger, at first I thought he was pointing at me, but he was pointing at the page, out of the page, out of the story, towards you.

“To live. To really live.”

And you are not living here? What’s wrong with here?

He laughed. That same haughty laugh I remembered from the Sorbonne, when anyone would even dare to engage him in debate.

“Come on old friend,” I pleaded. “Let’s drink some wine and argue like the good old days.”

“There were no good old days.” He lifted the goggles to his face, “that is a fiction.”


I still remember one of our final salons, when we considered the possibility that the author was dead, and that we were therefore free to be and do whatever we wanted. Lescaut disagreed. “The author is only dead,” he said, “if the story is any damn good. And you gentlemen are caricatures.” This was the end of our philosophical soirées. His invitations to supper were politely declined and whenever a party was being thrown by high society I was asked to attend alone. On lazy days, I would make sure to visit him, but I found him harder and harder to converse with. He muttered under his breath like a madman, “Lescaut broke the bread and passed it to his friend Pierre. Pierre didn’t eat and eyed Lescaut apprehensively.” Needless to say, it is uncomfortable hearing your own actions narrated back to you in such a way, so my visits became less and less frequent.


Lescaut walked passed me and sat into the machine. He turned away from and pulled a lever. The clock hands began to sizzle and the carriage rumbled. He tied himself in and began twisting knobs and checking gauges.

“This is it Pierre.” He was barely audible over the roar of the thing’s engines.

The heat was unbearable.

“I go now into that uncharted land—to the author, to life.”

I edged my way closer to the machine, I grabbed one of the copper cables connecting the machine to whatever powered it. The pain was immense, it seared my skin and I recoiled. I fell back to the hard floor and covered my face—the room was blindingly illuminated. Then all went dark and it was hours before I awoke again.


I do not know what happened to Lescaut. Whether he managed to bridge the gap between our world and yours. I do know that his “death” had the most profound affect on the very people who had previously ridiculed him. They talked of him now like he was a misunderstood genius. His ideas, they claimed, were revolutionary—his life and works debated endlessly in the Sorbonne.[/private]




Litro #127: Victoriana

 

Cover Art:
Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, KCVO, RA (1844 – 1927)
Portrait of Mrs Lockett Agnew, signed, oil on canvas, 56 x 42 in / 142.2 x 106.7cm
© Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London

Contents

Letter from the Editor – Andrew Lloyd Jones

Love in Two Dimensions by Eva Holland

The House Rules by Jane Roberts

To the Reader by John Keating

The Legacy of Steeple Hill by Steven Mace

Gammon and Spinach by Sam Carter

 

This is only a taster of our Victoriana issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.




The Legacy of Steeple Hill

ghost_Holly_Ford_Brown

The mansion on Steeple Hill had stood there for almost a century, overlooking the village below – Robert Walsingham had built the building to stand the course of time and resist the harshest weather. The winds that beat against the exterior of the building from the coastline were powerful. The perimeter of the steep cliffs that looked out to sea was close to the grounds of the mansion, and the storms could be ferocious. Yet despite the inclement weather, the building still stood, and although the original architect – old Walsingham- was long dead, there were those who still dwelt within it.

The carriage drew up outside the old house, stopping by a white marble fountain that gently trickled water. The driver clucked with his mouth and pulled on the reins to still the horses. He looked up at the sky and contemplated the half-crescent moon that had risen before glancing back over his shoulder to see if the occupant of his carriage had deigned to move. Almost at that same moment, the carriage door opened.[private]

A tall gentleman stepped out on to the mansion driveway. He carried a cane and a small travel case. When he walked it was with a slight limp – the permanent reminder of an old war wound sustained in the Crimea. His whiskers were fine and silvery, and underneath his bowler hat his hair was grey and perfectly combed. He paused for a moment to adjust his cravat, while the driver lashed his whip upon the horses. The carriage behind him jolted forward, and the horses pulled the carriage around the fountain and out of the mansion grounds.

The gentleman looked up at the building looming above him, nodding his appreciation at the elegant Gothic architecture, the ornate, towering spires. By the time he had reached the doorway, the heavy oak door had swung open. The butler, a small, cadaverous man with a wrinkled face and shiny bald head, was waiting. He had loyally served two generations of Walsinghams.

“Ah, Mr Barrington,” he said, in a well spoken voice. “Lord Walsingham has been expecting you.”

“Thank you, Harold.” Thomas Barrington stepped inside, and the butler closed the heavy door behind him with a thud. The sharp sound echoed within the house. Even with the door closed, there was a distinct chill to the entrance hall.

“May I take your coat?” Harold suggested. “Also, your case? I’ll take it to your room.”

“Of course.” Barrington eased himself out of his heavy winter coat and handed it to the butler, along with his travel case. Underneath, he was wearing a brown tweed suit with a waistcoat.

“Thank you, sir. Please come with me.”

Barrington followed Walsingham’s servant up two flights of stairs. As they reached the first landing, which intersected with a corridor going in two different directions, Barrington fancied he saw a slim, girlish figure disappear into one of the rooms. If someone had been there, it had probably been a maid. More likely, it had been his imagination. Walsingham did not employ any maids. Mrs Watkins, a short and very stout woman in her early fifties, and Harold were the only staff here, to Barrington’s knowledge.

On the second landing, Harold led Barrington to a room at the far end of the corridor. He knocked on the door. “Sir?” he called.

“Who is that there?” a harsh voice called out. Barrington raised an eyebrow in surprise. It was nothing like the normal tone of John Walsingham’s voice.

“Sir, it’s Thomas Barrington, here to see you.”

“Oh, of course, of course.” The lock on the door was turned with a sharp sound and the door itself opened.

Barrington was shocked by Walsingham’s appearance. His friend had changed remarkably in the months since their previous meeting.  Where before Walsingham’s long grey locks had been perfectly groomed, now they stood up in wild clumps around his temples and crown, greasy and unwashed. There was a hollow look to his eyes that alarmed Barrington, and his face seemed more lined and aged than it should, even for a man in his fifties.

“Good heavens John,” Barrington exclaimed. “Are you quite alright?”

“Harold,” Walsingham said sharply. “Could you bring us some tea?”

“Very good, sir.” The thin, aged butler turned on his heel and disappeared down the corridor. Walsingham caught Barrington’s arm and led him into his study, closing and locking the door behind them.

Barrington stared around the room. It was a mess. There were books and papers strewn everywhere, across the desk and piled on chairs, even stood in piles or arranged in designs upon the floor. Barrington perused the content of the papers, many of which contained diagrams. There were some illustrations too, though only a few displayed any kind of full text. Barrington raised an eyebrow and cast a sideways glance at Walsingham. He was wondering if the man had simply gone mad.

There was a couch in the corner. John Walsingham wandered over to it, casually brushed off a number of papers that fluttered like leaves to the floor, and invited his friend to sit.

Suppressing a smile, Barrington sat down on the couch. “So John, would you mind telling me what is going on?”

“Tom, I’ve made a breakthrough.” Despite his haggard appearance, Walsingham’s eyes were shining brightly.

Barrington frowned. “With regard to what?” He vaguely recalled that, on the last occasion he had seen him, Walsingham had declared an interest in spiritualism and the occult. It was nothing that Barrington had attached much importance to. Like his ancestors Walsingham often developed an obsessive interest in passing fads, which would burn brightly for a short period of time before the passion was extinguished, whereupon he would find a new hobby to work upon obsessively.

“With regard to my investigation into spiritual and magical matters,” Walsingham said. “Your arrival coincides with a momentous occasion. Tomorrow night, I will perform a ritual which is the culmination of all my explorations and experiments.”

“A ritual?” Barrington looked hard at his friend. “You sound like one of those tribes-people from foreign lands. I’m assuming this is not a Christian ritual, John?”

“You assume quite correctly. It is quite the opposite of a Christian ritual, in fact. Do you disapprove?” Walsingham fixed his gaze upon Barrington, seeming to really see him for the first time.

“You mentioned a breakthrough,” Barrington said slowly. “What were you referring to?”

“I have successfully summoned… beings,” Walsingham said triumphantly. “Beings from another dimension of existence.”

“I think you’ve gone quite mad,” Barrington told him. He was quite concerned now for Walsingham’s mental state. It occurred to him that he had heard rumours of insanity running in the family. Walsingham’s grandfather Robert, who had built the house, had suffered from episodes of mania and his grandson seemed to be exhibiting the same signs.

“Indulge me, Tom. Attend the ritual tomorrow night. This time tomorrow, we shall proceed to the summoning room. You will see the magic at work.”

At that moment there was a knock at the door, and the two men heard Harold’s voice. When Walsingham opened the door to allow the butler to enter with the tea, Barrington noted the nervous manner of the man-servant. Whatever occult practices Walsingham had become involved in, they had definitely had a profound effect on the atmosphere of the house and on Walsingham himself. Curiosity got the better of him, and Barrington decided that he would indeed indulge his friend. He was fascinated to see the nature of the ritual that Walsingham was performing and what would result from it. It would either highlight the extent of Walsingham’s delusions or reveal to Barrington unknown spheres of knowledge. Sadly for Walsingham, Barrington suspected that it would be the former rather than the latter.


The rest of the evening passed without incident. The two men renewed their acquaintance with each other, discussing old friends and memories from previous occasions that they had shared. Walsingham’s mood and demeanour improved during their conversation. Preoccupied and sombre when Barrington had first set eyes on him, now he even laughed upon occasion.

When Barrington was finally ready to retire for bed, Walsingham called his servant to escort Barrington to his room. They clambered up two flights of stairs to a corridor where rooms were reserved for guests. Remembering his vague glimpse of another presences when he had first entered the house, Barrington looked about him curiously, staring down dimly lit corridors and looking down at the stairs beneath him. However, on this occasion he saw nothing. The lack of activity was good for his nerves, he reflected. Walsingham’s words regarding magic and spiritualism had left him feeling rather uneasy.

Harold led him to a room which contained a magnificent four poster bed and a view from four floors up of the rear grounds of the house, which extended almost to the coastline. In the distance, Barrington could just make out the waters of the sea, shimmering in the moonlight. His travel case had already been left upon the bed spread and his coat hung up. He thanked the old servant, who departed discreetly. Barrington made his preparations for bed, undressing and washing his face before sinking gratefully into the welcoming, soft bed. After a short while, he got up and softly padded to the window to open it. It was somewhat stuffy in the room, and he immediately enjoyed the bracing, cool air which met him when he swung the windows wide. Far away, he could hear waves crashing against the distant shoreline. Ah, nothing like fresh sea air, he thought. He awkwardly made his way back to his bed, grimacing at the ache caused by his war wound. He cursed his gammy leg before laying back down again, enjoying the comfort of the mattress. It was only a short while before he drifted off to sleep.


He was awoken by the sound of singing. It took him a while to register where he was due to the unfamiliar surroundings, but eventually he remembered. He looked toward the window and saw that it was still dark outside. The sound of the singing seemed to come from outside the window, and it was this which had disturbed his normally sound sleeping habits. It was a soft female voice, but singing in a language which Barrington did not recognise. It was not English. Was it a maid or a servant? Grumbling softly to himself, Barrington got out of bed and limped toward the window again. He looked outside.

It was almost pitch black outside, apart from the half crescent moon which lit up some of the grounds below. Barrington could not quite identify the source of the singing, but it appeared to be coming from the house, or at least very close to the house. It was nearby, of that he was sure. “Excuse me!” he called out in his gruff voice. “Who is there?”

Abruptly, the singing stopped. There was a complete silence, with the exception of the distant crashing waves of the sea. The silence was so intense that eventually Barrington wished he had not called out. “Is there someone there?” he shouted out again.

Suddenly he heard a soft whispering, one voice, followed by a different whisper in answer from another. Barrington could not make out what was being said. He squinted into the gloom and craned his neck out as far as he could. He examined this side of the house, the one that his window was situated upon and scrutinised the windows around him. He could not see anyone or anything. “Damn strange,” he muttered to himself. He was a war veteran and not easily alarmed, but this was very unsettling.

Just as he was about to retire once again to his bed, he caught sight of movement below him. He peered down through the darkness. Down below, in the grounds of the house, he could see a figure crossing the grass. It seemed to be a woman. She was slim, and almost ethereal to the eye. She wore a long white gown and what seemed to be a hood – although on closer inspection Barrington realised that the woman possessed long, flowing white hair which fluttered out behind her in the breeze. She glanced upward toward the house, and for a brief moment Barrington thought she made eye contact with him. He glimpsed a pale, delicate face and realised that despite the colour of her long hair, the woman was quite young. In a moment, she was gone from view, vanishing into the darkness. Barrington craned his neck for another sight of her, and waited. He saw nothing more. After about half a minute he called out. “Hello? Is there anyone there?” he shouted. There was no response.

He lingered at the window for a little longer, before finally giving up and on this occasion, closing the window. He latched it firmly behind him. He did not wish his sleep to be disturbed by any further incidents – however intriguing or unusual they might be. If he did not have his usual night’s sleep, he would be irritable and feel under the weather the next day. He returned to his bed and fortunately for him, this time he slept soundly.

The next time he woke was when Harold brought him breakfast in bed: tea, with toast and marmalade. While the servant set his breakfast down on the dressing table, Barrington asked him if Walsingham was employing any other servants aside from his good self and Mrs Watkins. Perhaps a young foreign woman? When Harold replied in the negative, Barrington was left to silently consider what he had seen the previous evening.

That morning Barrington left the house to take his regular constitutional. He wandered through the grounds, down to the cliffs and to the coastal path. As he walked, he reflected upon the events that he had experienced at the mansion so far. There was no doubt that something strange was going on, and that there were unaccounted-for presences at the house. To get to the bottom of the mystery, he knew he would have to question Walsingham and indulge his friend’s interest in spiritualism and magic.

He did not see Walsingham until after lunch, which he took alone in his room. He finally caught sight of his friend on one of the landings, and attempted to question him about what he had seen and heard. Walsingham was in no mood to talk, however. “I apologise,” he said. “There is too much to do, too much to prepare. I don’t have time to talk. All will be explained later. I apologise, Tom, for being such a poor host. We will speak of this after dinner this evening.”


They ate dinner in the dining room downstairs that evening, attended to by Harold and Mrs Watkins. Walsingham continued to rebuff all attempts at conversation by Barrington regarding the strange events at the house.  For Barrington’s part, the afternoon had passed uneventfully, but he had spent most of it in his room, attempting to read a novel.  However, events in real life seemed far stranger than fiction, and Barrington had difficulty concentrating on the plot. He had been relieved when Harold had called him downstairs for dinner, but again left frustrated by his friend’s silence upon matters of importance during the meal.

After dinner, Walsingham finally began to speak of the details of the ‘ritual’ he intended to perform. He escorted Barrington to a room deep within the mansion, a room that he had referred to as the ‘summoning room’. Walsingham carried a number of papers with him, in a brown satchel which he had retrieved from his study, but he did not show them to Barrington.

During the course of the short journey to the ‘summoning room’, Barrington had a nagging feeling that he could not shake off: a feeling that they were being followed. It was not something that he could put his finger on or confirm definitely for his own satisfaction, but it was there. Occasionally, as they wandered through a maze of corridors, Barrington caught a flash of movement out the corner of his eye, too quick for him to pin-point. The point of Barrington’s cane echoed upon the hard floors of the uncarpeted corridors and occasionally Barrington thought he heard a double echo, like something was imitating the sound of their passage. His thoughts briefly returned to Walsingham’s comments about his ‘breakthrough’ and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.  He made sure that he did not linger too far behind Walsingham as he followed him through the corridors of the house.

The entrance to the room was through double doors, which were locked. Walsingham took out a large key from his jacket and opened them. When he swung them open and Barrington got his first glimpse of the inside of the ‘summoning room’, even the old Crimea war veteran was shocked. Walsingham had spared no expense in customising this chamber. The floor, walls and ceiling were constructed of black marble. As he drew closer and stepped inside, Barrington realised that there were designs inscribed in white upon the floor and walls. Barrington recognised a pentagram and various circles.

The air inside the room was cool. As Barrington continued to examine the designs in the interior, Walsingham took out several candles and began to light them before placing them in small holders positioned in various locations around the room. When he had lit twelve candles, he went to the double doors and locked them shut.

“What now?” Barrington asked.

“Sit down.” Walsingham indicated a place where Barrington should sit, and his friend obeyed – although Barrington was somewhat troubled that Walsingham had locked them inside this place. Walsingham also sat down, and took out the papers and a small knife from his satchel.

He began to chant, reading lines from the papers. Some of it was in English, some of it was in Latin and some of it was in a language that Barrington did not recognise. Barrington waited patiently, but Walsingham continued for over twenty minutes and nothing appeared to be happening. Barrington shifted uncomfortably on the cold marble floor. He was beginning to feel the onset of cramp. He became alarmed when Walsingham raised the knife, but he only pierced one of his fingers and let a little blood trickle on to the floor.

Suddenly Walsingham raised the level of his voice with a particular invocation. Barrington felt a sharp breeze and saw the candlelight flicker. He glanced around in alarm, wondering what was happening. It seemed as though strange shadows were moving against the walls, not the definitive shapes cast by his friend or himself, but indistinct blurs around them. It was as if there were unseen, distorted figures present in the room. Barrington nearly forgot himself and was about to stand up in shock, when suddenly something seemed to materialise in the space between he and Walsingham. It was as if a mini-tornado had been created from thin air in the middle of the room, and within the swirl of energies Barrington could see a shape taking physical form before them. It was then that Barrington looked at his friend, and upon seeing the panic on Walsingham’s face, he realised something had gone tragically wrong.[/private]




Litro #127: Victoriana – Letter from the Editor

litro127_victoriana_singeDear Reader,

Once again I find myself in a most absorbing, and, I confess, somewhat indulgent state of contemplation. I am fortunate indeed in my position! And so I sit at my desk and look out my window, with rooftops and water-towers and chimneys and spires and the assorted aerial architecture of the city as my companion. This day is a fine one indeed, and I fancy my spirits are lifted even more by the sun as it beats down on millionaire and pauper alike. The weather is perhaps the only natural democracy! I wonder what our politicians would have to say about that. Much bluster, I should think.

But in truth, Dear Reader, I have much better company than this city in these few tales you now hold in your hand. Stories are a force of nature too, perhaps – much like the wind, and the rain, and the sun. Wherever you might find yourself reading these words, whether on a bus, or a park bench, in your club, or in the scullery, you and I share in the ideas contained herein, ideas that nestle in our minds and give rise to thought, and the comforting knowledge of the existence of a Great Art in the world, one that we may all be a part of. It is a most fascinating subject of enquiry.

Take, for example, Ms. Eva Holland’s Life in Two Dimensions. A jewel of a narrative, as precisely and elegantly delineated as the narrator’s betrothed – a love story, but in Ms. Holland’s capable hands, something quite, quite different. Or the traditional house-tale, with which we are most familiar, but which Ms. Jane Roberts uses to most ingenious ends in The House Rules – suggesting that we, perhaps, are prisoners of our own imagination. Yes! Even you, Dear Reader! A most provoking conceit indeed!

And if you find that amusing, you must surely enjoy Mr. John Keating’s To The Reader – a story for you if ever there were one! Mr. Keating’s imagination takes us – dare I say it – to a place beyond the very pages you now hold in your hand. But perhaps you prefer a calmer, more soothing form of fiction? A gossipy, scandalous story, as one might find in The Cheltenham Looker-On. I’m afraid you will be most disappointed, in that case! For Mr. Steven Mace’s sinister The Legacy of Steeple Hill will give you no comfort, with its spectral presences and sleepless nights.

But we leave you, at least, with a tale of great pathos, and one from which a lesser periodical might shy away – Mr. Sam Carter’s Gammon and Spinach. For who would dare suggest the Great Novelist Himself were anything other than a saint? Well we do, Dear Reader. We do!

But I fear I have kept you too long. I do so yearn to discuss these tales with you some day. Will we ever meet, Dear Reader? I hope so, very much. But in the meantime, will you write? I would be most delighted to hear your thoughts on these stories, as well as any other matters you might care to discuss.

Yours truly, until our next number,

Andrew Lloyd-Jones

Editor




A Primer on Steampunk Literature

An illustration from the Steampunk Holmes project

Come this way. Your butler helps you slip into your coat before you stride down the hallway. Lady Agnes is beside you, wearing her bonnet, cloak and close-fitting corset. Meanwhile, you are clad in your waistcoat, cravat and top hat. You check the time on your watch-and-chain. It is almost twelve.

The carriage arrives. The driver lashes his whip, and it carries you both through the mist-wreathed, cobbled streets of the city. The bells from a nearby church chime midnight as the carriage rattles through the murky gloom of a thick pea-soup mist. It stops outside a tall, hulking building engulfed in shadows from the dim lanterns. You and Lady Agnes step out of the carriage, before you knock on a wooden door with the decorative silver handle of your cane. A hunchback opens the door, a wizened figure with wild, snow-white hair and grimy, soot-stained hands. He wears a white apron and has a pair of filthy goggles perched upon his forehead. “Welcome, Lord Fotheringham,” he whispers. “I’ve been expecting you.”

You both follow the hunchbacked professor into his laboratory, a veritable cornucopia of cluttered objects: test tubes and containers filled with smoking potions; various elaborate clockwork devices and, in the corner, the professor’s masterpiece—his steam-powered machine, all gears, winches, hooks and pulleys. He polishes the brass with a filthy rag, checks the myriad wheels and cogs, before pulling on a lever. His action creates a roaring, incessant tumult. The infernal noise slowly rises to a crescendo, a hideous cacophony so deafening that you and Lady Agnes are forced to plug your ears…

Welcome to the world of steampunk. 


What exactly is steampunk?

Illustration (c) James Davis

I will attempt to offer my own definition along with my “literary’” example above. It is a term for a genre and style which originated in literature but which has extended to art, music, fashion and infiltrated popular culture in the form of comics, graphic novels, films (most recently Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese) and even computer games. Steampunk originates from the historic period of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th—broadly speaking, “Victoriana”—specifically referencing what is usually a fantastic, fictional world dominated by steam-powered technology, or other anachronistic forms of technology from the period such as clockwork devices, but also retro-futuristic inventions as the inhabitants of the 19th century may have imagined. It is a hybrid genre, often encompassing speculative fiction, science fiction, alternate history, horror, and fantasy, intermingled with cultural attitudes and settings from the Victorian Age, seen and re-imagined through a skewed, modern looking glass.

The term “steampunk” was reportedly coined in a 1987 letter to Locus, a science-fiction magazine, by the SF and fantasy author G. W. Jeter, who had written what he considered to be “Victorian fantasy” in the shape of his novels Morlock Night and Infernal Devices. He suggested classifying these works, and other novels by contemporaries such as Tim Powers (At the Anubis Gates), as being by writers who were “steam-punks”; however, there are some works of literature, published prior to Jeter’s invention of the term, which have also been retrospectively labelled as such. This was in contrast to the “cyberpunk” fiction movement at the time, which tends to be set in more dystopian futures where daily life is impacted by rapid technological change, headed by the likes of novelists William Gibson and Neal Stephenson—Neuromancer and Snow Crash being definitive.


Before the 1980s

V by Thomas Pynchon

Works showing multiple aspects, traits and tropes of “steampunk” prior to the 1980s include the films of Georges Méliès—notably, The Astronomer’s Dream and A Trip to the Moon with fantastic imagined technology of the period and striking images—and Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis in the forms of the mad-professor type, Rotwang and the automaton figure of “Maria”; the final novel of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Titus Alone, with its underground city and anachronistic technology; Michael Moorcock’s alternate history novel The Warlord of the Air, which contains steampunk elements not only in terms of depicted technologies but also most notably in its re-imagining of the world if imperialist policies had continued to their logical, tragic conclusion. The mysterious protagonist “V” in Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern novel of the same name also bears steampunk elements in terms of her physical transformation into an automaton figure over a period of time; Pynchon later returned to the genre most significantly in his 1990s-novel, Against the Day.


The 19th century and turn of the 20th

There are several writers of this period whose literary works have heavily influenced the artistic and creative direction of the steampunk movement. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells are perhaps the most notable examples, depicting idiosyncratic visions of the future through a perspective of the period itself. Other key authors and influences include the famous works and literary styles of Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain (Americana/Wild West steampunk) and even Jane Austen (see the contemporary work of Jacob Clifton’s “The Commonplace Book“).


Steampunk as a phenomenon

Steampunk fashion

Steampunk is now a movement firmly ingrained within modern contemporary culture, lurking on the boundaries and challenging the pre-conceptions of the mainstream. Its imaginative possibilities can challenge assumptions about technology, history, identity, gender and sexuality. There is even a steampunk festival, the “Weekend at the Asylum” run by the Victorian Steampunk Society. It is the largest steampunk festival in Europe and is held at The Lawn in Lincoln, a converted Victorian mental asylum, and it is possible to buy steampunk-style clothes for dress-up: Victorian-era corsets and dresses, waistcoats and watches, and various other accessories.

Steampunk has also entered the realm of computer games. Dishonored, developed by Arkane Studios and set in the fictional industrial city of Dunwall, is an excellent example of a game with steampunk elements, a place where “technology and other-worldly forces co-exist” in a late 19th century-style setting. The bizarre and genre-defying possibilities of the movement have even influenced music and created the unlikely rise of the “steampunk rapper”, Professor Elemental, who has merged hip hop and steampunk culture.

Then there is the ambitious Clockwork Watch project, developed by Yomi Ayeni, which has sought to create a worldwide interactive steampunk narrative, merging re-imagined stories and settings from a historic past of anachronistic technologies with the modern realities of social networks and online publishing. The audience themselves can contribute and co-author through the mediums of ongoing live events, graphic novels, role play, online news sites and a feature film. As it says, “You can read, watch, and hear Steampunk, but at Clockwork Watch you can LIVE it.”


My own encounters with steampunk

My first encounters with steampunk were through reading the British comic 2000AD, and the Indigo Prime story “Killing Time”, which re-imagined the Jack the Ripper murders set against an occult background of arcane and cosmic horror. Then there was the Hollywood film Wild Wild West starring Will Smith, which attempted to bring Americana steampunk into the mainstream.

Personally I’ve always enjoyed the novels of Robert Rankin, who brings warm, imaginative humour and originality to the steampunk literary genre, particularly in the Brightonomicon and Retromancer. These novels describe the adventures of protagonist Jim Pooley, the grand magus Hugo Rune, and his arch-nemesis Count Otto Black.

My favourite steampunk novels at the moment are the trilogy of books by Gordon Dahlquist, Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, The Dark Volume and The Chemickal Marriage, which I would highly recommend. They are set within a 19th-century style world of alternative technologies, mesmerism and the occult, gloomy mansions, secret laboratories, airships, dirigibles and shocking Ripper-style murders, Oriental assassins and calculating femme fatales.


Books you should start with

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)
This is primarily a book of alternate history but also a significant demonstration of all the tropes and plot devices of steampunk fiction. It is based on the premise that the 19th-century inventor Charles Babbage succeeded in building a mechanical computer at the time, and the book re-imagines the course of history through an espionage plot, and the impact of the invention on society, culture and historical events. Mainly set in 1855, it is an intriguing and thought-provoking novel. The Victorian world of the novel, with mass-produced Babbage computers, emulates and mirrors our modern reality of the information technology boom and the Internet, and therefore explores its social and political consequences within this context. Advanced steam technology has also served to make the British Empire far more powerful in this fiction than in historical reality. The plot follows Sybil Gerard, a political courtesan and daughter of an executed Luddite leader; Edward “Leviathan” Mallory, a paleontologist and explorer; and Laurence Oliphant, a travel writer whose work is a cover for espionage activities—whose intrigues take place against the backdrop of a revolutionary Victorian London. At the climax of the novel, amid ominous references to an “Eye”, there is the depiction of a dystopian 1991, where an all-powerful artificial intelligence is now controlling all human activity—a dark, malevolent mirror against the reality of modern technology and its influences on our lives.

The Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters by G. W. Dahlquist (2006)
A thrilling journey through a nightmarish, garish steampunk world, the novel follows three very different protagonists: Celeste Temple, whose curiosity about her rejection from her lover Roger Bascombe leads her into a lurid and intricate conspiracy surrounding the mysterious “glass books” and the strange alchemical “transformations” taking place at a masquerade ball in a remote country mansion; Cardinal Chang, a facially disfigured hired assassin and opium addict, who is drawn into the same conspiracy when his intended target is murdered at the ball before he can get to him; and Dr Abelard Svenson, the physician responsible for a European prince who becomes involved in the elaborate plot sweeping the central characters to each narrow escape from danger and every thrilling cliffhanger moment. The three well-drawn and interesting protagonists uncover a sinister cabal at the heart of the conspiracy. The novel is vivid and remarkably original, a rollercoaster adventure that is heavily inspired by Wells, Stoker, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. It is the first and best of the trilogy, with a vast array of characters and page-turning scenes.

Retromancer by Robert Rankin (2009)
This is the ninth novel in the Brentford series. Like much of Rankin’s work, it is a light-hearted, humorous look at the steampunk genre—yet also an original and gripping adventure with amusing, memorable characters. The central character Jim Pooley (“Rizla”) wakes up in Brentford in the year 1967 only to discover that Nazi Germany has won the Second World War and North America is a nuclear wasteland. His local cafe is serving Bratwurst rather than a typical English breakfast. Enter the grand magus Hugo Rune who takes Rizla back in time to 1940s London, and solve twelve mysteries to alter the future back to normal reality. They embark on a string of far-fetched and tongue-in-cheek adventures: fighting Nazis and pirates, encountering werewolves and robots, and taking an interesting trip on board an airship—until they finally encounter Hugo Rune’s arch-enemy, Count Otto Black. Rankin has a unique style and humour that may not be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy the liberties he takes with puns and with narrative and highly recommend his novels.

Which books would you recommend to someone reading steampunk for the first time?